Queen Eleanor and The Young King. Part I (Guest Post)
Today I am delighted to welcome my friend Ulrik Kristiansen to the blog. Ulrik is an expert in the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry the Young King's illustrious lady mother. He is going to share his thoughts on Eleanor/Young Henry relationship with us, from the earliest years of the prince's life till his untimely death on 11 June 1183 and the sad days shortly afterwards. This is the first part in a 4-part series. We may expect the next installements in the upcoming months. Over to you Ulrik...
Thank you, Kasia, for asking me to guest post on your wonderful blog and thus give me a chance to talk even more about one of the Medieval personages that I am already giving live-talks about here in my native Denmark: Young Henry’s formidable mother - queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. I did my best to write something that is informative as well as entertaining for your readers!
Part 1 - Childhood (1155-1163)
Introduction: Much ado about Eleanor
Much ink - real and virtual - has already been spilt over Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124-1204). She was, broadly speaking, in the first few centuries after her death mostly ‘tugged away’ in the chronicles and other writings. If she ever popped up it was usually for the chronicler to reaffirm what a ‘terrible woman’ she was - and perpetuating rumors and outright myths about her.
Most highlighted in the rumour-department we have her never-proven youthful infidelity with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, then ruler of Antioch. It all supposedly happened during the Second Crusade led by Eleanor’s first husband, king Louis VII of France. And depending on who you ask, Eleanor’s infidelity was more or less the cause of - or caused by - her rift with Louis.
Eleanor marrying Louis (left image) from Les Chroniques de Saint Denis, 14th century
In the myth-department there is the story that Eleanor brutally killed Rosamund Clifford - the long-time mistress of her husband, King Henry. It was either by roasting her alive or by poison, depending on the myth(source) in question - you may take your pick. And it all happened, of course, in 1176 - 3 years after Eleanor had been imprisoned by Henry Sr. for taking part in the Great Rebellion against him (1173-74)!
For there is, I will argue, very little evidence for Eleanor being anything else but a very headstrong, sometimes quite arrogant, and above all very powerful royal woman of the 12th century - and in my view she did not live a life which in any particular way was a 'mirror' of the 21st century’s female (or male) gender roles, political positions or concepts of love!
Eleanor’s life experiences certainly included some tantalizing glimpses of what we could call modern behavior of women (in the 12th century called ‘horrible’ :-). This esp. regarded Eleanor’s insistence on playing a primary role in politics, and not just content herself with being an adjunct to her two husband kings. But too much is read into these glimpses, I think, and they are too often interpreted in a too ‘modern’ way - with too little evidence to back up any conclusions (all of which I will get back to in later posts - especially part III - about the Great Rebellion).
For now: I will briefly mention the best peer-reviewed academic research I have found concerning Eleanor. In my opinion it is to be found found in the book Eleanor of Aquitaine - Lord and Lady (ed. Bonnie Wheeler), and - most likely - in the upcoming Inventing Eleanor by Michael Robert Evans.
In fact, for such a prominent ruling woman - who is still remembered so much 900 years after she lived! - there is precious little information about both Eleanor’s thoughts and actions. Most of what we have of any substance comes from some - usually critical - passages in contemporary or near-contemporary chronicles about Eleanor: The queen who had ‘dared’ to rebel against her second husband (and push for a divorce from her first - Louis VII)! But the first book above (Lord and Lady) does a solid job of turning every stone of actual evidence - from the so called Eleanor vase to various laws signed by Eleanor. And of course those angry old male chroniclers :-)
Just one step down from sober academic prose, we find Ralph V. Turner’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England . This is probably one of the best nonfiction books written for a popular audience. Turner at times also falls for the understandable temptation to write as if he is sure what Eleanor may have thought or felt at certain times in her life, but it is difficult to maintain a narrative, of course, if you constantly have to tell the reader you are really guessing. I know that from my own live-talks we are delivered in a short time (2 hours) and to a supposedly more entertainment-hungry audience, than people who have time to read a long book.
So qualified guess work is part and parcel of what we ‘know’ about Eleanor, and we have to accept that. That goes, too, for Eleanor’s relationship with her firstborn surviving son.
Her greatest wish
As most of you faithful readers of Kasia’s blog are probably aware, Henry’s mother had a first marriage to the French king, Louis VII from 1137 to 1152. One of the most trying problems for Eleanor, aside from her apparent personal incompatibility with the pious Louis, was her inability to have children. Or rather, to have male children. After 8 years of marriage, she finally did give birth to the first of two daughters, Marie in 1145, and then Alix in 1150/51. But since the Capetian royal line was traditionally strictly based on male heritage this was not, well, good enough.
Whatever Eleanor thought of Louis personally, and of her husband's family in Paris, she was undoubtedly much distressed by this state of affairs. Not necessarily because she missed children, as a modern mother would (and she had two daughters with whom she, apparently, had normal relations for a royal Medieval woman). The true sting was most likely that she could not have a male child because it impacted on her feeling of personal pride and self-worth, which must have been considerable, given what we know of her entire life.
But in times when it was virtually a given that problems related to fertility were primarily the fault of the woman, it must have torn Eleanor’s heart that she was not able to produce a male heir - especially after having been barren for so long. Aside from this personal aspect of her suffering, which must assume that she was religiously devout as a normal Medieval person - which would be many times more than the average 2015-person, at least in Europe. Eleanor did not practice Christianity to the level of Louis, who went around in a monk’s robe whenever he could (!), but she would have interpreted all the goings-on in the world through the lens of God’s pleasure or displeasure. If something went well, it meant that God was pleased with your life. If not … And the reasons could, as so often, be quite mysterious. All you could do was hope and pray for the outcome you wanted.
And then, from 1152 and onwards, everything seemingly changed. Eleanor was married anew to Henry Fitz Empress, the future King Henry II of England… and began to have children. Many more children. Of both sexes. The first was William, The Young King’s older brother. But if Eleanor accepted that God controlled events in life on earth to a large degree, she cannot have been entirely assured that his Will was finally with her. For William died - only a few months shy of his third birthday - in April 1156 …
Henry II of England, Eleanor's second husband, as shown in the stained-glass window in Sainte-Pierre Cathedral, Poitiers
We can only imagine the grief and horror of those left to mourn his untimely passing. During our preparation of this guest series, Kasia described in an email this tragedy very poignantly:
... it must have been as if God turned his back on [Eleanor] and her family … and her and Henry's path was no longer the one of neverending triumphs and successes. I strongly believe that the parents back then must have been shaken and distraught by the deaths of their children, but perhaps could resign themselves to them somehow, because their faith was so very integrated with their lives.
The situation then, in this gloomy spring of 1156, is this: William is dead but … Eleanor and Henry are left with Henry The Young King, who had been born February 1155. He in turn is followed by his younger sister, Mathilda - born also in the spring of 1156! One little boy - and another girl.
Bottom line: One heir to the throne - after all these years.
Eleanor was in her early 30s at the time, and in an age where the natural lifespan ended around 40 - maybe 50 for nobles … so the uncertainty about the future must have been palpable. But there was also hope - probably a hope kept alive at times only by Eleanor’s considerable personal strength. Like when you push on towards some goal, with gritted teeth … or just hold on and … wait. I think Kasia made a quite realistic assessment of Eleanor’s mood at the time when she further remarked in our correspondence that:
... with the king on the Continent Eleanor had no other choice but to handle it herself. The only comfort was her second son, 16 months old at the time. Not only physically, but also ‘We lost our firstborn, but we still have one more and hopefully others will follow’.
And the Young Henry did survive, as we know - at least beyond childhood. So in the late 1150s it must have appeared to Eleanor that God had finally was ‘with’ of her. Although the insecurity of when that could change would always be there.
Even so, it is not hard to imagine that as the years passed, and the Young King grew up, Eleanor’s relief and probably pride as well - about her first surviving son - must have grown as well. Because of his extreme importance to her - personally, politically, emotionally - it seems inevitable that she would not have attached herself to him closely in the beginning.
We can of course only guess at Eleanor’s exact feelings for young Henry in those early years but they were probably relatively strong, even if they were shaped by the ‘conditions of the times’. Thus, there would have been a personal emotional attachment, especially for Eleanor who spent most of her time with the young children (minus nannies, etc.). We can sure recognize this as parents in 2015!
But more foreign to us today, there were the political and dynastic imperatives that probably gave Eleanor mixed feelings about young Henry as well. She knew all her children were likely to be sent away from her when they were still relatively young, e.g. through a marriage alliance. Although Henry Sr. had the last word in these ‘deals’, Eleanor was likely a participant in this planning.
The future for young Henry would more assuredly take place in domains, perhaps far removed from where his mother was. Thus, from when he reached 6-7 years of age Henry the Young King would likely spend a number of years in another - allied - family’s household to be educated and later learn various martial skills (we will follow up on that in part II). But what do we then know about the young prince and Eleanor in those earliest of years? Not much and yet …
The (very) young king and Eleanor
In her 2013 doctoral thesis “Establishing adult masculine identity in the Angevin royal family c.1140-c.1200, Elizabeth Jane Anderson cautions that:
Information that sheds light on children and childhood in the twelfth century is scarce, we know little about children’s lives or even about adults’ attitudes towards children. Attempting to locate specific children in this period is all but impossible outside the higher end of society and even in royal circles only glimpses are seen in the documentary evidence.
We do find occasional references to those children born to the royal household. Births and deaths tend to be reported in the documentary sources and occasionally baptisms are also included. There are also sporadic instances where the movements of individual children are recorded, however on these occasions they are almost always noted simply as appendages to their parents or other adults.
Anderson then goes on to analyze information from Medieval royal accounts and itineraries, many of which were transcribed into readable books in the 19th century. From studying especially Court, household and itinerary of King Henry II from 1878 - (read it online here!) - Anderson finds “a trend of both Henry and Eleanor having had at least some of their children with them when they travelled ... “ And furthermore that:
… it appears that their children, male and female, are exclusively seen with Eleanor when they are in the infantia life stage [until about age 7 - Ulrik] and not with Henry or with both parents.
... In every instance noted in the Itinerary, the children of the royal couple, male or female, when recorded during their infantia stage, are noted as being with their mother and this remains true until they had reached the age of seven.
According to Anderson this was quite normal in the earliest stage of children’s lives in this period, and should therefore not be seen as if Eleanor from the outset was closer emotionally connected with the children - including Young Henry - than was Henry Sr. (Although, that would - all other things being equal - have been the inevitable consequence, one could argue.)
Sea voyage as shown in Bede's Life od St Cuthbert, 12th century
It also seems as if Eleanor travelled at times with Young Henry and Mathilda, when she didn’t exactly need to or could have left them safer in the care of nannies and servants. In the abovementioned book Lord and Lady, p. 103, is for example mentioned a crossing of the English channel during bad weather in January of 1163, where young Henry and Mathilda were present with Eleanor.
There is no reason for either Henry or Eleanor to wish to travel with their children, in particular across the channel, a frequently hazardous journey, when they could leave them in safety with staff unless they had a genuine desire to be with those children. Therefore I would suggest that they had indeed formed emotional bonds with their children while young.
I have had a little bit of difficulty establishing the sources for these “hazardous crossings” - not all of them seem to be mentioned in the 1878-accounts (see above). Also, the author in Lord and Lady refers to work by Turner, which I have not read - and to the book by D. D. R. Owen, Eleanor of Aquitaine - Queen and Legend, which is quite good but not always easy to discern sources from. This may be due to my own shortcomings in reading the material, or the fact that I did not spend more time to wrap up this blog post which has already been delayed greatly since its inception in early November.
So consider it merely a first word of caution, as regards the use of such ‘spots’ of evidence to establish that Eleanor was together with her young children more or less. Even if we had, say, 5 unambiguous instances in the accounts over a period of, say, 2 years of Eleanor travelling with Henry the Young King, what does that mean? For how much did other royal mothers do the same? It is only through this kind of comparison that such evidence can give any meaning, I would say.
The second word of caution regards what exactly we can infer from this evidence. Was young Henry in the arms of Eleanor most of the time or with nannies and servants? And what was the purpose of the journey? Was it really so ‘abnormal’ as we want to think? There could have been some political or security-related reason we do not know of that made Eleanor risk those winter-crossings of the Channel with her first surviving son, instead of leaving him in the care of servants. And even if there weren’t such reasons there could also have been other, more emotional reasons of equal strength compelling Eleanor to keep young Henry close.
Let’s imagine Eleanor wanting to cross the Channel for some important political meeting in, say, Normandy during the winter. The weather is harsh - there is risk, as there always is when sailing in Medieval times. Her aides and servants may have strongly asked the Queen to consider leaving Henry the Young in London for a few weeks until she could return. For his safety! Even though Richard and Geoffrey had been born in the late 1150s, Henry was, after all, the heir. But for exactly that reason the headstrong Eleanor may have chosen to take him with her! She could have felt that she was best suited to take care of him - and that she would not risk others looking after him, even for a little while, unless it was absolutely necessary. I don’t mean nannies or servants in London, of course, when Eleanor stayed there herself. I mean when Eleanor was NOT there … when she had to travel. I’m sure even in the present day many of us will know these feelings for our children, even if they are not slated to be kings :-)
Again, we cannot know if this is true, or was true, or was true in some instances. We will not ever know for sure. And that can indeed … be frustrating! The risk is, if we are too timid now with regard to conclusions, that Eleanor and her sons become faint enigmatic figures of long ago, whom we cannot ‘feel’ because we don’t allow ourselves to make qualified guesses about them. Like: ‘Not enough evidence - let’s not talk more about it.’
The alternative often seems to have Eleanor and young Henry (or any other person from those times) ‘boxed in’ as a definite person with a definite agenda. I think this is equally unsatisfying when we know the scantness of the actual evidence!
I feel that there is a third way to relate to this problem: We must allow ourselves to accept the possibility of all perspectives - of what Eleanor could have felt or thought with regard to the care of her first son, who lived to grow up … That, I will argue, leaves us with a richer feeling of what their bond could have been like - richer than if we seek certainty that we can never have. It is the act of spending time to contemplate all the different ways in which the queen could have cared for her son that allows us to sense them as a real mother and son. Even if they are 900 years removed from us.
This is the way I like to approach history, and so I hope you have enjoyed this post. If I have made any mistakes, do point them out to me and I shall make amends :-)
Until then, look forward to the next installment - coming in January: Eleanor, The Young King and William Marshal!
Thank you so much for this thought-provoking read, Ulrik! I look forward to your upcoming posts.