Queen Eleanor and the Young King. Part II (Guest Post)

Today I am delighted to welcome my friend Ulrik Kristiansen with the 2nd part of his brilliant Eleanor of Aquitaine/Henry the Young King series. Over to you, Ulrik...

This is the second part in my 4-part guest post series. I am thrilled to be allowed to do this, since you probably know by know how interested I am in the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine - and that includes the life of her eldest surviving son. I aim to do a new installment each month, but that has already been derailed due to, well, real life and such.

I had originally written a first draft which put much more emphasis on the possible interpretations of ‘Eleanor’s choice’ of William Marshal as tutor for the Young King, but as I sifted through the source material I discovered - again -that one should be very careful by making too much out of a few lines here and there, which is all we have!
So I leave you once again with a post which is as much about my speculations as it is about the few pieces of writing we have from the time that says anything about The Young King and his mother.
However, as a commenter reminded me last time: If these vague and tantalizing pieces of story from long ago did NOT allow us to speculate and ponder about how it really was for our favorite Medieval family, then perhaps there would be less fun in doing all this! :-)
Eleanor of Aquiatine. Tomb-effigy, Fontevraud Abbey. Photo courtesy of Adam Bishop (via Wikipedia)

PART TWO: A ‘vain and idle’ teenager?

“Charming, vain, idle spendthrift” ... these were W. L. Warren’s words to pin down the personality of the Young King, in Warren’s biography about the young man’s father, king Henry II. Yes, that’s how the Young King really was, according to Warren. The words were apparently for that author a fitting ‘headline’ for the entirety of the Young King’s 28-year life.
Frank McLynn in his Lionheart and Lackland (chap. 2) pumps up the volume considerably, describing the Young King as: “vain, shallow, irresponsible and impatient, a man who wanted the good things of life now and was unwilling to wait. A hedonist and wastrel, permanently in debt, he was prodigal, improvident, insouciant and foolish …  lazy, incompetent and empty-headed … bored by everything that did not involve adventure, pleasure or high excitement of all kinds.”
The merit of such bombastic assessments has been discussed already here, and commented on here, by Kasia - and found much wanting. So today I’d like to take the opportunity myself to share some thoughts about these kinds of  ‘headlines’ and how they may also have affected our view of The Young King’s early youth - specifically with regard to how his parents, and in particular Eleanor, may have viewed the Young King at the time.
Specifically, I’m going to speculate about the period during the Young King grew from a boy into his early teens (circa 1161-1170). And I shall start by looking at an example of how this period of his life has been portrayed - ever so briefly but poignantly - in historical fiction. So let’s zoom in on that key scene in the classic movie Becket (1964) - in which the Young King behaves like ... yes, like - surprise, surprise - an idle, shallow teenager.
In the scene, Henry II (masterly played by Peter O’Toole) chastises and humiliates his ‘no-good son’ in front of a crowd of guests. He is to be the heir, crowned in Henry II’s lifetime but doesn’t deserve it, as king Henry says. Old Henry only decides on the crowning in order to annoy Thomas Becket - and show the archbishop that he doesn’t decide who crowns kings. Queen Eleanor watches all of this drama in stunned silence (after being told by Henry bluntly to stay out of it). It is hard to say if Eleanor afterwards is most disgusted with Henry the old king or with her oldest son.
It is fiction, yes. There should be room to make Peter O’Toole shine, yes (Eleanor’s role in the movie is uncharacteristically sedate). But still … why chose THAT way of portraying parental relations between Henry II, Eleanor and the teenage Young King in fiction - if the choice has not already been colored by hindsight? - Hindsight about what happened between these parents and their sons - events all the way up to more than a decade after the Young King  was a young teen?
This hindsight, in the case of the Young King, has been promoted by historians, like Warren or McLynn, who appear to have zoomed in on the less-than-flattering stuff some chroniclers had to say about the adult Young King. (McLynn links his verbal broadside to the source of Adam of Eynsham’s Chronicle of Hugh of Lincoln. I haven’t checked how strong that link is!)
But if we believe for a moment in the less-than-flattering portraits as defining for the Young King, the question would be  … did Eleanor (and her king husband) see him that way, too? And from his early teens?
Er … no. I believe this idea says more about ourselves than about Henry the Young King.
In fact, I will contend that in the late 1160s and early 1170s, there is NO obvious reason to suspect that either Eleanor and Henry Sr. regarded their eldest boy - Henry Jr.  - as ANYTHING other than a normal young heir, full of potential.
No reason at all. And certainly no evidence.
          Henry the Young King. Tomb-effigy. Rouen Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bugge
The trap of hindsight
So why does such interpretations seem to come too easily in movies and books? I have two suggestions:
  1. Much of what we think we can say about the relationship between Eleanor and young Henry (as with Eleanor and Richard) at a particular period in time must necessarily be distorted, if not by lack of sources and our own biases - then by hindsight. Remember, from our vantage point 900 years after we always have an overview of the whole of their lives - or think we have.

  2. Add to that the natural need for us all to fit people we know into roles in the stories we tell ourselves about how life is or should be. These are roles which are easy to understand, like ‘good-evil’, ‘idle-hardworking’, etc.  We are all guilty of it, myself included, but to various degrees.
But if we delve a little on the first factor - hindsight -  I will argue that the outcomes of the lives of Henry and Richard are prone to make us tend to see the whole story of their lives in two very, very different ways.
Consider the two outcomes:
  • Henry dies young, of illness, during another failed rebellion in 1183
  • Richard goes on to become king, crusader and legend
These two, vastly different outcomes simply have to shape our view about what must have happened before adulthood - e.g. when the boys were young teens.
‘The winner writes history’, it is often said. I think you can say the same about the survivors. Consider for example how you would have viewed Churchill if he died in 1935 and not in 1965? You would very well just remember him mostly for the Gallipoli-disaster - instead of remembering him in the light of his efforts during the Battle of Britain!
I’m not saying that a proper Churchill-bio doesn’t include all, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or that the upcoming Young King bio won’t take a broad view. A good bio is designed to do just that. But for the historical persons we don’t know that well, or don’t have the time to get to know that well, we are often left with our own superficial tendency to quickly categorize people, perhaps facilitated by a 20 min-documentary or brief but pointed passages in a book like Warren’s. These types of conclusions ‘nail it’ for us: “Charming, vain, idle, spendthrift” - and then that is the whole personality - the whole life! - of some person or other.
But often such superficial conclusions are framed by the dramatic timing of fate or coincidence.
What if, say, the dreaded arrow that killed him had hit Richard just AFTER he had slaughtered 3000 Muslim prisoners in 1191 and not several years later in 1199 - after he had also  survived unjust imprisonment and come home to kick Philip Augustus’ behind? What would be the legacy of the “Lionheart” then?!
So we should perhaps stop to pause for an extra beat ... whenever we feel ‘sure’ about what our favorite Angevin family’s parent-son relationships may have been like in its earliest meaningful stages ... that would in this case have been the time when the boys were no longer helpless infants but growing up and gradually becoming individuals in their own right.
I will argue that casting the Young King as anything else in 1168 or thereabouts but a young heir with much potential in the eyes of both Henry Sr. or  Eleanor is based on … next to nothing. Except hindsight.
This hindsight is again informed by the less than glorious outcome of The Young King’s young life, which makes it easier to think of him as just that ‘vain son’. (Richard also warred against his father, but survived to take over and create his legend.)
Indeed to make such an assessment of how his parents viewed The Young King’s early teenage years seems just as ill-thought through … like suggesting that Eleanor put her youngest son, John, away in a monastery, because she clairvoyantly suspected his future moral collapse or some such!
(Much has been made about Eleanor’s motherly responsibility for John turning out to be a ‘bad egg’, and much of it is far-fetched. You can read more about this in the relevant chapters of Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady.)
Sure, Eleanor (and Henry Sr.) likely had different ideas about their eldest son’s personality, his educational potential and his ultimate political ability - but as for Eleanor, it seems there is one priority she had for her son which resonates even today:
She pushed for a very special knight - William Marshal - to be selected to teach the Young King to become a warrior. And she got her wish.
Stained glass window of Thomas Becket, Henry the Young King's tutor in Canterbury Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
The Queen’s choice
As a boy, Henry the Young King stayed - albeit shortly - in Thomas Becket’s household. This was normal for his age: When no longer infants, the royal children were usually relocated to another person’s household to learn stuff - various types of education. (And to reaffirm the family and/or political bonds between families of influence.) Surely this choice of Becket as tutor happened because Becket was, at the time, very close to Henry Sr. - as well a man of great position and influence already.
But when Henry got older and began to come into his teen years it was time for another kind of training - training in how to fight. Who would be the proper man to teach him that? As it happened, it appears that it was Henry’s mother, queen Eleanor, who was a driving force in making this particular choice. Most of you loyal readers presumably know the story well, but let’s recount shall we - because it would make a hell of a movie, and despite my criticism above I am certainly not opposed to historical fiction per se!
As a younger son of a minor nobleman, William Marshal (b. 1146 or 1147) had inherited no lands at all. About the age of  12 he was sent to be trained as a knight in the household of William de Tancarville, a cousin of his mother. He was then knighted in 1166 on campaign in Upper Normandy. Leaving the Tancarville household he served in the household of his mother's brother, Patrick, earl of Salisbury, and this is where his connection with Eleanor and the Young King truly starts.
For in 1168 Marshal accompanied the earl as part of a queen Eleanor’s escort. Earl Patrick, however, was killed in an ambush by the ever-rebellious Guy de Lusignan. William was injured but kept fighting furiously and, it turned out, long enough to allow Eleanor to escape. He was later ransomed by Eleanor, who had heard of his bravery. So the story goes.
Well, it may not have been only to save Eleanor that Marshal fought so valiantly in the famous ambush. As I have read it, Marshal fought first and foremost to save his uncle - and when Patrick was killed he fought on to avenge him. But both Marshal and his uncle were charged with protecting Eleanor, so maybe the motivations of why they fought with what level of ferocity can’t be clinically separated like that: You are on the side of the queen, yes, but when you see your uncle cut down on the field of battle - and you have a close relationship with him - well, then you are likely to fly into a frenzy, aren’t you?
At any rate, Eleanor escaped this ambush by the rebellious barons led by Lusignan. Marshal was taken prisoner and then Eleanor ransomed him. We should not forget that her motivation to do this was probably influenced by two important factors:
  1. For political reasons she obviously needed to show gratitude towards the family of Marshal and his uncle.
  2. Secondly, she may personally have wanted to grab the opportunity to show her husband that SHE had her own power and wealth to use as she pleased (e.g. for ransoms and other displays of generosity). Eleanor and Henry II were already becoming estranged at the time (1168 and onwards), she spending more and more of the year in Aquitaine and away from court, at least as I have read it.
However, when all of the above is taken into unglamorous consideration, Eleanor must also have been just good old-fashioned grateful that she escaped imprisonment or worse. From her crusading days she had some unpleasant memories of what it was like to be caught in enemy ambush (Battle of Mt. Cadmus, 1148), your fate and life hanging by a thread!
And most importantly, in the wake of that harrowing experience, it apparently dawned on Eleanor that William Marshal’s skill might make him a perfect tutor for her eldest son.  
From what it says in the famous poem about William Marshal - L'Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal - one of our chief sources, the old king gave the official permission for Marshal to become tutor two years later (1170).  Perhaps not surprising, for we must not forget that king Henry must have felt a debt to William’s father for losing an eye whilst helping Henry II’s mother, the Empress, escaping Winchester - during her war against king Stephen. More timely, William’s uncle, the deceased earl Patrick, had also been Henry II's staunch supporter. The king had even named him commander of his military forces in Aquitaine by 1163.
Behind the scenes, though, Eleanor was probably doing much to promote the choice of Marshal as tutor, although we can never know to what extent. That she was quite influential in this choice seems very likely, though, since Marshal - after his ransom - was asked to stay for two years (1168-70) at Eleanor’s court (Anderson, p. 83) - which only, infrequently, happened to coincide with the busy itinerant court of Henry II at that time.
William Marshal. Tomb-effigy. Temple Church, London. Photo courtesy of Kjetilbjornsrud (via Wikipedia)
That it was a tremendously important investment in the Young King’s future - to make Marshal his military tutor  - seems not to be in doubt, judging from the History of William Marshal. The importance of Marshal’s entry as tutor has been discussed in depth elsewhere on Kasia’s blog, so I will just leave you with a few quotes from the famous History of William Marshal-poem, as to the effects of Marshal’s tutelage:
The Young King’s reputation increased,
along with his eminence and the honour paid to him;
he also acquired the quality of valour.
Now that he had so many qualities,
he was reckoned to be the finest
of all the princes on earth,
be they pagan or Christian

The young King knew about the use of arms, as much
as any young nobleman could be expected to know.
The life of combat pleased him well,
which was very pleasing for his tutor

Elizabeth Anderson in her thesis puts these selected lines in perspective by cautioning that The History “was of course intended to flatter the Marshal, but even disregarding the flowery language and the pretty standard excessive claims of greatness for the Young King under the Marshal’s instruction, it cannot be ignored that he was clearly believed to be more than simply competent at the knightly skills as a trainee. The Marshal was the only man who could claim credit for that fact.” [Ulrik’s emphasis.]
Given what later happened, it is tempting for me to speculate that Eleanor, maybe from getting to know Marshal personally at court and/or seeing him interacting with her son, also had a sense that Marshal would become not only a great teacher but also a great friend and ally for the Young King.
But that would not only be pure speculation, it would also be based too much on hindsight :-)
Another story: About a proud succession ... and plans behind the scenes
Given all of the above, I propose another story then - about the teenage Young King and Eleanor (and Henry II), which to me seems more realistic. It could even be a scene in an exciting movie …
Henry proposes a toast  to celebrate his choice to crown his eldest son in his lifetime. He spares no praise. It is a public event, after all. Eleanor looks on in proud silence. Yes, they have had their arguments about the future of the heir - and how best to prepare him for it, but so far there is little doubt for young Henry’s mother that her son will be both a resourceful and loyal young heir to the realm. In the back of her mind, though, she is also secretly pleased and relieved that it seems that ‘her man’ - William Marshal - will be approved as military tutor. For she knows her husband well enough to sense that the praise and title king Henry talks about now … may not be followed up in the future by landholdings or real political power in equal measure! Oh, yes, she knows her husband very well … And should that ever be the cause of problems … it is good to know that not only that her son has an extremely able teacher in the arts of war, but he also has a teacher with whom she - Eleanor - feels a special reciprocal loyalty after a certain ambush and subsequent ransom ...
‘Proud and planning’ might be a new headline for such a scene, and it would be descriptive of the state of mind all three main participants in it - Eleanor, Henry II and young Henry. Each, however, would be proud and planning for their own reasons ... ! I am sure, however, that Peter O’Toole’s speech of praise for the coming King would still be a delight to hear in its perfect diction, even if the overall story about Young Henry and his parents, and what may happen between them, now has quite a different feel.
And, yes, with these concluding thoughts - I have cleverly foreshadowed my next installment in this series as well … :-)
Thus, in the upcoming post I will share with you more speculations on the most pivotal event in the relationship between queen Eleanor and her eldest son. An event, which, by all accounts, it seems they were responsible for together:
The Great Rebellion against king Henry II.

Thank you, Ulrik, for this thought-provoking and very interesting read. We are looking forward to Part 3 of the series.


  1. It was my pleasure - and I am already thinking about the Great Rebellion! :D

  2. To be fair, Becket is a work of fiction, and the focus is on the relationship between Henry II and Becket - anything else detracts from the central plot/characters, so I wouldn't expect the Young King to come out of it well. In every film on Robin Hood John is always 'bad' - eve n Disney put the boot it. It makes sense that a tutor more academic- minded would be Henry 's guide as a child, and Willam Marshal would be ideal for the teenage Prince. Looking forward to them next post:)

    1. You certainly have a point, Anerje. In popular culture John would always be "bad King John", whereas Henry would remain an idle shallow, vain teenager. I'm afraid there's nothing we can do about it :(

    2. I agree completely, Anerje. There are all kinds of motivations for the creative choice for fiction, not necessarily linked to anything else but considerations about how to achieve your goals in storytelling ("to make Peter O’Toole shine" etc.).

      What I am incredibly interested in is the process which *influences* that choice - our cognitive structures, biases, culture, social conventions and, of course, what we perceive as "historical knowledge".

      Some of our cognitive structures such as the drive to look for stereotypes we can identify with (archetypes?), coupled with strong cultural traditions, can lead to creators ignoring historical knowledge *completely*, when choosing how to tell a story. Richard the Lionheart never returned to England, but he is portrayed in 90 per cent of all Robin Hood-stories I know as this almost savior-like character who comes back and put things right in the end.

      A better case can be made that Luc Besson's (utterly horrible) Joan of Arc-movie was rooted in historical knowledge, even if it is filled with inventions, like Joan watching her sister being killed by English soldiers. It is a possibility, albeit not a very plausible one that Joan was nuts and primarily driven by vengeance. But this creative choice probably says more about Besson's own personality, religious outlook and the commercial temptation to 'pump up the volume' with blood and gore to attract movie-goers.

      Fair enough. Robin Hood is good entertainment and I don't need to watch that Joan-movie again when there are options that appeal to me so much more, also entertainment.

      But from where do historians like Warren and McLynn - or those who came before before the filming of both Henry II-movies - get their impetus to make sweeping generalizations, which cut out characters in black and white?

      - Are they simply so knowledgeable about their topic that they have the authority to do that?

      - Have they found evidence (in the chronicles?) that they are correct in describing someone as "idle", when all life events are accounted for?

      ... or is it a bit of that as well as their own urge to tell a certain *story*?

      I know I can never put percentages on this, but it as the core of my interest in history and how we communicate about it.

      Anyway, I'd better get on with some work now ... and planning that next post :)

  3. Wow there's a lot going on in this interesting post. I don't doubt that there is personal motivation & bias in most of what comes down to us through film, bios, docus, historical novels, etc, just as there was bias in chronicle-writing. Yet today, not rarely, we come across a production (any of the above) that smacks of a real striving for truth. Can you imagine the power of film remakes of some of the above figures & events? With narratives that make us think rather than making statements? Having said that, we do, being human, need our archetypes & our legends, they satisfy our souls & somehow comfort us (maybe a false sense of security?)

    Thanks once again, Ulrik & Kasia! I found this very interesting.

  4. Ulrik, I always enjoy your words on Eleanor. You have thought a lot about her and young Henry towards Kasia's interest. A highly intelligent point you raise, and true for Historical Fiction writers - be aware of hindsight. When you frame with hindsight, you eliminate the vitality of the struggle, and the richer aspects of a conflict that really could have gone the other way.
    One aspect of the idleness of Young Henry must be considered - Marguerite. His bride was chosen by his father and he was forced to marry as a boy, all for King Henri's gain. Little Henry's world was provided for entirely. Life with little wifey Marguerite (also under Becket's overwatch) and younger sister Alais who eventually comes to live with them made for an extremely pampered life. He was never allowed the passions of a young man. The tragedy is that with so much privilege that would normally advance the timetable of accomplishments one could attain in one's life, Henry is denied by a controlling father. My guess is the King thought nothing of inviting himself into the embrace of the sister's intimate lives - which certain biographers maintain. Ah, but you are about to right of the rebellion or if we are not hind-sighted, the attempted restoration.
    Hail Ulrik, hail Henry.

  5. Much appreciation for the latest comments, Mark and Joan! I don't really have much to add - especially to the "hail-part" :D. I am finally off to work on installment 3, squeezing in a bit of time travel to 1173 here and there between All the Other Stuff!


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