Angevin Dynasty: A family at war I

On his legitimate children he lavished in their childhood more than a father’s affection, but in their more advanced years he looked askance at them after the manner of a stepfather; and although his sons were so renowned and illustrious he pursued his successors with a hatred which perhaps they deserved, but which none the less impaired his own happiness … Whether by some breach of the marriage tie or as a punishment for some crime of the parent, it befell that there was never true affection felt by the father towards his sons, nor by the sons towards their father, nor harmony between the brothers themselves.

GERALD OF WALES

It was nightfall at the palace of Westminster on 17 July 1174. The king was resting in his chambers, suffering from both physical and mental exhaustion. For over a year he had fought against a powerful coalition of enemies on the continent led by the king of France and the count of Flanders, brought together in an ultimate act of treachery by the machinations of his wife Eleanor and eldest son, Henry ‘the young king’, as they sought to overthrow him. Henry had finally been able to return to England ten days earlier, battling fierce gales to make landfall at Southampton. His presence was urgently needed to suppress an uprising amongst his most unruly barons, led by an old adversary, Hugh Bigod; Bigod’s grudge against Henry had been simmering away for nearly two decades. The king first dashed to Canterbury, where he made a public display of humility at the tomb of Thomas Becket, scourged with whips as penance for the role he had played in his former friend’s death. Now, weary from his long journey back to London, Henry had gone to his room, where a servant rubbed his sore feet as he dozed in bed.

Suddenly, the guards at the palace gate were disturbed by the arrival of a rider, with clothes stained with grime from a long journey. He reined in his horse and wearily dismounted, calling out that he was a messenger called Brien. Explaining that he had ridden hard for three days, barely stopping for food and drink, Brien demanded that he be brought before the king, insisting that he carried an urgent message and important news from the north. Uncertain what to do, the guards escorted him to the door of the room where Henry lay in slumber. The way was barred by the king’s chamberlain who, mindful of his master’s state of mind, prevented Brien from entering with the cry ‘Who are you there?’ Brien replied, ‘I am a messenger, sent by Lord Ranulph de Glanville in order to speak with the king, for great needs he has of it.’ ‘Let the business be till the morning.’ hissed the chamberlain, trying to stop the conversation from wakening Henry. However, the messenger would not be deterred. ‘By my faith! I will speak to him forthwith. My lord has in his heart sorrow and vexation, so let me enter, good chamberlain.’ The royal servant was not convinced, fearing his master’s wrath: ‘I should not dare to do it. The king is asleep; you must withdraw.’ However, the noise of the conversation had already disturbed Henry, who hollered angrily from inside the room, ‘Who is that, can you tell me?’ The chamberlain called back, ‘Sire, you shall know directly, it is a messenger from the north, very well you know him, a man of Ranulph de Glanvillle’s, his name is Brien.’ The king emerged from his room and, having been disturbed from his rest, was clearly not in the best of moods; and now he was further alarmed when he learned the identity of the messenger.

Ushered into the royal chamber, Brien was mindful that he was in the presence of the king, and offered a salute. Despite his tiredness, Henry was eager for news; he was well aware of the situation in the north of England where William the Lion, king of Scotland, had invaded shortly after Easter, supported by mercenary cavalry and infantry hired from Flanders. The invading forces had captured two royal fortresses at Brough and Appleby, before moving against Carlisle. The frightened citizens had provided assurances that they would surrender to the Scots if no relief came from Henry, allowing William to attack Prudhoe castle on the banks of the Tyne and ravage parts of Northumberland.

Henry’s principal supporters in the north had gathered together to repulse the invasion. The sheriff of Yorkshire, Robert de Stuteville, supported by Brien’s master Ranulph de Glanville, as well as local lords William de Vesci and Bernard de Balliol, mustered their forces and marched on Prudhoe, arriving on 12 July only to find that William had moved on to assault Alnwick castle. They held a conference at Newcastle to determine what to do next. Henry was unaware of the latest developments, and feared that the sudden arrival of the messenger heralded bad tidings. Growling with anger and pacing around his room, Henry began to bemoan those in whom he had placed his trust to defend the northern border – ‘Badly have they served me, so now may they be punished for it!’ However, the messenger interrupted the king: ‘Sire, hear me a little. Your barons of the north are right good people. The king of Scotland is taken and all his barons!’

The king could not believe this unexpected and wondrous news. ‘Do you speak the truth?’ Brien replied,

Yes sire, truly in the morning you will know it; the archbishop of York, a wise, learned man, will send you two private messengers; but I started first, who know the truth, I have hardly slept during the last four days, neither eaten nor drunk, so I am very hungry; but in your kindness, give me a reward for it!

Henry grasped the tired messenger by the shoulders and fixed him with a steely gaze. ‘If you have told me the truth, you are rich enough. Is the king of Scotland taken? Tell me the truth!’ Indignant that he was being doubted, Brien cried ‘Yes sire, by my faith! On a cross may I be crucified, or hanged by a rope, or burnt on a great pile, if tomorrow, before noon, all be not confirmed.’ ‘Then’, said the king, with a broad grin breaking out across his face, ‘God be thanked for it, and Saint Thomas the Martyr and all the saints of God!’

Brien was shown to suitable accommodation and given much-needed food, drink and rest at the king’s expense. Henry was too delighted to return to sleep, and roused his household knights to share the news that one of his great enemies had fallen into his hands. ‘Barons! Wake up. It has been a good night for you. Such a thing have I heard that will make you glad; the king of Scotland is taken! Just now the news came to me, when I ought to have been in bed!’ The knights were overjoyed, and cried, ‘Now thank the Lord God, now is the war ended, and your kingdom in peace!’ As Brien had promised, messengers from the archbishop of York duly arrived the next morning, carrying with them a more detailed account of what had happened.

After their conference at Newcastle – and despite opposition from some of their own number – the northern earls decided to press on towards Alnwick, and set out early the next morning, Saturday 13 July. They travelled at a remarkable speed, bearing in mind they were burdened by weight of arms, covering twenty-four miles in little over five hours. However, they were soon enveloped in a thick fog, which made them pause and reconsider their decision. As they moved forward slowly, the mist cleared and in front of them appeared the castle of Alnwick. To their great surprise, the king of the Scots and around sixty horsemen were on guard in a meadow outside the castle, ‘as if in complete security and fearing nothing less than an incursion of our men, while the hosts of the barbarians together with part of the cavalry were widely dispersed for purposes of plunder’, according to William of Newburgh. The Scots were momentarily confused, thinking some of their own number had returned. On realising that the banners were those of the enemy, William the Lion drew his forces around him and prepared for battle. However, the fight did not last long; the king’s horse was killed underneath him and he was thrown clear, only to be intercepted and captured. Most of his knights were slain or rounded up. The earls then made their way back to Newcastle the same day with their royal prisoner, and from there he was transferred to Richmond to be kept under close guard until he could be sent south to Henry. Brien was then dispatched to tell the king the good news.

In the bright light of a summer’s morning, Henry beamed with joy when he heard the fate that had befallen his enemy. Yet even as he relaxed in the knowledge of victory, he suddenly remembered his conversation with Brien the previous evening. ‘Last night I heard the news when I was very irritable; to him who brought it to me a reward shall be given.’ After a quick consultation with his exchequer staff working from their offices nearby, Henry ordered a small wooden tally stick to be struck. In the absence of a formal parchment charter prepared by his chancery staff, it noted the personal grant of land worth £10 a year from the grateful king to the messenger who came in the night.

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The great war of 1173–4 marked Henry’s nadir as king, husband and father; yet also represented his greatest triumph, combining military genius with an ability to stay calm in the face of multiple outbreaks of revolt, successfully prioritising his actions when it looked as though all his territories would be swept away by an unprecedented alliance of enemies, and one false move could end in disaster. Although it took a few more months of campaigning after the capture of William of Scotland to restore peace to all his lands, Henry emerged from a period of unprecedented crisis more powerful than ever, yet mindful that he needed to find a workable solution to provide for the competing demands of his sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John. Angevin princes were not known to harbour warm family feelings towards one another, and sibling rivalry played a large part in the war against their father. However, at the heart of the dispute lay a festering resentment that Eleanor felt towards her husband – possibly fuelled by the knowledge that his love was reserved for his mistress Rosamund de Clifford, but principally by the fact that Henry had excluded her from any meaningful authority, aside from a few occasions when she was called upon to act as regent during his absence. For a woman who had virtually shared power with her first husband King Louis VII of France, even accompanying him on crusade to the Holy Land at the head of a contingent of soldiers from Aquitaine, this was an unbearable slight on her honour and dignity. The irony of the great rebellion that ripped Henry’s family apart was that for the first two decades of his reign he had devoted his energy to creating a system of governance that, by 1169, was publicly geared towards a division of territories between his sons. Indeed, in 1159 Henry compromised his relationship with Louis by undertaking a campaign in defence of his wife’s rights in Aquitaine; this was to be a watershed moment, after which an intermittent enmity existed between the kings of England and France that neither could ever quite overcome.

Henry’s approach to family is interesting, as he was guilty of abandoning fraternal loyalty for personal gain when he was younger. Once the initial subjugation of England was complete, the main problem facing Henry towards the end of 1155 was the discontent of his disgruntled brother Geoffrey, who continued to spread the story that their father had only granted Anjou to Henry temporarily until the English crown had been placed on his head. Geoffrey tried to exert pressure on the king of France in an attempt to wrest Anjou from Henry’s hands; after all, Louis was still smarting from Henry’s coup in marrying Eleanor, and was alarmed by the prospect of one man holding so many territories under his direct control, particularly as the riches of England could be used to bankroll Henry’s ambitions on the continent. Supporting Geoffrey’s cause would therefore be a natural way to destabilise Louis’s overmighty vassal. Yet to interfere in the Angevin succession would be a declaration of war and spark a conflict that he would probably lose. Therefore, when Henry returned to the continent in early 1156, having brought the English barons to heel far more quickly than anyone might have expected, Louis found it expedient to confirm Henry in all his continental possessions. The two kings met on 5 February 1156 on the border of Normandy, where Henry performed homage for Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. Henry then sought out his brother a few days later – an awkward meeting that did not go well; Geoffrey withdrew in anger to his Angevin strongholds, spending money on fortifications in preparation for an armed struggle to regain what he felt was rightfully his. However, if Geoffrey expected to receive widespread support amongst the Angevin nobility, he was mistaken. By the summer, Henry had besieged and captured all Geoffrey’s castles and forced his brother to accept an annuity of £1,500, rather than trust him to remain in possession of land. Thus a pattern of behaviour was set that was to be played out in the relationships between Henry’s own sons.

Henry’s activities in the 1150s and 1160s give us the clearest sense of his vision for the way his lands would be governed, and family was a key motivating force behind his actions. ‘Empire’ is not the correct word to use to describe the way he perceived his territories – there was to be no centralised administration or ‘capital’ similar to Rome or Byzantium, let alone a single army, financial system, legal code or sense of common citizenship. Perhaps the best modern equivalent would be the British Commonwealth, a group of territories ruled by the same nominal head of state but with different internal systems of government.

Henry’s first task was to consolidate his position in each territory, as his authority varied from place to place. Having devoted a considerable amount of time creating a system in England that permitted his extended absence, Henry spent much of the early 1160s in Normandy imposing ‘direct rule’. During this period, Henry received regular updates from his trusted team of officials in England, and on occasion the co-justiciars would travel to Rouen to provide advice. It is likely that English silver flowed across the Channel as well, giving Henry additional financial security. It was much easier to enforce ducal custom and undertake reform if he was no longer reliant on maintaining the goodwill of local barons because he needed their cash.

At the same time, Henry tried to create a ring of vassal states around his core lands that recognised him as their overlord – Brittany would therefore be subservient to Normandy, likewise Maine to Anjou, Toulouse to Aquitaine, and within the British Isles, the rulers of Wales and Scotland would recognise the overlordship of England. It is perhaps no surprise that Henry’s early years were spent in ceaseless travel. Gerald of Wales and Walter Map told stories of a king who never stood still, his restless energy leading him to roam far and wide as he traversed a realm that stretched from the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south, to the borders of Scotland in the north – not quite in the same league as the lands that Charlemagne had brought together in the eighth century – but nevertheless an impressive range of territories that would test the administrative and military powers of a seasoned campaigner, let alone a young man in his early twenties with little previous experience of government. Indeed, Gerald was moved to compare Henry’s feats with another young general from antiquity, suggesting that ‘our Alexander of the West [you have] stretched out your arms from the Pyrenean mountains to the farthest and most western borders of the ocean. In these parts you have spread your triumphs as far as nature has spread her lands.’

This was grand rhetoric, but overlooked the fact that all the southernmost territory near the Pyrenees was only in Henry’s hands thanks to his marriage to Eleanor; an Angevin ruling in Gascony or Poitou was only slightly less unpalatable than direct rule from Paris had been when Eleanor was married to Louis. It was therefore prudent that Henry was joined by his wife in the autumn of 1156 to accompany him on a tour of Aquitaine, taking the opportunity to eject the viscount of Thouars, one of his brother Geoffrey’s supporters, from his lands in Poitou. This was a clear statement of intent with regards to the exercise of the ducal powers that he now claimed as his, as well as a reminder that Henry would not tolerate any further family insurrection against his rule.

Yet, by chance, the opportunity arose both to give Geoffrey a slightly more generous settlement, as well as extend the family’s influence in Brittany – an area over which Normandy had a hazy claim of lordship, with the genealogy of the Breton ducal family laced with both Norman and Angevin blood. The two principal seats of power were Rennes and Nantes, the ruler of the latter claiming the title of count; when the citizens deposed the unpopular incumbent, Hoel, in 1156, they appealed to Henry for assistance. Eager to extend Angevin power in the region, as well as secure access to an important seaport at the mouth of the river Loire, Henry agreed – on the condition that his brother Geoffrey was declared count instead. At the same time, one of Henry’s vassals, Earl Conan of Richmond, seized Rennes, further bolstering Angevin influence across the region.

When Henry returned to English politics in 1157, his attention shifted to the security of the northern border with Scotland. The old warhorse and staunch supporter of his mother’s cause, King David, had died in 1153 to be succeeded by his grandson Malcolm IV. Of particular concern to Henry was the previous grant of large swathes of northern England to David – the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland, as well as claims to the earldom of Huntingdon; indeed, Henry had sworn to confirm these grants when David knighted him in 1149, should he ever gain the throne. Now the time had come to resolve the issue, and Malcolm was invited to a meeting with Henry in May, at which the king of England appeared in a display of military might. In no uncertain terms, Henry told his royal counterpart that he would not hand over the northern part of his realm – an early example of Henry’s growing reputation for ‘broken promises’ when political expediency required an alternative truth to be forged. Indeed, this tactic of gunboat diplomacy was one that Henry would deploy on many occasions, and it was effective; the king of the Scots ‘prudently considering that the king of England had the better of the argument by reason of his greater power’ agreed with Henry that the integrity of England should be preserved, and swore homage for Huntingdon alone as a vassal of the king of England.

Next, Henry turned to the west, and in July summoned a council to discuss taking military action against Owain, prince of Gwynedd – one of several Welsh leaders who had refused to acknowledge his authority. The campaign nearly ended in disaster, despite meticulous planning; Henry was caught in an ambush whilst proceeding through marshy yet heavily wooded terrain just outside Flint, and many of his barons were slain. Indeed, the king’s own standard-bearer, Henry of Essex, believed his master had also died, and in distress fled from the fighting – causing panic amongst the soldiers that nearly sparked a full-scale retreat. However, Henry had already escaped. He fought his way back to his men, rallied the troops and proceeded far more cautiously thereafter, sending scouts ahead and ensuring that paths were cleared in advance of the main army. Owain sued for peace, and Henry left garrisons behind – not only to check any Welsh incursions, but also to remind the traditionally powerful and semi-independent earldom of Chester that royal authority was now the supreme power in the area.

With England’s borders largely secured, Henry decided to tackle the loss of the strategically important Norman Vexin, which had been conceded to Louis VII by Henry’s father Geoffrey in return for legitimising the completion of his invasion of the duchy in 1144, and confirmed when Henry’s accession was negotiated in 1151. Whilst still in England, Henry opened negotiations with Louis to find a diplomatic route to recover this lost land – as key to his security in Normandy as the northern counties, recently wrested back from Malcolm, were to the English border. The result was a dynastic union in the form of the betrothal of Henry’s son, Henry the younger – not yet four years old – to Louis’s infant daughter, Margaret. Her dowry, and Henry’s prize, would be the return of the Norman Vexin once the ceremony had been performed at some future date. In the meantime, the lands would be entrusted to the care of the Knights Templar. The union of the two most powerful families in France was a major event in European politics. Louis’s continued failure to produce a son was beginning to a turn into a succession crisis that the Capetian royal house had not faced for several generations, and awakened the possibility that a male child of the proposed marriage might, one day, inherit all.

In contrast, Henry’s marriage to Eleanor had produced an abundance of children including many sons – the first arrival was William in 1153 (who died three years later), then Henry the younger born in 1155, his first daughter Matilda in 1156, Richard in 1157 and Geoffrey in 1158. After a gap of a few years, Eleanor followed in 1161 and finally John, born in 1166. This brood of offspring represented the makings of a powerful dynasty – plenty of sons to ensure the succession plus two daughters who could be used to secure important marriage alliances. Although the Angevins held vast swathes of land and a crown of their own, the Capetians held the royal title that mattered most in the growing rivalry between the two families – king of the Franks, and therefore the direct successor to Charlemagne. Not to be outdone, Henry was keen to underline the financial might of the new Angevin territorial bloc. In a show of one-upmanship, Henry’s chancellor, Becket, was dispatched to France in the summer of 1158 to conduct further negotiations for the betrothal of the young Henry and Margaret with a magnificent display of riches – a job perfectly suited to the peacock personality of the proud clerk turned royal administrator, who was still revelling in his new-found wealth and status.

No expense was spared in an attempt to impress the residents of Paris as Becket entered the capital of the Île de France, where the talks would take place – 250 footmen, a vast array of hunting dogs, eight wagons drawn by horses with monkeys on their backs, packhorses carrying silver and gold plate, all paraded through the streets. This was just the prelude to the chancellor’s own retinue of squires, mounted knights, falconers, and many of the young nobles who were being schooled in the chancellor’s household; indeed, the king’s own son, the young Henry, would start his education at the knee of Thomas Becket. ‘What a magnificent man the king of England must be if his chancellor travels in such state,’ commented the citizens of Paris in response to this glittering show of wealth – exactly Henry’s intention.

The king then crossed from England in August to set his seal on the alliance in person. However, the visit was tinged with sad news; Henry’s brother Geoffrey had died suddenly on 26 July 1158. Whilst this removed any lingering threat to Henry’s legitimacy as count of Anjou, it also meant his hold on the area was weakened – especially as Conan used the opportunity to take possession of Nantes after Geoffrey’s death, bringing all of Brittany under his control. Technically, Conan should have sought permission from Henry, as his overlord, before doing so; Henry had intended to claim Nantes as his own, as Geoffrey’s legal heir. To bolster his authority further, Henry secured the grant of the title ‘seneschal of France’ during the marriage negotiations with Louis in August. This was an honour dating back to Carolingian times and the equivalent of justiciar in England, but it gave Henry a mandate to bring Conan of Brittany to heel by whatever means necessary. With Norman forces ominously mustering on the border, Conan hurried to Avranches on 29 September 1158, ceded Nantes to Henry, and in return was confirmed as duke of Brittany.

Henry’s attention moved from his northernmost possessions to those in the extreme south. Possibly as a result of the time he had spent with his wife in Aquitaine in 1156, Henry decided to exert claims over Toulouse – a county that had, in Carolingian times, been part of the old Roman province of Aquitainia but by a quirk of fate had passed down the ‘wrong’ line of Eleanor’s family tree a few generations previously. Under the ruling St Gilles family, Toulouse was exercising a growing autonomy in the region, yet was of great strategic importance to Henry. Its ancient Roman roads controlled the trade routes on which Poitou was dependent for access to the Mediterranean ports. However, the diplomatic position was complicated. In 1154 Count Raymond V had married Constance, the sister of Louis VII, after he had struck up a close relationship with Louis during the Second Crusade. In early June 1159 Henry approached Louis and reminded him, in what must have been a somewhat awkward conversation for both men, that when Louis had been married to Eleanor he had exercised a claim over Toulouse as de facto duke of Aquitaine, even going to war in 1141 in an unsuccessful attempt to win the county by force. Henry now wished to revive this claim. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Louis refused to make a decision and the meeting broke up without conclusion. Henry therefore decided to flex his military muscles once more, having used bullyboy tactics to great effect against Malcolm and Conan, and assembled a grand coalition of knights and mercenaries. Malcolm of Scotland and barons from Brittany turned up at the muster at Poitiers, a visible acknowledgement that Henry was now their overlord, and Henry was able to secure the support of Count Raymond-Berengar of Barcelona – another powerful lord from the south.

The campaign started brightly. In late June, Henry’s army marched into Quercy and secured Cahors, the principal town in the region. On the road to Toulouse, Henry paused – hoping that Count Raymond would be sufficiently cowed by the overwhelming military presence on his land that he would submit without armed conflict. As king of France, Louis was left with little choice but to intervene in defence of one of his vassals, and held crisis talks with Henry. What transpired is unclear, but Henry seems to have taken away the impression that Louis was tacitly supportive of his campaign. Nothing could have been further from the truth; the king of France was clearly spooked by Henry’s show of force and outright aggression against a fellow vassal, and marched into Toulouse to organise its defence on the premise that he was protecting his sister. Placing himself in Henry’s way was a desperate measure, but an effective one. For a vassal to attack his lord was tantamount to treason; yet Henry could not simply abandon the campaign because he was acting in his wife’s interests. The chief ‘hawk’ amongst his advisors was Becket – possibly because the chancellor had invested heavily in the campaign, not only in advocating the appropriation of Toulouse in the first place, but also in generating sufficient cash to bankroll the expedition. Contemporary writers suggest that Becket was advocating the assault and capture of the city, and with it the king of France in person.

This was dangerous and inflammatory advice, and Henry sensibly chose to ignore it. Instead, throughout the remainder of the summer and early autumn his forces raided the area around Toulouse, capturing castles and destroying crops in the hope that the war of attrition would weaken the count. However, the slash and burn tactics failed and in September Henry’s army withdrew from the region, leaving Quercy in Becket’s hands where he adopted a ruthless policy of suppression. Henry returned to the north only to find that, in his absence, Louis’s brothers had undertaken raids into Normandy; in retaliation, Henry quickly mounted punitive strikes against the French royal demesne. When the dust finally settled with the onset of winter, a truce was agreed – but Henry had suffered real damage in terms of his relationship with Louis.

The Toulouse campaign was the act of an over-confident, over-powerful man and, unsurprisingly, alienated his liege lord – Louis had been shown a glimpse of the future if Henry was allowed to continue unchecked. Doubtless the words of Pepin the Short echoed through the ages to haunt Louis – ‘Who should be king, he who has the title, or he who has the power?’ – creating an alarming parallel between Henry’s relentless rise, and the overthrow of the Merovingian monarchy by the Carolingian mayors of the palace in the mid eighth century. To shore up his position, Louis decided to build alliances that might make Henry stop and think twice before embarking on a repeat military adventure in the south. Thus after Louis’s second wife, Constance, died in 1160, he arranged to marry Adela, sister to Theobald count of Blois and Henry count of Champagne. This was a major shift in the diplomatic landscape – alongside the count of Flanders, a formidable power bloc opposed to the Angevin conglomeration had been formed, with an extended front line along the eastern borders of Normandy, Maine and Touraine as well as a hostile coastline that blocked the quickest routes between England and the continent. Not for the first time, Henry used his family to claw back the political advantage. Days before Louis was due to marry Adela, Henry arranged for his young son Henry and Louis’s daughter Margaret to be wed on 2 November 1160, and seized control of the Norman Vexin in accordance with the alliance first agreed two years previously. More skirmishes broke out, mainly instigated by the house of Blois; but with all-out war looking increasingly likely in spring 1161 and both sides beginning to mobilise their troops along the border, the two kings stepped back from the brink and a peace treaty was arranged at Fréteval.

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Thereafter, the 1160s became a power struggle between the two families and their allies, with flashpoints in areas where Louis’s plans for territorial expansion beyond the Île de France clashed with Henry’s exercise of dormant or lost rights – not just in the far south, but also in other border regions such as Auvergne and Berry. Although Henry was infuriated with the ongoing Becket affair in England, this was merely an irritating sideshow; for him, the main concern was a growing unrest amongst the various vassal states. Having spent three years putting English affairs in order and suppressing another Welsh revolt, he returned to the continent in March 1166 and would stay for the next four years. The situation had been changed by the birth of a male heir, Philip, to Louis on 22 August 1165, therefore renewing the hopes of the Capetian monarchy and dramatically reducing the importance of the marriage of Henry the younger and Margaret. Emboldened by the change in his dynastic fortunes, Louis began to encourage internal opposition to Henry within his lands, and took every opportunity to cause mischief – such as offering support to Becket in November 1166. In turn, Henry began to use his large family as diplomatic bargaining chips and took increasingly drastic action to shore up his position. Faced with growing discontent in Brittany, Henry marched into the duchy in force during the summer of 1166, deposed Duke Conan and betrothed his third son Geoffrey – aged seven – to Conan’s infant daughter, Constance; the Breton barons reluctantly paid homage to their new master in the autumn, but were not happy about the turn of events and discontented mutterings against Henry continued.

The more Henry turned the screw, the greater the opposition he produced. In particular, the situation worsened in Aquitaine, for several reasons. First, the various component territories within the duchy had never been fully integrated – Poitou and Gascony remained largely separate entities, with key counties opposed to Angevin rule. The duke’s authority was therefore similar to that of the king of France – nominal overlordship with few actual powers, making it very difficult for Henry to apply similar governmental practice in the south as he had in England and the north. Indeed, during 1167, the counts of Angoulême and La Marche offered to cede from Aquitanian authority altogether and hold allegiance directly from Louis, whilst the count of Auvergne appealed to the court of the French king rather than Henry’s ducal court – ironically mirroring the expansion of royal justice over local courts in England. Henry, however, did not appreciate being on the receiving end of such tactics and invaded in force in April 1167; but diversionary raids by Louis into Normandy dragged him back north, where a truce was eventually concluded in August. Further punitive raids against the mutinous Bretons were brought to a premature halt when news reached Henry that his mother, Matilda, had died on 10 September.

However, another reason for Henry’s problems in the south lay closer to home, as tensions within his family began to mount. Earlier in 1167 Henry contracted a marriage alliance between his daughter Matilda and Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, one of the most powerful German princes in the Holy Roman Empire; the aim was to unsettle the Capet–Blois alliance, as well as exert pressure on Pope Alexander during the Becket dispute. Matilda remained with her mother Eleanor in England for most of the year until September, when it was time for them to leave for Normandy as part of the onwards journey to her new husband’s court. However, the departure of their eldest daughter effectively marked the end of Henry and Eleanor’s fifteen-year marriage. Eleanor returned to England and, in December, gathered up all her possessions and set sail for Argentan, where Henry held his Christmas court. We do not know how the conversation between them transpired, but by the end of it they had agreed to live apart; Eleanor headed home to Poitiers, escorted by an armed guard. Henry accompanied her on the road south as he sought to break the power of the rebellious Lusignan family, one of the key dynasties of the region who had long considered themselves to be semi-independent of the ruler of Aquitaine.

It is tempting to portray the split as acrimonious, with the cause of marital disharmony commonly attributed to Eleanor’s discovery that Henry was having an affair with Rosamund de Clifford, the daughter of one of his Worcestershire barons, Walter de Clifford. According to many accounts, Henry had become infatuated with ‘the fair Rosamund’ who was one of the most beautiful women of the age and built for her a labyrinth or ‘bower’ in the grounds of Woodstock, a favourite royal residence, where she could hide so that he could visit her in secret. It has even been suggested that Eleanor was forced to give birth to John at Beaumont palace, Oxfordshire, on Christmas Eve 1166 because Rosamund had taken up residence at Woodstock. As with all legends, once fact is untangled from the fiction, the reality is somewhat different. Henry did indeed have a relationship with Rosamund, but it is almost certain that he met her after Eleanor had left, at least no earlier than 1170 and possibly as late as 1173. It seems he did build a house for her near Woodstock named Everswell, constructed around a natural spring that fed a series of pools, and surrounded by elaborate courtyards. However, she was only one of many concubines in the years following Eleanor’s departure; Henry lived openly with her after the 1173–4 rebellion, not before.

The indiscretions of the king were fairly well known – tales of ‘nocturnal activities’ at the itinerant court were rife, whores were present and actively ‘managed’, and several liaisons with noble-born women were suspected, such as with the daughter of Breton magnate Eudo de Porhoet, who refused to serve Henry against Louis in 1168–9 because his daughter was ‘with child’. Henry’s first ‘natural’ son, Geoffrey, was born around the time of his marriage in 1152; Eleanor seems to have to have been sanguine about the situation to the point where Geoffrey was formally recognised and was appointed chancellor in 1181 and, under his half-brother King Richard, rose to become archbishop of York. Consequently, he attracted particular opprobrium from various clerical chroniclers on account of that fact that his mother, named Ykennai, was ‘a common harlot who stooped to all uncleanness’. Indeed, after Eleanor had moved back to Poitiers, she was informed of the birth of another royal bastard, William Longespee (the future earl of Salisbury) around 1170, whose mother was Ida de Tosny. Eleanor could hardly boast a squeaky-clean past herself, given the rumours that continued to circulate about her inappropriately close relationship with her uncle Raymond of Antioch, as well as stories that she had slept with Henry’s own father, Geoffrey – who pointedly advised his son to steer clear of her.

Instead, Eleanor’s decision to return home was fuelled by a much more powerful grievance that had been simmering away since the early days of their marriage, when it became clear that Henry’s preferred system of government did not require a powerful regent to act in his place. Prior to her wedding to Henry, and certainly in the early days before the disastrous crusade, Eleanor had enjoyed an exalted position at the French court, virtually acting as co-ruler with Louis. After her humiliation in the Holy Land and subsequent divorce, Eleanor doubtless thought her handsome young husband might be willing to restore her to a position of power. There is some evidence in the pipe rolls that demonstrate she was given English lands in Devon in her own right, thus securing an independent income; and Henry trusted her to authorise documents and royal expenditure with the use of her own seal during some of his absences on the continent during the 1150s. For example, the pipe roll for 1159 (covering the period when Henry was on the Toulouse campaign) shows that Eleanor used her seal to authorise the transfer of various funds for her children’s expenses, and seized the opportunity to purchase robes for herself worth £80 – a vast fortune in today’s money, at a conservative estimate around £60,000. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this extravagant spending, the main responsibility for royal government in England fell to the king’s trusted team – the justiciars, chancellor and exchequer officials – leaving Eleanor side-lined and virtually anonymous in the political chronicles, other than appearing as a footnote when she gave birth to yet another royal child.

Eleanor’s return home to Poitiers therefore allowed her an autonomy that she had not enjoyed since she was a girl growing up in her father’s Aquitainian court; the deployment of his wife as ruler of Aquitaine seems to have been part of Henry’s wider strategy to articulate clearly how his lands would be divided after his death. Initially, Henry left behind a military commander, Earl Patrick of Salisbury, to ‘assist’ with the government of the duchy; despite Henry’s attack on the Lusignan strongholds in early 1168, discontent with Angevin rule was still rife. Indeed, Eleanor’s return to Aquitaine nearly ended in disaster on 27 March 1168, when Geoffrey and Guy de Lusignan made a daring attempt to capture the duchess while she was out riding with a small party of courtiers. Luckily, a military escort that included Patrick and his nephew, a young knight called William Marshal, accompanied Eleanor as she travelled. Before the ambush could be fully sprung, Patrick scrambled Eleanor and her attendants to safety in a nearby castle; however, on trying to mount his horse to confront the assailants, he was run through with a lance and killed instantly. William Marshal fought furiously, but was eventually captured. On hearing of his valiant defence in her name, Eleanor paid a ransom for William’s release and supplied him with horses, arms, money and fine clothes. The reputation of one of the most notable knights throughout the middle ages was thus born.

Eleanor’s sojourn in Aquitaine is often linked to another legend – the creation of a ‘court of love’ at Poitiers, where in the warmer climes, and inspired by memories of her family’s colourful and romantic past, Eleanor encouraged an atmosphere that was markedly different to that of the itinerant household of her husband, or indeed the formalities of Louis’s court in Paris. In a passage written about her after the 1173–4 rebellion, it was claimed that, ‘Once tender and delicate, you enjoyed a royal freedom, you abounded with riches, young girls surrounded you playing the tambourine and the harp, singing pleasant songs. Indeed you enjoyed the sound of the organ, and you leaped to the beating of drums.’ Equally, Eleanor is said to have cultivated an atmosphere at court in which troubadours, poets and writers extolled the virtues of amorous behaviour, and encouraged the emergence of a romanticised code of chivalry that her knights would follow.

Sadly, the stories seem to have been an exaggeration. We know she was visited by Bernard de Ventadorn, a leading troubadour and ‘master singer’; and Arnaut Guilhem de Marsan accompanied her when she escorted her daughter, also named Eleanor, to the border of Spain for her marriage to Alfonso VIII of Castile. However, beyond the duty to provide young knights with instruction, a function that all courts performed, there is no evidence that Eleanor’s court was any more amorous than others, and certainly less so than that of her famous troubadour grandfather, William IX. Instead, Eleanor focused on the business of government, issuing writs, letters and charters under her own seal and travelling around the duchy – doubtless with growing dismay when she saw the impact of her husband’s brutal rule on ‘her’ lands.

Eleanor was able to exert a far greater influence over the upbringing of her children, especially her favourite, Richard, who accompanied her to Aquitaine when she left Henry. From the age of nine, these were formative years in Richard’s development and he soon grew to love the lands of the south. Eleanor used his time at her court to groom him for power as her preferred successor. In contrast, the young Henry and Geoffrey only visited briefly, whilst her other two children, Joan and John, remained in Fontevraud, where they were attached to the monastery for their education. Eleanor’s close relationship with her children was very different to that of their father as they grew older.

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