King John’s First Marriage

King John of England (From the Historia Anglorum, Chronica majora). Artist: Paris, Matthew (c. 1200-1259)

Fun fact: Henry VIII was not the first English monarch to divorce his wife. That dubious honor goes to King John of Magna Carta fame, though it should be noted that the “divorce” was in fact an annulment and, as I’ve noted before, it was a bit of a reverse-Katherine of Aragon situation. In John’s case, he left his English wife for a brilliant foreign match and not the other way around. His motivation for doing this was, however, a situation Henry would have found familiar – he was a younger son not originally intended for the throne.

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When Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Queen of France

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Eleanor of Aquitaine is now known as a Medieval heroine thanks to the independent holding of her  inheritance and her actions during the last years of her husband’s and sons’ reigns. For me, I’m mostly impressed that she’s the only woman in  history to have been queen of both France and England – throw a 12th century divorce into the mix, a stint of imprisonment and a few goes at regency and it makes for such a notable life that it’s not surprising she’s still relatively well-known today. We’ve covered already Eleanor’s divorce from Louis VII of France and the first several years of her marriage to Henry II of England, but today we’re going to go back a bit further to her tenure as queen of France.

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The Early Years of Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine

Henry & Eleanor

Eleanor of Aquitaine stands as one of the most recognizable names from the Middle Ages. For those who know a bit about her, her status as an heiress in her own right might come to mind, as might her rather shocking divorce from the king of France. In fact, the period of time that truly solidified Eleanor’s reputation for the better came much later in life, after the death of her husband, Henry II, and while her son, Richard I, sat on the throne. Her efficient administration and tireless survey of his estates, combined with her famous beauty and colorful past, helped cement her status as a woman worth knowing. Yet, a significant chunk of time in-between, the period of her second marriage and when she was in fact the queen of England, was altogether quieter in its early years.

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A Clash of Church & State: The Murder of Thomas Becket

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“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest,” said Henry II to his councilors. And with the alacrity of men whose fortunes rose and fell with the pleasure of their king, they leapt at the chance to murder Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury one December night in 1170. The phrasing gave Henry plausible deniability, or the so the legend goes, for it allowed him distance from the crime – offered him room to say his words were misinterpreted. Today the words are held up as an example for how leaders have a responsibility to wield their power responsibly.

The phrasing reaches us thanks to the oral tradition of storytelling in subsequent centuries and the chances of those exact words coming from Henry’s lips are slim. Even so, the fact remains that at one time the King of England had the Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated, ushering in a violent clash between the state and the church and calling into question who was more powerful, king or pope?

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The Dawn of the Plantagenets: Geoffrey & Matilda

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On May 23, 1125 the only daughter of King Henry I of England was widowed by the death of Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor. Matilda of England had left her home 15 years earlier and in the subsequent years both her mother, Matilda of Scotland, and her brother, William Adelin, had died. Though Henry I married a second time to Adeliza of Louvain, by 1125 the union hadn’t produced any children and Matilda remained her father’s sole legitimate offspring.

Thus, her next steps, including the urgent need for her to marry again, were not only of personal concern, but of national importance. If one considers the amount of sexism that female monarchs like Mary I, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots encountered in the 16th century, then it should be easy to imagine the disbelief with which many viewed the idea of Matilda ruling England as queen regnant in the 12th. However, rather surprisingly, that’s exactly the plan Henry I put in place.

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When Eleanor of Aquitaine Left the King of France & Married the King of England

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There once was a woman who married the King of France and the King of England, and her name was Eleanor of Aquitaine. You might have heard of her. Not only did she marry her way into two of the most prestigious European dynasties, she also divorced a king on her way to doing so. Consider the outrage and disdain with which Wallis Simpson was met in the 1930s and compare that with the fact that Eleanor went through a divorce and came out on top back in the 12th century. Let’s just say there’s a reason she’s famous.

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Edward IV’s Marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in Context

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Lately I have been reading John Ashdown-Hill’s “The Private Life of Edward IV.” I’m not too far into it yet, but so far it’s been enjoyable and it’s certainly a fresh look at the King’s reign, which is usually examined through the lens of the civil war of which he reigned in the middle. Broadly, it argues that perhaps Edward IV was not quite the ladies’ man for which his reputation has given him credit.

Ashdown-Hill has gained some notoriety of late for his theory that Edward IV did, in fact, marry before his queen consort, Elizabeth Woodville, and that their children’s legitimacy was undermined. It’s an interesting argument, one that would add some nuance to Richard III’s usurpation of the throne from his nephew, Edward V. However, this post is not about the veracity of that argument or even, really, about Edward’s relationship with Elizabeth.

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