1215 and All That

This is a sample from 1215 and All That. The whole thing can be bought here


One day in June 1944, King George VI was driving back to Windsor from London in a furious mood. The powerful wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill had just overruled him once again, frustrating the stammering king’s attempt to have a say in government.

The monarch, a gentle and nervous figure who was well on his way to smoking himself to death through sheer anxiety caused by a job he didn’t want and which his useless brother Edward had forced on him, happened to pass by a spot near the Thames. As his secretary Alan Lascelles later recalled: ‘Suddenly he threw his arm out of the window and exclaimed “And that’s where it all started!”

The place was Runnymede and it was there that, in 1215, George’s ancestor King John (also the ancestor of Churchill and the US president Franklin Roosevelt and most likely you, the reader) was forced into a peace treaty with his leading barons that would have a profound impact on the country and the world. It came about over frustration at the misrule of the king’s family, known to us as the Plantagenets, but it established fundamental principles about the rule of law that would spread to the English colonies and worldwide.

This Magna Carta, as it became known later that century, would form the basis of the rule of law and due process in England and around the globe. At the time of King George’s outburst the descendants of those barons, ruling states on both sides of the Atlantic, were on the cusp of winning a worldwide existential war being fought between those who believed in the rule of law and those who didn’t. Their victory would globally implement the freedoms that we have come to think of as Anglo-Saxon, although in the context of this story we might better call them Anglo-Norman, created as they were by the French-speaking aristocracy of thirteenth-century England.

England does not really go in for national monuments, and when it does they are often eccentric. There is no great shrine to Alfred the Great, for example, who united and saved the country at the start of its history, but we do have, right in the middle of London, a large marble memorial to the animals that gave their lives in the fight against Fascism. And Runnymede, which you could say is the birthplace of English liberty, would be a deserted lay-by were it not for the Americans.

Beside the Thames, some 10 miles outside London’s western suburbs, this place ‘between Windsor and Staines,’ as it is called in the original document, is a rather subdued spot, with the sound of constant traffic close by and in the distance that of the M25 motorway and airplanes landing and taking off at Heathrow Airport. Crossing the A308 from the other side of the road is actually quite hazardous, and once there you’d have no idea it was a momentous place if it wasn’t for an enclosure with a small Romanesque circus, paid for by the American Association of Lawyers in 1957. American lawyers are possibly not the most well-loved group on earth, but it would be an awful world without them, and for that we must thank the men who on June 15, 1215 forced the king of England to agree to a document, ‘The Great Charter of the Liberties.’

Magna Carta was not the first time a king had made such a contract. Two centuries earlier in 1014 the hopeless Ethelred II gave a similar promise after returning to the kingdom from which the Danes had kicked him out; he was so unpopular that his subjects were fairly ambivalent about whether they wanted Ethelred back after the death of the Viking pirate-king Sweyn Forkbeard who had seized the throne. Since then various monarchs had made promises about ruling with the consent of the people, which they usually ignored.

Long before Ethelred’s time the Anglo-Saxons held witans and had some vague idea of the law being something which belonged to everyone, although how much of this is myth-making from the seventeenth century is a matter of debate. Runnymede may have been the site of a witan in the past—ruineg perhaps being a regular meeting—but we cannot know for sure and what happened in 1215 was most definitely fundamentally different. It established not just restraints on the monarch but also no arrest without charge, just cause and other essential principles.

Although John went back on the agreement almost immediately, and the country fell into civil war, by the end of the century Magna Carta had been written into English law; today, 800 years later, it is considered the most important legal document in history. As the great eighteenth-century statesman William Pitt the Elder put it, Magna Carta is ‘the Bible of the English Constitution.’

Two weeks before the king’s dressing down by Churchill the armies of the democracies had landed in Normandy, the ancestral home of the kings of England, and from where they had made the reverse journey 900 years earlier. The victories by English-speaking forces the following year would not just crush Nazism but make the ideas of 1215 universal, worldwide values, even if in much of the world they remain unenforceable and theoretical. How did this all happen here in England? The story begins a hundred years earlier with some drunken sailors in the English Channel.

Chapter One
King Henry never smiled again after being told of his son’s death. Seventeen-year-old William had joined 200 revellers on a famed vessel called the White Ship sailing from Normandy to England late at night on November 25, 1120. The atmosphere was boisterous, and when priests arrived to bless the boat they were waved away with drunken jeers and laughter.

On board were the cream of the Anglo-Norman ruling class, whose grandfathers had won England under William the Conqueror, and including two of the king’s illegitimate children. Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, was due to sail but could not drink because of a stomach condition and was so unnerved by the hugely drunk state of the crew he left. When the ship hit rocks, barely out of Barfleur harbor, William dragged himself to a lifeboat but went back for his half-sister Matilda, one of the king’s many bastards. They both drowned, along with everyone on board, except for one, a baker who had gone on board to get some money and who was sober.

The national tragedy would bring about a civil war called the ‘Shipwreck’ or ‘Anarchy’ in which Henry’s only surviving legitimate child Matilda fought for control of the kingdom with her cousin Stephen, who had claimed the throne on his uncle’s death in 1135 (despite going out of his way to pledge his loyalty to Matilda when Henry was alive). It would end in the rise of a new dynasty, the Plantagenets, whose relentless greed provoked the leading barons into bringing about Magna Carta.

Henry I had come to power after his elder brother William II, called ‘Rufus’ because of his alcohol-soaked red face, had died in a mysterious hunting accident in 1100. Their father William the Conqueror had won the kingdom at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, and his twenty-one-year reign was one of almost unparalleled repression and violence, the most brutal episode being the harrying of the north in which as many as 200,000 people died in Yorkshire.

It’s fair to say that after this he wasn’t tremendously popular, but by the period’s definitions of success he had been a great king, while his son had been a dreary failure. Rufus had spent his reign in conflict with both the Church and with his elder brother Robert, who had succeeded as Duke of Normandy despite the mutual loathing he and his father had for each other. This brotherly feud was suspended in 1095 when Pope Urban II called for a Crusade to win back the Holy Land for Christendom, and Robert volunteered, mortgaging Normandy to pay for it.

Robert was on his way back with a new, very rich wife in 1100 when Rufus was fatally wounded by an arrow in the New Forest, with his brother Henry conveniently close enough to reach the Treasury at Winchester within an hour to claim the crown. (Hunting was a dangerous sport and accidents were quite frequent–the Conqueror’s second son Richard had also been killed around 1081 in the very same forest–but the circumstances of the king’s death was extremely fortunate for Henry.) Six years later he invaded Normandy where he captured his surviving brother and kept him imprisoned for the rest of his life; by the time Robert died, in 1134, he had been in jail for so long he even had time to learn Welsh.

The new king needed to win over three groups upon his accession. Firstly, the Church; secondly, the barons, the vastly powerful 100 or so Norman landowners who had come over with William the Conqueror; and finally the English themselves, who constituted around 98 percent of the population. To help justify his rule, Henry issued a Charter of Liberties in 1100, promising to honor the laws of Edward the Confessor, the last king from the old House of Wessex, whose death in 1066 had sparked the Norman invasion.

By the sounds of it Henry had no intention whatsoever of keeping any of his promises, and neither did any of his successors, but that wasn’t the point. New kings as far as back as ancient Babylon have pledged to rule within the laws and customs of the people, so this wasn’t that unusual, but Henry I’s coronation charter was important because it influenced the barons of 1215, something we know because a sort of early draft of Magna Carta turned up in the nineteenth century referring to it.

This being an age when much of the population were toothless simpletons and not well versed in politics, most of the twenty clauses of 1100 only involved the rights of barons and the Church, in particular the lives of widows and heirs. Henry’s charter was very much a product of what is now called the feudal system, a phrase that was only coined in 1776 by Adam Smith but which fairly accurately describes the era. After winning power William the Conqueror had drastically changed the social hierarchy, dispossessing the upper layer of English society, the 5,000 thegns (literally ‘one who serves’), and replacing them with a small number of barons.

As the overlord to these barons, the king had certain rights, including power over widows and orphans, and the right to take a slice of inheritance. This was considered a king’s privilege but bad monarchs inevitably took advantage to fleece heirs and sell off widows. The lords in turn had the same rights over the peasants below them, the majority of whom would have been unfree serfs. The Normans didn’t introduce this system, but they did increase the sharp divide between rich and poor.

In a feudal system all lords derived their land from the monarch, and so were obliged to pay a fee to pass their title to their son; there were also sometimes disputes about who was actually the heir, and this might be costly for the king to arbitrate. So Henry’s charter stated that ‘If any baron or earl of mine shall die, his heirs shall not be forced to purchase their inheritance, but shall retrieve it through force of law and custom.’ Henry promised that he would only charge a ‘legitimate and just relief’ on barons inheriting their father’s lands, whatever ‘just’ meant. He pledged that wives would also be allowed to inherit their husband’s land, and would not be forced by the king to take another husband, so that ‘Any widow who wishes to remarry should consult with me, but I shall abide by the wishes of her close relatives, the other barons and earls.’ As long as her new husband was not ‘one of my enemies.’

The rights of man it was not; and in the words of one historian: ‘During his thirty-five-year reign, Henry I kept virtually none of the promises set out in his coronation charter.’ By condemning the ‘oppressive practices which have been an evil presence in England,’ Henry was also shoring up his own legitimacy and making himself look better, the trick of all politicians down the ages of exaggerating the faults of the previous regime. But it did to some extent reaffirm the idea of one law for all, an essential aspect of the 1215 document.

Clause 8 of Henry’s charter stated that ‘If any of my barons commit a crime, he shall not bind himself to the crown with a payment as was done in the time of my father and brother, but shall stand for the crime as was custom and law before the time of my father, and make amends as are appropriate.’ Henry ruled for thirty-five years, and his harsh enforcement of laws, at a time when the country was absurdly dangerous by modern standards, was generally popular: executing a few people always went down quite well. On one occasion in Leicester in 1124 ‘they hanged. . . . more thieves than had ever been hanged before . . . in all forty-four men in that little time; and six men were blinded and castrated.’ The people loved him.

He also shored up his power by marrying Matilda, who was the daughter of the King of Scotland but more importantly a great-granddaughter of the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund Ironside, which cemented the legitimacy of an otherwise foreign dynasty. Her real name was Edith, but that was too complicated for the Normans so Henry just gave her the same name as his mother.

However, after the White Ship disaster the country faced a succession crisis: Henry had a daughter, another Matilda (young William also had a widow called Matilda while Stephen’s wife was called Matilda too—they weren’t very imaginative with names at the time) but she was, obviously, a woman and although Henry forced the nobles to swear an oath to her, when he died in 1135 (by the curious cause of overdosing on lampreys, a type of eel) Stephen seized the throne and most of the barons supported him.

Like his uncle he proclaimed a coronation charter, declaring that he would rule according to custom and law, but he never had much time to do anything about it. There followed a civil war between supporters of the two cousins, a conflict described as ‘nineteen long winters when Christ and his saints slept’ by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the clerical records established by Alfred the Great in the ninth century which gave a sort of news account of the usually dreadful events that befell the kingdom and which were getting increasingly depressing by this point.

Matilda almost won by capturing London in 1141 but proved so unpopular that she was forced to flee to Oxford and the following year she escaped that city dressed in white during heavy snowfall from another angry mob. By some accounts, and obviously a lot of them were biased, Matilda had a knack for rubbing people the wrong way; she had been sent to Germany at the age of eight to marry the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich V, who was twenty-nine, which is a little weird, and from eleven had effectively ruled the empire while he was out on endless wars, until he died at the age of thirty-eight (of cancer, of all things, not a classic disease for a medieval warrior king, although maybe it was a stressful job).

A widow in her twenties, she was now betrothed to the fifteen-year-old Geoffrey of Anjou, from a line of aristocrats famously cruel, even by the standards of the period. The Normans hugely disliked the Angevins, seeing them as needlessly violent, which, coming from the Normans, is saying something, but the marriage was necessary for geographic reasons. A week before the wedding, Henry I had knighted Geoffrey in Rouen, the Norman capital, the adolescent dressed in purple, wearing double-mail armor with gold spurs, and a sword supposedly forged by the Norse god Wayland the Smith.

Geoffrey also wore a shrub called a planta genista on his lapel which he used as a sort of camouflage while out hunting, and so his dynasty came to be known as the Plantagenets (although not until the 1450s, when the last remnants of the family were busily engaged in killing each other). The Anarchy came to an end after Stephen’s awful-sounding son Eustace choked to death in 1153 while sacking an abbey, and the king agreed to pass the throne to Geoffrey and Matilda’s teenaged son Henry Fitzempress after his death; this came to pass the following year.

Chapter Two
Henry II was to become a great king who would revolutionize the English state, in particular creating the jury system, but he and his family were also notoriously cruel, greedy and violent. So when Magna Carta emerged it was not only aimed at John, but at the whole Plantagenet dynasty who had come to power in 1154. John was just the most incompetent of them, while his son Henry III, whose reign saw a second barons’ uprising which led to the creation of a ‘Parliament,’ was a simpleton.

This cruelty seemed to run deep: the dynasty’s founder, Geoffrey of Anjou’s great-great-grandfather Fulk the Black, was a cheery sounding fellow with unusual interests in sexual degradations. Although notoriously violating anything that moved, he could be a bit jealous, and had his first wife burned at the stake in her wedding dress in the middle of the market place in Angers on discovering her adultery with a goatherd. He then burned down the town a few years later. When Fulk put down a rebellion by Geoffrey the Hammer, his equally awful son, ‘he made him crawl around the floor in front of his courtiers, saddled and bridled like a horse, begging for mercy, while his father screamed, “you’re broken in, broken in!”’ Later on a trip to the Holy Land, Fulk made his servants flog him through the streets of Jerusalem as he howled for forgiveness. It’s possible all wasn’t entirely well with him, mentally.

Geoffrey Plantaganet’s grandfather, Fulk the Quarreler, had imprisoned his own brother and divorced three of his five wives, while he was described by chronicler Orderic Vitalis as ‘a man with many reprehensible, even scandalous, habits,’ whatever that means. Geoffrey was not exactly a progressive, either; having ruled Normandy from 1144, while his wife was fighting Stephen in England, he had gained a reputation for extreme cruelty. When the canons of Sees elected as bishop one Arnulf, a man whom Geoffrey didn’t like, he had him castrated, and the churchmen had to walk through the city holding the poor man’s penis in a basin to show that he was not qualified as bishop.

The popular story of the Angevin family origins was that while out hunting, Fulk the Black’s grandfather had met and married a lady called Melusine, who was very mysterious and very beautiful and who gave him four sons. However he began to grow suspicious when at church she always left before Holy Communion, and eventually the husband ordered his knights to grab her as she exited—but she slipped out of her cloak and flew off with two sons under her arms, leaving the other two. This was Gerald of Wales’s story, at any rate, although he did admittedly hate the royal family. Another chronicler, Walter Map, said that Melusine was a sort of dragon, who shrieked horribly as she disappeared through the roof of the church. Map also said the Plantagenets were heirs to the mythological huntsman, King Herlequin, the leader of a group of devils who would haunt the northern coast of France (this French myth evolved into harlequins, who aren’t devils as such but are still slightly sinister figures).

The less interesting truth is that the Plantagenets probably originated with a Breton outlaw called Tertulle the Forester, a sort of bandit in the ninth century who fought the Vikings in the Loire Valley and came to rule his own mini-kingdom in western France. But later subjects of the Plantagenets would claim that Satan himself was the ultimate dynastic founder, which suggests that the royal family’s PR team faced something of an uphill struggle at the time. Henry II’s son Richard the Lionheart joked that ‘We come from the Devil and we’ll end by going to the Devil.’

Typical of the popular view of the family was that of a mystic called Godric of Finchale, who once had a vision in which King Henry II and his four sons prostrated themselves in a church and climbed up to the altar, where they began to clean the crucifix. but as they reached the top of the cross ‘horrible to relate, they began to defile the altar on every side with their urine and excrement.’

Henry II came to throne at an exciting time; the twelfth and thirteenth century was a period of tremendous economic and cultural growth in Europe, an explosion in some ways as dramatic as the Renaissance three centuries later. It saw the building of the great Gothic cathedrals, the growth of the first universities, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, new and exciting ways of killing people in war, and a rapidly growing economy and population. There was a huge rediscovery of Greek thinking, much of it through contact with the Muslim world; two Englishmen, Adelard of Bath and Robert of Chester, helped base western science on Elements of Euclid and Ptomley’s Almagest through Latin translations of Arabic copies of the original Greek; Adelard also helped to introduce Arabic numerals to Europe. There was also a great breakthrough in technology, with inventions such as paper (first recorded around 1100), clocks (thirteenth century), oil painting, compasses, buttons for clothes, and mirrors.

The center of this burgeoning renaissance was Paris and its university, where between 1179 and 1215 one-third of all students were English. Europe was also becoming less barbaric. The Normans ate in big halls where food was thrown onto the floor, where it was quickly grabbed by dogs and beggars who were allowed to hang around for scraps, but in the twelfth century came the Liber Urbani, the Book of the Civilized Man. This advised people ‘when, where and how to belch, defecate, fart, spit and urinate politely’ and stated among other things that ‘only the head of household, for example, was entitled to urinate in the hall.’ It was the beginning of etiquette or ‘courtesy,’ although the fact that guests had to be instructed not to pee in the hallway suggests they had some way to go.

But in England, in particular, the twelfth century also saw the emergence of a centralized state and legal system, with law courts, proper records and eventually the first parliaments. In charge of it was the rapacious monarchy, growing in size and hungry for money, and resented by the people funding it; an indication of the Crown’s growth can be seen in its ownership of castles, so that while in 1154, the monarch held 35 percent of England’s 350 fortresses, by John’s reign it owned nearly half of them. Geoffrey’s son, who took power in 1154, was described by Gerald of Wales as ‘a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large, round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely then grew bloodshot in anger, a fierce countenance and a harsh, cracked voice.’

From an early age Henry II had shown the sort of spirit that made great medieval kings: as a thirteen-year-old he’d had taken a group of heavily-armed friends over to England and demanded money from King Stephen. The monarch agreed to his charming young cousin’s menaces, and six years later handed over the entire kingdom. By the time Henry became King of England and Duke of Normandy he was already ruler of his native Anjou, and by the age of twenty-two he controlled the entire west coast of France. He also went on to invade Ireland, a decision that down the years has caused one or two problems.

This first Angevin king was hugely intelligent, and as well as being able to read and write (he was one of only a few kings in medieval times known to read in bed) Henry could speak at least passable English, Latin, two types of French, and Welsh. He had a good memory and knowledge of history, and could converse with people of education, although his tastes weren’t that highbrow. His favorite court jester was one Roland the Farter, who was given a manor in Suffolk on condition that every Christmas he ‘gave a jump, a whistle and a fart before Henry and his courtiers.’ It was not a time of great courtly sophistication.

Full of nervous energy and very fidgety, the king was described as a ‘human chariot dragging all after him’ and was always on his feet, which was a pain as courtiers were not allowed to sit while he stood. He was unable to stay still, even at Mass, and would travel around his realm, drafting laws and hearing cases, his underlings having to sleep in woodlands and fighting over who got the pigsty while the king lay in a nice comfy bed. Intelligent and energetic, the king could also be stubborn, and once he decided he didn’t like someone, he never changed his opinion of them.

However, Henry’s main problem was his temper, and as a result he spent his entire reign fighting. Once, believing that a servant had betrayed him, he ‘aflame into his usual rage, flung his cap from his head, pulled off his belt, threw off his cloak and clothes, grabbed the silken coverlet off the couch, and sitting as it might be on some dung heap started chewing pieces of straw as if he were sitting in a ditch.’ The servant in question had said something positive about the king of the Scots, which Henry took as a slight.

On another occasion the king accused his butler, Robert Belet, of insolence because he had not given him a sparrow hawk as a present; Belet was forced to pay a fine of £100, which according to records he was still paying off eighteen years later. Another of his men, Henry of Essex, dropped the king’s banner during an invasion of Wales in 1157, and was forced to undergo trial by ordeal. His opponent beat him and his lands were confiscated, with Henry left for dead; however he recovered and lived for another thirteen miserable years as a monk.

The king’s furious temper would aggravate the central conflict of the era, with the Church, St Thomas Becket’s murder being one of the few medieval events that has stuck in the public consciousness; but it also fuelled the far more hateful war with his own sons, four of the most monstrous individuals of the period. William of Newburgh said Henry ‘was hateful to nearly everyone,’ and he certainly had a vicious streak. During his stand-off with the Church hundreds of Thomas Becket’s supporters were stripped of possessions, exiled or imprisoned in chains; clerics could even have their eyes gouged out or genitals hacked off, while a young man who took the king a message from the pope was blinded and was forced to drink boiling water.

There was also a notorious incident in 1165 when Henry had taken young people hostage in Wales and ordered all the males to be blinded and castrated while the females had their noses and ears cut off. But, to be fair, Henry was one of the less cruel members of his family.

As well as his land in England, Normandy and Anjou, Henry had acquired another huge chunk of territory two years before he became king by marrying the slightly risqué Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was a divorcee previously wed to King Louis VII of France and was so scandalous that a gossipy English monk called Richard of Devizes observed none-too-subtly that: ‘Many know what I would that none of us knew. Let no one say any more about it. I know too well. Keep silent.’ Henry’s father Geoffrey had also supposedly ‘personally verified Eleanor’s appetite for passion before recommending her to his son’, which says something about how messed up the family was.

Eleanor was one of the most culturally influential people of the medieval period, both in France and England, to a large part helping to create our idea of romance. She came from the intensely passionate and sensual region of Aquitaine, now southwest France but at that time an entirely separate country with its own language, culture and mindset.

Eleanor’s grandfather Duke Guilhelm (William) IX was a ‘crusader, womanizer and poet of love and loss—the first of the troubedours,’ that is the romantic poets of Aquitaine. William of Malmesbury had ‘recounted scandalous rumors of the duke’s provocative exploits and his sardonic wit,’ among which that ‘he ordered that his mistress’s portrait should be painted on his shield . . . declaring that “it was his will to bear her in battle as she had borne him in bed.”’

The Aquitainians matched corny romance with deep faith, and Eleanor’s father Guilhelm X had died on pilgrimage to the relics of St James at Compostela in Spain. Eleanor therefore became duchess aged only twelve or at most fifteen, an incredibly eligible heiress who brought with her one of the fertile regions of Europe, including the best wine producing area in the world. Had she looked like Shrek she would have been a great catch, but as it was she was also fiercely intelligent and beautiful. (A German song from the period went: ‘Were the world all mine/From the sea to the Rhine/I’d give it all If so be the Queen of England Lay in my arms.’)

She was the epitome of sultry Latin sensuality, while her husband Louis was the height of northern European uptightness. The royal couple were comically mismatched. At the time the King of France, Louis the Fat, was dying of dysentery but was keen to have Aquitaine to add to his realm. He had arranged for Eleanor to marry his eldest son Philip, but unfortunately he was killed after tripping up on a stray pig in Paris (just one of those twelfth century hazards). Instead she was wed to Philip’s younger brother Louis, who had been educated to be a cleric by Suger, the abbot of St Denis near Paris and one of the greatest minds of the age. It wasn’t ideal, for ‘Louis was too pious and rigid for his young, beautiful, and vivacious wife, who declared that she had married a monk not a king’ .

The younger Louis was ‘by all accounts, besotted with his wife, offering her an infatuated, puppyish devotion,’10 but it was never going to be enough, even when he massacred over a thousand people in order to prove himself to her. The notorious incident happened after the king had arranged for Eleanor’s sister Petronilla to marry his cousin Raoul. Raoul, however, was already married and Petronilla was engaged to a count, Theobald of Blois and Champagne, and so naturally the pope didn’t approve. Nor did Theobald, obviously and in an effort to show his masculine dominance to his wife Louis marched into Champagne and at Viray killed 1300 people who had hidden in a church, burning it down.

The newlyweds soon got to see the world when Louis took his young wife on crusade, which turned out to be a bit of a disaster. Although the Arabs had conquered Jerusalem almost four centuries earlier, it was the arrival of the Seljuk Turks, a threat to the eastern Christians of Constantinople, which had inspired the western Catholic Church to try to conquer back the Near East. Although the crusade had been preached by Pope Urban II, much of the original drive had come from an obscure figure called Peter the Hermit, who led a huge army of peasants and desperados across Europe before most were slaughtered in the Middle East, if not before. The crusaders had conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and this led to the establishment of a number of Christian kingdoms on the coast of what is now Lebanon and Israel, in a region they called ‘Outremere’ (‘overseas’).

However while the original crusaders had settled down and even began to trade with their Muslim neighbors they were soon disrupted by new arrivals eager to fight a holy war in a region they knew absolutely nothing about, ‘newcomers from the west who were both stupidly aggressive and aggressively stupid,’ in the words of one historian.’ The result was endless conflict.

The trigger for the new crusade was a series of disasters that befell the crusader kingdoms. Bohemund II, prince of Antioch was fighting some Christian Armenians when the Turks came along and cut his head off, the local emir having it embalmed and sent to the Caliph of Baghdad, who was said to be delighted. Then in 1131 Baldwin II of Jerusalem had died while fighting, leaving a daughter, and Geoffrey of Anjou’s father Fulk came all the way from Flanders to marry this Melisende on the understanding that he would become king.

However the crusaders soon fell out among themselves after rumors Melisende was having an affair with the Lord of Jaffa, and then Fulk died after being thrown from a horse while chasing a hare. Then the city of Edessa fell to the Muslims and this triggered a new crusade, preached by St Bernard of Clairvaux; among those who volunteered to take the Cross was King Louis of France. It didn’t go well; for a start Eleanor’s baggage train was said to be so large it ‘impaired the army’s mobility’ and when they got to the Middle East she seems to have had an affair with her own uncle, the handsome Ramon. To start with Ramon and Louis had disagreed over military tactics, and Eleanor took her uncle’s side.

‘The long, laughing conversations between uncle and niece became embarrassing for everyone,’ especially as the two spoke in Occitan, the language of Aquitaine which the people of Paris couldn’t understand. When Louis declared his plans to leave Antioch for Jerusalem she refused to go with him. He remonstrated with her and she reminded him that they were actually related, implying that under Church law she could get the marriage annulled.

The royal marriage troubles became common knowledge and Abbot Suger wrote to Louis in 1149 saying ‘we venture to congratulate you, if we may, upon the extent to which you suppress your anger.’ Which must have calmed him down.

Eventually the couple got home, after months travelling through Europe during which they were both sick most of the time. The Second Crusade achieved very little and poor uncle Ramon was killed soon after by the Arabs and his head was sent in a silver box as a trophy for the caliph of Baghdad, who must have been amassing quite a collection of heads by now. The royal couple soon split, the pretext being how closely related they were, which the Church was very strict about at the time; soon an august assembly of French bishops at Paris ruled the marriage illegal. Although the couple had two daughters, this wasn’t an issue as under French law not only could they not become monarchs but the crown could only pass through the male line.

The marriage was over. However, Eleanor was such a catch that on her way from Paris to her homeland she was ambushed by two separate suitors hoping to win her hand by rather unorthodox means. One of her admirers was Theobald V, the new count of Champagne, whose father had previously been attacked by Louis; she managed to avoid him and Theobald later married Eleanor and Louis’s daughter Alix. (Theobald would later win a claim to fame by orchestrating the first blood libel in Europe against Jews. He eventually joined the Third Crusade, dying at Acre and presumably going straight to heaven.)

The other was Geoffrey of Anjou, younger son of Geoffrey and Matilda, who also failed. So it was a huge shock when she was betrothed to Geoffrey’s older brother Henry, who her husband had previously been at war with, especially as Eleanor was eleven years older than her new man. Eleanor had a lasting cultural influence in France and England, introducing the romantic poetic tradition that may have originated in her native Aquitaine, and which did much to shape medieval and so modern ideas about love.

Although romantic love is presumably as old as humanity, the tradition of erotic poetry and love songs originated in south-west France, although it may have been influenced by Persia, via Moorish Spain (there are different theories). Courtly love poems often featured repressed and impossible love between aristocratic women and knights of a lower social status whose job it was to guard them, still essentially quite a popular genre in fiction although more recently involving bodyguards or gardeners. Walter Map tells of a story of a queen who lusted after a knight called Galo, and after he got one of his friends to tell her he was a eunuch, she sent one of her ladies in waiting to seduce him and ‘put her finger on the spot [and] bring back word of whether he was man or no.’ Louis was still devoted to her, but lost Eleanor and the whole of Aquitaine in possibly the worst settlement in history before the arrival of the modern divorce lawyer.

Had they produced sons he would have kept her, and to add insult to costly injury she went on to produce five boys by her new, younger husband, four of them surviving to adulthood, as well as three daughters. Henry also had as many as twelve children by his various mistresses, an attraction that must have had less to do with his bloodshot eyes and enormous beer belly, and probably more to do with his massive empire stretching from the borders of Scotland to the northern tip of Spain.

Notorious for his sexual appetite, Henry’s court had so many prostitutes attached to it that there was a ‘marshal of the whores’ to deal with them, whose name was, implausibly to fans of British comedy, Baldrick FitzGilbert. Although under the feudal system he was technically a vassal of the King of France in his French territories, Henry was in some ways more powerful, and he and King Louis VII were great rivals, as their sons would later be. When in 1158 Henry travelled to meet his opposite number to arrange the marriage of his infant son and Louis’s daughter by his second wife, he used it as an excuse to show off his country’s growing wealth and status. Among the entourage that made its way from the coast of Normandy to Paris were 250 men singing English songs, a selection of English mastiffs and greyhounds, and eight carts filled with English ale, pulled by teams of five horses, each ridden by (a nice touch, this) a monkey dressed in English national costume.

The French king had deliberately banned villagers on the procession’s route from giving the Englishmen food, so that they’d turn up in the capital looking pathetic and dishevelled, but the organizer had thought of this. When they arrived in Paris, even the Parisians were impressed— ‘ooh la la,’ they probably said.

The display was recognition of London’s newfound wealth and ostentation. From this point on, the people of the city become recognizable as the wealth-obsessed, fashion-conscious spivs that the rest of the country loves so much. A thriving trade hub, London even had its first restaurant, a twenty-four-hour ‘cook-shop’ by the Thames, as regular patron William FitzStephen called it, which served ‘Seasonal foods, dishes roast, fried and boiled, fish of every size.’ Alehouses were for the first time springing up, recognized by a long projecting pole beside the door, where a bush was hung. (Today hanging baskets are still hung outside pubs in England.)

By the end of the twelfth century England had become more prosperous than ever. There were now 150 fairs and 350 markets across the country, church spires were shooting up, wool and tin were big exports, and London was now home to 80,000 people and second city Norwich some 20,000. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw huge economic growth in western Europe, and in England the population tripled in 200 years, reaching six million in 1300, a figure it wouldn’t reach again until the eighteenth century after the devastation of the Black Death.

London had also become the centre of government by the time of Henry II, with the Treasury moving from Winchester to Westminster in the twelfth century, although there weren’t really capital cities as such, as the royal court moved around with the king and his entourage. FitzStephen also described how Londoners liked nothing better than indulging in cockfights, football, dancing, ‘leaping,’ casting stones and practising ‘feates of warre with disarmed launces and shields.’ Wrestling was also a popular sport with rich and poor, although women weren’t allowed to watch; every year there was a big wrestling match on St Bartholomew’s Day (August 24) in Clerkenwell, and back in those days it was real.

Still, not everyone was a fan; Richard of Devizes, who had come from Winchester, wrote of London in the 1190s: ‘Whatever evil or malicious thing can be found anywhere in the world can also be found in that city. There are masses of pimps. You will meet more braggarts there than in the whole of France. The number of parasites is infinite. Actors, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorcerers, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons. If you do not wish to dwell with evil-doers, do not live in London.’ What he’d have made of Soho on a Saturday night can only be guessed at.

And the city was certainly dangerous: savage dogs hung around St Paul’s cathedral terrorizing passers-by until mid-thirteenth century, while its murder rate would have been higher than any US city today. Aside from pimps, quacks and smooth-skinned lads, a growing number of men made good money as merchants. Among them was the Norman, Gilbert of Thierceville, and as Gilbert’s son had become a crony of the king, so it was natural that Henry should turn to him to organize the English display in Paris. He did a brilliant job. His name was Thomas Becket, and he and Henry were to seriously fall out.

What do you think?

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