“What miserable drones and traitors
have I nourished and brought up
in my household,
who let their lord be treated
with such shameful contempt
by a low-born cleric?”
~ Henry II ~
Or more commonly:
“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
There are many variants of this explosive utterance issued by King Henry II about his frenemy Thomas Becket.
This is just one of the periods of history that really interests me. Love him or hate him, it’s incontrovertible that Henry II was one of England’s most effective rulers who turned a nation ripped apart by the Anarchy into one of the world’s most powerful kingdoms. His reign focused heavily on judicial and administrative affairs: he laid the foundations for Britain’s modern legal system as well as for the basis of Common Law, and his introduction of the concept of “twelve lawful men” would serve as the precursor for trial by jury (as opposed to trial by combat or ordeal, which were common forms of settling disputes at the time).
Henry II was reported by contemporaries to be an athletic man with red or auburn hair and a solid physique. While said to be good-looking (though it was often noted that he was not as good-looking as his charming father, Geoffrey the Handsome, Count of Anjou), years of riding left him with a rather bow-legged gait, and his manner of dress was frequently called “scruffy” or “mussed.” He was known for being energetic, ambitious, impulsive, and direct – as well as high strung, temperamental, and demanding.
Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, had spent fifteen years as the wife of King Louis VII of France and given birth to two daughters. At the age of 30 she left Louis in favor of Henry, then Duke of Normandy and eleven years her junior. Sadly, there are no reliable physical descriptions of Eleanor: contemporaries praised her beauty, grace, and charm, often paying special attention to her expressive eyes and noble countenance, and even into her elder years she was reputed to be an admirable beauty. But we know nothing else – not the color of her hair or eyes, nor whether she was tall or short, slim or thick, nothing. We do know that she bore eight children over the first thirteen years of her marriage to Henry, five of whom were sons (and three of whom would become kings themselves): William, Henry the Young King, King Richard I, Geoffrey II, and the infamous King John.
Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons which we will never know, this couple – who with their combined power, fortunes, ambition, and intelligence should have dominated Europe – rapidly became estranged, resulting in quarrels that stretched into the political sphere and culminated in Eleanor’s imprisonment for supporting their son’s (Henry the Young King) revolt against Henry II. She would remain in prison for sixteen years, until the death of her husband at the age of 56 from complications of a bleeding ulcer and the rise of their son, Richard the Lionheart, to the throne.
So, here’s my take on Henry II and Eleanor. I think of this one as The Early Years – back when their partnership was young and full of promise, before they found out what happens when a king has more sons than he does lands.
With the exception of King John and her daughter Queen Eleanor of Castile, Eleanor of Aquitaine would outlive all of her children, dying at the age of 81 after having taken the veil as a nun.
“Pitiful and pitied by no one,
why have I come to the ignominy of this detestable old age,
who was ruler of two kingdoms,
mother of two kings?
My guts are torn from me,
my family is carried off and removed from me.
The young king [her son Henry]
and the count of Brittany [her son Geoffrey]
sleep in dust,
and their most unhappy mother is compelled
to be irremediably tormented
by the memory of the dead.
Two sons remain to my solace,
who today survive to punish me,
miserable and condemned.
King Richard is held in chains [a captive of the German Emperor Henry VI].
His brother, John, depletes his kingdom with iron [by the sword]
and lays it waste with fire.
In all things the Lord has turned cruel to me
and attacked me with the harshness of his hand.
Truly, his wrath battles against me:
my sons fight amongst themselves,
if it is a fight where one is restrained in chains,
the other, adding sorrow to sorrow,
undertakes to usurp the kingdom of the exile
by cruel tyranny.
Good Jesus, who will grant that you protect me in hell
and hide me until your fury passes,
until the arrows which are in me cease,
by which my whole spirit is sucked out?”
~ Eleanor of Aquitaine ~