Post-classical history

Edward Marries the Infanta—A Trio of Great Kings

HENRY took one precaution when he left the kingdom under the regency of his wife. He deposited the great seal of England in a casket, securely locked, and with instructions that it was to be used only in an emergency. Perhaps the members of the Council had insisted on it; certainly it was intended as a curb. The fair Eleanor, however, had other ideas. She was going to be Queen in fact as well as in name.

She assumed at once some of the dignities and duties of a sovereign, not only presiding at meetings of the Council but seating herself on the bench and hearing pleas. One of her first moves was to make the city of London feel the full weight of her hand now that it held the scepter; and this was a very great mistake indeed. The highhanded way in which she treated the Londoners contributed greatly to the causes of the armed clash of later years.

Eleanor, it is clear, hated the Londoners. Her first aggressive act was to demand back payments on a form of tribute called queen-gold. It had been a prerogative of the Queen to receive a tenth of all fines which came to the Crown. Now one of Henry’s favorite forms of exaction was to levy fines on the city on the thinnest and most ridiculous of pretexts. The Londoners, fuming bitterly but not daring to risk open refusal, had met these demands; but with the understanding that in doing so they did not concede the King’s right to penalize them in this way. Eleanor claimed that she had not received her percentage (the rule had always been for the King to pay his wife out of the amount received) and that the city must make it up to her. London gasped, first in wonder at such sheer audacity, then in angry denial. The Queen’s temper was too sharp to brook any opposition, and she promptly seized the two sheriffs of the city, John de Northampton and Richard Picard, and lodged them in prison. The queen-gold was paid. Later, when the question of raising funds for the war in Gascony came up and the whole nation refused to pay, Eleanor vented her spleen on London. A group of prominent citizens, including the draper Lord Mayor, Richard Hardell, were put in prison.

The violent dissatisfaction she had stirred up in the city spread throughout the country when she summoned Parliament for the purpose of raising war funds. It was reported to the barons and bishops assembled that Alfonso of Castile was planning to invade Gascony with a huge army of Christians and Moors. This was a subterfuge, and a stupid one to boot, because the barons knew that negotiations for peace with Castile were proceeding satisfactorily, based on the proposed match between Prince Edward and the infanta. They had a shrewd notion that an agreement would be reached, and under the circumstances their reply was that they would grant supplies when proof of the invasion was forthcoming, and not before.

That the marriage contract was signed while Parliament debated became known later. Queen Eleanor was arranging to accompany Edward to the South at the very time she was demanding of the House the funds for a full-scale war. It was quite clear to his justly unsympathetic subjects that Henry was endeavoring to make capital out of a situation which did not exist. It was his hope that Parliament could be hoodwinked into granting a tax for the defense of the Gascon possessions which he could devote instead to his own personal uses.

Parliament knew him too well by this time to be cozened into any such generosity. They laughed in their sleeves and said firmly, no, All that Henry received was five hundred marks which the Queen sent him, the fruit, no doubt, of her misuse of royal power in London.

2

The time has come to deal more fully with Lord Edward, as the heir to the throne was generally called in the records of the day, the prince who was to play such a magnificent role in English history. He is said to have grown into the tallest and strongest man in the kingdom. This is probably an exaggeration, but it is quite true that he never met his match in personal encounter or in any test of strength, and it is equally a fact that he towered over the men of his court. At the age of fifteen, when he married the infanta, he had not attained as yet his full stature, but he was a great gilded youth, very long in the leg and as blondly handsome as Richard Coeur de Lion. His expression, according to one witness, was “full of fire and sweetness.” Certainly he was a figure to revive belief in the godlike origin of kings.

None of the sagacity, the earnest desire to be just in all things, which distinguished Edward when he ruled as King, had yet become manifest in the proud and high-spirited youth. He was Edward of England, above curbs and restraints, chivalrous to a degree (chivalry did not count cruelty to the lower orders a fault), and a law unto himself. In his late teens he would be guilty of excesses which could be defended only on the ground of youth and the influence of lawless continental ideas.

He had preceded his mother to Gascony and had been installed as ruler, to the great satisfaction of the people of the province, who were capable of much sentimentality. Queen Eleanor, leaving England in the hands of Richard of Cornwall, arrived at Bordeaux in May, accompanied by a truly royal train. Henry remained behind when Edward and his mother went on to Castile, and Boniface of Canterbury was given charge of the party. Boniface, it seems, could be depended upon to be anywhere save where he should have been, attending at home to his long-neglected duties as archbishop. They reached Burgos, after a tedious journey over the Pyrenees, several weeks ahead of the stern limit set by Alfonso. That subtle monarch exercised his privilege of inspecting the prospective bridegroom before giving his final consent to the nuptials. Fortunately the tall youth, with his fair locks close-clipped below the ears, his strong straight back in stiffened tabard, his handsome legs in long leather riding boots, made the best possible impression, and Alfonso had no hesitation in accepting him for his young half sister. The arrangements for the ceremony were pushed ahead. Tournaments were held while they waited, and at one of them Edward was knighted by Alfonso.

In October the prince and the ten-year-old Eleanora were married at the monastery of Las Huelgas. All royal marriages were made Into spectacles of splendor and lavish color, and this was no exception. However, the Castilian monarch had earned for himself the sobriquet of El Sabio, the Wise, and he did not impoverish himself as Henry would have done. Any lack of ostentation, however, was more than compensated for by the picturesque detail of the ceremony, the jugale, the vivid coloring of the costumes.

Edward was probably as casual about romance as most boys of his age. As he played his part in the ritual his mind may have been filled with the jousting he had witnessed and the splendid Spanish charger which had been one of his gifts. He must have been conscious in some degree, however, of the brightness of eye of the young girl who took the vows with him, of the soft flush on her youthfully rounded cheek. Whatever his emotions may have been, this beautiful ceremony in the high vaulted chapel of Las Huelgas was the beginning of one of the truly great romances of history. Edward and Doña Eleanora of Castile would become ardently devoted to each other and would remain so until death separated them. If Eleanor of Provence was the most unpopular of English consorts, Eleanora of Castile was to be the best liked, and deservedly so.

The nuptials of Edward and Eleanora brought together in one sense the three great kings of the thirteenth century. The first was Edward himself, who would become in time the most illustrious of them all, a framer of just laws, a farseeing constitutional reformer, a doer and not a dreamer. The second was Alfonso, his brother-in-law, who was perhaps the most brilliant of all rulers but who, unfortunately for himself and the people of Spain, lacked the capacity to transmute ideas into actualities. Nevertheless, his subjects coined the name El Sabio for him, and by that term he has come down through the centuries, remembered for his accomplishments in the arts and in the field of science.

Alfonso was a scholar, a poet, an ardent believer in the possibilities of scientific advance. He authorized the collection of translations of all Arabic works on astronomy and supplemented this with the establishment of research organizations in Toledo and Burgos. Nothing made him happier than to assist in the work in the laboratories with his learned doctors. All their manuscripts, for which he wrote the prologues himself, passed through his hands and he spent a great deal of time correcting and rewriting them. He published them at his own expense. There were droves of poets about his court, and between them they composed the famous Cantigas de Santa María, a collection of four hundred songs about the Virgin Mary, some of the best of them from the pen of Alfonso himself. He had a history of Spain prepared, the first one with any pretensions to authenticity and value, which is still used under the title of Primera Crónica General. He made Castilian the official language, which meant relegating Latin to the schoolroom and the cloister, a change which did not sit well on monkish stomachs, and he established universities at Seville, Murcia, Córdoba, and Salamanca, building great libraries in connection with each of them. Finally he displayed an interest in invention and gave his assistance in the making of instruments, the astrolabe, the water clock, the sun clock, most particularly a remarkable new article called a mercury clock.

Alfonso was too far in advance of his times, and there were many in Spain who suspected a whiff of brimstone about his activities and spread whispers of heresy. He was too trusting, too prone to see only the good in people about him, to be a successful administrator. His great plan for a unified legal code of laws called the Siete Partidas had to be laid aside after a brief effort to enforce it. It was not until 1348 that national sanction was won for it. The members of his own family considered him soft and yielding, and they took advantage of him at every turn. The nobility followed the same line and did not hesitate to block his efforts at reform. In the end his own son, Sancho, who was a true product of the Middle Ages, a hard and ambitious realist, took the reins into his own hands and kept Alfonso in confinement. The great King spent his last years, therefore, in bitterness, with his books on the stars to fill the long hours, the songs which filled his head his only company. As soon as he died Sancho declared himself King, setting aside Alfonso’s will, which left the throne to the son of his deceased heir, Fernando.

It is unlikely that Edward, being so young at the time of his marriage, learned much from his stay at the court of this brilliant monarch. He was not of a studious disposition, and Alfonso’s addiction to the arts would meet small response in that active adolescent mind. If their meeting had been after Edward had steadied to a sense of the responsibilities of kingship, each would have benefited from the other. The poet and dreamer might have learned how to apply his finespun schemes. The practical and earnest Edward might have discovered better ways to vent his immense energy than the subjugation of weaker neighbors and so have kept the shield of his accomplishments untarnished.

3

The third of the trio of great kings was St. Louis of France, whose participation in the nuptials came after the return from Spain.

Louis was quite different from the other two, a monarch who achieved luster not by what he accomplished but by greatness of character. This tall (Joinville says he stood a full head over his average subject) and truly saintly man conceived of kingship as a trust from Cod, and of life as no more than a preparation for eternity. He rose before dawn to hear matins in his chapel, contented himself with frugal meals, refused rich sauces, never allowed himself sweet dishes, and drowned his wine in water. He prayed for two hours each evening after compline and never went to bed until his couch had been sprinkled with holy water. None of the lighter sides of life appealed to him. There were no minstrels or jesters at his court, but if visitors brought their own entertainment he would listen to the singing of Robin m’aime, Robin m’a and witness the conjuring tricks with attention but no trace of enjoyment. The money which ordinarily would have been expended in tournaments and festivities went into charity instead. He gave seven thousand pounds each year to the mendicant orders and distributed sixty thousand herrings annually to the poor of Paris. To the members of his court he gave, with a straight face, hair shirts as gifts. He built no castles during the whole of his reign, but splendid hospitals were raised by the royal bounty.

Although Louis was not a reformer in the usual sense of the word and contributed no new laws or economic ideas, the memory of his justice and of his saintly life persisted down the ages.

4

After the wedding Edward was left in Gascony. The rest of the party, including the bride (who was to pass several years in England before becoming a wife in anything but name), traveled over into France on their way home. Henry, happy over a task so well done, went with them. King Louis and Queen Marguerite met them at Chartres with an imposing cavalcade and escorted them to Paris, where they were to be the guests of the French nation. The city was bedecked with flags, the students at the university were released from their books, the citizens suspended all work to help in the welcome.

The Old Temple had been prepared for the use of the visitors. It was a huge cluster of buildings, into a corner of which any of the English royal residences could have been snugly fitted. There were separate houses for the King and the Queen and the young bride. All the King’s horses could have been shod at one time in the blacksmithies and all the King’s men accommodated in the dormitories with plenty of room left over for, say, a company of palmers and a congregation of bishops. The malthouse was capable of housing all the servants had there not been so much activity around the mash tuns for the purpose of satisfying the thirst of the newcomers. The kitchens and the salthouse, the spicery and the squillery had been packed with supplies, and the stables bulged with hay.

Henry could not allow himself to be outdone. After distributing alms to the poor of Paris with a lavishness which caused his money men considerable alarm, he called his people about him and began to plan for an entertainment such as had never before been seen on land or sea.

He succeeded so completely in his purpose that the meal he served in the great chamber where the Templars had once assembled for their silent collations was called in the annals of the time the Feast of Kings. He insisted that the King of France take the head of the table, to which the magnanimous Louis agreed only after a protest. Henry then took his own place at the French King’s right, while the King of Navarre sat on the left. There were twenty-five great peers present, eighteen countesses, and twelve bishops, as well as tableful after tableful of mere knights and ladies of lesser rank, not to mention rows of abbots and priors. After the feasting, which went on for hours, Henry distributed silver cups to all the male guests and silver girdles to the ladies.

It was during this ostentatious and costly affair that Louis turned to Henry and said in an undertone, “If only the peers and barons would consent, what close friends we should be!” The French King, however, was only half right. If his will had not been checked and confined by his council of peers, he would have established a basis for permanent peace between the two countries. Granting this much, the mind recoils from any thought of the condition into which England would have fallen if all restraints had been removed and Henry allowed a free hand.

That monarch’s conception of the uses to which kingly power might be put was most pointedly illustrated by what happened in London on the landing of the royal party. Henry was returning in triumph. The Gascon troubles had been ended, a brilliant match had been made for the heir to the throne, the importance of the Crown of England had been demonstrated in no uncertain way in the very heart of the French country. There was due appreciation in London of the mood in which the King was returning, and he was received with great pomp and circumstance. The citizens might have faces purple with cold, but they lined the streets on a wild and blustery January day and cheered loudly for the victorious home-comer. What is more, they had gifts for him, one hundred pounds and a handsome piece of gold plate, beautifully inscribed.

Henry accepted the gifts but with a perceptible lack of cordiality. The reserve of his manner, the smolder in his eye were proof that he had not forgotten the quarrels between the Queen and the city. He was determined to let the Londoners see how much he resented their obduracy, and when it was reported to him that a murderer had been allowed to make his escape from Newgate he seized on this as a pretext. A fine of three thousand marks was imposed on the city.

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