Post-classical history

Fontevrault

I NOW LOOK FORWARD TO passing the days which are left to me in the peace I find at Fontevrault.

My granddaughter was married to Louis Capet; John was crowned King of England, and he must now be realizing his responsibilities. Philip Augustus continued to alarm me, and as long as I lived I would do my utmost to see that his dream of destroying the Plantagenet Empire was never realized.

The days were slipping away         .         .         .         reading, writing, living over the past, reflecting on what might have been if one had acted differently. It was an amusing game.

John divorced Hadwisa of Gloucester. The marriage had never been a success. Henry had arranged it because of the immense wealth Hadwisa brought into the family, but that, of course, was before it was thought that John would be King. Hadwisa was childless, so the divorce was not a matter for regret.

However, John seemed incapable of doing anything without causing a great deal of trouble. In the first place he became infatuated with Isabella, the daughter of the Count of Angoulme. She was very young and very beautiful and she aroused such passions in John that he determined to have her. He would probably have abducted her if she had not been the daughter of a powerful man, but being so she was worthy of marriage.

Although he was bent on a union with her, he allowed negotiations to go ahead for the daughter of the King of Portugal. He thought that amusing. Another matter which gave him cause for mirth—and I must say I joined him in this—was that Isabella was betrothed to Hugh le Brun de Lusignan, the man who had had the temerity to seize me and demand La Marche for my release.

Of course the King of England was a far better proposition than Hugh le Brun, and the Count of Angoulme had little compunction in breaking Isabella’s engagement to Hugh le Brun and accepting John’s proposal for his daughter.

But what enemies John had made over this matter of his marriage! The King of Portugal and Hugh le Brun would never forgive him and would seize every opportunity for revenge; although I could not help feeling pleased about Hugh le Brun’s discomfiture, I did think that to alienate the King of Portugal was an act of sheer folly.

From my retreat I felt I could look out on events and that it would not be necessary for me to be caught up in them. But could I turn away? Sometimes I wondered to what end John’s folly would bring him. The care of such a wide empire had strained Henry’s resources to the full and he had been a great king. Richard had spent most of his reign out of England, and I had to admit that that had not been good; and now came John, with his reckless folly. Where would it end?

Constance had died. I hoped that meant that we should hear no more of Arthur’s claim. He was too young to do very much alone; and although he had his adherents, he was very much a figurehead only.

I felt we need not worry quite so much about Arthur         .         .         .         for a year or so at any rate; and then most probably I should not be here. I could not expect to live many more years.

I had always had my eyes on the French King. I would never forget those years I had spent as Louis’s Queen; France had been my home for so long that I felt I was part of it.

I had always been aware of the fact that Philip Augustus was a man to watch. I recognized a clever ruler when I saw one and, for all his faults, Philip Augustus was that. In spite of the fact that he had been in love with Richard, he had never dreamed of neglecting his country on that account. He had married Isabella of Hainault, and his son Louis was now the husband of my own sweet Blanche.

Isabella had died and a marriage had been arranged for Philip Augustus with Ingeborg, a Danish princess, but after the marriage service he took an instant dislike to her and wanted her sent home. She appealed to Pope Celestine who ignored her pleas. I wondered what had brought about such a violent revulsion, for Philip Augustus had a great sense of duty to his country, and the object of this marriage was to provide heirs. In such cases when the encumbrance came from a not very influential family it was generally easy to find some reason for annulment; but Ingeborg had a powerful friend in Pope Celestine.

Philip Augustus had for some time been in love with Agnes de Meran and was now determined, in spite of papal disapproval, to marry her. Eventually he did this, but Celestine had now been replaced by Innocent who was ready to exert his authority. He threatened Philip Augustus with excommunication if he did not go back to Ingeborg; and faced with this Philip Augustus was obliged to take her back; but he kept Agnes with him. What would have been the outcome I cannot imagine if Agnes had not conveniently died. Philip wanted the children he had had by her legitimized and was now in consultation with Rome on this matter.

I was rather pleased about this, for it kept Philip Augustus occupied with his own affairs; I trembled to think what might become of Plantagenet possessions in France if he was able to give his full attention to the task of wresting them from us.

I was becoming more and more enamored of the life at Fontevrault. I was feeling better. The place refreshed me and I realized that I could be content to spend what was left of my life here. I liked the ways of the convent. It seemed a good idea to give myself up to good works. It was said to be a way of expiating past sins, and I daresay most would agree that during my long life I had committed many.

I seemed to have become a different woman; the fire of my youth had gone and had taken with it my love of adventure. I would never have believed that the day would come when I could be content with the quiet life and enjoy the peace of it.

But perhaps I had not changed so much.

That peace was shattered suddenly. Philip Augustus had come to terms with Rome. Agnes’s son and daughter were to be recognized as legitimate. Now he could turn his attention to what had always been an ambition of his: the disintegration of the Plantagenet Empire which had for long been a source of irritation to France.

His father had been weak; he was not. Henry FitzEmpress had been strong; the present King of England was weak. Philip Augustus was ready to go into action.

In snatching Isabella from Hugh le Brun, John had committed an act of aggression against a vassal of Philip Augustus, and as Duke of Normandy John was summoned to appear in Paris to answer charges against him. He naturally refused to comply with this order.

Philip Augustus then declared that John should be deprived of all the land he held under the King of France.

John snapped his fingers at such a decree. Philip Augustus responded by knighting Arthur and betrothing him to the daughter who had just been declared legitimate. This was tantamount to saying that Philip Augustus supported Arthur’s claim to the throne of England and that he would help him to achieve it. Moreover, he gave him an army and sent him off with his blessing, to capture his rights.

John was at Le Mans when the news came to Fontevrault that Arthur was marching on to Poitou. My country! I was alert. Though my people had been loyal to me, they would not rally to John, who was a stranger to them. I had thought I had done with action, but I could see that my peace was at an end. I believed that if I appeared at the head of a small force my people would support me.

There was nothing to be done but leave the peace of Fontevrault. It seemed that I still had a part to play.

I made preparations at once. I gathered what little force I had. I believed it was my presence which would induce my people to rally to my side. They would not allow Poitou to be snatched from me. I was sure of their loyalty.

So         .         .         .         though I was close on eighty years old, I rode forth.

We had come to the chteau of Mirebeau on the borders of Anjou and Poitou. It proved a bad choice for it was not strongly fortified, and I had not been there very long when news came that Arthur and his army, with that of the Lusignans, had had word of my arrival and were marching on the castle.

I laughed and said: “Whenever these Lusignans are about we can expect an attempted abduction. They seem to make a habit of it         .         .         .         with me as their intended victim.”

I sent a message to John at Le Mans telling him he must come to Mirebeau with all speed. We then set about fortifying the castle.

It was a horrifying experience to see the armies approaching, because I knew that we could not hold out for long. They would be triumphant, knowing that I was inside the castle and that it would be a simple matter to take me.

Night was almost upon us when the armies encamped outside the castle walls. From a top turret I could see them clearly. I saw Arthur for the first time. My own grandson! He was a handsome boy. I was moved, as I always was by members of the family. I might have been fond of that boy. What a sad thing it was that he was there now, plotting to take me prisoner.

For my own fate I felt little concern. Perhaps one does not care very much when one gets old. My life was finished. What did it matter to me if they killed me in the attempt to take me? It would be that I reached the end a few months         .         .         .         perhaps a few weeks         .         .         .         before I should at Fontevrault.

What good fortune that they decided to delay the attack until morning! So are great events decided. They had marched through the day and were weary. There was no hurry, they thought. The prey was in her trap and there could be no escape with the army surrounding the castle, and in the morning it would be an easy matter.

I found myself looking forward to an encounter with my grandson. From what I had seen of him, he was a little arrogant, a little imperious. Well, he was but a boy and when too much respect is shown to the young it is not good for their characters.

I slept not at all and that was a long night. I lay on my bed waiting for the morning.

What hope was there that John would come? When had anything John did been a success? I had tried for so long not to see his faults, but of course I had been aware of them. Here I was         .         .         .         surrounded by the enemy         .         .         .         about to be abducted. Held for ransom, I supposed. How much would John think his mother was worth? It was not the money which was important. The Lusignans did not want the people of Poitou to know that I was coming to them. They wanted them to think of me as an old woman dying at Fontevrault. Then they would say: Here is Arthur. Is he any better than John? Why bother to remain under the rule of foreigners?

It was a clever idea to prevent my reaching my people, and we should have found a stronger fortress than Mirebeau. But there was nothing to do but wait for morning.

Life is full of surprises. For once my son John acted as his father would have. When he received the message that I was at Mirebeau, he rode with his army all through the night and arrived at the castle at dawn. Arthur and the Lusignans were taking a leisurely breakfast before beginning what they would look upon as the easiest conquest of their military careers.

With John was that military genius William Marshal. The timing was perfect, with Arthur and the Lusignans feasting, prematurely celebrating their victory: they were unarmed and when John arrived they were surrounded.

There was no real battle. It was all over very quickly and Arthur and the Lusignans were John’s prisoners.

John came into the castle, his eyes alight with triumph. He embraced me. I was so surprised and delighted that I reciprocated warmly.

“I heard you were in danger,” he cried. “I rode through the night. And see! We arrived just in time. There was no battle. We caught them unprepared.”

I had been mistaken in him. I thought in that moment: He is Henry’s son, a true Plantagenet.

c

I wish that could have been true. I think that is the only time I can recall when John acted with good sense, for it is no use winning if one does not know what to do with victory.

He forgot that those men he had captured were noblemen. They had been defeated in battle and it was the mark of a good general that he treat honorable enemies with respect. In war a good leader is fierce; in victory he is magnanimous.

How elated John was to survey his prisoners: Arthur who would take his throne; Hugh le Brun who would have taken his bride. His great desire was to humiliate them.

He acquired farm carts in which cattle were carried from place to place. He chained and fettered his prisoners and forced them to stand in the carts with their faces close to the beasts’ tails as an added insult. John was sadistic by nature. I had long realized that. These prisoners, who were of the noblest families, including his own nephew, were to be paraded through the streets and taken to various places selected for them.

The two he must have had a special delight in humiliating were Arthur and Hugh le Brun. Hugh was tall and handsome; John was far from that. And this was the manner in which he treated his rivals.

He was foolish. He did not see the disgust on the people’s faces or, if he did, ignored it. He did not realize that these people were making up their minds that they would not willingly have such a man to rule over them if he could behave so to their noblemen—many of them members of their own families.

Hugh le Brun was sent to Caen; many others were sent to England and imprisoned in Corfe Castle. Arthur was taken to Falaise.

I had tried to reason with John. He smiled and nodded but I knew he was not listening. I could not warn him; others had tried to. I knew that William Marshal was completely shocked by this treatment of the prisoners and had tried to instill in him the folly of such conduct.

I think I knew at that moment of victory that all was lost.

c

I stayed in Poitiers. I must if I were to hold the country together. I knew that they were going to reject John. Philip Augustus would know it too. John might have Arthur but he was on the way to defeat, and he did not seem to be aware of his precarious position. He was so enamored of Isabella that he stayed in bed with her until dinnertime. This passionate relationship between them was the talk of the Court. At least, I thought, there will be children.

John neglected his duties—and Philip Augustus was one to take advantage of that. He felt his way cautiously. He made leisurely progress through the country, taking castles as he went. There was little opposition. Nobody wanted to be ruled by John. There was nothing I could do. While I remained in Poitiers, Aquitaine would be faithful to me as long as I lived, but that would not be forever.

And then.         .         .         ?

I had to watch events and see John plunge farther and farther into disaster.

The Lusignans offered a heavy ransom for Hugh le Brun, and foolishly John accepted it, so freeing him and adding to his dangerous enemies.

There was Arthur. What became of Arthur is a mystery. There have been many rumors. There is one story that Hubert de Burgh, the castellan of the castle, was ordered by John to castrate him and put out his eyes and that Hubert found himself unable to perform this dastardly deed. He hid Arthur and told John that he had died while the foul deed was being done and that he had buried him in the precincts of the castle. John, it seemed, was satisfied.

The subject of Arthur would not die down. Where was he? people were asking, including Arthur’s immediate family and the King of France. Suspicion turned on John. Rumor was rife, and John began to be worried. Arthur had disappeared. He was presumed dead, and John was the suspect.

John affected great sorrow, and Hubert de Burgh, not knowing how to deal with such a situation and wondering how he was going to keep Arthur concealed forever, confessed to John that he had not carried out his orders and that Arthur still lived in a secret room in the castle. John assumed great delight, congratulating de Burgh, and Arthur appeared on the streets of Falaise.

Everyone was satisfied.

But, of course, John would not allow Arthur to remain at liberty. He was taken to the castle of Rouen and never seen again.

I think I can guess what happened: John murdered him there and threw his body into the Seine. That is the most likely solution, and I fear there must be truth in it.

I despaired of John.

One by one those places which Henry had been so proud of were falling into the hands of Philip Augustus: Le Mans, Bayeux, Lisieux         .         .         .         and others.

It had happened so quickly that I could scarcely believe it possible. All that Henry, with my help, had built up, to crumble so soon. It would not be long before all our French possessions passed out of our hands.

Rouen itself was in danger. Messages were sent to John in England. Reinforcements were needed. There must be no delay. But John was reveling with his worthless friends; he was spending his nights and half his days in bed with Isabella. That was more important to him than the Plantagenet Empire.

I was helpless. What can an old woman of eighty do? If I had been younger, I would have done everything possible to rid the country of my son John.

I think the final humiliation was the loss of Chteau Gaillard—Richard’s castle, built to hold out against the enemy for centuries. “I will hold it,” Richard had said, “were it made of butter.”

When it fell to the French, I knew that was the end.

I went to Fontevrault. What was there to do now but wait for my departure to another life? So I shut myself away. I follow the quiet life of the nuns; and I am reliving my life by writing of it as I remember it from all those years ago.

I often think of Henry and his dream of possessing the whole of Europe. Women influenced his life more than men; there had been Rosamund, Alais and myself. But for his relationship with the three of us how different would his life have been? And with me it had been men: Louis, Raymond of Antioch, Henry and Richard. All the King’s women and all the Queen’s men—how much had they shaped the course of history?

Looking back, I see that what I had always wanted was love. I had been born into the Courts of Love and all my life I had been trying to return to them—not as they had been in my grandfather’s day but of my own making. With Louis it had been impossible; with Raymond there had been that blissful interlude which was necessarily transient; with Henry I believed I should find what I sought, and how bitterly disappointed I had been; Richard I had loved selflessly, and perhaps that is the best way to love.

But it is all over now. That which Henry had so painstakingly built up is being lost, and soon there will be nothing left but England.

John has done this. John, who should never have been born. Nor would he have been if I had learned of Henry’s perfidy earlier. John was not conceived in love, and all the time I was carrying him I was obsessed by my hatred of his father. It all comes back to me clearly now.

So he was born, this monster, this sadist who tortures and torments, who must know that an empire is disintegrating while he sports in bed with the woman he took from Hugh le Brun.

What more is there to say?

So I lay down my pen and wait to pass out of a life which I have, I think, lived to the full. I am glad to be going at this time for I know my son John will plunge further and further into disaster. What will become of him? What will become of England, which is all that is left to him now?

I shall never know.

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