Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Alais of France: Forgotten Princess by Christy English

In my first novel, The Queen’s Pawn, Princess Alais, a little known French princess from the 12th century, is my protagonist and the linchpin of the story. The historical Alais was the daughter of Louis VII of France and Constance of Castile, a pawn of politics and alliance, as most high born women were during her lifetime. Born in 1160, Princess Alais was betrothed to Prince Richard of England (Later Richard the Lionhearted) in 1169. Though she came to the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine as a child, her marriage to Richard never took place, and she returned to France years later at the age of thirty-five.

We do not know what Alais looked like, nor do we even know for certain the correct spelling of her name. She is mentioned by the chroniclers of the time as Alys, Alix, and Alais. In the modern parlance, she is often called Alice, the young princess portrayed in the film The Lion in Winter starring Peter O’Toole in the role of Henry II, Katherine Hepburn in the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Anthony Hopkins as Prince Richard. This modern brush with fame was fleeting, because for the most part, no one remembers Princess Alais at all.

We know that she was held by her father’s enemies from the time she was nine years old. While she never married her intended, Prince Richard, Alais was said to have been one of Henry II’s many mistresses. Whether or not she actually became the mistress of the king has been questioned by modern historians, but I believe she did.

Different chroniclers speak of Alais only in relation to the men in her life, as the daughter of Louis VII, as the mistress of Henry II, and as the spurned betrothed of Richard I. Primary sources differ on the number of children that she and Henry might have had during their supposed liaison, but no one mentions the fate of these children. If they lived, their fate is forgotten, as so much of Princess Alais’ life has been.

We know for certain that Richard the Lionhearted refused to marry Alais, though in every other instance, he always kept any oath he made. This alone is evidence enough to convince me that King Richard believed that Alais had been his father’s paramour.

Instead of marrying Alais upon his ascension to the throne, Richard arranged his own marriage to Berengaria of Navarre and went on Crusade with the hope of freeing Jerusalem from the Turks. While Richard was away, Princess Alais remained in the Norman city of Rouen, for though King Richard refused to honor their betrothal, he also did not send her home. Alais languished in Rouen for almost five years until she was returned to her brother, King Philippe Auguste of France in 1195.

Her brother arranged a second marriage for Princess Alais to William, Count of Ponthieu. Once married to Philippe Auguste’s vassal, Alais disappeared from the historical record. We do not know for certain how many children she had with her husband, or when she died. She was once again forgotten, as she was during most of the years she spent trapped at the courts of Henry II and Richard I, waiting to complete a political alliance which never took place.

I have written this post, as well as The Queen’s Pawn, for Alais. The dead live on when we remember them, no matter how imperfectly.