Biographies & Memoirs

18 The Grandmother of Europe


‘If the queen of England thinks a person good enough for her daughter, what have other people got to say?’

Queen Victoria

‘her [Eleanor’s] better points come out most strongly in her old age, when we see her, between seventy and eighty years old, running about from one end of Europe to another to patch up truces and to make peaces …. She had engaged in a lifelong quarrel with her first husband in 1150, and with her second in 1173; now in 1200 she fetches a grand-daughter of the second to marry the grandson of the first, as a pledge of harmony between the sons of the two.’

Bishop Stubbs

One may claim without exaggeration that as a dynast Eleanor of Aquitaine was very much a precursor of queen Victoria. The soubriquet ‘grandmother of Europe’ has been bestowed on the latter, but it belongs no less to Eleanor. Her daughters were the queens of Castile and Sicily, and the consorts of the counts of Blois, Champagne and Toulouse and the duke of Saxony. Two grandsons were Holy Roman Emperors and another three were kings of England, Castile and Jerusalem. Her grand-daughters sat on the thrones of France, Portugal and Scotland, and an illegitimate one was princess of Wales. Louis IX, ‘Saint Louis’, who was to be the most venerated of all French kings, was one of her great-grandsons. Furthermore, her son John’s descendants in the direct male line were to rule England until 1485.

She had always taken care to arrange good marriages for her daughters. Apart from that of Joanna to Raymond of Toulouse, they appear to have been successful enough from a worldly viewpoint. Indeed, when making such alliances the old queen may even have taken personal considerations into account, remembering her own unhappy marriages. In 1199 she must surely have been deeply affected not only by Richard’s death but also by the tragic end of Joanna of Toulouse. By now, of all Eleanor’s daughters only Eleanor of Castile was still alive, and no doubt her mother wished to see her again. But surely the old woman’s principal reason for visiting Spain, and for undertaking so wearisome a journey at her great age, was to choose the more suitable of her two unmarried Castilian grand-daughters as a bride for king Philip’s son. As has already been said, she probably believed that the future of the Angevin empire could depend on this marriage.

Accordingly the queen mother set out for Castile in December 1199, even before her son had made peace with king Philip. Perhaps ironically she found herself threatened by an ambush, as on so many of her journeys in the past. This time it was successful, although she had a formidable escort that included not only the archbishop of Bordeaux but also the redoubtable Mercadier, who had entered her service. The no doubt indignant old queen found herself the captive of her long-standing enemies, the Lusignan family, having been taken prisoner by Hugh IX of Lusignan, ‘Hugh the Brown’; he demanded that she should reinstate him in his father’s county of La Marche, of which he was overlord. Eleanor had no option but to agree; the alternative was a humiliating and frustrating captivity.


The queen mother reached Castile in the middle of January 1200, so she must have crossed the Pyrenees in the depths of winter, presumably through the pass of Roncesvalles, riding over the snow. We do not know exactly where she joined the Castilian court, but it was probably at the capital, Toledo, or at Burgos. In its own way this was a court as opulent and exotic as those of Jerusalem and Sicily, filled with Moorish luxuries and slaves. Moreover, like those at Poitiers in the old days, its courtiers knew how to appreciate Provencal verse and the songs of the troubadours, many of whom had found a sympathetic refuge in Castile. King Alfonso VIII — ‘the Noble’ — was a brilliant figure, as cultivated as he was warlike and a patron of literature. His marriage to Eleanor’s daughter seems to have been a happy one and they had eleven children.

There was an abundance of marriageable royal daughters in Castile. One was already betrothed to the future king of Leon, but there were two others. The elder, Urraca, seems to have been considered the obvious choice and no doubt expected to be chosen on grounds of seniority. Yet Eleanor was not easy to please, as both Alice of France and Constance of Brittany had discovered. The dictatorial old lady decided that she preferred the youngest of her Castilian grand-daughters, Blanca, who was just thirteen. Eleanor’s somewhat unconvincing reason was that the name Urraca would seem too harsh and unmusical to French ears, whereas that of Blanca would sound better across the Pyrenees. Urraca would have to be content with the kingdom of Portugal. The old queen’s choice was to be justified. Blanca’s son, St Louis, would owe much to his Castilian mother. Shakespeare preserves the memory of her beauty:

If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,

Where should he find it fairer than in Blanch?

If zealous love should go in search of virtue,

Where should he find it purer than in Blanch?

If love ambitious sought a match of birth,

Whose veins bound richer blood than lady Blanch?

Eleanor remained in Spain for two months. Her long stay may have been partly due to exhaustion, but in any case no marriage could be solemnized during Lent, so there was no urgency. Nevertheless she and her grand-daughter left in good time to be able to celebrate Easter at Bordeaux, which they reached during Holy Week. Here the old queen — and indeed king John — suffered a serious loss: on Easter Monday, Mercadier was killed by another mercenary in a duel. Eleanor had been deprived of her best general. Grandmother and grand-daughter continued the journey without further incident and in May Blanca — henceforward known as Blanche — was married to Louis of France by the archbishop of Bordeaux. The service had to take place in Normandy, because France was still under pope Innocent’s interdict. But Eleanor was not present. She had gone back to Fontevrault, nowadays her only real home, ‘worn out by the labours of her journey and by old age’. No doubt she confidently expected the marriage to establish a lasting peace between Capetian and Plantagenet. She had reckoned without king John’s own match-making.

The English king had been married to Isabella of Gloucester since he was twenty-one (indeed, he had been betrothed to her since he was nine) and he must once have been profoundly grateful to gain the hand of the heiress to the richest earldom in England. But unfortunately Isabella was childless and, to judge from the number and age of his bastards, the king had frequently consoled himself with mistresses for several years. The contemporary chronicler of the dukes of Normandy (on the whole a trustworthy witness) refers to John’s notorious lechery, calling him ‘cruel towards all men and too covetous of pretty ladies’. He also seems to have liked young girls, a weakness that was to involve him in serious trouble.

In 1199 John divorced Isabella of Gloucester, although she had only recently been crowned with him. It was all too easy to obtain an annulment from Innocent III on the grounds of consanguinity, as she was his second cousin and shared Henry I of England with him as a great-grandfather. The king had no desire to be succeeded by Arthur, who was the only other surviving Plantagenet. He therefore sent envoys to king Sancho of Portugal to ask for the hand of his daughter. But suddenly, at the very last moment, he changed his mind and forgot the Portugese alliance altogether.

While the English envoys were in Portugal during the summer of 1200, king John was making a progress through Poitou. The dangerous Lusignan family had now become his allies since they had got possession of La Marche, and to make the reconciliation complete John visited them at Lusignan, where he was splendidly received. Amid all the festivities he was presented to the beautiful Isabella of Angoulême, the daughter and heiress of count Aymar of Angoulême. She was no more than fourteen — perhaps only twelve — and was betrothed to the head of the Lusignan clan, count Hugh the Brown (the man who had recently ambushed queen Eleanor on her way to Castile), and in 1200 a formal betrothal was almost as binding as a marriage that had been comsummated. Although he himself was thirty-five John immediately fell in love with the girl, and where his lusts were concerned the king had no restraint whatsoever. (William of Newburgh tells us that John hated a certain Eustace fitz John simply because he had placed ‘a common woman’ in the royal bed instead of his own wife.) Moreover, it was rumoured that the young Isabella actually enticed the king and led him on. Hugh the Brown, unsuspecting and only too anxious to be of service to his generous overlord, was sent on a mission to England to keep him out of the way. To Hugh’s complete surprise, he suddenly received news in August that king John had just married his betrothed at Angoulême with her father’s full approval.

As a marriage the alliance was reasonably successful. Isabella of Angoulême gave the king all the children he wanted, although he still kept plenty of mistresses. She herself, it was rumoured, was promiscuous and John was even said to have imprisoned her on occasions. But this seems to be a smear put about by the king’s enemies and is not supported by any convincing evidence.

Diplomatically the marriage was a disaster. Some historians argue unconvincingly that John’s marriage to Isabella of Angoulême was a carefully considered move. It is true that she was the heiress of the count of Angoulême, who was also the half-brother of the count of Limoges and had a better claim to La Marche than Hugh the Brown. But the king must have known that he was exchanging one new friend for a host of enemies. And it is perfectly clear that by accepting Hugh’s occupation of La Marche John had hoped to secure his loyalty. Hugh would never forgive the loss of his prospects of succeeding to the county of Angoulême. Moreover, he may well have loved Isabella for her own sake: after the king’s death he eventually managed to marry her. John’s passion for his child bride was so great that men said that he seemed as if chained to his bed. On the whole, then, the traditional story that John was overcome by lust, and disregarded every other consideration, carries conviction.

The Lusignan family were numerous and energetic. Besides Hugh there was his brother Ralph, count of Eu, their uncle Geoffrey, and his two sons. All were excellent soldiers; they were also rich and powerful, and allied to barons throughout Poitou and, to a lesser extent, Normandy. They were determined to have their revenge, and early in 1201 they rose in revolt. Eleanor, who was ill after her journey, knew that if the Lusignan rising was mishandled, serious trouble would ensue. In February she wrote from Fontevrault to John in England about the situation. Her letter is curiously intimate, almost chatty. ‘I wish to tell you, my very dear son, that during my sickness I invited our cousin Amaury of Thouars to come and see me, and the pleasure of his visit did me a great deal of good. Only he, out of all your barons in Poitou has not done us any injury or stolen any of your lands …. He has promised to do everything he can to recover for you these lands and castles.’ It was something of an achievement to win over viscount Amaury, who was Arthur’s uncle by marriage and a former enemy. But most of the Poitevin lords supported the Lusignan faction or at least sympathized with them. In addition, their friends in Normandy began to stir, although John largely forestalled trouble here by ordering his seneschal to seize all Lusignan castles.

It was only a matter of time before king Philip would try to exploit the quarrel. By his lust and stupidity John had doomed the peace by which his mother set such store. Her brave journey to Castile had not, after all, saved the Angevin empire.

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