Sunday, November 27, 2005

Eleanor of Aquitaine &
The Empress Matilda

I have a thing for "historical" accounts - I delve deep into amazing people who had lives that rocked hundreds of years ago.

My two all time favourites are the Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine -- these two women had one man in common -- Henry II of England.

Matilda was the daughter of Henry I of England and she was sent at the age of 8 to marry the Holy Roman emperor, Heinrich. Meanwhile, Henry's only other lawful child, his son William, died in the sinking of the famed White Ship in 1120. The people surrounding Henry were scared to death to tell him that his son was dead and it took them a couple days to summon the courage to do so.

Henry didn't take the news well and he ended up doing something that no one expected -- he named Matilda as his heir. By that time Matilda had been widowed and she was about 25 years old. Upon being called back to England, her father made her marry Count Geoffrey of Anjou ,who was 11 years her junior. She was horrified by the match -- she, the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, forced to marry a mere lad and no more than a Count at that!

To say that Matilda & Geoffrey clashed would be an understatement. But it's important to recall that in those times, marriages were political chess matches, so love and compatibility had very little to do with anything. This marriage was the beginning of the famed Plantagenet Dynasty that ruled England for almost 400 years. It was so named due to Geoffrey of Anjou's habit of wearing a sprig of plantagenia in his lapel.

About 9 years into their marriage, Henry I died due to eating a big ass serving of stewed lamprey eels -- which his doctor had advised him to stay away from. Before Matilda could travel from Anjou (which is in present day France) to England, her beloved cousin Stephen, stole her crown by claiming Henry changed his mind on the succession upon his deathbed.

Then began the era in England refered to as "When Christ and His Saints Slept". It was a brutal 20 years and the forces between Matilda and Stephen fought over the English crown. Stephen was an accomplished battle commander but lousy at running a kingdom. Matilda, while she couldn't take the battlefield herself (though I wouldn't have put it past her not to if given the chance), had her half-brother Robert of Gloucester as her battle commander. Robert was amazing in his own right and to this day military historians marvel at the fact that he pulled together a full army in less than 2 weeks and marched from Bristol to Lincoln in the dead of winter in 2 more weeks to catch Stephen by surprise.

Matilda, credit where due, had some amazing adventures of her own. In my opinion, the most dramatic one was when she and her men were surrounded in Oxford. They stayed in the castle for almost 4 months. Finally, as the larders were near empty (they had resorted to killing their horses for food) and the furnishings had been burned to stay warm, Matilda came up with an amazing plan. She and 3 of her men were clothed in pure white cloaks that had been made from bed sheets. During the height of a snow storm and in the middle of the night, they were lowered from the battlements of the Oxford castle to the ground below.

Matilda and her men were taking an amazing chance that the River Thames was frozen solid by that point. They walked across the ice and between two enemy campfires. At one point a sentry on horseback came upon and they stood still. The sentry, due to the darkness and the snow storm, stared in their direction for quite a while, but finally made the sign of the cross and continued on with his patrols -- he must have thought they were ghosts! Matilda and her men managed to make it to Wallingford, where her close ally Brien Fitz Count, was in residence. To say that Stephen was livid when he learned of Matilda's escape would be an understatement.

Many of the landholders in England of that day also held lands in present day France. While Matilda was busy fighting tooth and nail against Stephen in England, the husband she despised was keeping things active in Anjou and the surrounding areas. It ended up being a helluva spot for the landholders -- did they anger their English king by making peace with Geoffrey to protect their continental holdings or anger Geoffrey? Geoffrey was no angel -- it was rumoured that the family descended from Satan's daughter. Plus, Geoffrey once was so angry at his own brother, that he had him imprisoned.

Matilda & Geoffrey had one good thing between them -- their son, Henry. While Matilda desperately wanted the English crown herself, she finally realized that her brother Robert and the others were not necessarily fighting to make her queen -- they were fighting for the succession to make her son Henry the king. Stephen's son, Eustace, had established himself as a brutal person and he tortured animals, invalids and once went so far as to raid the parish of Bury St. Edmunds and stole from the priests. Eustace died 2 weeks after that raid -- choking to death on stewed lamprey eels -- the same dish that so sickened Henry I and caused his death.

After amazing win's and losses on both sides, it was finally agreed that upon Stephen's death, Matilda's son Henry would succeed as the English king. Once the issue was resolved, Henry focused on helping his father Geoffrey quash rebellions in Anjou. At one point they were summoned to Paris to answer to their liege lord Louis VII. At was during this event that Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine first met.

Eleanor was one of the most celebrated beauties of her time and an amazingly wealthy heiress. She held all of Aquitaine & Poitou in her own right. A marriage was arranged between her and Louis when they were both 15. They were married for 14 years and two daughters were born but as no son had arrived, it was all Eleanor's fault. While most believe that Eleanor and Louis did love one another, they were just too much a combination of full bodied wine and warm milk and never destined to mix well. Louis was supposed to be a priest and only due to the unfortunate death of his older brother in a horseback riding accident, was he catapulted to the French throne. Louis also kept as a close counsel the celerated Abbot Bernard who despised Eleanor and felt she was a wanton.

Many suspect that Eleanor and Henry laid the groundwork for their marriage while she was still married to Louis. She could divorce Louis because they had not received a papal dispensation from the Pope and they were related within the prohibited 6 degrees. It would be expected that when Eleanor remarried, she would have to ask permission from Louis as her liege lord.

It took about 6 months, but finally the divorce was granted and Eleanor made her way back home to her lands in Aquitaine. Two months later, Henry arrived with only a handful of men as to avoid drawing attention to his travel and he and Eleanor married before Louis and his entourage in Paris could find out. This union made it possible for Henry to be the eventual ruler of England, Maine, Anjou, Wales, Brittany, Normandy and Aquitaine.

This marriage between Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine meant that the Empress Matilda was now her mother-in-law -- talk about a guy surrounding himself with powerful women! About a year later, Stephen died, Henry became the king of England and Eleanor was the only woman in history to wear the crowns of both France and England. Even though the age difference between she and Henry was 10 years apart (she was the older one), she gave Henry II five children -- two of whom would go on to rule England: Richard the Lionhearted and John Lackland.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II and Richard the Lionhearted are all buried within their tombs at Fontevrault Abbey in western France.

1 comment:

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