Regardless of what you think about the current state of politics in the United States, I at least take comfort in the fact that Jim Comey’s reference to Thomas Becket has made my degree in Medieval History relevant. It has also suddenly brought one of my favorite families in all of history to peoples’ attention. While we have had a parade of dramas about cutthroat historical families such as the Borgias and the Medicis, somehow no one in Hollywood has taken the time to capture the remarkable lives of one of the most fascinating families in European history, the Angevin Dynasty. The Angevins, whose descendants were later as the Plantagenets, would rule over England and large portions of France, Ireland, and Wales, for eight decades. This highly dysfunctional family also happens contains some of the most intriguing figures and some of the most vivid characters in all of western history.
At the tender age of 21 Henry II, count of Anjou, consolidated his claim to the throne and was crowned King of England after the death King Stephen I. This young Angevin king was an endless font of energy and motion, constantly working and always on the move. His ambition was great, and throughout his reign he continued to expand his power and influence. Henry was usually pursuing some new war or conquest, usually with his perennial foe King Louis VII of France. The rivalry between the two men would continue for generations as Henry attempted to acquire more lands in France and Louis attempted to keep the ambitious king in check. Henry had many great victories during his life, and equally suffered a number of crushing defeats, but nothing defined his kingship more than his relationship with Thomas Becket.
Thomas Becket was a brilliant man from humble origins who rose to prominence as chancellor and drinking companion of Henry II. As a young man he was known to have expensive tastes and was perceived as something of a gourmand. Despite his lavish lifestyle Becket was known to follow a lifelong vow of celibacy, which has led some to speculate as to his sexuality. Rumors aside, he performed his duties as a chancellor with incredible skill, and was even something of a foster father to Henry II’s oldest son. After many years of faithful service the king decided that he wanted to establish his old friend as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
This was no small matter as this would make Becket the chief religious authority in England and at the time Becket was not even a priest. Regardless, Henry II had his way and Becket was appointed to the position in 1162. However, upon taking over this position a rapid change occurred in Becket. He quickly abandoned his expensive tastes and began living an ascetic lifestyle, abstaining from food and wearing a hair shirt underneath his clothing. Becket took his commitment to his Holy See very seriously, and would be an obstinate defender of the church. If Henry had hoped for his friend to be a tame and congenial pawn he was sorely mistaken. The two old friends began a long and bitter struggle over church authority that dragged on tortuously for eight years.
Henry wished to exercise more power over the church and eliminate many of the perks that judicial exemptions that the clergy received. Becket however fought him over these issues and insisted that the king could not have this kind of control over church matters. The controversy destroyed their friendship so utterly that one day Henry was heard by his vassals to loudly exclaim, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” For a handful of enterprising knights this was all the instruction that they required. Shortly after the king’s outburst they rode to Canterbury and, in gruesome fashion, murdered Becket.
Unfortunately for Henry II and his legacy, Becket was canonized shortly afterward and the place where he was murdered was designated as a holy site. Henry himself was said to have made at least one pilgrimage of sorts to Canterbury to repent, but the death of Becket was indicative of his transformation as a ruler. Towards the end of his reign the bombastic king increasingly fit the mold of a tyrant, and his rash and erratic behavior did not do him any favors. Although his extensive work with England’s courts lay the foundations for the Common Law, he was increasingly brutish to his subjects and to his family. No discussion of the Angevin dynasty would be complete without its central figure, who played a key role in key in keeping the family and the kingdom together. This was not Henry II but his wife, the beautiful, fascinating, enigmatic Eleanor of Aquitaine.
To say that Eleanor lived a remarkable life is a gross and insulting understatement. At the age of 15 she married King Louis VII of France, (yes, the same Louis VII I mentioned earlier) and became his queen. The marriage was, by all accounts, miserable for all parties involved. As Louis’ wife she bore him two daughters and joined him on the disastrous Second Crusade in the Holy Land. Eventually their marriage would be annulled due to their inability to produce a male heir. While this was blamed on Eleanor, it likely had more to do with Louis’ monkish tendencies.
Eleanor was a strong-willed woman who was significantly more comfortable in her sexuality than her squeamish husband, which led to some salacious rumors that clung to her throughout her life. The most popular of these rumors included affairs with her uncle Raymond, the ruler of Antioch, and Henry II’s father Geoffrey of Anjou. While these rumors are unfounded, they provide ample testimony to Eleanor’s bewitching beauty and the force of her personality. The sources do not provide us with a detailed description of Eleanor we are assured of her beauty. It is this beauty, and her considerable lands, that inspired the 19 year old Henry II to wed her shortly after her marriage to Louis was annulled.
Henry and Eleanor had an incredibly turbulent relationship, but it was not without happy times. As the ruler of the rich and powerful duchy of Aquitaine, Eleanor wielded considerable political power in her own right and proved herself to be an effective sovereign. Early in their marriage, Henry seems to have acknowledged this capacity for independence and relied on her much more than he did later on in life. More than once Henry used her as his regent while he was away on campaign and she is said to have done the role splendidly. Their marriage resulted in eight children, five of whom were boys. Although only four reached adulthood, this ensured that Henry would have a number of heirs to carry on the family line. As it would happen, they would need all of them.
It became clear later in life that the relationship had turned bitter, just as the friendship between Henry and Becket did. Henry was a serial adulterer, particularly with the beautiful, and much younger, Rosamund Clifford. This “Rosamundi” or “Rose of the World,” was said to be deeply in love with him, but she was neither the first nor the last of his mistresses. While Eleanor was likely able to bear these with dignity and perhaps detachment, one has to wonder whether this was not a part of their marital troubles. Moreover Eleanor was known to be strong willed and willing to criticize her husband’s failings. She expected her husband to succeed, and was willing to tell him when he did not. Their relationship would continue to deteriorate for the rest of their lives, and would have dire consequences for their family and their country.
It is not surprising for two brilliant, strong-willed individuals to butt heads, but their marital troubles only grew as Henry grew older and more tyrannical. The couple spent large portions of their later lives separated from each other, holding separate courts. However, after a number of personal and political betrayals Henry felt he could no longer trust Eleanor and imprisoned her for 16 years in a castle, separated from her family. The incredible cruelty in this act is mortifying to think of, particularly for a person of such energy and lust for life as Eleanor. The act that forced Henry to imprison his wife was, as most of their problems were, centered around their children.
Despite being the heir-apparent, Henry’s oldest song Henry the Young King never had a good relationship with his father. Although Henry II had him crowned as a co-ruler and actively tried to cultivate him for leadership, he was unwilling to give over any power to his progeny. This led the younger man, already known to be spoiled and foolish, to become angry with his father. The rift between them was only compounded with the death of Thomas Becket, who the Young King felt was more of a father to him than Henry II ever was. Over time he grew frustrated with his father for giving him only a paper crown, and resented his attempts to teach him how to rule. Finally, in 1173, the young ruler and almost all of his brothers banded together with their mother and organized a mass-revolt against their father.
This rebellion would be crushed by Henry within the year, but was only the beginning of conflict within the family. Henry had previously chosen to divide his kingdom into parcels to be given to each of his sons upon his death, all of them of course being ruled by the Young King. However this left John, the youngest son, without lands and resulted in his unfortunate nickname, “Lackland.” Further trouble brewed with the question of the lands given to the second in line, Richard, who was given the Aquitaine by his mother. He believed that these lands were granted to him through his mother as a gift and therefore was indignant to attempts to make him kowtow to his older brother.
One such disagreement over whether or not Richard would pay homage to his brother lead to a second revolt, with Richard and Henry II fighting against the Young King and his other brother Geoffrey. Geoffrey comes down to us as a charming but treacherous man who was quick to join in his brothers’ rebellions. Unfortunately, during the course of the campaign the Young King caught a fever and died. This untimely death likely hit Henry hard for, despite their disagreements, he had high hopes for his son. This death however left Richard, by far the most capable and kingly of his brothers, as the presumptive heir to the throne. However, Henry failed to officially designate him as such.
The relationship between Richard and Henry II had always been a strained one, largely because of Richard’s close relationship with his mother. Like his mother, Richard was a great lover of the arts and poetry who spent most of his time in his mother’s provinces of Aquitaine and Poitiers. After inheriting these territories, Richard consolidated his power through a series of military victories that won him the respect of the often-rebellious barons. He was one of the great military minds of his generation, and one of my advisors referred to him as the greatest strategic commander who ever lived. His ferocity and martial skill would earn him the moniker “coeur de lion,” more commonly, “Richard the Lionheart.” He was also almost certainly homosexual, but that is neither here nor there.
However Richard’s personal military ambitions would finally bring his relationship with his father to the breaking point. Richard desperately wanted to join the Third Crusade against Saladin in the Holy Land, but his father stalled his efforts. Allying with his future foe, (and possible former lover) Philip Augustus of France, Richard launched a final revolt against his father. In the end, even the young John Lackland joined this insurrection and in the course of the campaign Henry II’s health deteriorated. He died in 1189 at the comparatively young age of 56. Despite this, he would live longer than all of his sons.
Richard was crowned king shortly after this and left for the Holy Land, where he would immortalize his martial reputation. While he was gone his brother, and largely his mother, ruled in his absence. Richard’s exploits will be discussed some other time, but despite many successes he found himself captured and imprisoned while traveling home. The “King’s Ransom,” that England was forced to pay for the return of its king was absurd and was in addition to the hefty taxes he had levied to pay for his Crusade. Nonetheless, Richard was finally returned home. Forgiving his brother John for his revolt while Richard was away, he began a series of military campaigns against Philip Augustus as well as against revolting barons.
It was on one of these campaigns that Richard was shot in the neck by a crossbow bolt. The weapon had been ignominiously fired by a cook who, according to legend, was holding a frying pan in his other hand. Regardless of what the cook was or was not equipped with, Richard died shortly afterward of his wounds. As Geoffrey had died sometime prior to this, the youngest son John was crowned as King John I of England. No king since him has borne the name John, and there is a reason for that.
John I was an energetic ruler, like his father, who was well educated and had a passion for studying the law. He was also a very good administrator who ensured that good records were kept of his reign. I want to begin with this, because John has been widely lampooned as one of the worst kings of England. In his seventeen-year reign he lost most of the lands that his father won and dissolved what was called the Angevin Empire. He also found himself in an embittered struggle with the pope and temporarily got himself excommunicated. John’s record keeping is well known because it allows historians to see exactly how poorly his rule went. Perhaps the only positive aspect of his rule was that baronial revolts led to the signing of the Magna Carta. Although it is likely that historical critiques of John are too harsh, we can at least say with certainty that he did not have great luck as a king.
It was during John’s reign that his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, finally passed away. In her life she had borne ten children, half of whom had gone on to become kings or queens. Her efforts and good governance had kept her children’s reigns together on more than one occasion. She rescued her favorite child, Richard, from imprisonment and allowing her least favorite son, John, to continue limping along as king. An incredibly wily politician and a force to be reckoned with, her passion and brilliance stand out to me among the incredible figures in this family. Of all of the Angevins, Eleanor continues to fascinate me the most.
I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that this family underrepresented in fiction. The most well known members of the family are Richard and John, who live on vividly in the Robin Hood mythos. However, these depictions are pale imitations of the wonderfully complex individuals that they were. John in particular has been vilified and transformed into a convenient model of poor kingship. The only film to my knowledge that adequately depicted this family is the masterpiece The Lion in Winter. It boasts a cast including three of the greatest actors in the last century: Peter O’Toole as Henry II, Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor, and Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart. Yet despite this, I feel that there is infinitely more to say about these figures than the film can make time for.
This family contains some of the most remarkable individuals from the period, and the drama and tension of their relationships comes through to us after over eight hundred years. Their family conflicts were fought on a massive scale, with their own petty disputes blossoming into armed conflict. Each member of the family, with the possible exception of the Young King, seems to have been keenly intelligent and had a strong sense of what they wanted and what they deserved. Their story is one of betrayal and passion, of destroyed relationships and mutual heartbreak. I think that the Angevins will continue to fascinate me for this reason, because the history of their reign is a tremendous example of the complexity of human relationships.