While still in the south, Eleanor was joined by her daughter Joan. Joan essentially had been born under a bad sign, and I find myself drawn to quote Whitesnake, which is probably illegal in some way, left out in the cold. Sorry.
She just could not catch a break – married to the king of Sicily who then died leaving her rather at the mercy of the subsequent usurper, made a hostage essentially, until her brother Richard arrived on his way to the Holy Land, stood up for his sister and bullied Tancred to release her. Then off to the holy land with Berengaria and Richard where, rather surprisingly, Richard offered her in marriage to Saladin, which would have been interesting. Of course, Sicily was a rather remarkable society of the time, meeting place of East and West if you like, and she had some Muslims in her entourage, and Muslims of course played a leading role in the administration of Norman Sicily. However, melting pot or no melting pot, as soon as their feet hit the shores of Palatine these loyal servants hopped it and joined Saladin.
Anyway, Saladin had regretfully turned down the offer. Back in France, Joan had a few years off from the chaos with Berengaria, and with Mum at Fontevraud for a while, until sent again into marriage on diplomatic duty by her brother to marry Raymond of Toulouse. Seriously, as I say Joan did not have the luck of the draw; she was Raymond’s 4th wife, 2 of them having been ‘put aside’ as the euphemism goes. There’s something of a dispute about whether Joan had a predictably miserable life marriage-wise, and there’s certainly the required war and pillage in Toulouse at the time. Some chronicles have Joan running home to Richard in 1199 after an unhappy marriage, but there are other interpretations available, that Joan only fled after fighting to restore her husband’s fortunes for example. One chronicler described her as
A woman whose masculine spirit overcame the weakness of her sex
Which I think he thought was the highest compliment possible, and I leave it to you to decide how Joan would have responded, or how you might respond in the modern idiom. Anyway, she then came to Richard for help for both herself and Raymond. However, by the time she rode back into town, Richard was dead, which her mother had to tell her – by all accounts, Joan and Richard were rather fond of each other, so this was a nasty shock for her. It’s probably the source of the story that Mercardier flayed the crossbowman that killed Richard at her orders, but the chronology doesn’t work for that story to be true.
So, Joan was to spend a bit of time with Mum, travelling back northwards to see John, Joan bearing her news, and Mum to give her son the news about his big brother. Joan though did not have the time to enjoy her bit of peace and quiet and she died in 1199. Joan had seen the world her mother lived in at Fontevraud, and was desperate to die as an inmate, a proper inmate, veiled as a nun. This was an odd request as it happens – it was fine to do like other wives did and become a lay inmate, but as a married woman, becoming a nun was not a thing, not a thing at all, and we are told that Eleanor argued against it. But it just so happened that Hubert Walter, the ABC was travelling nearby, which is kind of spooky. Hey, there’s Hubert! Anyway, Hubes convened a general meeting and they discussed it, and let Joan away with it. It’s one small piece of comfort in a pretty horrid story as it happens; Joan was pregnant, and so weak she could barely take the vows. She died soon after, and a casearian took place – but the child could not be saved. Not quite sure why I am telling you this. The female experience I guess, but sorry. On a happier note, Joan did however leave a son previously born of course, heir to the county of Toulouse and her husband Raymond the VI, yes, Raymond the VI, son of Raymond, son of Raymond, Son of Raymond, you know, and I will let you guess what they had called this new heir.
Job done, then, Eleanor went to John’s court at Rouen in the summer, and when there, did a sort of hand over of the goodies as it where – she surrendered Aquitaine to him as her heir, and then received them back from him. It’s a clever little left-right jink actually; it meant that in the south Eleanor still stood between Philip and John, and yet future rights were clear. You might notice then, that as I mentioned before with horrible husband Henry gone, suddenly Eleanor was all smiles at the thought of Aquitaine being bound irrevocably to the Angevins. Now at last, she could return to Fontevraud and chi-llax. There was however one last task which lead to a bit of nastiness.
Poor Eleanor now had only 2 children who had survived her, the curse of a long life in the Middle Ages – John of course, but also her namesake Eleanor. Eleanor had married Alfonso king of Castile, and she’d had 10 children. We now know that the odds of surviving, that, at a 90% survival rate per child, is 35%. So she’d ridden the odds. Alfonso would now make a right old pain of himself by claiming Gascony as her dowry, but Eleanor was the lucky one really. She and Alfonso seem to have been very much a pair, and Eleanor wielded political authority almost equal to Alfonso, with direct control over towns and territories. When Alfonso died in 1214, she appears to have been devastated, refused to preside over his funeral, and died just 26 days later.
Anyway that’s as maybe, back in 1200, Eleanor Junior and Alfonso had decided that they should conduct a marriage alliance with the French Capetian monarchy, and that one of their five daughters should marry the heir to the king of France, Louis, who would one day be the saint, king Louis IX. So Eleanor Junior got in touch with Mum, Eleanor by Wrath of God, Senior that sort of thing, and asked her to come down, help her make the decision about which of these daughters should be the lucky one, and then accompany her back to France. And so, Eleanor set out on one more journey; the last time she’d seen her daughter was 1170, when she’d handed her 8 year old daughter to the Castilian envoys. Quite a spooky feeling.
Eleanor stayed there for 2 months, and then set off back with her Granddaughter over the Pyrenees and towards Bordeaux. The experience of securing his inheritance had set John on a path that would lead to Magna Carta. The thing is that working collaboratively with a bunch of fractious nobles all with their own agendas as well is a right pain and you had to be really good at it. Whereas mercenaries, well, they just did what you told them to. Now obviously they might take a little on the side – well quite a lot actually, you know, bit of murder looting and pillaging because they were, essentially, a bunch of vicious rootless thugs, but you know, when you needed them they would be there, as long as you continued to apply butter to the correct side of the mercenary bread. So Gerard D’Athee, Mercardier, Brandin and others – these men found themselves appointed to positions of power, the mercenary captain Brandin for example being made Seneschal of La Marche.
Mercardier meanwhile set off to Bordeaux to meet the Eleanors, pay his respects, help them out, take them onwards, and given their long association I suspect Eleanor was pleased to see him. There was someone else pleased to see Mercadier however, a less pleasant character, a soldier in the pay of Brandin, his rival mercenary captain. Brandin had decided that he would rather be without his rival, and Mercadier was found alone and slaughtered. The phrase living by the sword and dying by it comes to mind. Eleanor, 76 years old let us remember, was now exhausted, but together she and her granddaughter kept going til they reached the Loire, where Eleanor handed over her charge to the AB of Bordeaux and retired to Fontevraud at last.
Aged and wearied by the labours of her long journey, Queen Eleanor withdrew to the abbey of Fontevraud and remained there
Wrote the chronicler Roger of Howden, and sure that’s it, enough already, have done, give over. But this is a story with more finales than a Beethoven symphony.
At Frontevraud, Eleanor’s piety and attention to her devotions increased; it’s clear that she has an impressive ecclesiastical element to her household, chaplains and clerics. She maintained a busy and elaborate schedule of services and daily masses. But she had not come to Fontevraud to die quite yet. In fact there will be confusion about exactly where she will die, because she also travelled at this time to Poitiers, and supervised the construction of a new Ducal chapel to the glory of her beloved dynasty of the south, as conscious as ever of her earthly legacy as her forthcoming spiritual journey. She continued to work to protect her son’s legacy, and she was much needed, because in 1202 war with Arthur and Philip resumed again, and Arthur’s target this time was Poitiers itself. So, guess what? Eleanor took off from Fontevraud to hold her lands yet again from the Capetian vulture.
This time howeverher luck was out; as she paused at a castle called Mirebeau near Chinon she ran into Arthur’s invading army, her castle was surrounded. Arthur could smell victory – King John’s mother in his control would be a powerful bargaining chip, and no doubt he expected the 78 year old woman now to cave and let him take the castle without much trouble. If so, what a plonker. It’s a rather remarkable incident, actually, not just for Eleanor’s defiance, which I think we’d expect of her by now, but because for once it actually spurred John to act less like the military equivalent of a limp rag. In a lightening forced march, John appeared at the castle, took Arthur by surprise and captured him and freed his mother. It is a master stroke that won John the war for the moment, and how thoroughly suitable that one of one John’s very few genuine triumphs – was inspired by his mother.
It could have been the perfect happy ending, but of course it was not to be. John then lurched form folly to folly, and the kicker was his decision to repudiate his wife Isabel of Gloucester so that he could nab the heiress Isabella of Angouleme, a prize piece of territory to the south of Poitou. Sadly, Isabella had been promised to the Lusignan, and in seizing his prize John took no trouble to placate one of the most aggressive and fractious of all the Aquitanian lords. Together with the mysterious death of Arthur in John’s keeping all this vicious ineptitude meant that his lords considered their position. And most of those key lords that had come to his side, the likes of William des Roches and Aimery de Thouars decided for a better future and deserted his cause. Eleanor still tried, maintaining the support for John of some Poitevin lords like Aimery de Rochfort, but it was hard, unrewarding work.
The tragedy of this was that by 1204, Eleanor would know that the legacy she had worked so hard to protect was gone, but the likelihood now anyway is that she was focussed very much on her own death. In this period, she planned and laid out the unforgettable tomb sculptures of her husband and Richard, and planned her own. She has herself depicted as a young woman, and so we assume the tomb that survives is not lifelike, but who knows, maybe it was done with her help to look like her in her younger days. Unlike her family she’s occupied, calmly reading a book, after a life of such energy presumably horrified at the thought of lying there for millennia without something useful and practical to do. She died on 31st March 1204; that’s all we know, her will did not survive, and it’s not clear whether she was in Poitiers or Fontevraud, but whichever it was, it would therefore have been one of the places she loved best. At her death, the remaining lords of Poitou and much of Aquitaine deserted her son’s cause, the last reason for supporting him dead with the woman who had done the most to keep the Empire together.
Well good lord everyone, we have reached the end of Eleanor’s biography. It feels like something of a landmark for me; I have never actually finished a podcast series before, and I was not sure such a thing could ever happen.
What should we reflect about the life we have just heard? It seems an incredible journey from the girl at the court of the Dukes of Aquitaine left orphaned and pursued by her father’s death, to the austere court and frustrating life in Paris, to the holy land, a life of extraordinary breadth of experience. A ground-breaking life, a refusal to accept that her role would be decided only by men, breaking with both of her husbands largely of her own volition. It’s not surprising maybe that the black legend we discussed at the start blew up, since she broke so many rules, but it’s difficult to reject all of the implications of them. On the other hand, Eleanor was a woman of her class and time, in the sense that she expected to be obeyed, she expected to rule, and she expected to be able to throw her weight around freely and without let. She comes across as impulsive, headstrong and more than a little arrogant in her dealing at the French court in her earlier life, pushing the case of her sister to dangerous extremes, and some of the mud thrown at her in the holy land sticks, in that her refusal to play ball for Louis and her demands to leave ring true, though the affair with her uncle certainly do not.
But it’s the later life when it seems to me that we get to understand Eleanor rather better, on the grounds that it’s only after 1189 that she gets to act on her own account. And what we see is someone of mature judgement now – not always getting it right, but there’s none of the wildness she’s accused of when she’s young. She’s trusted by the people around her – her sons respect her judgement and rely on her to help them govern, the lords of Poitou and Aquitaine are persuaded to stay by her influence. She becomes in the last 15 years of her life what I suspect she always wanted to be – politically influential able to be important, relevant and in control and to live her life according to her own priorities, and it is an impressive sight. I think that Eleanor is in receipt these days of the opposite of the black legend; these days she’s often written up as a constantly politically powerful figure, an outstanding patron of the arts. She is sometimes now a victim now of the female hero and role model we want her to me. What I have found out is that the evidence for much of this is not there – that she seems only indifferently interested in the arts, only conventionally pious, actually quite ordinary in these respects; and that it took her until the death of Henry for her to achieve real independent political power and influence. But through it all there’s evidence of her determination, intelligence, energy, stamina; of passion actually; this is a woman who cares about dynasty, family legacy. But most what stands out, is an indomitable will to succeed and win.