United in Discontent: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry the Young King. Part III. Guest Post

After the Great Rebellion of 1173-74 had been won decisively by Henry II, his three eldest sons could do little else but bow to their father and accept his conditions. Those were determined by the so called Treaty of Falaise (September 1174). On 1 April 1175, exactly 841 years ago today, Henry the Young King did homage to his father at Bur-le-Roi, Normandy and the two kings were reconciled. The great absentee, Queen Eleanor was not mentioned. When the ceremony was over Henry II and Henry the Young King parted - the old king went to Valoins, and the young paid a visit to the court of his father-in-law, Louis VII of France. Exactly 29 years later, on 1 April 1204, Eleanor, Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right died, aged eighty, having outlived all but two of her ten children. She was one of the most remarkable figures of the twelfth-century Europe, not only a queen of two kings, but also, first and foremost a mother and shrewd politician. This is how Richard of Devizes, a monk at St Swithun’s, Winchester described the Queen (then 67 years old) upon her return from Spain when she brought her son Richard’s bride, Berengaria of Navarre with her:
Queen Eleanor, an incomparable woman, beautiful yet virtuous, powerful yet gentle, humble yet keen-witted, qualities which are most rarely found in a woman, who had lived long enough to have had two kings as husbands and two kings as sons**, still tireless in all labours, at whose ability her age might marvel, brought with her the daughter of the king of theNavarrese…

As a note, by the "two kings as sons" Richard meant not Richard I (b. 1157) and John (b. 1166/67), as one may assume - they are still the two most famous and best remembered of Eleanor’s sons - but Henry the Young King and Richard I. Eleanor brought Berengaria in 1191 (so eight years before John became king) and Richard of Devizes completed his Chronicle in 1192.

After this longish introduction I would like to welcome my friend Ulrik Kristiansen with the 3nd part of his brilliant Eleanor of Aquitaine/Henry the Young King series to the blog. You can read Part I and Part II before you take a closer look at today's installment. Over to you, Ulrik...

PART THREE: United in Discontent

In this post, I examine scenarios for how and why Eleanor and Young Henry conspired to try to bring down her husband/his father - king Henry II -  in the Great Rebellion of 1173-74.

My main interest is as usual - through unbridled speculation - based on the wisps of evidence we do have - to get close to the hearts and minds of Eleanor and Young Henry at this pivotal time in their lives. Hopefully this exercise will give you, dear reader, the experience as well of coming just a little bit closer to events of those two prime Plantagenet protagonists.

One thing is clear, despite the gossamer historical record:

It was the
supreme decision in their lives. It was treason and betrayal - against a husband, a father and a king. 
The decision would be critical and have lasting consequences - sending the Young King on a track of conflict for the rest of his life with his father and Eleanor in de facto confinement for the better part of 16 years.

The components of a conspiracy

Before we can speculate meaningfully on the
degree of Eleanor and Henry’s collusion, we must try to conceptualize the actual organization of the rebellion. Here are 3 theoretical scenarios about the where ‘center of gravity’ was for the conspiracy to rebel against - and ultimately overthrow - king Henry II:
  1. Grand Conspiracy: Eleanor, Young Henry, the younger brothers, the barons, and Louis - all as more or less equal participants
  2. Tight Conspiracy: Eleanor and Young Henry primary instigators, bringing the barons, then the brothers into the fold, tacit support from Louis
  3. No conspiracy - between mother and son: Eleanor followed suit when Young Henry and the barons rebelled. So did the younger brothers. The source of rebellion: The Barons, backed by Louis.
These scenarios are unlikely to be found in their ‘pure’ form, in any era - even if we had the evidence to do more than speculate about the causes and primary drivers. However, forcing ourselves to think about the rebellion from all of these angles can be helpful in order to get a better sense of what may have happened. It might also give us pause - wanted or unwanted - to critically re-examine our perspective on what exactly what happened.

There is certainly no shortage of little scrutinized perspectives on who was ‘most important’ in the rebellion:

In the Eleanor-bios, which I have read (Regine Pernoud, Jean Markale, D.D.R. Owen, Ralph Turner, Douglas Boyd, Alison Weir), the the rebellion is very much connected with queen Eleanor - with but a few qualifications. Surprise, eh?

On the other hand, H.L. Warren - Henry II’s, biographer - hardly mentions her Eleanor, and when he does he downplays, almost belittles, her importance. Surprise, eh?

And Matthew Strickland could very well assign the ‘lead role’ - and initiative - to The Young King himself in the upcoming bio. I would not blame him if he did, although I do expect a thorough and nuanced analysis from this competent historian!

In short: None of these perspectives need to be false - but none entirely true either.

Fluent initiative

I think it would be fruitful to try to accept that each perspective about who ‘lead’ the rebellion may, at different times, have been true. For this is not a movie with a few protagonists running the show from act A to act B. This is real life. And real life is often … messy. Eleanor, for example, may initially have resigned herself to her position in Aquitaine while Henry is romping all over the rest of Europe. Fair enough. They are already growing somewhat estranged, perhaps, and this is what she can ‘get’.Then she gets wind of various nobles discussing a possible rebellion, maybe through her eldest son. And at some point Young Henry naturally tries to sound out his mother on her position. And at some point again - but before the actual offensive - some key players amongst the barons waver. Then Eleanor might have been the one to argue, bribe, or cajole x, y, and z baron to stay in the coalition - particularly if they were already connected to her in Aquitaine or otherwise. But Eleanor herself needn’t have come out as active participant before … later. She might have planned to stay behind the scenes as much as possible, until events (read: Henry’s invasion of Poitou) forced her to do otherwise. And at other times it might have been Young Henry, prominent barons - or even Louis VII - who fanned the flames until they took a life of their  own - until the actual war. 

All arrows point to Eleanor - or do they? 

There were enough people to go around who in practice ended up supporting the rebellion - once it was underway. Anyone of these protagonists could have been involved at any point in ‘stirring the fire’. Aside from Louis VII we have:
  • William I of Scotland
  • Counts of Flanders, Boulogne and Blois
  • as well as rebel barons in Poitou, Normandy and England.
We also have various “unnamed courtiers” and in particular Eleanor’s uncle, Ralph de Faye and also Hugh de Sainte Maure. The latter two are singled out  by Ralph of Diceto as being prompted by Eleanor to spur the Young King to rebel.  A “major chronicle from Tours” on the other hand seems to credit the counsel of Ralph de Faye and also Hugh de Sainte-Maure with fueling the strife  - a reversal of initiative. (See the account in Ralph Turner’s book on Eleanor.) William of Newburgh makes Eleanor a co-conspirator with the Young King  but not necessarily the prime mover. Thus, he writes, Eleanor … “went secretly into Aquitaine, where his two youthful brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, were residing with their mother; and with her connivance, as it is said, brought them with him into France.” Peter of Blois’ letter to Eleanor during the conflict seems more than clear about who is the bad guy - or girl. The letter demanded that Eleanor return with her sons to her husband and it seemingly laid a major portion of the blame on the queen for the rebellion. It was through her ‘bad influence’ - including her behavior of not staying loyal to her husband - that everything came apart! Was this propaganda on the part of old Henry? Trying to divide the Young King and Richard and Geoffrey from Eleanor by making their mother the scapegoat - and indirectly offering them a chance to return to the fold with few repercussions (because they were  ‘misled’ by their mother)? Who knows! But Eleanor’s role - or perceived role - seems not to be in doubt here!

Read more details about this summing up of chronicle evidence in Ralph Turner and here on the blog:

What’s the low-down from these bits and pieces of chronicle ‘evidence’ and one letter? That the initiative to rebel is Eleanor’s, who then more or less uses the Young King - and all the others - for her political ends. Or what? 
Maybe. At some points in the chronology. Nobody necessarily had a coherent plan or agenda, even after the outbreak of hostilities, not even Eleanor. She might have changed it, suited it to fit the circumstances. 

What it comes down to:

With all of these actors implicated, at one time or another - what did they talk about - and when did they talk about it - BEFORE outbreak of hostilities? We can’t know, but it is important to recognize that it may not have been a ‘linear process’  - which started when one stormy night Eleanor and the Young Henry met incognito and discussed how to get ‘rid of dad’. It probably grew more organically - the initiative ebbing back and forth between various actors who all had an interest in the outcome. The very clandestine nature of the enterprise made it difficult for any one of the actors to push too hard or too openly for rebellion!

Who were then the ‘prime movers’ and at what times in the chronology were they REALLY ‘moving things’ forward? And were they … Eleanor and Young Henry? Yes, it might have. But the initiative could have remained fluent for a long period. For example, at some points in the build-up to open rebellion a key baron may have been a ‘bottleneck’, someone without whose support, the other conspirators dared not go forward ... Or maybe there was a plan to act later than March 1173, but then the infamous Plantagenet temper got the better of Young Henry when he left Chinon castle by night after having been humiliated by the virtual house arrest of his father - and after that Young Henry sounded the call to action, ready or not! So all three scenarios outlined above, about the drivers of the rebellion, may have some truth in them - up to the point when the Young King takes open charge, at least in name - for we know that Henry and his younger brothers were the reason and justification for more powerful players' actions. Unsatisfactory conclusion? It might be. But real life, even in the Medieval, seldom follows a script.

My son - my puppet?

As we have already stressed, taking part, in whatever capacity or role, in a rebellion like this was no small decision for Eleanor. It was a decision that risked everything, perhaps even her life.

So there would logically have to be more than just
one weighty reason - and not merely what we in 2016 may term ‘personal feelings’ of, say, annoyance or disappointment about her eldest son’s humiliating treatment by his father.

But was Eleanor’s motivation then for the most part political instead? Did she see her eldest son as a puppet, through which she could finally rule (more), once he was installed as king of the Angevin realm? Let’s again try first to isolate the motivations in ‘their pure forms’ again:

‘Personal’ motivations for Eleanor to rebel
  1. Eleanor is personally offended of Henry II’s treatment of her son - the heir
  2. Eleanor is revolted over the murder of Becket
  3. Eleanor is afraid what Henry will do next to carve up the realm - give a slice of Aquitaine to the Spanish kingdoms in return for alliance and border security mayhaps?
  4. Eleanor wants to rule without interference over Aquitaine and be an influential dowager queen at Henry the Young King’s court
  5. Eleanor hates Henry for taking on a slew of mistresses - most prominently Rosamund Clifford
So what combination is it? Well ... I vote for a combination of 3+4 as primary motivations, with 1, 2 and 5 as secondary motivations - in that order. 

To elaborate:

Eleanor's husband, king Henry II, murdered archbishop Thomas Becket in December 1170 (or played a very conspicuous role in the murder, to say the least). This event probably made Eleanor imagine all sorts of dark things about her husband, more than she might have been before. In short: If old Henry was capable of this act to secure his power - what would he do next?

And Eleanor was already afraid of losing her home land and her power as queen, whatever she had of it - her position ebbed and flowed, depending on how much she could keep Henry away from meddling in Aquitaine, and his other actions. Sometimes he had indeed left her as regent, for example in England, but her foremost occupation was always, I contend, with control of Aquitaine. Not because she ‘loved the people’ or romantic notions like that, IMHO, but because it was her native land - her inheritance - a ‘part of her’, if you will. It was probably a form of identification with the power and history of Aquitaine, which she - Eleanor - had been left by her father.

Shared fears

Now - in the early 1170s - Eleanor must have become increasingly concerned that her unpredictable husband would do more erratic and damaging things - and that that might include taking away what ‘was hers’. 

In that concern - or should we say: suppressed fear - Eleanor found a common ground with her eldest son, very quickly. And in early 1173 something happened that confirmed them both in the inevitability of this development, if old Henry was allowed to reign on - he gives away the family castles in Normandy as part of John’s dowry, vexing Young Henry to no end. No discussion. Just like that. 

It is in that light, I contend, that we should see what was Eleanor’s - probable - primary motivation for playing her part seeding rebellion. It was a series of interlocking events that gave her reason to become distant from old Henry and closer to Young Henry - the development of motives if you will. The barons and other rulers who wanted the same agenda supplied the means - soldiers and money for Eleanor and Young Henry and the other sons. 

The opportunity came when there was a case of grievance so obvious that it not only spurred the Young King to break with old Henry and go to war, but also an event which could have become a personal rallying point for all who participated - but especially for Young Henry and his mother: ‘Look what king Henry is doing - again - to our inheritance! To our honor! To us!’ 

The thin line between love and self-interest 

I think it could very well have offended Eleanor’s very strong ‘sense of royalty’ to see her firstborn surviving son treated like a ‘lame duck heir’ - all while old Henry becomes more and more engrossed with securing power to himself at whatever cost (including Becket). 

Maybe it also was a factor that Henry began piling up his mistresses on top of that behavior, as another insult to Eleanor, although the last offense probably is more problematic for us modern readers than it was for a pragmatic queen of the 12th century. 

It would be dishonest, however, to exclude a certain percentage of enlightened self-interest in this matter and say that it played NO part in her motivations that proud and in-her-political-ambitions-so-often-scorned Eleanor could in early 1173 foresee a future with her still very young son on the throne, and Eleanor herself as the experienced queen mother/unofficial advisor. Having already seemingly secured Richard’s personal loyalty and succession in Aquitaine, Eleanor would have had the best of both worlds - a more influential role in the entire Angevin Empire, and a virtual guarantee that nobody did anything to Aquitaine she would find disagreeable, at least while she lived. 

Richard was ‘in the fold’ and Young Henry would be grateful for his victory and the support she gave him, as well as many of the barons they both counted on - who now no longer needed to fear Henry II.

Summing up

Eleanor and Young Henry probably ‘stirred the waters’ of rebellion as clandestine initiators, but the opportunity may have come for them to take that role with determination only when various other actors - barons, etc. - came out as sufficiently clear in their opposition to old Henry, and willingness to act on it! A conspiracy is by its very nature not a linear process, because so much has to be kept hidden, and afterwards many scapegoats have to be found. 

Eleanor likely loved her eldest surviving son, as much as we can imagine that love compared with parental love today - but at the same time she was a political animal and both her and Young Henry had shared interests in a new power constellation in the Angevin Empire. If they were indeed the ‘prime movers’ in the conspiracy to overthrow old Henry, this indivisible mix of the personal and political would have been the main motivation. 

For better or for worse, it says much about both Eleanor’s temperament and Young Henry’s, but at the same time, that it would come to this betrayal against divinely ordained royal status in the form of king Henry II. But without a doubt both felt that old Henry had already betrayed them.

Photo of Eleanor's tomb effigy at Fontevraud Abbey courtesy of ElanorGamgee (Wikipedia)


The World of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Literature and Society in Southern France between the Eleventh and Thirteenth Centuries ed. by Marcus Bull and Catherine Leglu. The Boydell Press, 2005.

The Angevin Empire by John Gillingham. Edward Arnold, 1984.

Historical Dictionary of the British Monarchy by Kenneth J. Panton. Google Books.


  1. Thank you for yet one more interesting and thought-provoking post, Ulrik :)

    1. As usual, it is me, who thanks *you*! :-)

      (I'm afraid I got a bit carried away in writing this one, but ... it was a pleasure. As usual.)

  2. Fascinating article. I would agree that 3 and 4 were probably Eleanor's primary motives. Aquitaine was hers, and she would do anything to safeguard it. She might be humiliated with Henry's mistresses, but enough to justify treason? I doubt it.

    1. And I say 1,3 and 4 :) Of course she might have felt offended by Henry's out of wedlock activities (:)), but on the other hand this was the way of the world and aristocratic ladies had little choice but accept their husbands infidelities - perhaps they too treate them as sth common.

      Yes, Aquitaine would probably be the main motive. And then her sons :)

  3. Saved to read later and shared. xx <3

  4. And Henry ran roughshod over the interests of his barons and neighbours as well, so some of them would not need much coaxing to join a rebellion. William of Scotland was much more King David's grandson than his brother and predecessor Malcolm the Maiden who caved to Henry's demands. He would jump to a chance to get back the lands Henry had filched from him, and both Young Henry and Eleanor would probably agree on that deal since the Scottish borderlands (Northumbria and Cumbria) were not their primary territorial interest.


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