Gateway to the Classics: Great Englishwomen by M. B. Synge
Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge

Eleanor of Aquitaine


E leanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II., has been handed down to us by popular tradition, as a tyrannical woman, with a great many bad faults and very few good traits of character. This is not entirely the case. Although her early life was marked by wild and reckless freaks, and though we must blame her for helping her sons against their father, yet we must recognize her, as one whose masterful power in ruling the kingdom kept the country at peace, whose last years were marked by very merciful acts, who never spared herself any trouble for her son, even when bowed down with fourscore years—as a great and illustrious woman.

Her energy from early youth to old age was unrivalled; at the age of twenty-five, she went on a crusade, dressed as a pilgrim, with her husband; at the age of seventy she had the energy to go to Italy with a wife for her son, and to Germany with the ransom she had raised to release him from prison.

Eleanor was born in 1122, in Aquitaine, a dukedom in the south-west corner of France. Count William, her father, was a good prince, and so beloved by his people, that when he died, fighting in the Holy Land; he was remembered as "St. William." He died when Eleanor was ten, and her grandfather undertook to provide for her future welfare. He called together his barons, and made them acknowledge Eleanor as his heiress, and further agree to a proposal that Eleanor should marry the future King of France, Louis, and thus unite the north of France with the south.

So it came to pass that, when Eleanor was fifteen, she was married with great pomp, for her grandfather had been one of the most powerful princes in Europe. Then her grandfather left her, laid down his robes, and went off to Spain, where he soon after died. After their marriage, Louis and Eleanor were summoned to the death-bed of Louis VI.

"Remember, royalty is a public trust," were his last words to the future king and queen, and on them the words made a lasting impression.

The new Queen of France was very beautiful; moreover she was musical, and composed songs and poetry; she could read and write, then a rare accomplishment, and was adored by her southern subjects, who always welcomed her with joy, and mourned her absence, when she was obliged to return to her court at Paris. Now it was at this time that St. Bernard was preaching about the Crusades, and the king and queen with all their court went to hear him. He had to preach in the market-place, as no cathedral would hold the crowds that went to listen. Now the king,—urged by Eleanor,—had already been to war in France, and in course of war he had ruthlessly set fire to a cathedral, in which 1,300 people had taken refuge; all had perished, and the king, stirred by St. Bernard, resolved to atone for this heartless deed by going to the Holy Land to fight. Eleanor declared that she would go too, so, dressed as a "gay and courtly pilgrim," and mounted on horseback, she accompanied Louis to the Crusade. But it was not a success. It led to disagreement between Louis and Eleanor, and on. their return they obtained a divorce, and Eleanor went back to her own country.

Six weeks after she married Henry, Duke of Normandy, the future King of England. Louis was very angry, because now Aquitaine was united to Normandy; both would soon be joined to England, and Louis foresaw dangerous enemies.

In 1154 Henry became King of England, and he and Eleanor went over to be crowned. Everything looked bright before them; the queen rode by the king's side into Winchester, and the handsome and bravo young Henry with his beautiful wife called forth shouts of joy from the English people.

Soon after her marriage, one day, in the grounds of Woodstock, Eleanor saw the king walking with the end of a ball of silk caught on his spur. Knowing it was not her silk, her suspicions were aroused, and, without letting him see, she took up the ball of silk, and the king walking on, the silk unwound, and the queen traced him to a maze in the park, where he disappeared. Thus runs the story.

Soon after this, the king left Woodstock for a long journey; the queen, remembering the silk, then searched the grounds, and found a low door half hidden by the thicket. She opened it, and went down along a path underground, which at length led out to a lodge in a remote part of the forest, and here in a bower Eleanor found a very beautiful lady busily engaged in work. This was the fair Rosamond, and she could now account for the silk on her husband's spur. Eleanor was very angry, and it has been said that she poisoned her rival. Rosamond, however, retired to a convent, where she lived for the rest of her life.

The king was very often obliged to be in France to look after his vast possessions, but he always left Eleanor to rule in his absence, and she governed well and wisely. But the people in her duchy in the south of France did not like her to leave them so much, and at last they broke into open revolt, and would not be pacified till Eleanor went with her third son Richard to govern them for a time.

Now Henry had four sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, who was ten years younger than his brother Geoffrey. The two eldest, Henry and Richard, had, while quite little boys, been married to two daughters of the King of France, by which Henry hoped to keep peace with France.

Geoffrey was to marry the heiress of Brittany, so by this means the King of England possessed more of France than King Louis himself.

Henry and his little wife Margaret had been sent to Thomas a Becket, the Chancellor, to be educated and brought up in a way befitting the future king and queen of England. The children loved Becket, and when in after years Henry and Margaret were summoned to be crowned—in the lifetime of the king— by the Archbishop of York, Margaret refused to appear, because the guardian of her youth, Becket, was not to perform the coronation.

In 1172, after the murder of Becket, Henry and Margaret were again crowned, and soon after went to the French court to Louis. Now, though they had been crowned, Henry and Margaret could take no share in the government till the king's death, but Louis stirred up his young son-in-law to rebel against this rule.

At his father's death Henry was to have England, Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine; Richard, Aquitaine and Poitou; and Geoffrey, Brittany. Eleanor encouraged Henry to rebel against his father. "I advise you, king, beware of your wife and sons," were words addressed to Henry, with a warning to look after Aquitaine.

One night the king and his son stopped to sleep a night at Chimon; in the night Henry escaped and fled to the French king, where a few days after he was joined by Richard and Geoffrey. Queen Eleanor attempted to join them, but she was seized—dressed in men's clothes—escaping to the French court, and soon after Henry came over to fetch her and take her back to England, where he kept her as a sort of prisoner, safely guarded in her palace at Winchester, for many years.

Then there was peace for a time. Richard, the darling of his imprisoned mother, was the first to renew the war. On being told to do homage to young Henry for Aquitaine, he refused; whereupon Henry and Geoffrey marched against him. But peace was made. Nevertheless, the people of Aquitaine were more enraged than ever. In their eyes Eleanor was their chief, and Henry had no power over them, except through her and by affectionate treatment of her. Now she was in prison,—Eleanor, the princess of their old stock,—the princess born among them, brought up in their midst.

"Daughter of Aquitaine," sang the troubadours, "thou hast been torn from thy country and led into a strange land. Return, poor prisoner, return to thy faithful cities, if thou canst; if thou canst not, weep and cry, 'Alas, how long is my exile!' Raise thy voice like a trumpet, that thy sons may hear thee; for the day is at hand when thy sons shall deliver thee, and then thou shalt see thy native land again!

In 1183 young Henry the heir died. When he found he could not live much longer, he sent for his father to implore forgiveness for his wrongdoings. Henry, who had always loved his son, forgave him readily, and the prince—almost passionate in his sorrow—died on sackcloth and ashes as an atonement for his sins.

The following year there was a solemn peace making between Henry and his three sons. Eleanor was released from her prison to be present, and "peace and final concord" was established. Soon after Geoffrey was killed, and the King of France at once invited Richard to his court. The oft-repeated risings and rebellions of Henry's sons were making his last days very unhappy. He longed to make peace with Richard, but he could not. The people of the South were against him, his vassals were even forsaking him for Richard. A list was brought of those who had left him; he ordered the names to be read. The first name on the list was John. The king leapt from his bed in agony.

"Is it true," he cried, "that John, the child of my heart, the best beloved of all my sons, has forsaken me?"

He looked at the name, as if to make sure there was no mistake; then, turning his face to the wall, lie groaned: "Now let everything go as it will; I care no more for myself, nor for the world."

Richard's first act as King of England was to release his mother from her captivity, and make her Queen Regent of England. She made a royal progress through England, releasing prisoners throughout the country to pray "for the soul of Henry II.," pardoning offences against the crown, making the forest laws easier, and restoring to their families those who had been put in prison for disobeying them.

Her long captivity and sorrow for her two dead sons had softened her character, and the latter part of her life was kinder, more merciful, and, therefore, more powerful than the former. When Richard had settled a dower on her, she went back to France. Soon after Richard joined the King of France to go to the crusade, leaving a regent to govern England, and that regent was not his brother John. John felt the slight, but waited till Richard had gone before he put in his claims.

Eleanor's next step was to go to Spain to fetch Berengaria, the beautiful daughter of the King of Navarre, and take her to Richard, who had fallen in love with her some years before. The royal ladies set off from the court of Navarre together, crossed the Pyrenees, and went to Naples, where they found ships, and crossed to Messina, where Richard met them.

Now Eleanor had several reasons for taking this long journey to Messina. There was a question who should succeed Richard as King of England, and it was therefore important he should have an heir. Geoffrey's son Arthur was the rightful heir, as matters stood, but Eleanor hated Arthur and Arthur's mother, and was anxious to prevent his ever being king. Again, England was not in a happy state, and Eleanor wanted to talk to Richard about it.

Richard left matters entirely in his mother's hands, and Eleanor returned to England. It required all her efforts to keep the country at peace; it was she who conferred with the barons, she who at last prevailed over her youngest unruly son to remain quiet. After a time came the joyful news that Richard had started for home, but it was followed by the tidings that he had been taken prisoner. Then came a letter from Richard:

"Richard, King of England, to his esteemed lady and dearest mother Eleanor, by the same grace Queen of England, health and all happiness, which a devoted son can wish for his mother. In the first place to God, and afterward to your serene highness, sweetest mother, we send our utmost thanks, although we cannot render enough for the faithfulness which you keep for us, and the faithful care and diligence which you spend so devotedly for the peace and defence of our countries."

Then he tells her that if a ransom can be raised, he will receive his freedom. Eleanor at once held a meeting of the barons, and ordered a tax to be made, and the ransom raised. Then she herself set out for Germany with the ransom, and received back her son Richard.

When John heard through the King of France that Richard was returning, he fled. Then Eleanor and Richard held a council, and decreed that if John did not appear in forty days all his English estates should be forfeited. Then John threw himself at his brother's feet, and implored forgiveness. Richard was loth to forgive, but Eleanor begged him not to refuse, and he always obeyed her.

"I forgive him," he cried, "and I hope I shall as easily forget his injuries as he will forget my pardon."

In 1199 Richard died, leaving the kingdom to John. It was due mostly to Eleanor's influence that Arthur was set aside, and John appointed to reign. But many of the French people hated John, and wanted Arthur to reign over them, and Arthur and his friends marched against a French town where his grandmother Eleanor was staying. On hearing of his mother's danger, John, with unwonted energy, marched to the rescue, and Arthur was taken as prisoner to the castle of Rouen. From this time he disappeared. Some say his uncle drowned him; tradition gives a tragic history of how his eyes were burnt out by Hubert. Our poet Shakspere represents him as throwing him self from a high wall and being killed, but we do not know what the truth really is. Then Eleanor retired to Fonteraux, where she died at the ago of eighty-two.

With his mother's death John lost all fear and shame, and relapsed into depths of wickedness. Sorrow and adversity had taught Eleanor many a stern lesson, and few women have lived to a more honourable old age than "Eleanor, beloved of God and man," as the monks of Canterbury used to address her.

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