Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Mother's Lament: Alienor of Aquitaine, 1122-1204

Alienor with her son, John "Lackland" (Chapelle Sainte Radegonde de Poitiers)

Alienor, queen of England, widow of Henry II, to Pope Celestine III (1193):

To the reverend Father and Lord Celestine, by the Grace of God, the supreme Pontiff, Eleanor, pitiable and hoping in vain to be pitied, the Queen of England, Duchess of Normandy, Countess of Anjou, entreats him to show himself to be a Father of mercy to a pitable mother.

O holiest Pope, a cursed distance between us prevents me from speaking to you in person, but I must give vent to my grief a little and who shall assist with me with my words? I am all anxiety, both within and without and as a result my words are full of suffering. There are fears which can be seen, but hidden are the disputes, and I cannot take one breath free from the persecution of my troubles and the grief caused by my afflictions, which beyond measure have found me out. I have completely wasted away with torment and with my flesh devoured, my bones have clung to my skin. My years have passed away full of groans and I wish they could pass away altogether. I wish that the blood of my body, already dead, the brain in my head and the marrow of my bones would dissolve into tears, so much so that I completely melt away into sorrow. My insides have been torn out of me, I have lost the staff of my old age, the light of my eyes; if God assented to my prayers he would condemn my ill-fated eyes to perpetual blindness so that they no longer saw the woes of my people. Who may allow me to die for you, my son? Mother of mercy, look upon a mother so wretched, or else if your Son, an unexhausted source of mercy, requires from the son the sins of the mother, then let him exact complete vengeance on me, for I am the only one to offend, and let him punish me, for I am the irreverent one--do not let him smile over the punishment of an innocent person. Let the one who is striking me crush me, lift up his hand and kill me; let this be consolation--that in burdening me with grief he does not spare me. I am pitiable, yet pitied by no-one; why have I, the Lady of two kingdoms, reached the disgrace of this abominable old age? I am the mother of two kings.

My insides have been torn out of me, my family has been carried off, it has rolled past me; the Young King and the earl of Brittany sleep in the dust--their mother is so ill-fated she is forced to live, so that without cure she is tortured with the memory of the dead. As some comfort, I still have two sons, who are alive today, but only to punish me, wretched and condemned. King Richard is detained in chains; his brother John is killing the people of the prisoner's kingdom with the sword, he is ravaging the land with fires. In every respect the Lord has become cruel to me, turning his heavy hand against me. His anger is so against me that even my sons fight against each other, if indeed it can be called a fight when one is imprisoned and crushed in chains while the other heaps grief upon grief by trying to usurp the former's kingdom for himself with his cruel tyranny.

Good Jesus! Who will grant me thy protection in hell and hide me until your fury passes away, until your arrows stop, the arrows which are in me, the arrows whose anger my whole spirit is drunk on? I long for death, I am weary of life. Though I am thus continually dying, I still want to die more completely; unwilling, I am compelled to live--my life is the food of death and is a means of torture. Blessed are those who do not know the capriciousness of this life, who do not know of the unpredictable events in our inconstant fate because of a blessed abortion! What do I do? Why do I yet live? Why do I, a wretched creature, delay? Why do I not go to see the man my soul loves, chained in beggary and iron? At such a time as this, how could a mother forget the son of her very womb? Affection appeases tigers, it even appeases the more fierce witches.

But doubt remains and I waver. If I go, I desert my son's kingdom, which is being plundered from every direction with formidable hostility, and in my absence it will have no common counsel, no relief. But if I stay, I will not see what I most want to see, the face of my son, and there will be no-one to concentrate on procuring the release of my son, but what I am more afraid of is that the most fastidious of young men will be tortured for some impossible sum of money and yet impatient of so much affliction will be easily tortured to death. O wicked, cruel, impious tyrant who is not afraid to lay his hands on the Lord's Anointed, nor has a royal anointing, nor a reverence for the holy life, nor a fear of God restrained you from such inhumanity.

In addition to this, the Prince of the Apostles still rules and reigns in the Apostolic See, and his judicial steadfastness is set up for the people; it rests with you, Father, to draw the sword of Peter against these criminals, for it was for this reason that Peter set the sword above peoples and kingdoms. The cross of Christ soars ahead of the eagles of Caesar, the sword of Peter is a higher authority that the sword of Constantine, the Apostolic See higher than an Imperial power. Is your power derived from God or from men? Did not the God of God's speak to you through his apostle Peter, saying 'Whatever you have bound on earth will be bound also in heaven and whatever you have freed on earth will also be freed in heaven'? Why then have you, so negligent, so cruel, done nothing for so long about the release of my son or is it rather that you do not dare? Perhaps you will say that this power entrusted to you was over souls, not bodies: so be it, I will certainly be satisfied if you bind the souls of those who keep my son bound in prison. It is in you power to release my son, unless the fear of God yields to a human fear. So restore my son to me, man of God, if indeed you are a man of God and not a man of mere blood. If you are slow in releasing my son, then the Most High will require my son's blood from your hand. Alas, it is a sorry time when the chief shepherd turns into a mercenary, when he flies from the face of the wolf, when he abandons in the jaws of a bloodthirsty beast a lamb put into his care, or even the chosen ram, the leader of the Lord's flock. A good shepherd instructs and informs other shepherds not to run when they see a wolf approaching but rather to lay down their lives for their sheep. Please, I beg you, may you save your own soul while you apply yourself to procuring the release, not of your sheep, but I will say of your son, using numerous embassies, beneficial advice, thunderous threats, general injunctions and severe sentences? Though late, you should give your soul for him, the man for whom you have refused to say or write one word. We know from the testimony of the prophet, the Son of God came down from heaven to bring the chained out of the lake in which there was no water; what was fitting for God is surely fitting for God's servant. My son in tortured in chains, but you do not go down to him, you do not send anyone, you are not even moved by the sorrow which moved Joseph. Christ sees this and is silent, but in the final judgment retribution will be severe for those who are negligent in doing God's work.

Legates have now been promised to us three times, yet have not been sent; in fact they are servants rather than legates. If my son were in a prosperous position, they would hurry rather more quickly to his simple call, expecting plentiful rewards for their embassy from his splendid generosity and the public profit of his kingdom. But what profit could they consider more glorious than the freeing of a captive king and restoring of peace to the people, of tranquillity to the religious and of joy to everyone? But now the sons of Ephraim, who aimed, who fired their bows, have turned round on the day of battle and in the time of stress; while the wolf comes upon his prey, the dogs are mute--either they cannot, or they will not, bark. Is this the promise you made me at the castle of Ralph, with the great authority of love and good faith? What benefit did you gain from giving my simple nature mere words, from mocking the prayers of the innocent with a hollow trust? So once King Achab was forbidden to form a friendship with Ben-hadad, and we have heard what disastrous effects their mutual love had. Divince providence blessed the wars of Judas, John, Simon and the Maccabaean brothers with felicitous auspices; but when an embassy was sent to secure the friendship of the Romans, they lost the help of God, and their corruptible friendship was more than once the cause of bitter regret. You alone forced me to despair; after God, you have been my hope, the trust of our people. Cursed be he who trusts in man--so where is my refuge now? You are, my Lord, my God. The eyes of your maidservant are turned to you, O Lord, for you recognise my distress. You, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, look upon your Christ's face, grant sovereignty to your Son, and save the son of your maidservant; do not bring on him the crimes of his father or the wickedness of his mother.

We know from a certified public report that after the death of the bishop of Liege whom the emperor is said to have killed with a death-blow from his sword, though wielded by a distant hand, he confined in prison-like misery the bishop of Ostia, four of his provincial bishops and even the Archbishops of Salerno and Trieves; and the Apostolic authority ought in no way to deny that unlawfully and tyranically he has also taken possession of Sicily, to the perpetual detriment of the Roman Church--for from the times of Constantine it has remained the patrimony of St Peter, and it was seized despite embassies, petitions and threats from the Apostolic see. The emperor's fury is not satisfied with all these gains, but his hand is still stretched out. Certainly he has done dreadful things, but most surely you can soon expect worse. For those who ought to be pillars of the Church are as light as reeds and every wind sways them. If only they would remember that the glory of the Lord was transferred from Israel because of the negligence of Eli, the priest ministering in Shiloh. That is not a parable applying only to the past, but to the present; for the Lord banished the Tabernacle from Shiloh, his own Tabernacle where he dwelt among men and he left their virtue to remain in captivity, their excellence in the hands of the enemy. The fact that the Church is being trampled upon is attributed to their timidity, as is also the fact that faith is being put to the test, liberty oppressed, trickery being fostered by compliance, wickedness by impunity. Where is the promise the Lord made to his Church: 'Thou shalt suck the milk of the Gentiles and shall suckle the breasts of Kings; I shall make thee the pride of ages, a joy from generation to generation'? Once, the Church trod upon the necks of the proud and lofty with its own strength and the laws of emperors obeyed the sacred canons. But now things have changed--not only canons, but the makers of canons are restrained by base laws and profane customs. No-one dare murmur about the detestable crimes of the powerful, which are tolerated, and the canonical rule applies merely to the sins of the poor. So Anacharsis the philosopher had good reason to compare the laws and canons with spider's webs, which trap the weaker animals but let the stronger go.

The kings of the earth have set themselves and the rulers have all agreed to be against my son, the Lord's Anointed. One tortures him in chains, another destroys his lands with a cruel enmity, or to use a common phrase: 'one shears, another plunders, one holds the foot, another skins it.' The supreme Pontiff sees all this, yet keeps the sword of Peter sheathed, and thus gives the sinner added boldness, his silence being presumed to indicate consent. For the man who can rebuke, who ought to rebuke, but does not do so seems to consent, and the man who pretends to be patient will not be without a hidden alliance. The time of dissension is upon us, just as the Apostle predicted and the son of eternal damnation shall be revealed; dangerous times are at hand when the seamless tunic of Christ is torn, when the net of Peter is broken and the solid unity of the Catholic Church is dispersed. These are the initial stages of evil things--we perceive oppressive times, we fear worse. I am no prophetess, nor the daughter of a prophet, but my grief has made many suggestions about the troubles to come; yet it also steals the very words it suggests, for my writing is interrupted by my sobbing, my sadness saps the strength of my soul and it chokes my vocal chords with anxiety. Farewell.

Crawford, A., ed. Letters of the queens of England (UK: Sutton Pub., 2002, pp. 39-43)


Daphne said...

Wow - that is some letter! I think Eleanor has to be one of the most fascinating women in history.

Kevin said...

Alienor is without a doubt one of my favorite historical figures, as well. Her description by her Arabic foes as "the lady with the golden boot" during the Second Crusade, conjures some vivid imagery. Thanks for your comment!

Melisende said...


Did Eleanor receive a reply - or was a "scolding" letter ever received by John from Celestine III??

It would be interesting to follow that up.

Kevin said...


Follow-up would be interesting, were there something to actually follow up. Celestine III was an old, timid man who chose not to respond to Alienor's desperate pleas. From the beginning of her political life, the Queen consistently showed herself to be bolder than most of her male contemporaries.

Kate Plantagenet said...

Thanks for sharing her words with us Kevin. She is an amazing woman. I have a few gateway ancestors that take me back to her, but they all pale beside Alianor/Eleanor.

I have bookmarked your blog and will enjoy reading your past blog entries.


Kevin said...

Hi Kate,

Thanks for reading! I did a report on Eleanor for an undergrad course, not knowing at the time I had any connections to her. The report was probably more objective than it would have been otherwise, but I was still quite impressed with the lady.

I put up a new today (finally!) on the murder of Thomas of Woodstock in 1397. Next up is a blog on Cecily Neville, wife of Richard Plantagenet, 1st duke of Gloucester.