Queen Eleanor's Confession [Child 156]
DESCRIPTION: Queen Eleanor, dying, calls for two friars. King Henry decides to substitute himself and Earl Marshal. Eleanor confesses to many sins against Henry, often with the Earl. Henry reveals himself and wishes that he could tell the world what Eleanor said
EARLIEST DATE: 1723
KEYWORDS: trick humorous royalty disease clergy disguise
1189 - Death of Henry II
1204 - Death of Eleanor of Aquitaine
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Aber),England(Lond))
REFERENCES (15 citations):
Child 156, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (7 texts)
Bronson 156, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (1 version)
BronsonSinging 156, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (1 version)
GlenbuchatBallads, pp. 200-203, "The Queen's Confession" (1 text)
GreigDuncan2 208, "Queen Eleanor" (2 texts)
BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 462-465, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (notes plus a text of Child A)
Flanders-Ancient3, pp. 127-132, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (1 text, from "The Charms of Melody" rather than tradition)
Percy/Wheatley II, pp. 164-168, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (1 text)
BrownII 35, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (notes only)
Leach, pp. 431-433, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (1 text)
Whitelaw-Ballads, pp. 181-182, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (1 text)
PBB 72, "Queen Elenor's Confession" (1 text)
Niles 48, "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (1 text, 1 tune)
BBI, ZN2274, "Queen Elenor was a sick Woman"
DT 156, QECONFES
ST C156 (Full)
cf. "Rosamund Clifford" (subject)
cf. "Fair Rosamond" (subject)
The Dying Queen
NOTES: It is generally assumed that this song refers to the relationship between England's King Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. If so, the element of error in this ballad is immense. Note the following:
* Eleanor (1122?-1204) outlived Henry Plantagenet (1133-1189) by fifteen years.
* Neither Earl Marshal nor King Henry took Queen Eleanor's maidenhead; she had previously been married to, and had two daughters by, Louis VII of France.
* Eleanor could hardly have poisoned Henry's mistress Rosamund Clifford; by the time Rosamund died, Henry had placed Eleanor under close arrest.
* Many versions refer to Whitehall. Whitehall was built for Anne Boleyn in the sixteenth century, three and a half centuries after the death of Henry II (Lofts, p. 85).
* William the Marshal was not an earl at the time Henry II died; he became an earl in the reign of Henry's son Richard I.
* Eleanor calls for a pair of friars to hear her confession. Presumably she wanted friars because they were itinerant; other clergymen would be permanently attached to an English diocese. But, according to Chambers, p. 156, friars were not supposed to hear confession. And certainly not two of them! This lack of knowledge of Catholic practice indicates that the song is post-Reformation.
So we must admit that the details are wrong. Could there, perhaps, be a faint bit of truth at the core? This is a long story -- and a difficult question to answer definitively. Reliable information about Eleanor is often lacking -- starting from the very beginning of her life. As Owen says on p. 3, "There is no certainty as to the date and place of [her birth], though it is most commonly thought to have taken place in 1122, either in Poitiers or in the castle of Belin near Bordeaux."
Checking other sources shows just how much uncertainty there can be even about something as seemingly straightforward as this. OxfordCompanion, p. 359, gives her birth date as "c. 1122"; so too Meade, p. viii, and Ashley, p. 521. Warren-Henry, pp. 43-44n., says probably 1122 and no later than 1124. Kelly, p. 1, says 1122. Markale, p. 14, says probably 1122, possibly 1120. Harvey, p. 48, says she was eight years older than Henry II, which probably means 1125. McLynn, p. 8, says 1124, and defends this date on p. 28 (although the argument is based mostly on the date when her youngest son was born). Fawtier, p. 139, says she was 80 when she died, implying 1123 or 1124. Dahmus, p. 154, says she was 67 in 1189, and 82 at the time of her death, implying a birth date of 1121 or 1122.
Her name, "Eleanor," has been said to be properly "Alia-Aenor," "the other Aenor," after her unloved mother Aenor (Meade, p. 18). I wonder about this, however, since the name "Eleanor" was common in the following years -- unlikely if Eleanor of Aquitaine, that most-reviled woman, had been the first Eleanor.
Aquitaine, her duchy, had been a sort of autonomous fragment of Charlemagne's empire. In 951, William I became its duke, founding the line from which Eleanor sprang (Owen, p. 4). Over the next century and a half, the Dukes of Aquitaine increased their reach to include, e.g., Gascony. In 1071, this line gave birth to William IX, known as the "first of the troubadours" (Markale, p. 14). He did much to promote the ideal of Courtly Love (which, in an era when most marriages were political, in effect meant "fornication"). Owen, p. 7, quotes a thirteenth century source which calls William IX "one of the most courtly men in the world and one of the greatest deceivers of women."
William IX died in 1127, and his son William X in 1137 (Owen, p. 10; Markale, p. 17, says that William X died very conveniently, on a pilgrimage to Compostella, but can offer no actual evidence of funny business). Until then, there had been hope that he would beget a male heir, but his death obviously ended that possibility. That left William X's teenage daughter Eleanor as heir to Aquitaine, which by this time was actually larger -- and richer -- than the personal fief of the King of France (Kelly, p. 4). True, the Duchess of Aquitaine was a subject of the King of France -- but the King of France had only nominal authority over most of his dukes (Normandy too was only theoretically subject to French control; its Dukes generally ignored the French king).
From the moment her father died without a male heir, Eleanor became the most sought-after woman in Christendom. Some of that was because she was young and pretty -- but mostly, she was *rich*. Aquitaine was hard to control, but since when did that bother a medieval nobleman? There seem to have been multiple plots to kidnap her in the weeks after her father's death (Kelly, p. 2). The best one, however, was that engineered by the old French king Louis VI. He arranged to have Eleanor married to his son Louis. He pulled it off just in time; Louis VI promptly died, and by the time the younger Louis and his new bride entered Paris, he was King Louis VII and she was his queen (Owen, p. 14; Kelly, p. 8).
The marriage, however, was not a success. Although both were young, they were very different. Eleanor was vivacious, intelligent, and a natural schemer. Louis -- who had been intended for the church until his older brother died (Kelly, p. 3) -- was neither clever nor lively; the most that can be said for him was that he was pious -- and even that was intermittent; he was much too easily angered, and occasionally involved in conflicts with the church (Owen, p. 20). Eleanor, according to Markale, p. 19, introduced daring fashions to Paris (Boyd, p. 34, suggests that the origin of Cinderella's lost slipper came from one of these items, although that is a long time for a folk motif to float).
She also introduced a number of rather frivolous games -- one of which was promptly banned as too risque. Louis the Boring can hardly have been pleased. (Many accounts report that Eleanor once said she had married a monk, not a man; Markale, pp. 27, 33, etc. Boyd, p. 51, gives his fourth chapter this title and suggests on p. 60 that Louis and Eleanor rarely slept together).
Even so, the marriage might have limped along had Eleanor borne Louis a son -- and had it not been for the Second Crusade.
The First Crusade had resulted in the creation of four Crusader States, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the County of Edessa. The latter three ran along the Mediterranean coast, with Antioch in the north, Tripoli in the middle, and Jerusalem in the south. The three states were entirely independent and weren't always friendly, but when it came to defending themselves from attack, their geography meant that they were mutually supporting, especially when they had naval help.
Not Edessa. The frontier of the Crusader States, it jutted off northeast from Antioch, with no direct access to Tripoli or Jerusalem and with Moslem emirates on three sides (see map on p. 109 of Runciman or on p. 301 of Oldenbourg).
In 1144, Zengi, the first great leader of the Islamic counterattack on the Crusader States, besieged Edessa. There were few defenders; its count, Joscelin II of Courtenay, had stripped the walls to build up a field army (Runciman, p. 235). The Byzantines refused to help; so did the people of Antioch. A force from Jerusalem came too late. On December 26, 1144, Edessa fell after a month-long siege. The Islamic reconquest had begun (Oldenbourg, p. 320).
Western Europe had never really supported the Crusader States properly (Runciman, p. 249). To build a strong state many colonists were needed -- and never came. (Even those who went on the First Crusade had mostly died along the way or been killed by the Turks.) Nor were many knights willing to make the long trip to Palestine to serve for a year or two. Outremer as constituted was sure to fall as soon as a strong enemy developed. But the loss of Edessa shook the Europeans out of their lethargy. The Second Crusade came about when a number of European leaders decided to take the cross and try to retake Edessa.
It should have been a brilliant chance. Zengi was murdered a year and a half after the capture (Runciman, p. 239), and his lands divided between his sons -- the elder had Mosul, the younger Aleppo (Oldenbourg, pp. 321-322). Nur-ed-Din, the new ruler of Aleppo, was to cause the Franks more trouble than ever Zengi did -- but first he had to consolidate his power. Had the Crusaders moved effectively, they might have kept him from amounting to much.
But the Crusaders did not move effectively. A premature counterattack on Edessa made by the locals resulted in the remaining Christians being expelled from the city (Runciman, pp. 239-240). German crusaders under the Emperor Conrad were defeated and dispersed by the Turks (Oldenbourg, pp. 326-327), with the German Emperor himself abandoning the Crusade after barely surviving with a handful of his knights (Boyd, p. 89).
The Crusades always lost heavily in transit, and the French crusade was no exception; the management was bad and famine and bad weather took their toll along the way (Boyd, pp. 90-91). A portion of the French crusading force arrived safely in Palestine, but, not knowing the local conditions, was talked into attacking the Kingdom of Damascus (Oldenbourg, pp. 330-332). It seems to have been chosen because "there was no apparently softer target and the Europeans could not simply go home without doing anything" (Boyd, p. 107).
It was just too bad for Damascus, which was a relatively tolerant place, inhabited by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. It wasn't any good to the Crusader States, either, because Damascus was independent of Nur-ed-Din; the attack -- which failed -- merely softened up a potential ally so that it later fell to the Zengids (Oldenbourg, pp. 332-334).
And the whole fiasco had torn the marriage of Louis and Eleanor to shreds. Eleanor and Louis had gone on the crusade together (Runciman, p. 262), although we don't know whether she talked him into it or he demanded it.
Explanations for her act are many; perhaps she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather William IX, who had gone on the First Crusade (Markale, p. 15); perhaps Louis didn't want to be parted from her (Markale, p. 25); perhaps he didn't trust her (Owen, p. 22; Boyd, p. 69, in fact has a report that Louis took an oath of chastity for the duration and wanted to make sure she didn't fool around); perhaps he thought her presence would make more of her subordinates serve in the Crusade (Markale, p. 26; Boyd, p. 73, credits her with recruiting many of her vassals); perhaps it was just that she had extreme influence over him (Fawtier, p. 27, although the sequel seems to demonstrate that this was not true); maybe the high-spirited but sheltered queen simply thought it would be a grand adventure (Boyd, p. 69).
Eleanor didn't like the Crusade much, as it turned out -- and, along the way, there were rumors that she had had an affair with her uncle, Raymond, Prince of Antioch. (Markale, p. 17, suggested that Eleanor and Raymond, her father's younger brother who had formerly been known as Raymond of Poitiers, may even have had a relationship before he set out to claim the Principality of Antioch. They may have been friendly, but Eleanor was probably too young for a physical relationship -- and even the gossips apparently said that *she*, not he, declared against pursuing it farther, since they obviously could not marry.)
(It will tell you something about the attitudes of the time that Eleanor would later be accused of infidelity with a different uncle, even though she was in her forties and pregnant at the time; Boyd, p. 172.)
Probably the best chronicle for Outremer in this era is that of William of Tyre. He explicitly accuses Eleanor of infidelity (Meade, p. 106; Owen, p. 105). But he was writing twenty-odd years after the fact, and not of his own knowledge (Kelly, p. 62, argues that his data came from French royal sources, i.e. Eleanor's enemies) -- and, like many churchmen, he may have had a prejudice against women. William's statements do seem to prove that, by his time, Eleanor's reputation in Outremer was very bad (ironic, in that she was the mother of Richard I, and that it was her husband, not she, who decided against the assault on Aleppo).
We don't really know what happened in Antioch. Oldenbourg, p. 328, says, "There has been a good deal of argument about the nature of Eleanor of Aquitaine's relations with her uncle. Raymond, although he was getting on for fifty [most sources make him younger; Boyd, p. 64, says he was ten years older than Eleanor; Kelly, p. 30, makes him only eight years older than Eleanor, which would make him about 34 in 1148], must still have been a handsome man and was certainly more attractive than the dull, morose Louis. On the other hand, the Prince of Antioch was reputed to be a most faithful husband, and considering that he had not shown much interest in amorous exploits so far, it seems hard to believe that he should have tried to seduce his own niece. Whatever the truth of the matter, by explaining to the Queen the advantages of a campaign against Aleppo, Raymond of Poitiers drew on himself the jealousy of the King."
Boyd, p. 101, comments that Eleanor never really seems to have understood it when people started whispering about her. So she never did much to protect herself.
It probably didn't help that Eleanor and Raymond doubtless conversed in their native Provencal rather than French (Kelly, p. 56). There had already been friction between the French- and Provencal-speaking Crusaders, and the former now came to despise the "degenerate" locals as well (Boyd, p. 100).
Similarly Runciman, p. 279, "In the end, a purely personal motive made up the King's mind for him [to go to Jerusalem instead of attacking Aleppo at once]. Queen Eleanor was far more intelligent than her husband. She saw at once the wisdom of Raymond's scheme; but her passionate and outspoken support of her uncle only aroused Louis's jealousy. Tongues began to wag. The Queen and the Prince were seen too often together. It was whispered that Raymond's affection was more than avuncular. Louis, alarmed for his honour, announced his immediate departure; whereat the Queen declared that she would remain in Antioch, and would seek a divorce from her husband. In reply Louis dragged his wife by force from her uncle's palace and set out with all his troops for Jerusalem." The attack on Damascus would follow.
Boyd's account on p. 103 is even more dramatic: "In the middle of the night, Eleanor was seized in her apartments and taken at sword-point by Galeran's men to St. Paul's gate." From there she was forced to accompany the procession to Jerusalem.
As Meade says on p. 107, "One would get the impression from these happenings that logic played little part [in Louis's decisions]. The situation was even more absurd, for underneath the welter of all the bickering and political maneuvering hid the real reason for Louis's inexplicable decision: the familiar emotion of jealousy. Put at its simplest, the king suspected that Eleanor had taken the prince as her lover."
There is at least one problem with Louis's hypothesis: according to Markale, p. 29, Eleanor and Louis spent only ten days in Antioch. Hard to have much of a relationship in a week and a half! And Raymond really does seem to have believed in moderation in all things; not only did he not fool around, he was highly unusual among noblemen of the time that he didn't even drink much (Kelly, p. 54; William of Tyre described him as "no glutton or drunkard or womanizer," according to Boyd, p. 98).
Markale, p. 30, claims that Eleanor declared that not only would she stay in Antioch, but she would withhold her vassals from the Crusade to use them against Aleppo. This would explain Louis's reaction, since withholding her forces would badly weaken the already depleted Crusading army. Boyd, p. 102, also suggests this. The more sober historians are less sure.
Markale declares on pp. 25-26 that "these rumors show that Eleanor was not greatly liked by a certain part of the clerical establishment -- or, at the very least, her attitude offended the right-minded, who are always predisposed to feel proper. In fact, there is no reason to suspect that that Eleanor was fickle or untrue to the king before the expedition to the East." The French writers may have been particularly predisposed against her because there was a history of conflict between the Church and the House of Aquitaine (Kelly, p. 19).
Boyd, p. 111, reports a rumor that she had a bastard child by Raymond that was murdered and buried. But there is no official record of this, and surely a charge that weighty would have been recorded!
This was going on in 1147-1148, when William the Marshal was probably a babe in arms and the future Henry II was just entering his teens.
All sources seem to agree that Louis and Eleanor's marriage never recovered, despite an attempt by the Pope to intervene (Owen, p. 28) which was successful enough that Eleanor bore a second daughter in 1150 (Markale, p. 33; McLynn, p. 9, suggests that the Pope told Eleanor that he sided with Louis in the matter of the divorce, which caused her to temporarily yield again to Louis. Boyd, p. 116, however suggests that the girl may have been born too soon to be the child of this reunion -- which, given his view of the situation, would almost hint that Louis raped his own wife...).
Whatever the state of their relations, the two left the Crusader States in separate ships (Markale, p. 32). Louis may still have loved her, in his clumsy way (Owen, p. 29), but they clearly didn't understand each other. Boyd, pp. 103-104, thinks he was already trying to decide between divorce and some sort of treason trial -- and that he might have chosen the latter had they had a son.
Ordinarily, the solution to the royal couple's marital problems would have been to shove Eleanor in a nunnery, or perhaps keep her under guard (as Henry II was later to do). There was just one problem: Louis had no successor. Eleanor had given him two daughters, one before and one after the crusade (Owen, p. 29), but no son. He needed an heir (Warren-Henry, p. 44), and while France had not yet invented the Salic Law, it was clear that no one was prepared to have a daughter succeed. Louis had either to father a son by Eleanor, or have the marriage ended so that he could have a son by some other wife. And, obviously, whichever he did, it would be easier to do it with Eleanor's cooperation.
Kings rarely had trouble obtaining divorces at this time, and Louis and Eleanor could claim consanguinity as grounds. The problem with divorce was that it would force Louis to give up Eleanor's lands. (To be sure, Fawtier, p. 24, says that Louis hadn't been able to control Aquitaine anyway, so it was no loss. But if Eleanor's next husband had a son, then Aquitaine would go to him, rather than Louis's daughters by Eleanor; Warren-Henry, p. 44). Louis had no good choices. After much delay, he finally decided on divorce. In this he was probably encouraged by the famous Bernard of Clairvaux, Louis's famous (and famously sanctimonious) clerical advisor, who earlier had gone after Peter Abelard and who strongly disapproved of Eleanor (Kelly, p. 79).
It was about this time that Count Geoffrey of Anjou and his son Henry visited the Parisian court. Nominally vassals of King Louis, Geoffrey (like many French vassals) was effectively independent, so this was rather unusual. Gerald of Wales, who did not like Eleanor, claims she took Geoffrey into her bed (Owen, p. 30), even though Geoffrey's wife Matilda, the mother of Henry, was still alive. (It is interesting to note that both Geoffrey the father and Henry the son had wives who were much older than they -- and both quarreled violently with those wives, but never divorced them.)
The idea of sleeping with the Queen certainly fits Geoffrey's character; he was known as a seducer. Still, the sources for the claim are suspect (Kelly, p. 77). But it would be little wonder if Eleanor found the Angevins -- the strongest French rivals to Louis -- attractive. It was not yet clear that Henry would become King of England, but just the combination of Anjou and Maine (Geoffrey and Henry's inheritance), Normandy (conquered by Geoffrey), and Aquitaine would be plenty to cause trouble in France. This is why Harvey, p. 49, calls the annulment "a step of inconceivable folly" by Louis. But he surely did not realize who would be Eleanor's next husband....
As soon as Eleanor obtained her divorce, people again started trying to kidnap her into marriage (Owen, p. 31; Markale, pp. 36-37; Warren-Henry, p. 45, Dahmus, p. 142, say one of those trying to capture her was none other than Henry Plantagenet's younger brother Geoffrey, who at 16 was only about half her age, according to Boyd, p. 122); clearly she needed a husband, if only to get them off her back.
So she promptly married Henry, even though he was about eleven years younger -- and a close enough relative that Henry had been barred from marrying Eleanor's daughter! (Kelly, p. 82). Romanticists claim they fell in love at first sight (McLynn, p. 9), which seems unlikely. But they certainly saw advantages to combining their forces (Kelly, p. 77). And, if nothing else, Henry was a lot smarter and more interesting than Louis (Markale, p. 39).
As Boyd says on p. 123, marrying him "not only solved her pressing need for a spouse strong enough to protect her domains from pressing enemies, but owed her a lifelong debt of gratitude for making him the most powerful man in France. Ironically, he would become in the course of time her mot implacable enemy of all."
The marriage took place in May 1152, eight weeks after the divorce, even though King Louis -- whose ward Eleanor theoretically still was -- had not approved (Owen, p. 32; Fawtier, pp. 139-140). The French were angered by the haste of the marriage -- although, in years to come, Louis VII would marry his third wife only five weeks after his second died (Fawtier, p. 51; Boyd, p. 162, seems to hint that this raised suspicions of foul play), and at a time when he should have still been in mourning (McLynn, p. 10).
Many think the marriage had been arranged even before Eleanor's marriage to Louis was dissolved (Markale, p. 85), although there is no direct evidence for this. It was a gamble for Henry, in that he, like Louis, needed a son from her -- but what she could not do for Louis, Eleanor did repeatedly for Henry; they had five sons, four of whom (Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John) lived to adulthood.
In early 1153, having mostly pacified his continental domains, Henry invaded England (Warren-Henry, p. 49), to which he was proper heir (his mother Matilda had been the only surviving son of King Henry I. King Stephen, a younger son of Henry I's sister Adela, had gained the throne because no one wanted a female monarch). Late in 1153, after Stephen's oldest son Eustace died (Warren-Henry, p. 51), it was agreed that Henry would be accepted as Stephen's heir. In late 1154, Stephen died, and on December 19, 1154, the 21-year-old Henry was crowned King of England. Eleanor was crowned Queen at the same time (Warren-Henry, pp. 52-53).
She had already borne Henry a son, William (Boyd, p. 133), and although he died young, others would follow to formally join Aquitaine to the English crown.
Whereas Louis had kept Eleanor under his eye for almost their entire marriage, Henry II frequently left her behind as he went on his wanderings, at times even giving her some share in the government (Owen, p. 45), although he more often merely left her to sit and do nothing (Owen, p. 49); Warren-Henry, p. 260, says of her role, and that of the Queen Mother Matilda (who also had spells as regent), "their authority seems in practice to have been largely formal."
The fact that Henry so often left her behind would seem to imply that, in the early years of their marriage, he was not concerned about her fidelity, even though he didn't pay much attention to her or her opinions -- and was anything but faithful himself. As McLynn notes on p. 12, she was "almost permanently pregnant," making a high degree of carousing unlikely. They did apparently spend every Christmas together until 1165 (Boyd, p. 172).
To be sure, Henry would later on put her under close guard -- but that was for rebellion, not infidelity; she was by then past childbearing age. The flip side of this is, according to Markale, p. 41, he usually left her in England or Normandy, rather than Aquitaine, meaning that she could not conspire with her own vassals and was not around the people with whom she shared a culture.
The years after about 1160 were difficult for Eleanor. As the conflict between Henry II and Louis VII sharpened, she found herself with hostages to fortune on both sides: Her children by Henry were of course part of the English camp -- but her two daughters by Louis remained in France. (Louis had a similar conflict, in that one of his daughters by his second wife was in English hands, as wife to the future Richard I, but it doesn't seem to have changed his behavior; Owen, p. 49).
Boyd, p. 175, suggests that Henry in this period contracted a venereal disease and passed it to Eleanor. That he contracted one is certainly possible, but there seems little evidence that she caught it as well. Certainly it didn't shorten her life!
Boyd, p. 177, suggests that the estrangement between Henry and Eleanor became complete in 1167, the year Henry's mother Matilda died.
It was perhaps in 1166 that Rosamund Clifford first entered Henry's life (Owen, p. 56; Markale, p. 46; McLynn, p. 43, says 1165). Our details of her life are few. Owen, p. 114, suggests she was born c. 1140, but surely she would have been married by age 26; I suspect she was nearly a decade younger. Her father Walter de Clifford lived near the Welsh border; perhapsHenry and Rosamund first saw each other during the Welsh campaign of 1165.
Henry had many mistresses in his life (at least, most authorities claim so, although Warren-Henry, p. 119, says that the evidence is insufficient, noting that his only two properly-documented illegitimate sons were probably conceived before he married Eleanor. Dahmus, p. 154, cautiously declares that Henry "may have been unfaithful to her before John's birth; he surely was afterward"), but the liaison with Rosamund was unusually overt. Gerald of Wales didn't comment on the match until 1174 (Owen, p. 115), but then fulminated that Rosamund should not have been called Rosa-mundi, the Rose of the world, but the Rose of unchastity, Rosa-immundi (Kelly, p. 150).
For all that Kelly and Markale are convinced that Eleanor resented Rosamund, they have no real evidence. Certainly there is no reason to think Eleanor acted on such feelings. Kelly, p. 153, observed that whatever vengeance Eleanor took was aimed at Henry, not Rosamund, and suggests that this was her reason for taking part in the rebellion of 1173. And Kelly admits on p. 152 that "[t]he story of the Queen's proffer of the dagger and the poison bowl must... be discarded," and that there was no maze in which Rosamund was hidden (cf. Markale, p. 47). Warren-Henry, p. 119, says that "Nothing, indeed, can be recovered for certain about Henry's relations with his wife until their obvious estrangement in 1173"; he argues that Eleanor would not have resented Rosamund because taking mistresses was so common at the time.
The maze at Woodstock was first mentioned in a 1378 translation and expansion of Gerald of Wales (Owen, p. 116) and elaborated in Fabyan's Chronicle of c. 1500 (Owen, p. 118 -- we note that Fabyan wasn't very accurate even for Fabyan's own time, let alone centuries earlier), while the bit about the dagger and poison comes from a fourteenth century London chronicle -- which, however, was so confused that it referred the whole affair to the reign of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence and dates it to 1262, more than half a century after the death of Eleanor of Aquitaine! (Owen, pp. 116-117).
We do note the interesting coincidence is that Chretien de Troyes, at about this time, was writing his Cliges, an Arthurian tale involving a woman in a labyrinth (Owen, p. 119) -- but he probably got this from Greek myth and later people applied ot to Rosamund.
Rosamund went on to become extremely famous; Owen devotes pp. 121-148 to literary works about her, although the only one of these many poems and plays that shows any hint at all of being traditional is the one indexed as "Fair Rosamund." And, according to Owen, it was not until the fifteenth century that the song of "Fair Rosamund" was written.
Rosamund died in 1176 or 1177, having gone into a nunnery. Thus Eleanor could not have killed her, since the Queen was a captive at the time (Warren-Henry, p. 119). It is possible that Rosamund took the veil in despair -- because Owen, p. 73, suggests that this was the period when Henry II started paying attention to Alais/Alice, the daughter of Louis VII who had been betrothed to Henry's son Richard. Most of what we know about this is gossip -- although Richard eventually rejected Alice as his wife because his father had taken her (Gillingham, p. 160). There isn't even a firm date for this purported liaison; Boyd, p. 231, says she had a child by Henry but that the baby died, then on p. 250 reports that there were two children. McLynn, p. 91, suggests that the affair did not start until 1180. And Warren-John, p. 37, suggests that Philip Augustus made up the story and passed it on to Richard to make Richard rebel against his father.
Even though Henry and Rosamund were probably linked romantically by the late 1160s, it was not until 1173 that relations between Henry and Eleanor really turned bad. In that year, Henry's three oldest sons turned on their father. Owen, pp. 68-69, does not seem to think Eleanor had any part in encouraging the revolt, which began with a quarrel between the Old and Young Kings (no less a source than Dante blamed that on the troubadour Bertrand de Born, whom he placed in the eighth circle of hell as a result. In Dante, Bertrand "set the young king on to mutiny" according to the Ciardi translation of the Inferno -- see canto 28, lines 120-end. McLynn, p. 60, also considers de Born to have been a major influence on Henry the Younger; cf. Kelly, p. 223). Boyd, p. 204, also thinks the boys started it and Eleanor simply went along, and he suggests (p. 220) that Bertrand was stirring up trouble to cover an attempted affair.
Kelly, p. 150, says that "there was something very special about the famous case of Rosamund Clifford that deeply aroused the Plantagenet queen," and thinks this explains her revolt But McLynn points out on p. 43, Eleanor and Henry had married largely for political purposes; Eleanor must have known that it was likely that he would have affairs. McLynn, p. 44, suggests that Eleanor feared Aquitaine being absorbed into the Angevin Empire. This doesn't wash either, however, since Eleanor worked hard, in the reigns of Richard and John, to hold the Empire together.
If Henry the Younger rebelled on his own, Gillingham, p. 64, is of the clear opinion that Eleanor encouraged the rebellion of at least Richard the second son and Geoffrey the third. This seems to be the consensus view; it is supported, e.g., by Markale, p. 48, and McLynn, pp. 40-41 (although he admits that Geoffrey was slippery enough to take any chance he could find to assert his own power). Warren-Henry, p. 119, says that no one at the time could understand Eleanor's part in the rebellion, and very tentatively suggests on p. 121 that it was because she had been so completely blocked from power. If so, then it makes sense that she might have encouraged her sons.
Eleanor's decision to rebel along with her sons Henry the Young King, Richard, and Geoffrey had the peculiar effect of causing Eleanor to side with her ex-husband Louis against her current husband! (Warren-John, p. 29). But Henry II prevailed -- Boyd, p. 204, suggests that this was due to unity of command on his side; the rebels had many leaders and no overall commander -- and Eleanor, realizing the rebellion had failed, and supposedly fled Aquitaine dressed as a man (Markale p. 51; Kelly, p. 183; Tyerman, pp. 195-196). The disguise failed; she was quickly captured.
It is interesting to note that Henry made terms with his sons, who remained free and even were given some additional money (Dahmus, p. 183), but punished Eleanor by putting her in confinement (Owen, p. 69). She would stay under close guard for about a decade, until after the death of the Young King in 1183 (Owen, pp. 71-72), although we know almost nothing else about her condition in this time. Owen, p. 72, notes that she was not even permitted to attend the funeral of her son.
Markale, p. 52, and Kelly, pp. 189-190, claim that Henry considered trying to get a divorce, presumably on the basis of consanguinity (plus treason). Kelly, p. 192, also suggests that Eleanor might have been forced into a monastery, with or without a divorce -- an idea which clearly had no appeal to her.
But Henry's situation in 1173 was unlike Louis's two decades earlier: He had plenty of sons -- if anything, too many, given their rebellious tendencies. No need to lose Aquitaine. What he might have done had Eleanor been childless, or not Duchess of Aquitaine, is anyone's guess -- but irrelevant. Kelly on p. 192 suggests that Henry wanted the divorce so that he could marry Alice of France -- but the chronology of this doesn't work well, since Alice was only about 13 in 1173, and by the time she and Henry were really involved (if they were), Henry seems to have settled down to keeping Eleanor as his wife, but imprisoned. Boyd, p. 207, thinks he offered her a choice of retiring to an abbey or imprisonment, and that she chose imprisonment, but he offers no supporting data.
Boyd, pp. 212-213, says she was imprisoned, with few if any servants or companions, at Old Sarum near Salisbury, a tightly-guarded fortress with few comforts and few people nearby. His suggestion, p. 215, is that Henry wanted to force her to consent to an annulment of their marriage so that he could marry again -- and then disinherit her sons.
What is clear is that, in such close imprisonment, Eleanor could not have killed Rosamund, nor even arranged for the killing even if someone had been foolish enough to commit murder on her behalf.
Not everyone was happy about her treatment. Provencals wrote what, if the translation does not mask too much, was probably quite beautiful poetry about her fate (paraphrased from Owen, p. 72, and Meade, p. 279):
Where is the living she once enjoyed to the music of flute and drum?
Where is her court? Where is her family?
Captive of the King of the North Wind,
She lies, overcome by sorrow.
But let her not despair.
Return, O captive, if you can....
After the Young King's death, Eleanor was given slightly better treatment, although still carefully watched (Owen, p. 74; Markale, p. 54, and Boyd, p. 227, think this was just Henry using her again because of succession issues involving Richard and Aquitaine, but adds on p. 229 that she was given a little more freedom after she started cooperating with Henry). Her movements were still restricted -- e.g. when her third son, Geoffrey, was killed in a tournament accident (apparently trampled to death by horses; Boyd, p. 230), she was again denied the right to attend the funeral (Owen, p. 76). McLynn, p. 118, suggests she was again closely confined in 1188, when Henry II and Prince Richard had their final quarrel, but the evidence for this is weak.
Then Henry II died in 1189, cursing his sons for betraying him (Owen, pp. 78-79). Eleanor soon faced a new sorrow when her daughter Matilda died -- but she also regained her freedom when her favorite son Richard became king. (According to Kelly, pp. 248-249, it was none other than William the Marshal who was sent to free her -- but she had already been released by the time he reached her. And we should note that Richard promptly married the Marshal to the heiress of Gloucester, making him an earl for the first time. The Gloucester heiress was reportedly young and quite beautiful, and I know of no evidence that Marshal was unfaithful.)
Eleanor was not only free, she was now a power in the land -- Boyd, p. 239, remarks that her "mental and physical vigour on release was remarkable" for someone so old and so long imprisoned. She apparently had a seal made and used it to seal charters in England, where she had no formal authority except as delegated by Richard (Boyd, p. 240).
In her first years of freedom, she probably helped arrange Richard's marriage (Owen, p. 82), and helped run the kingdom while he was on crusade (Markale, p. 56, calls her the "true mistress of England" -- but this seems unlikely just because Richard wouldn't want to rely too much on a woman in her sixties who might die at any moment). She seems to have been instrumental in controlling the rebellion of Richard's brother John (Owen, p. 86). She may have cut back her involvement in affairs when Richard came home -- but only briefly. In 1199, Richard I died, a victim of his own combative instincts -- he was besieging a castle, and went too close to the walls, and was hit by an arrow -- and poor medical practice (Owen, p. 92).
Richard had never declared whether John, Henry and Eleanor's last son, or Arthur, the young son of Henry and Eleanor's third son Geoffrey, should succeed. Arthur had stronger hereditary right, but that did not mean much then (of the last seven English kings, Harold II, William I, William II, Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, at least five had not had hereditary right). And Arthur was still a boy, and under French influence anyway. Different parts of the Angevin Empire chose different kings (Warren-John, p. 51). Eleanor was influential in gaining support for John over Arthur in Aquitaine and elsewhere (Owen, p. 94; Tyerman, p. 196). Interestingly, William Marshal also helped tilt things John's way (Warren-John, p. 49). In the end, however, John had to make some concessions to Philip of France. They looked minor, but they were an omen of things to come (Warren-John, p. 55).
Markale, pp. 68-69, suggests that Eleanor decided to back John because she thought she could control his bad behavior. This makes no sense. Eleanor was by this time in her late seventies; John was 32 -- and had no children. She could not possibly hope to keep control until John's children were old enough to succeed. McLynn, p. 77, makes the even stranger claim that Eleanor "despised John," which makes it hard to believe that she would have supported his succession (McLynn can only justify this on the grounds that Eleanor hated Arthur more -- blaming her hatred on the trivial fact that the boy's mother Constance had named her son Arthur; McLynn, p. 90). John was to prove a disastrous king -- but at least some of that was due to the fragile situation left him by Richard; Arthur would likely have been as bad or worse.
1199 was a sad year for the dowager queen; her youngest daughter Joanna (born 1165) died shortly after Richard (Owen, p. 96), supposedly in childbirth after being separated from her husband (Boyd, pp. 308-309). Eleanor was left with only two living children, Eleanor (born 1161, and by this time Queen of Castile) and John; the latter two would outlive their mother. But even now, at the age at least 74 and probably 77, she continued to do diplomatic work for her children, for example helping to arrange a marriage between her granddaughter Blanche of Castile and the son of King Philip of France (Owen, pp. 96-97). Thus, even though none of Eleanor's children ever sat on the throne of France, her great-grandson did (Markale, p. 47).
Already by 1200 they were calling the new king "John Softsword" (Warren-John, pp. 56-57). Warren argues that the Angevin military machine was best suited to defence, not offence. But John, with an economy battered by Richard's constant need for funds, couldn't even defend very well. Richard had survived partly because Henry II had left him a substantial financial reserve (Warren-John, p. 61) and partly by selling every saleable item in England -- and, even so, he had had to make a new Great Seal in 1198 so he could repudiate his debts! (Warren-John, p. 62). John had no bank balance to fall back on, and no offices to sell; to his cost, he simply couldn't conduct operations on the same scale Richard had.
It is interesting to note that John's greatest military success was to save his mother. In 1201, Philip of France attacked Aquitaine and trapped Eleanor at Mirebeau. According to Warren-John, p. 7 1, she was by now bedridden, and certainly too old to make the sort of daring escape she had managed earlier in life. John made a forced march to rescue his mother (Owen, p. 99). In the process, he trapped a number of French soldiers and briefly caused Philip to halt his attacks (Warren-John, p. 79).
It was the last great moment of Eleanor's life. Not even she could not control what came next. One of those captured in the rescue of Mirebeau was Arthur of Brittany, the disappointed claimant to the throne. (Defenders of Arthur should note that he had agreed to attack his own grandmother! -- Markale, p. 73)! If Arthur was anything like his father Geoffrey, the one Plantagenet whom *all* the historians seem to condemn (e.g. McLynn, p. 67, considers him to have combined the traits of his brothers Henry and John: Henry's handsome, convincing exterior and John's sneakiness and untrustworthiness), then he was a genuine threat to the public order.
But if Arthur might have been a lousy king, he was a good symbol. We don't know what happened to him, but he definitely was not seen after 1203 (Owen, p. 100). If John did not kill him, one of his vassals almost certainly did. The Bretons rose up to get their duke back in 1203, and John did not, and probably could not, produce him (Warren-John, p. 81). Warren's guess (Warren-John, pp. 82-83) is that John had personally killed Arthur while in a drunken rage. But exaggeration is easy; Markale, e.g. (p. 74) knows two near-contemporary accounts of Arthur's end (that John ordered him blinded and castrated, and that John killed Arthur himself) -- and makes up enough details to allow both to have happened.
Even if the disappearance of Arthur could be excused, John also refused mercy to many others who were at Mirabeau (Davis, p. 18). Many of those in the French territories turned against him.
Warren-John, p. 80, considers the elimination of Arthur one of John's biggest mistakes. Mirebeau gave John several advantages -- and threw them away. People in England didn't care much about Arthur, and when, a decade later, the French king tried to bring it up with the Pope, the Pope officially branded Arthur a rebellious vassal and told the French to drop the issue (Warren-John, p. 84). But his death led the Bretons and others to turn firmly against John. And it was too late for Eleanor to rescue her last wayward son.
Owen, p. 101, makes the fascinating observation that, as Eleanor's life faded out, so too did the Angevin Empire. John had held his boundaries in 1201-1203, but in early 1204, the French attacked Normandy. Tthere was very little resistance (Warren-John, pp. 88-89, suggests that Richard I's harsh hand had turned the Normans against the Angevins). Richard I's great defensive work, the Chateau Galliard, fell in March (Warren-John, p. 95), ruining John's plans to recover his losses. The road to Rouen -- the key to Normandy -- lay open, and so did the path to the Norman hinterland. Philip proceeded to capture the towns toward the coast, knowing that if he held western Normandy, John could not support an army sent to reinforce Rouen (Warren-John, p. 97). Rouen itself, surrounded by French outposts, surrendered on June 24 (Fawtier, p. 149). Normandy -- the home of William the Conqueror's dynasty, and the first major region over which Henry II had ruled directly -- was gone.
Even as that was happening, on April 1, 1204 (or perhaps during the night before), Eleanor of Aquitaine died. She was probably between 80 and 84 years old, and had been Duchess of Aquitaine for almost exactly 67 years, and Queen (either Queen of France, or Queen of England, or Dowager Queen) for all but a few months of that time. No English queen -- not even Queen Victoria -- held her title that long..
Eleanor is buried in Fontrevrault Abbey, near her husband and son Richard (Saul, p. 48); she may have died there, having finally retired from the world, although this is disputed (Owen, p. 102). It is interesting to note that the effigy on her tomb shows her holding an open book. An earlier sculpture of her, with Louis, also shows her holding a book (Boyd, p. 27; shown in his illustration 3). We don't see many others portrayed that way in this period -- e.g. John's wife Isabella, whose remains are in the same hall, is shown with her hands clasped. Richard I and Henry II, also buried there, hold scepters.
Without her, John seemed to lose whatever effectiveness he had formerly had. Warren-John, p. 99, notes that while even Richard would likely have lost Normandy, he would have been in the thick of the fighting against the French. But "John stayed in England biting his nails." Little wonder the Normans gave in easily. The English did not give up hopes of regaining Normandy until after the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, and continued to claim the duchy until Henry III formally yielded it in 1259 (Fawtier, p. 149), but England was too enfeebled to mount a counterattack.
Personally, I can't help but have mixed but mostly positive feelings about Eleanor. Take away all the late accretions and you have a rich but sad story. She was frivolous in her youth, and her struggles against her husbands hurt them both -- but she was more sinned against than sinning. She clearly became a stateswoman in her later years, and probably would have been just as good when younger if only anyone had listened to her; she obviously had more brains than Louis at least. She clearly deserved a great deal of respect. But, in a misogynist world, respect is just what she didn't get. To this day, historians can fall victim to this; Harvey, p. 48, comments that "even the lapse of centuries is unable to blur altogether the sharp outlines of her impetuosity."
Yet Meade, p. xi, points out a credit to her given to few women: "Despite her association with these four kings [Louis, Henry, Richard, and John], she struggled to retain her own identity, and it is a measure of her success that 772 years after her death she survives not as Queen Eleanor of England or Queen Eleanor of France but simply as Eleanor of Aquitaine."
She certainly attracts lovers of scandal. Three of the biographies cited in this document (Kelly, Markale and Meade) strike me as more gossip than anything else, even though Kelly and Meade are reasonably well footnoted. I'd also consider McLynn far too willing to accept a possibility as a certainty.
Some of the authors admit the problems of seeing through their sources. Markale, p. 192, says that "the stories of Eleanor could be entitled altogether, 'Adultery Considered as One of the Fine Arts.' The hate and distrust she inspired is not sufficient to explain the number of love affairs attributed to the queen-duchess." He thinks that Eleanor was a woman who wanted freedom and was condemned as a result. Markale adds that the comparisons to the vicious and oversexed Roman empress Messalina (wife of Claudius I) are unfair; "Eleanor's case is entirely different -- and the adulteries she is assumed to have committed are far from proved." On pp. 196-197 he notes that the French in particular had a motivation to smear her, because her divorce from Louis so weakened the French monarchy.
Over the years, stories of Eleanor's infidelity multiplied -- Owen, pp. 104-112, documents how each chronicler seemed to make her blacker than the one before. An early biography of the troubadour Bernard of Ventadour suggests that Eleanor slept with him (Owen, pp. 40-41). Another French singer would accuse her of wanting to leave Louis for Saladin during their quarrel on the Crusade -- yet another absurdity, since Saladin at the time of the second crusade was an unknown youth of probably no older than thirteen and perhaps as young as ten (Meade, p. 106; Kelly, p. 62; Owen, pp. 105-106). Owen, p. 54, mentions a rumor that she was involved with another uncle, Raoul de Faye, in the 1160s -- although she was pregnant at the time.
As McLynn comments on p. 14, "Certainly there was something about Eleanor that could provoke people to hatred. Some described her as a latter-day Messalina while others said that the legend of Melusine [the demonic wife of a Count of Anjou] was a foretelling of her reign."
Much of the second half of Markale is about legends of Eleanor; on p. 194, he derives the stories of Eleanor from the "Adulterous Queen" motif in early Celtic legend, making her part of a fertility cult. Right.
So strong was the legend that, in later years, Anthony Munday in his plays about Robin Hood (written c. 1600) would present Eleanor as trying to seduce Robin (Dobson/Taylor, p. 222), even though she was in her sixties at the time of the action of the play.
Somehow, no one seems to have noticed these affairs at the time. To be sure, Markale, p. 13, says that Chretien de Troyes used Eleanor as the model for his Guinevere, and hence presumably for Guinevere's affair with Lancelot. But Markale, pp. 79-80, notes that when Eleanor's marriage to Louis was dissolved, the council involved formally refuted the charge of adultery. Although this might have been a political decision -- divorce on the grounds of adultery would have rendered her children illegitimate and would surely have caused her to contest the case.
Shakespeare made her a "cank'red grandam" in Act II, scene I of "King John," but given Shakespeare's record of falsehoods, that may be a compliment.
Moderns have a strong tendency to link Eleanor with the troubadours and the idea of Courtly Love -- which said, in essence, that love couldn't exist in marriage; only unattainable love was real. The link is certainly possible -- the troubadours, after all, originated in Aquitaine, and Eleanor's own grandfather was one of the founders of the movement. And Boyd, p. 29, says that one of Eleanor's "less glorious distinctions is to be the only woman recorded as having unleashed a war in support of a sister's right to marry the man she loved."
But Owen, p. 152, points out that the stories of Eleanor managing "Courts of Love" are exaggerated -- the main account is from one Andrew the Chaplain (cited on pp. 153-154 of Owen), and the "cases" Eleanor judges are too conveniently like the Queen's own history to be believable. Tyerman, p. 197, adds that some of the details about Eleanor's practices are "fiction"; she wasn't where the tales put her when they put her there.
And if Eleanor encouraged the troubadours, or even composed herself, that doesn't mean she engaged in actual hanky-panky.
What's more, Eleanor had a real reason to be against the conventions of courtly love -- because her grandfather had abandoned her grandmother and openly taken up with a concubine (Meade, pp. 15-16). Given all the trouble that caused, Eleanor would have had every reason to have tried to maintain a stable married life.
Warren-Henry, p. 583, comments that stories of Eleanor presiding over "courts of love" or the like "may have owed something to the flirtatious, romantic young woman who had at one time graced the court of Paris... but owed nothing to the matriarch and hard-headed politician that Eleanor became in later life."
Might Eleanor have slept with the future Earl Marshal? She did show him favor (Owen, p. 57). He helped rescue her from an ambush in 1168 (Kelly, p. 154), and when he was captured (after being stabbed from behind after unhorsing six enemies while himself fighting on foot, according to McLynn, p. 63), she contributed to his ransom (Boyd, p. 183). But he spent more time serving Henry II.
Although we don't know his exact age, it is surely relevant. Powicke, p. 17, says he was about 80 when he died in 1219, meaning he was born in 1139 -- but "eighty" is suspiciously round; I strongly suspect it was a chronicler saying simply that he was "very old," based on the Biblical "three score and ten" or even "four score." Plus, in 1189 while guarding Henry II's rearguard from an attack by Prince Richard, the Marshal was still skilled enough to deliberately kill Richard's horse while not injuring the Prince (McLynn, p. 114). This would be tricky for a 50-year-old; a later date for Marshal's birth seems far more likely. Kelly, p. 248, and Boyd, p. 236, make him only 35 in 1189 when Henry II died. This would mean he was born in 1153 -- almost impossibly young, since he was able to fight off six men in 1168. The best guess is that William Marshal was born in 1147 (so OxfordCompanion, p. 622; Tyerman, p. 285), although Owen, p. 57, implies he was a few years older.
If the 1147 date is correct, that makes the Marshal 25 years younger than Eleanor (he would outlive her by 15 years, dying in 1219). Even if we say he was born in 1139 (the earliest possible date) and Eleanor was born in 1125 (the latest possible date), she was 14 years older. Eleanor's oldest child, Marie, was born in 1145 (Owen, p. 20) -- quite possibly before the Marshal was born. Eleanor and Henry had married in 1152, when the Marshal was no more than 13 and probably only about five. Those facts obviously make it impossible for him to have taken her maidenhead. That doesn't make it impossible that he slept with her. But, even granting that Eleanor was considered a great beauty in her day, what are the odds that the Marshal would have wanted to sleep with a woman who was old enough to be his mother?
Marshal was only a younger son of a minor nobleman; he did not become an earl until 1189, after Henry II died, when Richard I allowed him to marry Isabella, the heiress of Pembroke (OxfordCompanion, p. 622). (Thus his proper title was "Earl of Pembroke," not "Earl Marshal." But everyone seems to have called him the "Earl Marshal"). But Henry II never knew him by that title.
Nor would King Henry's promise not to write anything down have cut much weight, since his word was not particularly good.
I note that the Marshal fell out of favor with King John soon after Eleanor died, not to be restored until near the end of the reign. But the reason did not involve Eleanor: Marshal had conceded the loss of Normandy and done homage to the French for his estates there (Warren-John, pp. 114-115).
Although he was first famous as a fighter (Boyd, p. 188, says that he captured more than 500 men in tournaments!), Marshal also was noted as an honorable man, and came to be regarded as wise. When King John died in 1216 and someone was needed to govern the country during the minority of Henry III, the Marshal was not only given the job, he was given unusual powers: "The wish of those gathered together at Gloucester was that the old earl marshal should assume the responsibility for the protection of Henry and his kingdom. The marshal was reluctant.... [After a second request backed by Earl Ranulf of Chester, who arrived late], the marshal agreed. In the words of his biographer, he was given the baillie of the kingdom.... The marshal became rector of king and kingdom. He is so styled a few days later in the first reissue of [the Magna Carta]" (Powicke, p. 2).
(The mere fact that he had a biographer is interesting; Tyerman, p. 286, says that he was "the subject of the first medieval biography of a layman who was not a king." Although it's a pretty folkloric biography; early in life, Marshal was taken prisoner by King Stephen, who threatened to hang him unless his father behaved. The father supposedly answered Stephen that he could produce even greater sons -- and Stephen led the lad live; Davis, p. 34. But this same story is told of other nobles, e.g. of Lord Strange, the son of Lord Stanley, when Lord Stanley was rebelling against Richard III. I'll believe such tales when they are properly documented....)
When John died, he had lost most of England; the Welsh were attacking across the Marches; the Scots had taken control of the northern counties, and either the French or rebel barons held London, Winchester (the site of the richest bishopric in the country; in effect, the second financial center), and Lincoln, plus all of the ports on the coastline toward France except Dover (Davis, p. 29). As a nation, England seemed doomed to be taken over by France. John's death helped, since it eliminated the personal animosities that led to the rebellions. But it was William Marshal who saved England.
The Marshal drove the invading French out of England, mostly by capturing the fortresses of Kent and the southeast and so cutting their communications with France (Powicke, pp. 9-10) and then winning a battle at Lincoln (Powicke, pp. 11-12), causing many of the rebellious English barons to return to their allegiance. The English paid a fairly big monetary settlement to speed the French on their way (Powicke, p. 14). Would the barons have trusted Marshal with their money if he were scandal-tainted?
The Marshal died in 1219 -- and declared that he should have no successor as regent, possibly to keep people from conspiring for the job (Davis, . 49). As he lay dying, he consulted a number of spiritual advisors. He was worried about the wealth he gained at tournaments. He said farewell to his wife and daughters. He called upon the Papal legate Pandulf to help govern the kingdom until the young Henry III reached his majority. He made other arrangements (Powicke, p. 17). If he said anything at all about Eleanor, the record does not survive.
It is well-known that John was Henry II's favorite of his four sons (e.g. McLynn, pp. 76-77). But he was the baby of the family, born in 1166 (so Kelly, p. 103; Markale, p. 44; McLynn, p. 26; Owen, p. 55) or perhaps 1167 (so some chronicles). Since Eleanor and Henry were together relatively rarely in the 1160s, John was the obvious candidate for the cuckoo's egg. Would he have been Henry's favorite had there been any possibility he was illegitimate?
(Note that, while John was not as tall and splendid as his older brothers, he certainly had Angevin traits such as violent rages. McLynn, p. 94, describes what sounds like an obsessive-compulsive tendency toward biting his fingers when enraged which John shared with Henry II.)
Before you ask -- as far as I know, no DNA testing has been applied.
Bottom line: Although it is possible that Eleanor of Aquitaine had extramarital affairs (possible, but beyond proof), we have no evidence of it. (If you want my personal opinion -- I don't think she did. Yes, Eleanor schemed, and yes, she tried to manage her husbands, without success, and her sons, with better success. That doesn't make her a philanderer. Women are generally not as tempted to sleep around as men -- and the risk for them was higher.) And if she did sleep around, it probably wasn't with the Marshal.
Of course, it doesn't matter what she actually did -- what matters is what the person who wrote this ballad *thought* she did. And they thought the worst. More than a century ago, Bishop William Stubbs accurately wrote, "Few women have had less justice done them in history than Eleanor" (cited by Meade on p. ix).
In a footnote, although Marshall almost certainly did not sleep with a queen, his descendent did. Marshall had a daughter Eva, whose daughter Maud de Braose was the grandmother of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore (Mortimer, pp. 11-12). Mortimer would later become involved with Isabella of France, the wife of King Edward II -- and would be instrumental in the overthrow of Edward II.
I have to mention another possibility, having to do with Courtly Love. The quasi-official doctrine of this movement was that "One cannot love one's own wife but must love the wife of some other man" (Wagenknecht, p. 243). Could this song be a send-up of the Courtly Love notion which somehow survived? The obvious difficulty being that this would require a very long survival of a song that would likely have originally been French. I don't really consider it likely.
Still, the chronology makes it certain that, if "Queen Eleanor's Confession" is based on actual fact, then Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine cannot possibly be the monarchs involved. Are there other possibilities to explain the song?
If one moves the story to the time of Henry III (reigned 1216-1272), who married Eleanor of Provence, we should note that by the time the third Henry married Eleanor at the age of 28 in 1236, the Marshal line was on the brink of extinction; Henry had hounded Richard the third Earl to death, leaving the earldom in the hands of his brother Gilbert (Davis, p. 100), who in turn was quarreling with Henry by Christmas 1238 (Davis, p. 122) and died in 1245 (Davis, p. 154). Besides, Henry and Eleanor seem to have had a good marriage (Davis, p.109); she was only twelve or thirteen at the time of her marriage, and seems to have been quiet and unassertive (Davis, p. 110); the two never became involved in scandal. And after that, there are no instances of a King Henry marrying an Eleanor. (I do note, however, that Margaret of Anjou the wife of Henry VI was widely believed to have had an affair with a member of her court.)
It does occur to me, however, that there is a just-barely-possible explanation for this song, which actually fits the twelfth century, except that it does not involve King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Henry and Eleanor's eldest son was Henry "the Young King" (so-called because he was crowned as his father's successor while Henry II was still alive; Ashley, p. 522). Henry the Younger was married to Margaret, a daughter of French King Louis VII by one of his later wives (Ashley, p. 522).
What makes it interesting is that Gillingham reports (p. 89) that in the 1180s -- shortly before the death of Henry the Young King -- there were rumors that William the Marshal (not yet an earl) was the lover of Margaret the wife of Henry the Younger. And Margaret, although she had no power at all (Henry the Young King had very little, and he didn't share what she had), had been officially crowned as his Queen.
Henry had probably been jealous of Marshal even before that, since Marshal had a much stronger reputation as a fighter, and also was considered better surety for debts (McLynn, p. 64). When even his wife seemed to be showing a liking for Marshal (although there is no hint that it was sexual), the Young King dismissed Marshal from his entourage (McLynn, p. 65). But Henry "could neither put a stop to the gossip nor put William on trial" (Gillingham, p. 89). As Warren-Henry puts it on p. 582, "Henry the Younger, refusing either to disbelieve the charges or to allow William to prove them false, deprived himself of the one man who could perhaps have dissuaded him from the ultimate foolishness of his behavior in 1182-1183."
Marshal, incidentally, offered to take on any three accusers (one at a time, of course), in a trial by ordeal to prove his innocence (Kelly, pp. 209-210). Because Marshal was such a noteworthy warrior, no one dared take up the challenge. And not even Henry the elder seemed to take the gossip seriously; when the younger Henry died, he gave Margaret a pension (Warren-Henry, p. 609).
Thus, if we replace Henry II with Henry the Young King, the Earl Marshal with William the Marshal who would later be earl, and Queen Eleanor with Queen Margaret, this song becomes possible.
Apart from the pesky detail that Margaret outlived the Young King, anyway. And that Marshal was given his earldom by Richard I after both Henry the elder and Henry the younger were dead (Gillingham, p. 125).
Henry the Younger was eventually reconciled with Marshal. According to McLynn, p. 73, in the 1183 conflict between the Old King and his sons, the man who had accused Marshal of adultery concluded that Henry II would win their conflict and fled the Young King's entourage. The Young King concluded that the fellow was lying, and therefore that theMarshal was innocent -- although it hardly mattered at that point, since the Young King died so soon after.
A slightly more reasonable possibility arises if we wait a generation. There *is* a link between an Earl Marshall and an Eleanor of the English royal family. The second Earl Marshal married Eleanor, the sister of Henry III (and hence the granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine) in the 1220s (Davis, p. 65) -- although the relationship didn't last long; Marshal died in 1231, shortly after another marriage between the families; Marshal's sister married Henry III's brother Richard of Cornwall (Davis, p. 84). Eleanor Plantagenet then married Simon de Montfort (Davis, p. 117), who would later come very close to overthrowing Henry. Thus Eleanor Plantagenet might well have turned against Henry III, but she could hardly have cuckolded him since she never married him!
The second Marshal's brother Richard, who became the third earl, ended up being branded a traitor by Henry III in 1233 (Davis, p. 93) -- which naturally forced him into rebellion, the first foretaste of the many troubles Henry would experience in his 56 year reign. Eventually Richard Marshal died, suspiciously, after a surgical operation (Davis, p. 98). Is it possible that the marriage of an obscure Earl Marshall and an obscure Eleanor (the sister, rather than the wife, of a King Henry) got projected back onto a more famous Henry, Eleanor, and Earl?
In any case, Owen, p. 161, says that for most of the Eleanor stories, "history has been the starting point for legendary development. With 'Queen Eleanor's Confession' the process has been reversed. There a popular tale had brought to the mind of some balladeer memories of the English queen as he understood her to have been; and he amused himself and us by casting her in the ready-made role he found there. Her 'confessions' are, of course, part of her legend; but the frame-story is from another, independent tradition." On p. 160 he notes that the theme of a husband hearing his wife's confession are found in a French fabliau and in Boccaccio. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Ashley: Mike Ashley, British Kings and Queens, Barnes & Noble, 2000 (originally published as The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens, 1998)
- Boyd: Douglas Boyd, April Queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine, 2004; I use the 2011 History Press edition
- Chambers: E. K. Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1945, 1947
- Dahmus: Joseph Dahmus, Seven Medieval Kings, 1967 (I use the 1994 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Davis: John Paul Davis, The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III, Peter Owen, 2013
- Dobson/Taylor: R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, University of Pittsburg Press, 1976
- Fawtier: Robert Fawtier, The Capetian Kings of France: Monarchy and Nation 987-1328, (Les Capetiens et la France) translated by Lionel Butler and R J Adam, 1960 (I use the 1985 St. Martin's paperback edition)
- Gillingham: John Gillingham, Richard the Lionheart, Times Books, 1978
- Harvey: John Harvey, The Plantagenets, 1948, 1959 (I use the 1979 Fontana paperback edition)
- Kelly: Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, Harvard University Press, 1950
- Lofts: Norah Lofts, Anne Boleyn, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979
- Markale: Jean Markale (translated by Jon E. Graham), Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of the Troubadours (French title: La vie, la legende, l'influence d'Alienor), 1979, 2000; English edition, Inner Traditions, 2007
- McLynn: Frank McLynn, Richard & John: Kings at War, Da Capo, 2007
- Meade: Marion Meade, Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography, 1977 (I use the 1991 Penguin paperback edition)
- Mortimer: Ian Mortimer, The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England: 1327-1330, 2003 (I use the 2006 Thomas Dunne Books edition)
- Oldenbourg: Zoe Oldenbourg, The Crusades, translated from the French by Anne Carter, Pantheon Books, 1966 (French original Les Crusades published 1965)
- OxfordCompanion: John Cannon, editor, The Oxford Companion to British History, Oxford, 1997
- Powicke: Sir Maurice Powicke, The Thirteen Century, 1216-1307, Oxford, 1962 (I use the 1998 Oxford paperback edition
- Runciman: Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1188, 1951 (I use the 1993 Cambridge paperback reprint)
- Saul: Nigel Saul, The Three Richards: Richard I, Richard II and Richard III, Hambledon & London, 2005
- Tyerman: Christopher Tyerman, Who's Who in Early Medieval England (1066-1272), (being the second volume in the Who's Who in British History series), Shepheard-Walwyn, 1996
- Wagenknecht: Edward Wagenknecht, Editor, Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, Galaxy, 1959 (I use the sixth printing of 1963)
- Warren-Henry: W. L. Warren, Henry II, 1973 (I use the 1977 University of California Press paperback edition)
- Warren-John: W. L. Warren, King John, 1961 (I use the 1978 University of California paperback edition)
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