This post is adapted from a class I co-taught at a judicial conference in 2015, marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
It all started with a 12th Century French Duchess.
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s father fell ill when she was only 15. To protect her from ambitious noblemen, he named the King of France as her guardian, a role the King gladly accepted. As soon as the old Duke died, the gladly accepting King sent 500 men to Eleanor to protect her, sending his son Louis and an Archbishop with them. Then he protected Eleanor to the extent of marrying her off to his son on the contingent’s arrival. 500 soldiers make for a convincing wedding proposal.
The old King died shortly after and Louis VII took the throne with control over 5 times the territory his father had.
Louis was a young king who had other vassal states to keep in check. There was one particularly troublesome fief that needed his attention and he attended to it by sending in the army, which promptly massacred hundreds of civilians.
Louis was faced with a single course of action. Show penance by going on Crusade. Accordingly, he met with a German king and the titular ruler of Jerusalem to organize the Second Crusade.
Queen Eleanor offered Abbe Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most powerful clergymen in Europe, thousands of Aquitanian vassal soldiers for the war effort, which he gladly accepted. He shouldn’t have been so quick. Eleanor then told him that she was coming too, along with 300 women, to tend the sick. The Abbe was not amused yet had no choice but to accept. After all, what clergyman in his right mind turns down thousands of vassal soldiers?
Eleanor and her women traveled east with the armies. By some reports they wore armor and carried spears like the men. There are no reports they actually used them. On reaching Asia Minor, Eleanor and Louis met with Raymond, Prince of Antioch, also known as Raymond, uncle of Eleanor. Only a few years older than she, he was by all reports exceedingly handsome, quite single and notably close to his niece.
Raymond advised a campaign against Edessa, and Eleanor sided with Uncle Raymond. Louis instead wanted to go all the way to Jerusalem to secure the area and got his way by demanding fealty from them both. The combined armies went to Jerusalem. They got creamed.
Louis and Eleanor decided to return to France but not before rumors started flying about an amorous connection between her and Uncle Raymond. In the ancient equivalent of sleeping in separate bedrooms, Eleanor and Louis took separate ships home. On the way, while in port in Sicily, Eleanor received word her beloved uncle had been killed in battle and his head delivered to the enemy. He likely wasn’t so exceedingly handsome any longer, but he was still quite single.
She and Louis patched things up enough to have two daughters. Louis needed a son, though, and eventually decided he consequently also needed a new wife. His advisors found a line of consanguinity between him and Eleanor sufficient to allow the Pope to declare the marriage annulled. Eleanor returned to Aquitaine a free woman.
She didn’t stay single for long. Eight weeks after leaving Louis she married Henry, Count of Anjou, a man 11 years younger than she.
Why marry a young man who isn’t even royalty? Because he was also the eldest son of the Duke of Normandy, and next in line for a plum job across the English Channel. Soon after their marriage Henry’s father died and Henry not only became the new Duke of Normandy but also succeeded to the throne of England as Henry II.
The combined lands of Eleanor and Henry were ten times the size of those controlled by Louis VII. As Duke of Normandy he made a show of fealty to Louis, but this may have been a power play to show his own English nobles that they better line up behind him as their king.
Remember Louis’ disappointment at having only two daughters with Eleanor? Eleanor had eight children with Henry, five sons and three daughters. If only Louis had been patient enough to wait.
The first son died as a toddler so the next, young Henry, also known as Hal, became the heir apparent. Henry II even took to calling little Hal “The Young King”. Hal put much stock into that label, so much so that at age 17 he plotted with his mother against his father in a bid to wrest the crown from Henry II.
They took advantage of the fact that Henry II spent so much time in his French realms and left Eleanor as the de facto regent in England. It didn’t work. Henry imprisoned Eleanor, moving her from castle to castle in what was probably an effort to keep her from staying anywhere long enough to build strength of numbers. Hal, bereft of the support of this Queen who was also the powerful Duchess of Aquitaine, came back under his father’s control. Poor young Hal never did become true king, dying before his father. On his deathbed he begged for his mother’s release, a wish which Henry (a surprisingly indulgent father, considering the grief Hal had given him) chose to grant. Eleanor refrained from further plots against her husband.
Henry II eventually died too, leaving the throne to his next son, Richard.
Richard the Lionheart, Coeur de Lion, spoke French better than he spoke English. He also sought adventure and left England to lead the Third Crusade, fighting Saladin in the east. After spending enough time in the east to know it was time to go home, he found himself shipwrecked and taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria. The Duke handed him over to the Holy Roman Emperor who, not being impressed by the fact Henry went on a Crusade, promptly held him for ransom to raise some ready cash. He demanded a sum equal to three times the annual revenue of the English realm.
Eleanor once again showed her stuff. She confiscated the gold and silver treasuries of the churches and levied a 25% tax on all property of the nobility. Not on its income; on the property’s full value.
The next son in line, meanwhile, was enjoying an England without Richard. John even went so far as to offer the Holy Roman Emperor a stipend to hold Henry a bit longer. The Emperor declined.
Still, John eventually came into his own when Richard died in 1199.
Some say that John was Eleanor’s favorite. He was also rumored to be favored over Richard by the barons since Richard, like his father Henry II, was said to spend a lot of time in France – so much that he never did speak English like a native. John did, so the Barons were all right with him at least initially.
What of Eleanor, though? In her later years she left the management of her French holdings to her sons, retiring to the Abbey of Fontrevaud to live as a woman of the church where she died in 1204.
She is depicted on her tomb with a Bible in her hand. With modern cynical sensibilities a person might wonder if this was merely convention, showing the queen to be pious whether she was or not. But by all accounts she actually was. And by the time of her death she had been married to two kings and the mother of two more.
John did not fare as well in the years that followed. Disillusioned with their king, the barons called a meeting at Runnymede in 1215 (n.b. – Runny comes from the Anglo-Saxon “meeting” and Mede is for “meadow”; this had been a place for royal conferences for centuries). The barons demanded more from John, and got it.
By the time they were done with their little meeting John signed the Magna Carta and set in place the beginning of the guarantee of government by rule of law rather than by monarchic whim.
The result was the development of the English Common Law tradition, a tradition that has influenced countries in every hemisphere up to the present.
And as I said at the beginning, it all started with a 12th Century French Duchess.