Friday, November 16, 2007

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen and Rebel, Part II


Eleanor and Henry proceeded to produce 7 more children over the next 14 years, four boys and three girls, Henry (the young King), Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joanna, Matilda, and the last John in 1166, a remarkable feat during the Middle Ages when infant mortality was extremely high. Unfortunately, their first son William died at the age of 3 from an unknown illness.

Although Eleanor loved her children, Richard especially, she was a woman who loved power and wanted to exercise her intelligence doing more than just hanging around the nursery or supervising her ladies in waiting. Henry, however, wasn't about to share his power with a co-ruler. Although he allowed Eleanor to act as regent during his absences from court, but it was little more than her signing her name to the authority of his ministers, who had the real power.

Henry meanwhile, was also busy, in between ruling his vast kingdom, with other women. At first this didn't bother Eleanor over much, but she soon began to resent it, and his interference in her reign over Aquitaine, which she returned to in 1168. Eventually the two grew apart, the 12 year age difference increasing as the years went by. Although Henry had been discreet with his mistresses at first, that all changed when he fell in love with Rosamond Clifford, the daughter of one of his knights, Walter Clifford. Very little is known about Rosamond except that she was beautiful and Henry loved her above all women. Rumors circulated that Henry would annul his marriage to Eleanor and marry Rosamond, an act that Henry wasn't about to do. Annuling his marriage to Eleanor would mean that Aquitaine and Poitou would no longer be under his control. And Eleanor would once again be bait for his many enemies, seeking to control her vast inheritance. After Rosamond's death in 1176, another rumor spread that Eleanor had either had her murdered or poisoned her directly, despite the fact that Eleanor had been imprisoned at the time. Henry later became involved with Richard's betrothed, Alais, a princess of France and daughter of Eleanor's ex-husband. Needless to say, Richard never married Alais.

Henry allowed Eleanor to return to her court in Poitiers in an attempt to control the unruly barons in Aquitaine. For five years, Eleanor had a certain measure of autonomy from Henry's dominance. It was in Poitiers that Eleanor started to hold the "Courts of Love' where troubadours and poets flocked and the idea of courtly love was practiced, a code comprising 31 articles or The Rules of the 12th Century. The romantic legend of King Arthur took shape at this time, capturing the imaginations of the poets. It was around this time that the idea of the round table, and the love affair betweenGuinevere and Lancelot joined with the earlier versions of the story, through the writings of Chretien de Troyes, who served at the court of Eleanor's daughter, Marie Countess of Champagne. Chr├ętien also has the distinction of being the first writer to mention the Holy Grail (Perceval).

She even established a tribunal of women where men could come to ask questions. How cool is that? Eleanor of Aquitaine as a medieval Dr. Phil. In Poitiers, Eleanor was also reunited with her two daughters by Louis VII, Marie of Champagne and Alix of Blois. While Henry was the ruler of Aquitaine, Eleanor made sure that her lords knew that their loyalty was to her and not to the King.

The you know what hit the fan in 1173. Their eldest son Henry had been crowned King of England, but was anxious for a little power as were Henry's other two sons Richard and Geoffrey. Although Geoffrey had been made Duke of Brittany through marriage, but Henry didn't allow him to rule, nor did he allow Richard, any who was heir to Aquitaine and Poitou, any influence in the duchy. The sons chafed under their father's iron fist and revolted with their mother's support.

Henry was enraged that his sons would dare to rebel against him and that Eleanor would lend her support. The plan failed and all three sons fled to France. Eleanor was not so lucky, she was caught trying to flee dressed like a man. She was sent back to England and imprisoned for the next 15 years in various royal residences around the country. Very little is known about Eleanor's life during this time. On brief occasions, she was let out of her prison, mainly for Christmas celebrations at the court (The Lion in Winter is set during one such holiday), and to see Richard installed as Duke of Aquitaine after Eleanor renounced her title. Occasionally she was allowed to have family members as visitors, but Henry never let her forget that she was his prisoner.

Meanwhile his sons continued to rebel against him, hooking up with Louis VII's son, Philip Augustus, who proved to be a more formidable enemy than his father. However, the young King Henry died of dysentery in 1183, awaiting his father's forgiveness. Although Henry didn't come in person, he did send his son a sapphire ring as a token of reconciliation. Then Geoffrey took a fatal fall in 1186, leaving his son Arthur who was born 7 months after his death. That left Richard and John as Henry's only heirs. Eventually even John also known as John Lackland for his lack of inherited titles and land, Henry's favorite son joined in. Henry didn't know what his favorite son had done until he lay on his deathbed after a terrible defeat.

Henry died in 1189 and Eleanor was finally free to rule England through Richard. After his coronation, Richard obliged her by taking off on the Third Crusade, to rescue the beseiged city of Jerusalem from Saladin. Eleanor was completey against it, as far as she was concerned, Richard's job was to continue the Plantagenet dynasty by marrying and siring an heir, not to mention the business of affairs of state. She did manage to get him married to Berengaria of Navarre, who although Queen of England, never set foot in the kingdom. The getting of an heir was another story.

Richard was gone for 5 years, in fact during his reign, he spent only 10 months in England, leaving Eleanor plenty of room to rule as administator of the realm, while simultaneously keeping John's greedy fingers off the throne in his brother's absence (apparently Disney's depiction of him in Robin Hood is not far off the mark). In the meantime, Richard managed to get himself captured on his way back from Crusade by the Duke of Austria who held him for ransom.

Not only did Eleanor manage to raise the money to ransom Richard, but she went all the way to Austria to bring back, this while in her seventies. On this return, she even effected a reconciliation between the two brothers. Richard died in 1199 after ten years on the throne, without an heir. This was before the days when the line of succession was clearly demarcated. So there were two heirs, Geoffrey's son Arthur and John. Eleanor threw her weight behind John's claim. Arthur's mother Constance was just as formidable a woman as Eleanor, and she knew that she would have no power if Arthur were King.

Arthur had the power and weight of the French King behind him, but Eleanor managed to help John hold Aquitaine and Poitou against him. John eventually managed to capture him and his sister Eleanor. Arthur died mysteriously while imprisoned which didn't help John's cause. Luckily for him he had his mother to advise and guide him as she had done for Richard. In a savy move, she had her granddaughter Blanche of Castile betrothed to Philip's son, uniting the Plantagents and the Capets. And she personally escorted her granddaughter from Castile, at the age of 80, to her bridegroom.

Eventually Eleanor retired in 1202 to Fontrevault Abbey where she spent her remaining two years of life, match-making for her relatives, seeking advantageous matches for them. She died at the age of 82, a remarkable age in a remarkable life, outliving most of her children, apart from John and her daughter Eleanor. She is buried beside her husband at the Abbey.

In the years following her death, historians judged her harshly for her youthful indiscretions and willful personality, ignoring her later years. But current historians are kinder to Eleanor, emphasizing her political wisdom and her role in the development of Courtly Love.

2 comments:

Daphne said...

I have always thought Eleanor was quite a fascinating woman. I have a couple of biographies on her that I hope to read soon. Great posts!

Lee said...

It has been alleged that Eleanor wrote a letter to the Pope concerning Richard's hostage situation. She says (in part) "I have lost the light of my eyes and the staff of my age." And then signs it, "Eleanor, by the wrath of God, Queen of the English." Remarkable woman in a fascinating era.