Queen Eleanor's Sense of Sorrow. A Guest Post about Eleanor of Aquitaine's Reactions to The Young King's Death

Today I am delighted to welcome my friend Ulrik Kristiansen with the last installment of his four-part Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry the Young King series, in which he is going to discuss the mother's reaction to the sad tidings about the untimely death of her second-born son. Over to you, Ulrik...

Finally I can share with you my last post about Eleanor and Henry the Young’s relation. You can read the first three posts  here, here and here.

You readers know of course that Henry the Young King met his untimely end in the summer of 1183, only 28 years old. He died of dysentery whilst campaigning once again against his estranged father, King Henry II. In this post I’ll try to see that sad event from the perspective of his mother, Queen Eleanor, who still at the time was in custody (imprisoned, if you will) at Salisbury Castle in England, due to her participation in the failed 1173-rebellion against Henry II.

You can read two excellent posts by Kasia about the last days of The Young King below. Even if you have read them I urge you to peruse them again, to get a flavour for just how big an event this was - the heir to the throne, and - to many - the epitome of chivalry, the dashing young royal heir to the Angevin Empire … gone, just like that. Here is the dramatic story:


Distant, yet connected
Young Henry hadn’t forgotten his mother even while he lay dying in France. Thus writes Colette Marie Bowie:
… The proof of [Eleanor’s] efforts as a mother are revealed in the loyalty and devotion shown to her by her sons and daughters as adults; the Young King certainly loved her, as his letter to Henry, written on his deathbed, requests first and foremost that Henry treat his captive mother with more indulgence. [Ulrik’s emphasis]
(Bowie, The Daughters of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: p. 45; also Strickland p. 306)
We should of course remember that Young Henry was very concerned for the salvation of his soul, now that he was to die after having sacked various churches and ravaged the countryside to pay the mercenaries he had used against his father.
Even so, to my mind this fact affected most heavily his acts of penance and his direct pleas for Henry II to make repairs to the church - and for William Marshal to fulfill The Young King’s crusading vow.
… But Henry the Young’s priorities in asking for lenience towards his mother (as well as his wife, who would now be at Henry II’s mercy), show us what the Young King prioritized personally, not so much how or why he prioritized it - although we of course can never draw a definite limit between the expression of his concerns for anyone or anything in his last will and then his wish to be seen as a good Christian at the end.

Whatever the case, he did focus on his mother’s fate in those last writings and Eleanor certainly had not forgotten her son either …

Dreams of a saintly son
In his solid biography about Eleanor, Ralph Turner describes the fateful days after the queen got the news of her son’s death:
Henry II … dispatched Thomas of Earley, archdeacon of Wells, to England to bring Eleanor the sad news. Her reaction is recorded as part of a sermon delivered soon afterward by the archdeacon on Young Henry's pious death, which he wished to present as the martyrdom of a saint accompanied by miracles. Among the miracles that the preacher attributes to the recently deceased prince is Eleanor's vision that had already revealed her son's demise before the arrival of the king's messenger.
She recounted to the archdeacon her dream in which Young Henry had appeared to her joyous and serene and wearing two crowns, one atop the other. Eleanor's interpretation of the two crowns consoled her, giving her confidence in her son's eternal salvation. She interpreted the lower crown, duller than the shining upper one, as standing for his earthly power and, gleaming above it, the other crown signifying his salvation.
She asked, “What significance can be given to that [upper] crown, if it is not eternal bliss that has neither beginning nor end? What is the significance of such an intense radiance, if not happiness on high?” She then answered by quoting Scripture, “Things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagining, all prepared by God for those who love Him” (First Corinthians 2:9–10).
While revealing little of Eleanor's sorrow at her son's death, this account perhaps tells something of her Christian faith, her confidence in his eternal salvation that comforted her in her captivity. Yet Eleanor was a perceptive woman who knew the propaganda value of her pious vision foretelling her eldest son's fate and depicting him almost as if a candidate for canonization. Indeed, she may have inspired Thomas's sermon.
(Ralph V. Turner: Eleanor of Aquitaine - Queen of France, Queen of England, chapter 9)

Professor Matthew Strickland in his masterful new biography of The Young King (2016) agrees that the whole business was indeed mostly a work of propaganda.  He adds that it was promptly cut short by Henry II who “had little wish to see another figure of sanctity, who, like Thomas Becket, might afford a focus of opposition to the king” (p. 315).

I believe both Turner and Strickland have a point. It would be naive otherwise, given what we know with any degree of certainty about Eleanor. However, as always, there’s more to the story. Let’s start with having a good look at just how Eleanor’s relations with her sons must have been in their essence:

Living through her sons
Given what I know about Eleanor of Aquitaine, I think it is fair to conclude, that she was a woman who lived much of her life in opposition to the men she married - and in alliance with the sons she bore.
Eleanor’s sons first and foremost aided her own very real ambitions for power and influence, e.g. when they conspired together in the 1173-rebellion, or - as she must have hoped all the time since - when one of them defeated Henry II and freed her from her imprisonment. We can thus say that Eleanor’s sons were important allies against her second husband, Henry II. None of her sons ever fought against her.
Henry II did try to play Eleanor and Richard against each other several times in the 1180s by getting Eleanor take formal control back over Aquitaine, instead of Richard (while still controlling Eleanor in her state-of-custody, of course). But that came to nothing. (Later John rebelled against Richard and Eleanor - but by then Henry II was long gone.)
Second, Eleanor’s sons - in particular The Young King, Richard and Geoffrey - must also have been mirrors for Eleanor’s own ambitions, hopes and dreams. Eleanor must to a degree have lived out many of her political and dynastic ambitions through her sons’ ‘careers’, especially when she was in prison but also in general. As with any queen, free or not, It would reflect positively on her, for example, when her eldest son became king for real, or if another son managed a successful crusade, or if a third son ruled a dukedom wisely - and added to its domains in due time …  
But there was more to it: Eleanor cared deeply about the political legacy of hers. This is seen primarily in her efforts to keep together the royal lands - the Angevin ‘empire’. This ‘empire’, depending on its definition, must to her mind have been as much her ‘success’ as it had been Henry II’s. If Eleanor had not married Henry II, he would never had had the power or success that he later enjoyed (drawing on all of Aquitaine’s resources) … or that, I believe, would probably be Eleanor’s way of seeing things!  
So much did Eleanor care about keeping the lands together that she went to any length to keep together the sons, whenever she could. For example, there was her famous reconciling of Richard and John in 1194, and then her tireless work to support John for the throne in 1199 - despite all his shortcomings, and despite what must have been a significant temptation for a nearly 80-year old woman in Medieval times: To just go back to the abbey of Fontevraud for good and let the bloody world go on …
And this aspect of the Angevin mother-son relations inevitably brings us to …

Eleanor’s choice: The Young King or the Lionheart

For all of the reasons just mentioned, we can easily imagine that Eleanor did not wish her sons to war against each other - at any time. She did not wish for one son to ascend over the others, except in the natural and formal way. This would of course be when her eldest son, Henry the Young King, took over the throne for real and the other sons continued as dukes of their particular domains (Richard in Aquitaine, Geoffrey in Brittany, and John presumably in Normandy or Ireland).
If her reconciliation of John and Richard in 1194 is an indication of her mind, Eleanor would surely have tried with all her persuasive powers to reconcile Richard and Henry the Young king after their war in 1183 - if the Young King had survived that year - and if Eleanor had been free, of course.

Did Eleanor then resent The Young King for fighting against Richard, her ‘favorite son’, in 1183? Likely not, or at least not in the way we might imagine. We need to remember that at the time Eleanor’s relationship with Richard was not necessarily that tight as it later surely became during her tenure as de facto regent while he crusaded.
And in any case, Eleanor could very well have blamed Henry II for the falling out between the two sons. (Which to a degree is correct. Henry II’s failure to give The Young King real influence ignited the conflicts again and again in the family - also that year).
It would be naive to say that Eleanor loved all her sons equally, but on the other hand it seems equally naive to say that ‘surely she must have rooted for Richard’ in this particular feud. If Eleanor rooted for anything it must have been for some falling brick to hit king Henry II, so Henry The Young King could take over, ascend fully to a position of real power that was his by right. The other sons could then get to keep their lands and pay homage to their big brother, the king ... and everything could continue for the better! (or so Eleanor probably imagined). Also, Eleanor could live out her last years as influential mother-queen-dowager … in freedom.

Hidden wounds
Let’s try to imagine then what happens when such a proud woman  - a woman who identifies so strongly with and relates so closely to her sons - let’s imagine how she is affected when her sons … just die. One after the other ...
Eleanor’s pride, which certainly were the foundations of so much of her personality, must have become steadily more wounded  - each time one of her most successful sons are taken from her. First The Young King died in 1183, then Geoffrey in a tournament accident in 1186, and then Richard by a stray arrow in 1199. (Along with many of her daughters, of course.) But these were the three sons she must have had the highest hopes for, as they had matured and become persons in their own right, with their own power and ambitions to go (unlike little William who died in the 1150’s).
(Eleanor’s estrangement from John is grossly overrated, but there seems no doubt he was, for many reasons, more his ‘father’s son’ - at least until he betrayed Henry II, too. And in the end - in 1199 - after several more treasons and turn-abouts, there was only John left to continue the dynasty ... and so Eleanor elected to fight for him with her last strength.)

So all her sons’ victories and losses must have echoed in Eleanor soul, from her pride over The Young King’s initial victories in 1173, to Richard’s crowning in 1189, to her presumably less than enthusiastic but still determined effort to promote John’s bid for the throne in 1199 - despite his years of treasonous behaviour. And each time a son died, the wound in Eleanor’s sense of self must have become so much more deep, raw and painful.

Yes, death was a well-known visitor in the Medieval world, but Eleanor had all her sons (but John) taken away - while she still lived. And all of them were taken from disease, disasters and accidents (and by that I include the stray arrow that hit Richard). None of them died in a glorious way on some glorious battlefield fighting for a glorious cause. Some way of death that would have at least consoled a proud queen …

Behind the propaganda
Did Eleanor ever fear that the ignominious deaths of her sons were signs that she was the one being punished? Had she not been forgiven completely by God for whatever sins she had been accused of earlier in life … ? (Adultery, rebellion, etc. - the list is long!) And was she afraid that the first sign, coming with the Young King’s death of disease (right after his rampage over French lands and shrines) would reflect badly on her?  (And let’s not forget little William, dying of some unknown cause at age 3, and perhaps - one more child, stillborn, depending on which researcher you ask.) Probably these fears were indeed with Eleanor. They must have been clawing at her heart - next to the natural sorrow and grief - right after hearing about Young Henry’s death.

So perhaps Eleanor’s reactions in the following days and weeks had a lot to do with a somewhat petty fear (at least to modern eyes) for her own reputation first, and second a fear for her current ‘standing with God’. That fear found its expression in the glowing sermon and the alleged visionary dream about her son. In the present day climate of contentious political elections, we would probably be tempted to call communication like  that some sort of “damage control” at best …  We might talk about Eleanor scrambling to put a positive “spin” on events, to “contain” any negative fallout from The Young King’s death in public opinion against her (at least amongst the wealthy and influential). We might also very easily imagine Eleanor at the same time using this sad loss to the max - to strike at Henry II with a story about how he had been battling a saintly son all along  … after all, why wouldn’t she? Her feelings for Henry II by now - 10 years after she was imprisoned - must have bordered on pure hatred, for punishing her for so long with confinement (never mind her own responsibility for it in the first place).

If these assertions are correct (and I believe they are to a large degree) it is no wonder if Eleanor worked hard to promote The Young King’s saintliness in the summer of 1183. It is no wonder if she worked hard behind the scenes to bend the ear of Thomas of Earley and have him help spread the word of how God had ‘accepted’ the The Young King, as ‘seen’ in Eleanor’s dream.
But … Eleanor must also have been deeply depressed at the same time. She was after all still the prisoner of Henry II for all intents and purposes. And what hope for her own future now that her eldest son, who had been fighting against Henry II, was dead? Could Richard help her? Last she heard, he had been fighting with his father … not against him.

So to the extent that Eleanor’s dream about The Young King was fabricated, or at least embellished, we shouldn’t think of it as a ‘calculated move’ - in order to protect Eleanor’s own reputation. We also shouldn’t think of it as a calculated move that Eleanor was just working to create another ‘saint’ to oppose Henry II in the public imagination, like the role Becket had had for over a decade. That is the wrong way to approach Eleanor, unless you already see her as just that - a political machine.
Eleanor’s influence on the sermon etc., to the extent it was there, must have been intentional and calculated to some extent, but that is not the whole story. Because whatever political calculations Eleanor truly did make, they were most certainly fueled by raw emotion. They were fueled by fear of how God might see her, and that fear could be quite strong in Medieval times. They were fueled by anger and even hatred towards her husband, and for Eleanor those factors must have been stronger than anything! And in the middle of all this there was grief, of course, over her loss. Just … the loss. The emotional roller-coaster when someone dies - especially your own son or daughter. In sum, all of these emotions must have become tangled up in a very hard knot after Eleanor was brought the news about her eldest son’s sad death, and made her scramble from A to B to … do something. To take action. For whatever combinations of motivations …

In the end, just a mother …
Do all of these considerations then convince me that Eleanor did not have many - if any - moments of just quiet grief in Old Sarum in that grey summer of 1183? Just times when she missed him and felt devastated that God had taken him, so much before he should have passed on to the next world? No political agendas or worries on her mind?

I think the answer is obvious, but I will leave it to you to imagine more in detail just how she felt and when she felt it. Eleanor was not a glittering myth but she certainly wasn’t a machine either. Whenever we try to reduce her to either myth or machine we take away something from her as a complete human being and woman. We diminish our sense of what it must truly have been like, in all its facets, to be the mother of England’s lost king ...


  1. I've enjoyed all the guest posts on Eleanor. I'm sure Eleanor mourned all her sons. It is surprising that the 4 who lived to adulthood, 3 of them died before her. I think Eleanor would accept it as the will of God, and mourned them as sons and in particular, with the Young King, she mourned as a King - he had promised so much. I think all of her son's would have wanted some leniency from their father towards their mother.

  2. I think that when it comes to Eleanor, remaining in Henry II's custody at the time of the 1183 conflict, it was never matter of choice between Henry and Richard... It all must have been reduced to one single wish - to see her husband defeated and brought to heel and afterwards her sons reconciled. Even if the so called Angevin Empire was to be split in two and they were to govern the separate provinces, she must have hoped that her positive influence would keep them away from each other's throats :) The only question that keeps bothering me is how - if they had turned out to be the winning party - they would have solved the matter of Henry II himself - I mean legally and by the letter of the law - for it couldn't have gone otherwise without doing harm to Henry the Young King's image and reputation as the true and lawful king.

  3. So much speculation when it comes to Eleanor & her emotions. Like many women in powerful positions today, emotions are secondary to the primary goal. Maybe more so in medieval times. I'm not sure she was a political machine, but probably close to it. And though she would have been "religious" to a certain degree, I doubt she was ruled by fear of God, Church, or everlasting punishment. I would like to think she was truly bonded to her children by maternal love, some more than others, but it's difficult not to perceive her through our present-day eyes & emotional lives. All very interesting speculation however.

  4. Kassia, could you help me out? I'm writing a short blog post on Philip II of France, and you are the most accessible "living expert" on "the Devil's Brood" that I know. Question: do you know if Philip II attended the Young King's coronation? And vice versa, did Henry and his brothers attend the coronation of Philip? Thanks in advance for your help!

  5. Thank you for your kind words, Helena. Philip did not attend Henry's coronation, neither the one in 1170 nor the one in 1172, but Henry and his younger brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, did represent the House of Anjou on All Saints' Day 1179 when Philip was crowned at Reims. Henry held a crown for him and outshone all the other pratisipants with his rich entourage and mesnie at the great tournament at Lagny-sur-Marne. Here's a blog post I wrote about it: http://henrytheyoungking.blogspot.com/2012/11/reims-and-lagny-sur-marne-november-1179_7.html

  6. I am proud of her She is my 26 times great grandmother.


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