His ancestry

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The Youth of Richard Plantagenet

Richard I of England was the third son of Henry II Plantagenet, king of England, and the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was born at Oxford on 8 September 1157. At this period most of the “English” nobles in fact came from the continent. Most of the Plantagenet possessions were on the continent and they themselves were a family originating from Anjou. The national identities that we know today were very loosely applied; you were Angevin, Gascon, Breton or Welsh but not English or French, these notions being attached only to large kingdoms with unstable frontiers.

Richard was probably educated in the courts of Bordeaux and Poitiers, that is, in Aquitaine in the domains of his mother Eleanor. Learning the arts of poetry, music and literature, his maternal language was “la langue d’oc” (Occitan). He was also instructed in “la langue d’oïl” (French), the language of his father, and in Latin. Like many young nobles in the 12thcentury he also learned skill at arms, particularly from the great barons faithful to his father. One of them was perhaps William the Marshal, known as the best knight of his time and tutor to Henry II’s eldest son, Henry the Young King. Richard showed real talent as a warrior.

From his youth, therefore, he was steeped in the new culture of chivalry that was spreading through the Plantagenet domains, particularly in Aquitaine. Richard probably very soon became attached to this region, in particular Poitou and Angoumois. Limousin was then experiencing a time of prosperity. The Church, providing some unity to the region, played an important role in what was a golden age for Limousin, thanks to the presence and increasing prosperity of powerful abbeys such as Saint Martial, Solignac and Grandmont. This area also saw the spread of the art of the troubadours, who glorified the new values of chivalry. The life of Richard was to a large extent conditioned by the legacy of his parents and his connections with colourful personalities.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, his mother
Gisant des parents de Richard. Abbaye de Fontevraud (photo Office de tourisme des Monts de Châlus).

Grand-daughter of William IX the Troubadour, duke of Aquitaine, Eleanor was born in about 1122. She grew up at the court of Aquitaine, one of the most refined of its time, which saw the birth of “fin’ Amor” or “courtly love”. Heavily influenced by this culture, she travelled all over the duchy with her family, between the courts of Poitiers and the ducal palace of Ombrière at Bordeaux.

 Well known for her beauty, but also for being the heir of her father, Duke William X of Aquitaine, she was said to be “the most beautiful part of France”; for in fact, whoever married her would become the Duke of Aquitaine.

Personnage représentant peut-être Aliénor d’Aquitaine (fresques de la chapelle Sainte Radegonde, à Chinon, Domaine public)

Thus she was married to Louis, the son of the king of France and heir to the throne. Louis VII was crowned Duke of Aquitaine on 8 August 1137. Eleanor thus found herself at the court in Paris, much more austere than that of Aquitaine.

Several scandals and disagreements soon showed that the good relationship between Eleanor and her husband was at an end. This split became complete at the time of the failure of the Second Crusade (1148-1150). On 21 March 1152 a council proclaimed the dissolution of the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity, a matter brought up by Eleanor herself. Several weeks later she married Henry II Plantagenet, bringing him the Duchy of Aquitaine.

She gave Henry II eight children, including five sons, although her union with Louis VII had produced only daughters. From among them, Richard, her third son, born in 1157, was named as successor to Henry II, his two older brothers having died prematurely, William in 1156 and Henry “The Young King” in 1183. In the 1160s and 70s, Eleanor again lived at the courts of Bordeaux and Poitiers. From 1168 she assisted her young son Richard, designated Duke of Aquitaine by his father, in governing the duchy.


Infuriated by her husband’s infidelities and his mistrust of her influence, she incited Henry II’s sons to revolt against him in 1173. In 1174 the revolt failed; she was captured and held in captivity in various castles until the death of Henry II in 1189, despite the efforts of Richard the Lionheart to free her. Thus she supported her favourite son who was crowned King of England. When Richard left on crusade she went to fetch Berengaria of Navarre and took her to Sicily, then to Cyprus where Berengaria married Richard in 1190. Although more than 70 years old, Eleanor remained very active during her son’s reign; she in particular saw to it that the ransom was fully paid for the release of Richard after his capture during his return from the Third Crusade. Having retired to the abbey of Fontevraud, she died in 1204, after the death of Richard the Lionheart and the crushing defeat of King John, her youngest son, at the hands of the king of France. It was one of her granddaughters, Blanche of Castile, who was later the mother of the celebrated King of France Saint Louis.

Abbaye de Fontevraud
Abbaye de Fontevraud (photo Office de tourisme des Monts de Châlus)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most outstanding personalities of the Middle Ages; her political role as a woman and her longevity are the principal reasons for this renown. During her lifetime she was known as a very important patron of the arts, in particular for the troubadours. She was thus one of the principal figures involved in spreading the idea of courtly love in France and England. Sometimes depicted as a woman of great intelligence and beauty, she is also accused of frivolity and manipulation, both in fact classic faults attributed to women in the Middle Ages and attributed to Eleanor by the Capetian chroniclers, enemies of the Plantagenet dynasty. Either way, Eleanor has left neither her supporters nor her enemies indifferent.

Henry II, his father
Henri II
Gisant d’Henri II (Abbaye de Fontevraud, Domaine Public)

Henry II Plantagenet was born in 1133 at Le Mans in Maine. This county belonged to his father Geoffrey V Plantagenet, also Count of Anjou. The name “Plantagenet” came from the fact that the counts of Anjou fixed a sprig of broom (in Latin “planta genista”) to their helmets since the time of Fulk Nerra at the beginning of the 11th century. Henry’s mother was Matilda, daughter and heiress of Henry I Beauclerc, king of England; he was therefore also the great grandson of William the Conqueror.

In this way Henry received the Duchy of Normandy in 1150, as well as the counties of Anjou and Maine in 1151 on the death of Geoffrey. To these already considerable possessions he added the Grand Duchy of Aquitaine in 1152 when he married Eleanor. On 19 December 1155 Henry II was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey. Thus he found himself at the head of a feudal empire stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees, the administration of which would prove to be a real challenge in a period of fragmentation of centralised power. Nevertheless, he showed himself to be up to the task. Beginning in 1155, he undertook some religious and legislative reforms and appointed Thomas Becket Chancellor.

Further to these governmental measures, which were aimed at ensuring the stability and integrity of his domains, he also pursued an expansionist policy aimed at protecting his frontiers and asserting his authority over the areas surrounding his kingdom.

Even before the start of Henry’s reign, there arose the question of who it was who held lordship over the French fiefs held by the kings of England. In fact, Normandy, Maine and Touraine were all great fiefs that were part of the kingdom of France although they had fallen under the control of great lords like William the Conqueror and his sons and then the Plantagenets, all kings of England. In spite of their royal status, the kings of England owed homage to the Capetian kings of France for their possessions on the continent. Clearly, the Plantagenets, being more powerful and influential than the Capetians, took no account of this homage and the kings of France used this as a pretext for taking these Plantagenet domains back from them. So it was that in the 12th century there arose between the two royal families the conflict that would last until the end of the Middle Ages.

Martyre de Thomas Beckett, (tiré de Vies de saints, manuscrit du XIIIème siècle Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

The end of the reign of Henry II was much less positive than the beginning. It was marked by numerous disputes and scandals. The king had difficulty facing up to them. From the 1160s his power was challenged in England, where he was criticised for his interference in the affairs of the Church. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was at the head of the opposition. Some knights, hoping to gain the king’s approval, murdered the archbishop in his own cathedral in 1170. The West in the 12th century was fundamentally Christian. The murder caused an enormous scandal throughout Christendom and considerably tarnished Henry II’s image; he had to demonstrate his repentance by means of many acts of atonement to avoid being excommunicated.

In the years that followed, he tried to alter his will in order to provide a fief for John, his youngest son, for whom he had a great deal of affection. However, this revised sharing of the inheritance was to the detriment of his other sons, Henry the Young King and Richard, who, encouraged by their mother, rebelled in 1173. After putting down this rebellion, Henry was reconciled with his sons but kept his wife Eleanor in captivity. In the years that followed, Henry made a succession of errors that once again pushed his sons into revolt. Allied to the king of France, on 4 July 1189 they forced Henry to sign the Treaty of Azay le Rideau, in which he recognised Richard as his heir.

He died several days later in his castle at Chinon, attended only by a few knights, among whom was William the Marshal. Henry II was a colourful personality of prodigious strength but also capable of showing violent anger. When Richard succeeded him and came to the throne, he found himself at the head of a kingdom that was powerful and well run.