Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Henry, Eleanor and their Empire

Steve Muhlberger

We begin the second term of this course with the reign of Henry II, grandson of Henry I through his daughter Matilda ("the Empress"), son of Count Geoffrey of Anjou.    Henry is the first of the "Angevin" or "Plantagenet" dynasty:    Angevin is derived from Anjou, and the name Plantagenet came from the broom plant, which was Henry's father's badge or symbol.

Henry II came to power (in 1154) facing a number of challenges -- for instance, rebuilding  royal authority in England after a period of civil war.  At the same time, the mid-twelfth century was a a dynamic and interesting period, one  when a talented and determined ruler -- and Henry was both -- could make a big mark.

Let's begin this lecture by sketching some of the main features of the 12th century as they affected England.

England at this time was very much affected by important pan-European developments.

During the the century and a half following the Norman invasion of England (1066 to 1216) the rulers of England had extensive  continental holdings.

During the same period European culture as a whole was becoming more vigorous, both materially and culturally:  this is sometimes called the Twelfth Century Renaissance.

Economic factors:

Compared to other parts of the world, northern and western Europe had always before been economically backward.   Its agriculture was less productive than that of the older countries of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and as far as trade went, it was in a subordinate position to countries more centrally located in the "Old World."   Which was the chicken and which was the egg is hard to say:   did unproductive agriculture doom northern Europe to a stagnant commercial economy, or was the lack of markets responsible for stagnant agriculture?

In the 11th and 12th centuries, both agriculture and commerce increased dramatically.

In agriculture, the development of new tools -- especially better plows -- made practical better yields out of the same lands.   Indeed, wastelands that had seldom or ever been cultivated were brought under the plow, and forests were cleared.   There was an increase in population, and work for them to do.

At the same time, trade  of all sorts, in staples as well as luxuries, increased. More people could buy and more could live by selling. This is a great period for urban growth. Specialists in trade and industry gathered together in old towns or in brand new ones, and recreated an urban style of living that had hardly existed in most of western Europe since the sixth century.

As a result, Western Europe as a whole expanded. No longer were the Latin Christian countries victimized by pagan or Muslim neighbors; on the contrary, they became the aggressors. The first Crusade was launched in 1095, and expeditions to the Middle East continued until nearly 1400. Spanish Christians were simultaneously conquering the Muslim-ruled part of their own country. And the conquest and Christianization of the pagans of the Baltic began in the twelfth century.

The new prosperity had definite cultural effects. It was not a simple matter of renewed contact with more developed Greek and Arabic cultures. The availability of resources made experiments possible.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw a renaissance in Latin and classical learning, the revival of logic as a method of dealing with intellectual, religious, and practical problems. Such learning, although still restricted to a small minority, became much more common. An international intellectual class (made up well-educated clerics) came into existence, and an international networks of schools was created.   Our universities owe their origins to this period.

Nor was culture restricted to the Latin-literate clergy. The same time saw the knightly aristocracy of western Europe, up till now a pretty rough bunch, develop its own literary tradition. The first chivalric epics, like the Song of Roland, were entirely devoted to war, very much as Beowulf had been. Soon enough, however, a more courtly element crept in. Poems were devoted to both adventure and love, and presented a picture of the knight as a tender lover as well as a tough fighter. Thus the troubadour poetry and the romances, which were tales of adventure and love usually set in a fictional or fictionalized land where wonders were common. The romance tradition early on became attached to the legend of King Arthur -- the most influential stories of Arthur and his Round Table were invented in this period to please the knightly class -- though many worldly clerics both wrote and appreciated them.

This is also the era when the knightly class adopted the tournament as their central ritual of prowess, courtesy, and what we think of as chivalry.

All of this progress and change had taken place despite a general political fragmentation -- or perhaps because of it. The new, smaller, but more cohesive communities that had grown up in the ruins of the empire of Charlemagne provided an environment where variety and experimentation could flourish without a lot of unwelcome attention from despotic emperors. Western European rulers in general did not have the power to be despotic.

Whatever the reasons, Western Europe's culture in the twelfth century was, on the aristocratic and clerical level, as international as it had been in late Roman times. England participated in it fully. For instance, the only Englishman to become pope was elected in the time of Henry II.

Henry II and and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, helped the process along. They were king and queen of England -- but they were both born and raised on the continent, held important ancestral properties there, spent most of their lives there. They were living manifestations of intense contact between England and the continent.

Henry II's intimate political involvement in French affairs is rather staggering to the modern mind, which thinks of England and France as nation-states of quite distinct character. His paternal inheritance, his maternal inheritance, and his wife's property, taken together, amounted to a claim to nearly half of the kingdom of France. This territory, with England added in, is often called the Angevin Empire by modern historians (no one called it that in the 12th century).

Let's start with the most familiar part of the so-called empire, the maternal inheritance. This is not quite an accurate designation, because Matilda lived on for years after Henry became king. In any case, Henry through luck and the hard work of his parents, had succeeded to the position held by his mother's father, Henry I. Henry II was king of England, and enjoyed an ill defined overlordship over Wales and northern Britain. During his lifetime, Henry was able to increase the effectiveness of that vague overlordship. As ruler of England, he was potentially very powerful, if he could enforce the kind of obedience that his grandfather had enjoyed. Henry II was also duke of Normandy through his mother. Normandy before 1100 had been a bellicose place, a good source of tough warriors for its duke, but a difficult land to control. Henry I had changed that. Normandy had become one of the most firmly governed of the French principalities. Here again, Henry II had great prospects if he could get his act together. Finally this maternal inheritance included the traditional predominance of Normandy over some of the neighboring areas, such as Brittany. There was no institutional basis for this predominance, so it was unstable.

From his father, Geoffrey, Henry II inherited the county of Anjou and the attached areas of Maine (often in the past disputed with Normandy) and Touraine. This Angevin principality was, like the Norman one, a strongly governed one. Henry's paternal ancestors had been a crafty, ruthless bunch, who firmly nailed down everything they were able to grab. The Angevin lands were no doubt prosperous in this period, too. They were located on the Loire river, a miserable place to be when Vikings used it as a raiding highway, but in the more peaceful twelfth century it must have been quite wealthy.

The third part of Henry's empire was his wife's great principality, the duchy of Aquitaine (also known in part as Gascony). This was an entirely different kettle of fish from Anjou or the Anglo-Norman realm. It was big, it was prosperous, it was culturally very active, but it was not strongly governed.  Eleanor's territory was in fact a number of distinct counties and lordships. Despite the lofty title of duke that her father had enjoyed, he had never exercised the kind of power over his diverse lordships that Henry I or Geoffrey of Anjou had in their lands. The sole unifying factor holding the duchy together was the person of the ruler, who held various rights in various places. There were no unifying institutions that covered the entire principality. Thus Eleanor's part of Henry's empire demanded special attention from its ruler.

The Angevin Empire was not an institution, but a personal ascendancy. In many parts of it, Henry had no more than a bundle of diverse rights and properties, which he could only exploit through constant hard riding from one corner of his empire to another and, perhaps, the aid of a few trusted deputies.

The most important of Henry's deputies was his own wife Eleanor. She played a key role in English politics for nearly half a century.

Eleanor came from a family that was not only rich and powerful, but fashionable as well. Her grandfather, the ninth Duke William of Aquitaine, was one of the very first troubadours, writing erotic and courtly poetry in the dialect of southern France. Thus the Aquitainian court was one of the first places that the new chivalric culture of the twelfth century appeared. Eleanor herself is often credited with a central role in spreading the ideals of courtly, that is refined, love to northern France and England, on no very strong evidence. But I think we can take it for granted that Eleanor was a patron of good living, southern French style, wherever she went.

Eleanor was the only child of William X of Aquitaine.  William had decided that Eleanor's principality could not survive unless she was married to a lord of sufficient prestige and power. His choice was Louis VII of France.  As king and ultimate overlord of France, Louis also had a paramount legal position that would help him defend the integrity of Aquitaine from other greedy types.

It was a good plan, but personal factors and chance sabotaged it. Louis and Eleanor did not get along very well. In part it may have been a difference of style. The court of Paris was very pious and took much of its tone from prominent monks, first Abbot Suger and then Bernard of Clairvaux, the famous promoter of the strict Cistercian order. Bernard in particular disapproved of Eleanor's worldly ways, and tried to shut her out of politics.

Also, her free and easy personal style gave rise to a scandals -- notably the rumor that she had committed adultery with her uncle in the course of the Second Crusade, which she took part in along with Louis. The marriage probably would have survived, however, if a male heir had been born. Eleanor had only daughters, though, and by 1152, both Louis and Eleanor were fed up with each other. They got a divorce in the only way it was possible in the twelfth century -- after fifteen years, they suddenly discovered that they were too closely related for their marriage to be valid, and got the pope to annul it.

It is significant that as soon as the annulment came through, Eleanor made a new alliance with the second most powerful man in France, Henry II, who was duke of Normandy and count of Anjou and about to win the English throne. I imagine that she felt that she could teach this promising young man a thing or two, and that their combined properties would make their court the premier court of Europe.

In the early years, the new partnership worked well. Eleanor was a key figure in Henry's regime. Without the personal loyalty of the Aquitanian aristocracy, Henry had no chance in that part of his empire; with her, he had a fighting chance. But Eleanor was not just a figurehead, she was an active partner -- Henry entrusted the English regency to her more than once when he had to be on the continent. Eleanor also provided Henry with not one but four male heirs.

As the years went on, however, Henry got tired of Eleanor.  Henry, who had been glad to have a well-endowed and politically experienced wife when he was eighteen, wanted when he was thirty or so to be the absolute boss. His willfulness towards others is well attested. So Henry took lovers and shut Eleanor out of his confidence. Many of the troubles that afflicted Henry in the second half of his reign came from the alienation between him and Eleanor. She found ways to make trouble for him. Henry found it difficult to deal with his sons once they grew up, and Eleanor was always there to encourage them to revolt. Henry imprisoned Eleanor off and on, but he could never afford to get rid of her -- the Aquitaine was hers, not his.

But in the 1150s and the early 1160s, there was no rift between Henry and Eleanor, and they could concentrate on turning their theoretical powers into a reality. In these years, Henry's policy in France, surprisingly enough, hinged on maintaining good relations with Eleanor's first husband, Louis of France, who was his overlord in Normandy, Anjou and elsewhere in his continental possessions.

The perennial problem of kings and princes in the middle ages was to maintain control over their vassals, their military subordinates, on whose loyalty their effective power depended. From the vassal's point of view, the problem was to gain recognition from the prince that the fiefs he, the vassal, held, were hereditary possessions, not to be taken from his family for any trivial reasons. There was a conflict of interest here. To resolve it lords and vassals were evolving during the twelfth century a code of conduct, usually called feudal law, which specified their respective rights and duties.

For instance, feudal custom established that there were certain circumstances in which a vassal was entitled to revolt against his lord -- but any other type of betrayal allowed the lord to confiscate the vassal's fief.

Since Henry was the lord of innumerable vassals, it was in his interest to encourage them to observe this feudal code. Thus it was necessary for him to set a good example to them. Henry was the vassal, many times over, of the French king. He felt it incumbent upon him to be a good vassal. So Henry was the first English king in a long time to swear fealty for Normandy and his other French territories.

There was a time when Henry passed up a rich conquest rather than be seen as defying his lord the king illegitimately. In 1159, Henry was in a position to seize the county of Toulouse in the far south of France; Eleanor's family had a long-standing claim to the area. Count Raymond of Toulouse appealed to his overlord, Louis, for support. Louis had no army big enough to beat Henry, but entered Toulouse anyway, so that an attack on the city would be an attack on him. Henry backed off.

Much of Henry's later life was blighted by his struggles with his own wife and sons, which involved him in wars he could never finally win. But the first decade or so of his reign were a great success.
He was able to act the part of the greatest prince in Europe, more or less.   This was possible because Henry, like the earlier Norman kings, was able to use the revenues he enjoyed as king of England to finance an adventurous policy in France.

How did Henry manage this?   Last we looked, England was in chaos and royal authority had been sorely diminished by the rivalries of Empress Matilda and King Stephen.   To understand Henry's position, and gauge his considerable success, we have to look at how he restored royal power in England.


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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.