Eleanor, the Queen: Defending Monks and Clergy in Medieval England
The lovely Eleanor of Aquitaine is truly a captivating queen because she defied the conventions of her time at every turn, showed an incredible amount of strength, and fought hard for those who sought out her help. She was the wife of not one, but two kings! Eleanor married King Louis VII of France first in 1137 AD and then later went on to have a tumultuous marriage to King Henry II of England.
It’s quite important to understand that Eleanor was more than just a queen. The woman was a duchess in her own right, who found herself in possession of an immensely rich inheritance at just fifteen after the unfortunate and tragic demise of her father. From a very young age, Eleanor was irrefutably a powerful force in Europe. The inherited wealth she received was immediately used to leverage influence for the benefit and advantage of the people under her rule. There is no mistaking the impact Eleanor made in her lifetime!
In today’s post, I will be sharing a glimpse into the life of a remarkable queen, showcasing her support for the marginalized and her unwavering defense of justice, both locally and on the grand stage of Europe itself. Eleanor’s second husband Henry II was content to leave her managing the Duchy of Aquitaine on her own and was often happy to leave her in charge of ruling England on his behalf.
I found two crucial and notable letters written by Eleanor of Aquitaine that I would like to share. They really provide some insight into how she ruled and handled adversity. The first, addressed to Viscount Ralph of London, illustrates her dedication to justice as she intervenes on behalf of monks from Reading, who had been unjustly dispossessed of their lands in London. Acting in their favor and in their defense, she orders the returns of the lands or compensation of money that equals the value of the land they lost.
In the second letter, addressed to Pope Alexander III, Eleanor demonstrates her fervent support for Abbot P, a relative of her family, advocating for the restoration of his clerical position. They reveal the compassionate and resolute character of Eleanor, who left an irrevocable and unmistakable mark on history. These letters illuminate the complexity of her reign and the strong unwavering commitment of a queen to the causes she championed. Eleanor never backed down from making demands in defense of her beliefs.
Eleanor’s Defense of Monks’ Land Rights in London
LETTER ONE :
The Letter is addressed to Viscount Ralph of London.
Eleanor’s defense of monks’ land rights in London is an incredible testament to her commitment to justice. Upon receiving the monks’ complaint about the unjust dispossession of their land, Eleanor, acting as regent for King Henry II, issued a mandate to John Fitz Ralph, the sheriff of London coming to the aid of the monks and correcting the wrong done to them. Eleanor had some demands to make.
She directed him to ensure that the monks of Reading regained their rightful 40s. worth of land or an exchange of equal value, highlighting her unwavering dedication to protecting the rights of the marginalized. This incident remarkably reflects Queen Eleanor’s pivotal role in safeguarding land rights for the people who entrusted her to help them.
“Eleanor, queen of England, etc., to John, son of viscount Ralph of London, greetings. Monks of Reading have complained to me that they have been unjustly dispossessed of certain lands in London which Richard, son of B, gave them when he became a monk, namely from the holdings of the abbot of Westminster and of St. Augustine of Canterbury. I therefore order you to investigate without delay if it is so and if you find it to be true, to have the monks repossessed without delay, so that I hear no more complaint about the want of right and justice. And we wish also that they in no way lose anything unjustly that belongs to them. Fare well.”
Brit.Mus.Harleian MS 1708 fo.113b
B.R. Kemp, Reading Abbey Cartularies (Camden 4th series, vols.31 and 33), no.466 and H.G. Richardson, ‘The Letters and Charters of Eleanor of Aquitaine,’ The English Historical Review, 291 (1959), 195 n3.
Eleanor’s Appeal to Pope Alexander III: Defender of Clergy’s Rights
The Letter is addressed to Alexander III, Pope.
In both this letter and her correspondence with Cardinal Jacinto, Queen Eleanor’s tone indicates her dedicated efforts to strengthen her bonds with these influential figures, while also pursuing the restoration of her relative to his clerical position. Her allusions within these letters reveal her resolute defense of Pope Alexander III against opposing factions, potentially those in support of the anti-pope, Victor. Eleanor’s unwavering commitment to the Pope’s cause and her advocacy for her relative’s return to clerical service shine through in these significant documents, underscoring her role as a fervent defender of clergy’s rights and the Church.
“To her revered father and lord, Alexander, by grace of God highest pontiff of the holy Roman church, Eleanor, humble queen of England, due service with all devotion. Over this great dignity/office the devotion of [your] humble daughter does not cease to exult and praise God, and abounding in the fervor of filial love often breaks out in paternal praise.
The burning mass of such joys cannot be extinguished, and the grace of that most just favor knows not how to be buried in timely silence. Wherefore, whenever there is talk about factions in my presence, I am not afraid to do battle against the attempts of the enemy power but assail/subdue them with my arguments, confidently defending your side. (1) I had in any case most justly rejoiced in and embraced your successes before, but the glorious condescension of your writing and the greeting of great commendation and finally of truest promise were enough to obtain all the favor of my smallness. I can not describe the spiritual sweetness of deepest delight I drew out, receiving the individual words as separate rewards of divine blessing most happily and devotedly.
Your sons and my lord cardinals, Henry of Pisa and master William showed me, by the grace of God and you, much honor and benevolence. I rejoice in such delegates from your side, who in the judgment of your choice were held most worthy of every kind of reverence of [your] subjects. But since it is not my intervention for them but theirs that is necessary and salutary, I beg your highness continuously, most humbly prostrate at your footstool, for my relative P, abbot of St. Maxentius,(2) that your mercy restore to my dearest one the use of his [holy] orders and the power of ministering. I would desire your coming to our parts in God and our purpose, but I am ready to show devotion of a humble and faithful minister to [you] absent or present. May divine mercy preserve the father and all the sons of the church.”
(1) This passage may refer to the emperor Federick Barbarossa and those who supported the anti-pope, Victor, elected the same year as Alexander, 1159.
(2) P. is identified in the HGF, p.767 note c, as Petro-Raimundi, with no information on what led to his loss of office. In the letter to Jacinto, Eleanor speaks of P as her “brother” and relative, but since she had no legitimate brother, he is either an illegitimate half-brother or simply a close relative she is devoted to.
PL 200 c.1362 and HGF 15 p.767; essentially the same text, with three minor changes in first sentence: HGF adds vestrae to humilis filiae, gives benedicere for PL’s laudare, and fervor for furor.
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