Friday, 1 June 2012

Eleanor of Aquitaine; part 2

After the fiasco of the Second Crusade, Eleanor was more determined than ever to have her marriage to King Louis VII annulled, on the grounds of consaguity (a close blood-relationship: always a good way to end marriages in the Middle Ages). Her campaign received unexpected help from the saintly Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, who had always disliked her. Under this pressure, Pope Eugenius eventually gave his consent in 1152. Under the terms of the arrangement, Eleanor regained her vast inheritance of Aquitaine, which thus passed outside of the control of the French crown. Contemporaries thought Louis ought to have secured better terms for himself, but as usual he played his cards very badly.
By 1150, Louis was campaigning again; not now against Saracens, but back in France against an unruly vassal in Normandy, Henry Plantagenet, the son of that Matilda who had failed to take the throne of England from her cousin, King Stephen. Less than two months after the end of her first marriage, Eleanor married Henry. She was 29 and the mother of two girls, he was only 18; and although a glamorous and exciting figure, he seemed at first sight a youth of very limited prospects. But then, sensationally, his luck changed. In 1153 Stephen’s son Eustace died (with Eleanor giving birth to her first son on the very same day), and Stephen recognised Henry as his heir and successor. Then next year Stephen himself died, and in December 1154 Henry and Eleanor were crowned King and Queen of England in London. Suddenly they were far richer and more powerful than the unfortunate King Louis, since Henry also ruled William the Conqueror’s homeland of Normandy and his father‘s homeland of Anjou, and thanks to Eleanor they also held the vast fief of Aquitaine.

Despite her advancing years, Eleanor and Henry had eight children, of whom one became the most famous of English kings, and another the most infamous. But, as might have been expected of two very strong personalities, they quarrelled bitterly in later years. Eleanor plotted with her sons against their father, encouraging them to rise in rebellion against him, and in consequence spent several years under house arrest at Salisbury in England, while Henry spent most of his time in France. Eleanor was only freed when Henry died in 1189 and their eldest surviving son, Richard, "The Lion-Heart", always his mother’s favourite, succeeded as king.
King Louis remarried and eventually fathered a son, Philip Augustus, who became the greatest of the French mediaeval kings. Philip came to the throne in 1180 and was, not surprisingly, to dedicate his life to recovering territories in France from Henry’s family. But for the moment revenge had to be postponed became of the news from Palestine.

The fatal blow to the crusader cause had actually been struck back in 1171 when Saladin (as he was known in the west), the son and nephew of two Kurdish lieutenants of Nur ad-Din of Aleppo, had succeeded in taking over Egypt on the death of its last Fatimid ruler. Hitherto the crusaders had benefited from the endless rivalry between the Egypt, by far the most powerful state in the near East, but ruled by Shia Moslems, and the orthodox Sunni Turks and Arabs; but now the Islamic world had the potential for being united under a single leader. This was now achieved, because in 1174 Nur ad-Din died of fever, leaving only a 10-year-old son. Saladin immediately went to Damascus, where he was welcomed by people and cemented his power by marrying Nur ad-Din’s widow. He took over Aleppo in 1176 and Mosul ten years later, always stressing his piety and commitment to jihad against the Franks. The decisive battle came next year, in July 1187, when Saladin met and destroyed the biggest army the crusaders ever assembled, at the Horns of Hattin, near the Sea of Galilee, capturing King Guy and a fragment of the True Cross which Guy crried with him. Following this Saladin went on to take Jerusalem itself, which surrendered in September after a brief siege. In noted contrast with the crusaders’ storming of the city ninety years earlier, Saladin’s victory was almost bloodless, though many hapless Christians were sold into slavery.

The horror felt throughout western Europe was immense. King Richard was at once determined to go on crusade, and Philip also. They made their way independently to Sicily, a Norman kingdom, where Richard’s sister was the widow of the late King William, and from there would reach Palestine by sea. Eleanor realised the need for the still-unmarried Richard to take a wife without more ado. Despite her advancing years, she travelled all the way to Navarre to collect her choice, Berengia, daughter of King Sancho, and then conducted her to Sicily, arriving in Messina in March 1191. But the marriage was not a great success: Richard never showed much interest in his bride, and no children were produced. (There is a persistent tradition that Richard was homosexual).

The story of what followed is well-known. Richard and Philip quarrelled bitterly, and Philip departed for home early. Despite Richard’s victories over Saladin, he knew he was not strong enough to retake Jerusalem, and so, being an experienced soldier, did not even make the attempt. On his way home he was captured by his enemies and held prisoner by Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. Both King Philip and Richard’s younger brother John were determined to exploit Richard’s enforced absence for their own advantage, and it was left to Eleanor to negotiate with the Emperor and to attempt to raise the enormous sum of money (amounting to 35 tons of silver, not to mention the promise of military support for the Emperor's campaign to conquer Sicily) demanded as a ransom. Only in February 1194 was Richard released, after doing homage to the Emperor and acknowledging him as overlord of England.

This was Eleanor’s last intervention in politics. She was now over seventy, and she retreated to the abbey of Fontevraud, near Samur in Anjou, for her final years. She lived to hear of the death of Richard, who was fatally wounded in 1199 when fighting to keep control of his Norman territories, but death spared her from learning how John, her youngest son, lost almost all her Angevin inheritance to King Philip. Eleanor died in 1204, and was buried at Fontevraud. Her effigy lies there, alongside those of Henry and Richard; her husband and her favourite son.

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