Merlin’s Prophecy II

Although historians now question whether Eleanor’s famed court of love ever existed, the ideals behind courtly love were unquestionably held in high esteem at the court of Poitiers. Key to the concept was a new role envisioned for women, in which the suitor became his beloved’s vassal in love, learning to please her in any way she chose—from nicer table manners and gentler speech to more sophisticated and refined methods of courtship. Rugged young knights, accustomed to rowdy camaraderie and the smell of the stables, could be persuaded to clean up and behave if such sacrifice promised something interesting in return. Under sufficiently enticing circumstances, their more courteous and chivalrous behavior might become long-term or even permanent.

Behind it all lay the assumption—reinforced by the typical marriages of the time—that marriage had little to do with love. Everyone knew that marriages were essentially political or economic mergers, moves on the great chessboard of life. From there, it was but one step to the extreme statement, made by Andreas Capellanus, that love and marriage do not mix. Andreas put these scandalous words into Eleanor’s mouth in his treatise on the art of courtly love, and although there is nothing to indicate that she ever spoke them, there also is nothing to indicate that she would have found them repugnant. Indeed, the role of women in courtly love represented but another aspect of Eleanor’s striving in the personal and political realm for independence and power.

The fashions of Poitiers spread rapidly throughout the courts of Western Europe. Yet for all of their influence, it is questionable whether they accomplished any substantive change in the relationship between the sexes. Beneath the more colorful and civilized surface they encouraged, attitudes and relationships appear to have remained pretty much the same. The troubadour warrior, Bertran de Born, who had a particular interest in inciting Henry the Younger to war against his father, enthused about the joys of seeing castles besieged and smashed. His poems extolled the sound of trumpets and the flourish of pennants, which for him were rousing reminders that the world was good. Unquestionably, it still was a man’s world, and men continued to live for war.

Henry Plantagenet may have thoroughly enjoyed discussions with men of letters, but he could not be troubled with an elaborate code of etiquette or the sophisticated lifestyle it entailed. Furthermore, the barely masked subversiveness of Eleanor’s court at Poitiers was accompanied by outright treason. With some difficulty, Henry brought the great rebellion into check, granting surprisingly lenient terms to his sons. But toward Eleanor he was not in the least magnanimous. Swiftly Henry closed down her court at Poitiers and brought the totally unrepentant queen back to England and imprisonment.

There she remained for fifteen years, until Henry’s death.

Following Henry’s victory over all his enemies, he sent Richard, now aged seventeen, to subdue the insurgency that still raged throughout Aquitaine. Richard was not yet the warrior his father was, as Henry had made abundantly clear when he roped him in at the rebellion’s end. Still, the teenager took on his military duties with enthusiasm, razing castles and cowing his unruly subjects so convincingly that he won a lasting reputation for military prowess and savagery.

Peace now extended throughout Henry’s vast realms, giving him the appearance of invincibility. His sons subdued, the French king defeated, and even the German emperor shattered by the Lombards, Henry had no real rivals either at home or abroad. With all his other troubles for the moment resolved, he now took steps to rid himself of his queen.

Henry’s grounds for divorce were solid: certainly treason would do, if consanguinity would not. Yet he had no intention of allowing Eleanor to remarry. And so Henry now seems to have sought the pope’s help in agreeing to a divorce, followed by the queen’s permanent retirement from the world as the Abbess of Fontevraud. Over the years, Fontevraud had become wealthy and fashionable, a most suitable final destination for a former queen. Even more to Henry’s purpose, Fontevraud was located on the border between Poitiers and Anjou, near his castle of Chinon. He could readily keep an eye on Eleanor there.

Yet Eleanor was not about to be bundled off to Fontevraud—not even as an alternative to imprisonment. She protested mightily, and her sons promptly took their mother’s side. Adding to the furor was the persistent rumor that Henry had plans to remarry, repudiate his ungrateful sons, and father a new and better lot. By 1177, after fair Rosamond’s death, rumor even had a name for Henry’s new choice as queen: his son Richard’s betrothed, the French princess Alais.

Alais and Richard had been betrothed for many years but had not yet wed—a surprising omission, given the bride’s rank and the fact that she was now seventeen (almost an old maid by medieval standards). Why, court gossips wanted to know, had Henry put off marrying her to his now twenty-year-old son? Given Richard’s inclination to find his way to Paris, in his older brother’s footsteps, an obvious answer was that Henry was reluctant to provide yet another tie between his difficult progeny and the French king. But gossips soon had another and far more titillating answer: Henry had decided to wed the young princess himself. Indeed, tongues wagged that Henry, seeking solace for the dead Rosamond, had already made Alais his mistress. It was even said that Alais bore Henry a daughter, who did not survive.

Louis now complained to the pope and demanded that Richard marry Alais, as originally agreed. Henry (whose appeal to Rome for a divorce had come to naught) temporized and finally said the marriage would take place, but only if Louis gave up the city of Bourges as well as the French Vexin (Princess Marguerite’s dowry had included only the Norman portion). Louis did not accept—indeed, could hardly be expected to accept—and said nothing further about Alais or her marriage to Richard.

More than this, the Church (which had ordered Henry, under threat of interdict, to wed Alais to Richard or return her to her father) now grew remarkably quiet on the subject. Henry retained custody over Alais, and there was no interdict. Since it could not be expected that the pope would “openly countenance, much less use the authority of the church to enforce, a marriage between a man and his father’s concubine,” the Church’s sudden silence underscores the distinct possibility that the rumors were true. Certainly, from this point on, the pope’s interest in Alais’ fate came to an abrupt halt.

Meanwhile, Philip, heir to the French throne, was growing up. With his knightly training well under way, he could look forward to his kingly consecration, which Louis planned for August 1179. On that date, Louis’ dearly beloved son would turn fourteen.

Louis himself was ready to turn over the reins of government to Philip as soon as possible. Almost sixty, he had never possessed Henry Plantagenet’s restless energy or strength, and his long battles with the Plantagenets had taken their toll. A gentle man, he now napped frequently and seemed to be slipping toward a more permanent repose. One much-cited scene finds him sleeping virtually unprotected in the palace garden. When discovered, his courtiers admonish that he has placed his life and kingdom in considerable jeopardy. To which Louis mildly replies that he could hardly be in any danger, for he has no enemies.

It was true. Even Eleanor, who despised him, did not hate him, and Henry’s wrath seems to have fallen upon his own sons rather than upon the French king. Thus it was that when young Philip became severely ill just prior to his coronation, Louis did not hesitate on his course. In a dream, he beheld a vision of the martyred St. Thomas Becket beckoning him to pray for Philip’s recovery at Canterbury. Despite dire warnings from his barons, Louis donned a pilgrim’s habit and departed immediately for England. Steeling himself for the Channel crossing, he landed safely at Dover just as the king of England hove into sight, having ridden all night to meet him.

There never was a question of Louis’ safety on this his only visit to England. Henry accompanied him to Canterbury, where Louis gave copious gifts and prayed. Then, still in Henry’s company, Louis returned to Dover, where he once again set sail for France. There, to his infinite relief and joy, he learned that his only son had recovered.

Louis himself could not attend the coronation for which he had risked his life. En route home he became severely ill and spent his remaining months as an invalid. In September of the following year, he died, garbed in the modest robe of a monk.

He left a fifteen-year-old to rule as king.

It is possible that had Henry II been born eight centuries later, he would have made just as memorable a leader of a modern government as he did of his medieval realms. Personally unostentatious, with a talent for administration and an energy so boundless that he virtually wore out everyone around him, he was a creative ruler, a man of thought and action, a charismatic leader who—according to Giraldus, a longtime member of his household—never forgot a face.

Left to his own devices, this dynamo might have spent the 1180s in subduing, binding together, and providing the building blocks of government for his vast empire. But Henry had enemies, made over a lifetime of molding others to his will, and so he spent much of the last years of his life at war—with his barons, with his sons, and with the king of France.

Unlike Louis VII, who had begun his reign under the auspicious circumstances of civil war in England and a German empire in disarray, young Philip found himself pitted against the wiliest and most powerful ruler of his time. Heavily outmatched, he bided his time, poking a little here and a little there until at last he found the agent for his devices—Henry the Younger, the dissatisfied heir to the English throne.

Bored and aggrieved, young Henry took no interest in the government of those realms he would someday inherit and instead looked with envious eyes at his brothers, especially Richard, who had a realm of his own and warfare to occupy him. Young Henry, feeling sadly out of pocket and misused, drifted southward from a glittering but evanescent season of tournaments and soon found men eager to claim his leadership on behalf of their own causes. Brother soon fought brother, with Geoffrey taking the elder brother’s side against Richard, count of Poitou. Philip, watching closely, sent his own mercenaries to keep the pot boiling.

At length, fearing that his sons would tear each other as well as the Plantagenet empire apart, the elder Henry entered the fray on the side of the beleaguered Richard. Young Henry wiggled and squirmed, desolating the land and its religious sanctuaries as he tried to keep to the field and desperately sought to avoid defeat.

The end came suddenly, in the small town of Martel. There, young Henry fell into a fever and died. He was twenty-eight years old.

Suddenly Richard, Eleanor’s favorite, stood to inherit a crown. His father, looking for a way to provide for John as well as to contain Richard—who was far more of a threat than young Henry had ever been—now seems to have carved up his realm according to a different plan. Richard would inherit England and Normandy as well as Maine and Anjou, but John would receive Poitou and Aquitaine. At this, Richard—who had made Poitou and Aquitaine his business for years—became incensed. He had no intention of losing one iota of what he thought due him, nor had he any intention of assuming his dead brother’s empty titles and thankless role.

Philip of France was most interested by what he heard. Yet it was not Richard but Geoffrey who first bolted for Paris. Geoffrey still retained the promise of Brittany, but he had been denied additional territory and was bitter about it. Geoffrey, who was perhaps the brightest of the family, was also the most devious. He had, Giraldus commented, “more aloes than honey in him,” while his tongue was “smoother than oil.” Geoffrey was above all a master at persuasion, with a “sweet and persuasive eloquence” and an extraordinary talent for dissimulation. It was Geoffrey whom Giraldus suspected of being the mainspring behind young Henry’s revolt, and it was Geoffrey who now repaired to Paris, where Philip received him like a brother, carefully nurturing his grievances.

Still, despite his calculation, Philip could not foresee all events. In the summer of 1186, Geoffrey’s sojourn in Paris abruptly ended with his death—probably from wounds received in a tournament. Soon it would be Richard’s turn to visit Paris and seek Philip’s friendship. In the mean-time, Philip demanded the return of the Norman Vexin (his widowed sister Marguerite’s dowry) as well as the marriage of Alais to Richard.

It was a reasonable demand. Marguerite’s husband, young Henry, was dead, and Alais had been betrothed to Richard for more years than anyone cared to remember. Yet Henry Plantagenet resisted, on the grounds that the French monarchy had lost any right to the Norman Vexin when Marguerite and Henry the Younger originally wed. At length, with Marguerite on the verge of marrying a second time (to King Béla III of Hungary), Philip agreed to leave the Norman Vexin with the king of England in return for a hefty yearly monetary payment to Marguerite as well as Henry’s solemn oath that Alais and Richard would soon wed.

It is unclear whether or not the Norman Vexin now became Alais’ dowry. But from this point on, her fate and that of the Vexin would be intertwined.

With Geoffrey’s death, Henry was left with two sons, the elder of whom he did not trust. Richard, Eleanor’s pet, was a formidable warrior, but John—still in his teens—had yet to impress anyone on any grounds whatever. Rude, prone to vice, “more given to pleasures than to arms, to dalliance than to endurance,” he was the least as well as the last of all Henry Plantagenet’s sons. Henry—believing that he would outgrow these traits—now pinned all his hopes on him. Although John had proven a disaster in Ireland, where Henry originally planned to set him up as king, Henry now intended to use this unpromising lad to keep Richard in line.

By this time, Philip had reached his early twenties and was showing a thought-provoking willingness to assert the prerogatives of the French crown. Demonstrating that he understood the importance of protecting and enhancing his growing capital city, he went to the considerable expense of paving the streets of Paris as well as constructing a wall around the city’s new outskirts. And then, bolstered by the birth of a son and heir, he once again confronted the English king.

Alais and the Norman Vexin remained the outstanding issues. Alais still was not married to anyone, and Philip, tired of Henry’s evasions, wanted both the princess and the property back. Henry, despite a demonstrated willingness to pay homage to his French overlord for his French territories, had little inclination to let this young whippersnapper tell him what to do. The Norman Vexin was his, by God, and he was going to hold on to it. Philip thought about this briefly and then presented his answer to this powerful yet disobedient vassal: he invaded that other source of contention between the two kings, the disputed territory of Berry.

Henry responded, as was his wont, with massive force, but Philip did not back down as Louis would have. Perhaps judging his young rival in a new light, Henry now agreed to a truce. What he did not anticipate was this determined and calculating young king’s next step. Coolly assuming the initiative, Philip now undertook to turn Richard against his father.

Richard soon found his way to Paris, where Philip treated him as a brother—or, as some have recently contended, as a lover. They ate from the same dish—a common-enough indication of friendship, for trenchers generally were shared—and slept together in the same bed. Again, such accommodations may simply have amounted to a sign of close friendship, without necessarily implying sexual overtones, for beds were scarce and frequently joint-tenanted. Still, there would have been beds aplenty for the king and his royal guest, should they have chosen to sleep separately, and in light of Richard’s subsequent behavior, it seems possible that Philip calculatedly accommodated him.

It is possible that Philip previously had a similar relationship with Geoffrey as well, for their friendship appears to have been unusually intense, even for the emotion-laden twelfth century—where men readily cried, and a gift for tears was a valued asset. Philip seems to have been so overcome with grief at Geoffrey’s death that he could scarcely be restrained from hurling himself into his friend’s grave. In any case, whether or not fraught with sexual overtones, Philip and Richard’s relationship seems to have been a close one, and Richard left the court of the French king persuaded that his father was on the verge of disinheriting him in favor of John. Philip even hinted that Henry planned to marry John to the much-abused Alais.

Upon Henry’s urgent appeals, Richard at length returned. But young Lionheart fretted that his father remained decidedly mum about the succession. News from the Holy Land added urgency to Richard’s concerns, for he had recently taken the Cross and longed to be off on crusade. Yet he was understandably reluctant to leave while John stood ready and waiting to step into his place.

For a time, Richard’s attention was taken in fighting off rebellion in Aquitaine (which Henry may have instigated to keep his son diverted), while Philip continued to prowl and prod along the most vulnerable of Henry’s borders. Henry, feeling up to whatever Philip was inclined to dish out, was in a feisty mood when the two once again met in the summer of 1188 along the banks of the Epte, near Gisors.

In the shade of a giant elm, under which the dukes of Normandy and kings of France had traditionally conducted business, Philip returned to the question of Alais’ marriage and the Norman Vexin. Henry, however, refused to discuss anything but Philip’s most recent incursions into what he considered Plantagenet property. At loggerheads in the sweltering heat, the two sides almost came to blows. At last, driven beyond endurance, the French fell in a fury upon the giant elm under which they had parleyed, hacking it to pieces. As a symbol of where relations stood between the two houses, this sudden act of violence could hardly have been more pointed.

Henry now renounced his vassal’s allegiance to the king of France and went to war. The conflict promised to be drawn out and expensive, leading the two kings once again to meet. With considerable concern, Henry heard Philip offer to withdraw from Berry and allow Richard to retain disputed lands in Toulouse if Henry would only marry Richard to Alais and have his barons swear fealty to Richard as his heir. Furious, Henry flatly refused.

And now Richard suddenly stood forth. As Henry and his lords watched, thunderstruck, young Lionheart removed his sword and knelt before Philip, openly doing homage to the French king for all the Continental domains he claimed by inheritance, and swearing fealty to him “against all men.”

At last it had come to this.

Little happened for a time, as frantic intermediaries unsuccessfully sought to avert the inevitable. But at length, with the end of Lent, the open season for war arrived.

Repeated efforts to avert the upcoming tragedy met with repeated failures, while the last attempt—at La Ferté-Bernard, just over the border into Henry’s territory of Maine—gave clear evidence of just how hopeless the breach had become. Philip demanded that Alais marry Richard and that Richard’s inheritance be acknowledged. Richard added that, for his own security, he would not go on crusade unless John went with him. Henry flatly refused and, according to Roger of Howden, introduced the highly delicate subject of marrying Alais to John.

Ever since, people have wondered exactly what game Henry was playing. Had he indeed decided to disinherit Richard for John, as Richard now so plainly believed? Or was he merely “trying to discipline Richard by keeping him in uncertainty,” and then was caught in the coils of his own deviousness? Henry never could forget his eldest son’s rebellion after being crowned successor. But neither could Richard forget the abrupt way his father had removed Aquitaine and Poitou from his inheritance and given it to John.

The tragedy now proceeded to its grueling conclusion. Philip and Richard fell upon Le Mans, where Henry had taken refuge, and soon flames enveloped the entire town. Henry managed to escape, but Richard pursued him. Only the timely intervention of William Marshal, one of Henry’s most renowned warriors, saved the king from capture—or worse.

Instead of fighting his way back to Normandy, where he could mount an army or set sail for England, Henry fled to his great Angevin fortress of Chinon, high above the river Vienne. The old lion was defeated and he knew it. His body, which he had relentlessly pushed for years, no longer could be willed into action. Deathly ill, he awaited his end in the summer heat.

Castles and towns now promptly fell to Philip and Richard, suggesting that their inhabitants sensed which direction the wind was blowing. Even the city of Tours fell into Philip and Richard’s hands. At that body blow, Henry agreed to come to terms.

Henry consented but was so ill he could scarcely ride. Even Philip was moved to pity when he saw him. But Henry would have none of it, refusing the seat that Philip offered and remaining bolt upright in his saddle—supported by attendants—as he listened to the victors’ terms. These were rugged. He was to renew his homage to the king of France and pay a heavy indemnity for Philip’s trouble. He was to acknowledge Richard as his heir, and call upon his barons to swear homage to his eldest remaining son. Alais was to be turned over to a guardian of Richard’s choosing, who would keep her in safety until Richard wed her, upon his return from crusade.

As Henry listened, a roll of thunder broke forth. He nodded his assent, and yet another roll of thunder burst from the heavy summer sky. But perhaps the worst blow was yet to come. For when he sent for the list of names of those who had gone over to Richard, the first name on the list was that of his youngest son, John.

After that, death came quickly. In anguish, Henry “cursed the day on which he was born, and pronounced upon his sons the curse of God and of himself.” And then, knowing that he was sick unto death, he ordered that he be carried into the chapel, where he received communion and absolution before wearily drawing his last breath.

While Roger of Wendover reported a sedate funeral, with Henry lying in state in appropriately royal splendor, William Marshal (who was present) described a far more humiliating scene. According to the Marshal, Henry’s attendants stole his belongings, leaving the body naked until someone took pity and covered it with a cloak. With panicked courtiers tending to their own welfare, it was difficult to find anyone to enshroud the body or prepare it for funeral and burial. According to Giraldus, no one could even find an appropriate ring for the dead king’s finger, let alone a scepter or a crown.

Giraldus, keen to report the fall of the great, may have embroidered or exaggerated, but his dramatic account of Richard’s last encounter with his father is corroborated by both Roger of Wendover and Roger of Howden. When Richard, who had pursued Henry to the end, approached the body, all present were stunned to see blood suddenly burst from the dead king’s nostrils. An omen of the first order! they whispered among themselves. A curse on the living from the dead!

Yet Richard, a Plantagenet through and through, remained unshaken. He now was undisputed lord of England, as well as the vast Plantagenet holdings in France, and the future was his.

Merlin’s prophecy had indeed come to pass.