Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Eleanor And Henry (And Richard And John)

Under the transept in the Fontevraud abbey church, you will see the funerary sculptures, called gisants, of Henry, Eleanor, Richard, and Isabelle. Who were they, you may wonder? Let's see if I can mangle a little bit of European history.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II Plantagenet.

Henry was Henry II Plantagenet, King of England. Eleanor, his wife, was Aliénor d'Aquitaine. The Aquitaine is a large chunk of land in southwestern France and it belonged to her. She inherited it from her father, William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, a big muckity-muck and supporter of King Louis VI of France. Duke William died, supposedly from food poisoning, in 1137. He bequeathed his titles, land, and Eleanor's future to the French king, who swiftly married her (and her wealth) to his son. She was fifteen years old at the time.

The groom became King Louis VII of France in the year of their marriage, and he and Eleanor later took off to fight in the Second Crusade. The family that fights together... Well, they got on each others nerves a lot and upon returning decided to have their marriage annulled. Louis got their two daughters; Eleanor got her land and titles back. Divorce in the middle ages wasn't always a bad deal.

Eleanor set her sights on a dashing boy named Henry -- he was eleven years her junior -- and married him shortly after her annulment. Two years after their wedding, Henry became king of England, and the Aquitaine became part of the English kingdom. It was during this time that the English tourist industry discovered the Dordogne. It remains a popular destination for British tourists to this day.

Alas, the décembre/avril romance soured and Eleanor plotted against Henry, siding with three of her sons, Henry the Younger, Richard, and Geoffrey, in a revolt against him. The revolt failed, but Henry was more than a bit irritated by the whole thing. He ordered Eleanor imprisoned in England to keep her from more mischief. It's good to be the king.

Before all that nastiness, though, Eleanor and Henry had a total of eight children together. Among them were Richard I Coeur de Lion (Richard the Lionheart), who succeeded his father to the throne of England, and Jean d'Angleterre, also known as Jean Sans Terre (John Lackland), who succeeded his brother Richard to the throne. Isabelle d'Angoulême (buried in Fontevraud, remember?) was John's wife. That's all we need to know about her for now.

While the lion-hearted Richard was king, he galloped off to the Holy Land to participate in the Third Crusade, leaving a regent behind to keep the throne warm for him. Bad brother John, who always thought he should be king since he was daddy's favorite (he wasn't one of the rebel sons), apparently attempted to overthrow the regent while Richard was away. There was also that unfortunate kidnapping-for-ransom thing in Austria that delayed Richard's return.

John's not-so-subtle attempts to grab the English throne during Richard's time away actually gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood, enemy of Bad John, loyal to the absent King Richard, Hero of the People and All Around Swell Guy. So swell, in fact, that upon his release and return to England, Richard felt sorry for John because of his inability to actually seize the throne, forgave him, and named him as his rightful heir.

John indeed became king after Richard's death, but not surprisingly he wasn't very good at it. He had a bad attitude and tended to piss people off. His general lack of skill as a politician and a diplomat resulted in, among other things, the ceding of most of England's holdings in western France back to the French king, who graciously allowed the English to continue visiting the Dordogne (although they were forced to stay in tiny hotels and share bathrooms). John also signed the Magna Carta, the beginning of the end for the great monarchies of western Europe. What a maroon!

King John was punished for all of his ineptitude by being buried in England, instead of with his wife and parents in France. I'm just kidding about the punishment part, but he really is buried in England. Worcestershire, actually. Where the sauce is more famous than the king. That's why there's no gisant of John in the abbey at Fontevraud.

And that's the truth. Sorta.


  1. Walt,
    Just loved your story. Although it's all historically correct, you make it sound much more fun than it actually was! You should have been a history teacher :-). Kids would have loved your interpretation of what happened in the old days! Martine

  2. I always get the feeling that John has the bad rep because he was the man in the job and raising taxes, whereas Richard was always off gallivanting and didn't have to raise the money (via taxes) to do so. He left that to the bro.

    I think if Richard had stayed at home he would have been just as poor a king (if not more so) than John. I certainly doubt he would be the good king of the Robin Hood stories.

    It must be galling for Richard to be (apparantly) buried next to Isabelle. I don't think they did anything nearly that cosy in real life...


    PS verification word is "wastoid". A new word on me, but is that an editorial comment?

  3. Richard's sleeping [cough] companions are a matter of debate to this day, of course. And the other bits the old-fashioned Kings-and-Queens history used to tell us about King John were that he died of a surfeit of lampreys (now you'll have to look up a recipe to try), and lost the Crown Jewels in the Wash (mad laughter from the Lower Second, occasioning a quick geography lesson).

  4. Oooooooh! I am so enjoying these posts about Fontevraud. I've only ever seen these gisants (thanks for the word, Walt, which I didn't know in French) in copies, at the Musée National des Monuments Français... who else loves this museum???? I haven't been there since they, apparently, renovated it and the space it is in, and turned the whole thing into the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine, which also houses the Institut Français de l'Architecture, all in part of the Palais de Chaillot at Trocadéro, across from the Eiffel Tower area.

    If you love the whole Plantagenet and Capet history stuff, you might also be interested in the Bayeux Tapestry (since, you know, it's all about Henry II's great grandpa, William the Conqueror)... who has seen that??? NOT ME! I've got a long list of where to go on my next trip to France.... Meanwhile, if you're interested in the Tapisserie de Bayeux, have you ever seen this FABULOUS animated "version" of it, on You Tube? Be sure you have the sound on, because there's a good soundtrack for it in the background. I've got it embedded into my Medieval History page, if you want to see it:

    Keep it coming, Walt!

  5. still polychrome after all these years.

    thanks for this, the story and the pix.

  6. Such fun, your romp through history. More stories, please.

  7. I laughed all the way through this. Please, more like this! Walt's history of the US Civil War. Walt on the rise and fall of the British empire. Walt explains the sack of Rome!

    Confession time: we didn't get past the gift shop at Fontevraud, so thanks for the photos and explanation. (We were both feeble that day.)

  8. Loved it! Wish you were a history text book writer in the olden days (when I went to school). I would have enjoyed history a whole lot more.

  9. History, the way it should be taught. Loved it! :)


  10. Well, Walt, it looks as if you have found your calling.

  11. Oh and I almost forgot, you mentioned wardrobe help. Have you been wearing those blouses with flowers again? OK, maybe we better think about it.

  12. Thanks for all the great comments. You may regret encouraging me...

  13. Bah ! and you said you couldn't write !


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