Saturday, October 4, 2014

Alice Capet: The Almost-Queen of England

by Lauren Johnson

Philip Augustus and Richard I
Winter 1191. The armies of two mighty Christian kings jostled for space in their encampment on the island of Sicily, en route to the Crusades. Months had passed, and both monarchs and soldiers had grown restless. Everyone awaited the coming spring and conditions safe enough to sail on to the Holy Land. None were more eager to depart than their commanders: the English King Richard; the French King Philip Augustus; and their reluctant host, the diminutive King Tancred of Sicily. Once so close that they had shared bed and board, Richard and Philip’s relationship had become uneasy during their time in Sicily. Rumours had reached Philip that Richard planned to betray a decades-old alliance between their families – a union that would have seen him marry Philip’s sister Alice. Now there were reports that a princess of Navarre was on her way with Richard’s mother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, to claim the English king’s hand instead. Philip was incensed. ‘If he does put (Alice) aside and marry another woman,’ he declared, ‘I will be the enemy of him and his so long as I live.’

Richard I
Characteristically, Philip chose to force the issue by manipulative diplomatic means rather than open conflict. He went to Tancred, accusing Richard of plotting to seize Sicily for his own family. When Richard learnt of this he – equally characteristically – forced a confrontation, in which the French king demanded, in a refrain that had become a standard of Anglo-French bargaining over the past ten years, that Richard finally fulfill his promise and marry his sister. It was then that Richard made a shocking accusation.

‘He could never take Philip’s sister as wife,’ he said, ‘for the king of England, his father, had known her, and got a son from her, and to this end Richard could produce witnesses.’

The report was staggering and, for the French king, mortifying. Unwilling for the salacious details of his sister’s scandal to be publicly broadcast by Richard’s witnesses, Philip swiftly signed a treaty that left Richard free to marry whoever he wanted and handed over the right to long-contested border territories in France. In this humiliating concession, the seeds were sown for future discord between Philip and Richard, which would lead to the failure of their crusade and a rebellion in England that almost lost Richard his kingdom.

The disintegration of Richard and Philip’s alliance is a story that has often been retold. But what of the fate of the woman at the heart of this conflict? The princess who had allegedly slept with her fiancé’s father in defiance of years of carefully nurtured diplomatic arrangements? Who was Alice of France? And did she really risk her marriage, and her lands, for lust?

Henry II
Like so many medieval women – even princesses – Alice’s life is an unpicked patchwork where stark political facts sit alongside substantial lacunae of information. She was born in 1159 and betrothed to Richard when both were still in their nurseries. At that time it served the interests of their fathers (Louis VII of France and Henry II of England) to make peace, ending another round of fruitless competition between their territories. Although he was King of the English, Henry II’s realm stretched far beyond the island of Britain. By right of family and conquest, he held vast swathes of what we would now consider western France, while Louis had to be content with a powerbase to the east.

France 1154
Alice’s marriage was thus negotiated from the very beginning as a political alliance for the benefit of others. This was not unusual, and indeed Richard and Alice’s betrothal was mirrored in that of their elder siblings: Prince Henry of England and Margaret of France. However, Richard and Alice’s relationship was in other ways very different. For while Henry and Margaret spent time in one another’s households, had a child and built up a faction together over their many years of marriage, Richard and Alice remained unwed, and were rarely in each other’s company. At the age of fifteen Richard was made duke of Aquitaine in what is now southern France, and was based there until his accession as King of England in 1189. Alice, meanwhile, was kept in a sort of roving dormitory of princesses, travelling with Richard’s mother, Queen Eleanor, and various other royal children – both Eleanor’s own, and the intended fiancées of her sons. In this age of itinerant kingship, when the King of the English was also Duke of Anjou and Normandy (not to mention many other smaller continental territories), Alice’s childhood would have been spent constantly on the move. Eleanor often travelled with her husband and children, even crossing the treacherous English Channel while pregnant in 1157.

During her childhood, Alice was treated as befitted her royal status, but little attention was paid to her by contemporaries. It is not even clear exactly which territories or fortifications made up her dowry, and during the Plantagenet rebellions of the 1170s no chronicler mentions her playing any part. Alice’s status – and her future – changed in 1183, when she was in her early twenties. A feud within the English royal family had escalated into armed rebellion and Alice’s brother-in-law Prince Henry died still fighting his father the King. In the aftermath, the prince’s widow, Alice’s sister Margaret, handed her own dowry over to her little sister in exchange for a pension. Alice now held the right to a vital frontier territory between Normandy and France called the Vexin, making her extremely useful to whichever party had possession of her – a fact that Henry II was all too aware of.

The Vexin

From this moment onwards, Alice’s fate was sealed. As long as she was in Henry’s control, so too was the Vexin. If she married Richard, the King would lose not only his ward but also his land – and to a son whose loyalty was highly suspect, for it often seemed that Richard was closer to the King of France than to his father. Despite almost annual French demands for Alice and Richard’s marriage to take place, Alice remained firmly under Henry’s authority, and decidedly unwed.

It is tempting at first glance to see Henry’s refusal to marry off Alice as proof of the affair, which his son so humiliatingly made public in 1191. However, by 1183 whatever relationship they had had was several years old (perhaps even over), and while he consistently delayed her wedding day, the King proved all too willing to use Alice’s marriage as pragmatically as he used his children’s inheritances. To him they were all pawns in an international game of chess, and only he got to move the pieces. In fact, only one year after Alice took hold of the Vexin, Henry was plotting to transfer her marriage from the faithless Richard to his favourite son, John. Alice’s brother Philip, now King of France in his own right, protested and increased pressure on Henry for the marriage with Richard to take place as soon as possible. Henry repeated his assurance that it would, but made no moves whatsoever. This was a pattern Henry repeated throughout his custody of Alice: in 1177 at the treaty of Ivry; in 1180 at Gisors; at Bonmoulins in 1188. And it was to be a foundless promise Richard himself would repeat as king.

To view Henry’s willingness to barter with Alice’s marriage as evidence against the alleged relationship would be to misunderstand Henry’s character, and to impose sentimentality on a man of undoubted passion, but little romantic sensibility. Even those family members Henry loved best were still viewed by him as bargaining chips or potential rivals. Some panegyrists of the ‘father of common law’ have insisted that Henry would not have ravished his own ward, but his sexual history suggests the opposite. He was a known womaniser who fathered several bastards – and not merely with lowborn women, but with those of high rank too. One of these illegitimate children, William Longspée, was probably the product of an affair with Ida de Tosny, who later married the Earl of Norfok – she received a manor in Oxfordshire ‘for her service’. His was a libidinous court, with prostitutes (meretrices) provided to meet royal needs in both England and Normandy.

So much for Henry. But would Alice really risk her reputation and her future for a king 26 years her senior? To answer this we need to look at the most likely period when their relationship began, when Alice was still in her teens.

In 1176 Henry’s most famous mistress, Rosamund Clifford died (yes, she of the legendary labyrinth, purportedly murdered by Queen Eleanor – all stories written for the first time centuries after her death). In that year, Alice was about seventeen, a perfect age for marriage – and, of course, to arouse the sexual interest of a man like Henry II.

It seems more than coincidental that it was also in 1176 that Henry appealed to the Pope to grant an annulment of his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was then in her mid-fifties, and beyond further child-bearing. Alice, on the other hand, was clearly old enough to have children, and with her royal connections not an unsuitable match for the King.

Further evidence is provided by the sudden arrival of Peter, cardinal of St Chrysogonus, who came from France shortly afterwards with a papal threat: if Henry did not arrange the marriage of Alice and Richard immediately, he would be placed under interdict. This was the worst punishment the Church could hand out, since it meant the removal of all religious rites for Henry’s subjects – no baptisms, marriages or last rites could be given under an interdict. This was a bold step for the King of France and the Pope to take if Henry’s only crime was hesitance. It seems much more likely that they had heard whispers of Henry’s incestuous liaison with his son’s intended. Unsurprisingly, Henry’s requested annulment was not granted. Equally unsurprisingly, no marriage went ahead with Richard either.

Under the circumstances, it is entirely possible that Alice entered a sexual relationship in the belief that Henry’s annulment would be granted and any children accidentally born to them could be legitimated after their subsequent marriage. She is unlikely to have felt much loyalty to the little-known Richard, and diplomatic betrothals made in infancy were often broken in later years. It need not be the case, either, that Alice was an unwilling victim of a sexually voracious king. Sexual desire in young women existed in the twelfth century just as it does today – medieval writers made much of the lechery of females, a convenient cover for both genders’ sexual incontinence. It is entirely believable that, in spite of the risks, Alice was attracted to the powerful and authoritative Henry II – and equally possible that she would act on that sexual interest.

It was her misfortune that whatever intentions or affection Henry may have had for her, the annulment was not granted. And since the King could not allow her to marry Richard – nor, when he had his free will, was Richard inclined to do so – Alice had to remain a virtual prisoner of her inheritance.

During the 1180s Alice’s name appears in royal accounts: some linens for her use here, some furs and scarlet there. Her name was connected to that of Isabel of Gloucester, Prince John’s future wife, so it is likely that she was then back among the other noble females. In spring 1190 she crossed the Channel with Queen Eleanor, curiously, at Richard’s request. By this time Richard was far down the path of arranging his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre, so why did he insist that Alice was with his mother? Perhaps he wanted to keep an eye on her, for she was still politically important as a French princess and as heiress of the Vexin. She was installed in a Normandy castle, and there she was to remain for the next half-decade.

We do not know when she learnt of the revelation of her scandal. Philip was in no hurry to regain control over her, suggesting that he was as angry with her as he was humiliated by Richard. One might imagine that with Richard married to another woman, Alice would be free from Plantagenet intriguing. But during Prince John’s attempted seizure of England in Richard’s absence, Alice’s marriage again reared its head – now John’s marriage to Alice was the price of French support for the rebellion. (This despite the fact John was already married.) With Richard’s return from overseas in 1194, John’s plot was crushed, and Alice’s usefulness as a bargaining chip brought to an end. In 1195, having finally taken guardianship of his sister, King Philip married her off hurriedly to a border lord, the Count of Ponthieu. No doubt Philip had it in mind to annex Ponthieu within his own lands at some later date, using Alice’s claim as his justification. In fact Alice’s daughter Marie succeeded to the county, and then her granddaughter after that.

The bare bones of Alice’s history – and bare bones is all we have – make her seem more like a pinball than a princess, reeling from one potential union and alliance to another: she’ll marry Richard – no John – no Richard again – or is it Henry himself who’ll be her husband? Her claim to key territories seems to have mattered more than her person in the minds of both her French family and Henry’s. She lived with the Plantagenets for over thirty years, yet ended her days not as Queen of England, but as countess of a small county near France. No chronicler recorded the date of her death, or anything of her subsequent life after 1195.

However, Alice’s entanglement with the Plantagenet line did not end there. Alice’s great granddaughter was a princess of Castile, named Eleanor. That princess married a King of England, and their descendants ruled the country for centuries long after Richard, Henry and John were encased in their stone tombs. Alice Capet, the woman who should have been Queen of England, and the focus of decades of political turmoil, eventually found her way into English history.

Brief Bibliography

Christopher Harper-Bill, Nicholas Vincent (eds.), Henry II: New Interpretations (Boydell Press, 2007)
Frank McLynn, Lionheart and Lackland: King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest (Jonathan Cape, 2006)
Elizabeth Thomas, The Woman who Should Have Been Queen: Alys Capet and the Angevin Kings, paper presented at the International Medieval Congress (Leeds, 2008)
Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons (eds.), Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

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Lauren Johnson is an author and historian based in London, UK. She is the Research Manager for Past Pleasures, a costumed interpretation company which works daily at heritage sites including the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace.

Her debut novel, The Arrow of Sherwood is an origin story of Robin Hood, rooting the myth in the brutal, complex reality of the twelfth century. It is published by Pen & Sword Fiction and now available as an eBook.

Lauren is currently working on a history of the year 1509 (when Henry VIII came to the throne), to be published by Head of Zeus in 2016.

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4 comments:

  1. Long over-due look at Alice. Thank you, Lauren.

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  2. Very interesting article Lauren. I agree with you on all counts, thank you for posting.

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  3. Thanks everyone - glad you enjoyed it!

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