There was a time when the absolute power of England’s ruling elite radiated not from London but from Lyndhurst in the New Forest. Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife and mother to four kings of England and France was once the Queen in the Forest.
Queens House, the present administration centre for the area, stands on part of the site where the Queen and her court lived almost a thousand years ago. Queens Bower deep in the woods near Brockenhurst is another reminder of the presence of royalty all those years ago.
To say that Eleanor was feisty would be an understatement. As a young women she insisted on commanding her own troops when taking part in a crusade. She went to Rome to personally persuade the Pope to grant her a divorce from the King of France. When her wish was finally granted Eleanor quickly married Henry Plantagenet, the future King of England. The couple were to found the Plantagenet line of Kings who held England in their control for the next three hundred years.
Riding and hunting
The New Forest was an exclusive area for the ruling elite to indulge in their great passion for hunting. When Eleanor in later years was caught trying to escape the wrath of her husband she was riding astride and dressed as a man. The King had her imprisoned for sixteen years! No doubt Eleanor’s riding skills had been enhanced while galloping through Hampshires green wood in pursuit of fleet footed prey.
A family at war with each other
This was a family almost perpetually at war. This clash of power hungry egos had drastic consequences for the lives of the little people of the land. forced to fight or just caught in the cross fire of the many savage rebellions war. Eleanor supported her sons in rebelling against their father. The King of France used the sons to harass their father as Henry was his bitter enemy. Family fall outs with the Plantagenets meant bloody battles and needless deaths! It was for good reason that this seriously disfunctional crowd were said to have had the devil’s blood in their veins.
Liberal moral standards
Eleanor of Aquitaine herself sprung from a family who openly pursued and celebrated physical gratification above any thought of other worldly spiritual redemption. Her grandfather in particular took delight in boasting of his hedonistic life style and even wrote and recited poetry about it. Eleanor grew up in this atmosphere of decadence and with her highly privileged position was used to having what ever she wanted!
Henry the second, a grandson of William the Conqueror, was renowned for his tireless energy. He needed this natural gift in order to hold together his empire that included England, Ireland and half of France. Clinging on to power over so many people called for constant travelling and trouble shooting. Bow legged from riding, often scruffily dressed this power hungry ruthless man was also renowned for having an explosive temper! His equally ego-driven sons were to give him no end of problems and finally his favourite John broke his heart. A skilled military commander, Henry in later years turned more to law reform to further centralise and consolidate his power.
His wife Eleanor who had been such a glamorous prize in the early years, became a very real threat to his controlling position and possibly his life. Intelligent well travelled and older than him she was beyond being a thorn in his side and more a knife in the back! He resorted to having her imprisoned in an attempt to end the continual family strife. This love hate relationship did not stop the couple from having eight children. Eleanor, very long lived for the time, was to outlive all but two of her children as well as Henry.
The Queen Regent
Upon Henry’s death Richard became King. His first act as King was to free his mother from her prison. After a brief period in England to collect money for war he spent most of his reign abroad fighting the third crusade. During this time Eleanor acted as Queen Regent, ruling the kingdom from her Forest home.
Eleanor had an overbearing influence on both Richard and his brother John who ruled after his death. Very shrewd and ruthless Eleanor was very capable of using people as political pawns to further her own ends. It was Eleanor who picked brides for both her boys. Romance or even sexual attraction had nothing to do with marriage for the elite, but everything to do with the expansion and consolidation of power over other people and land.
The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
~ Old saying
The Forest Folk
It was William the Conqueror who first introduced harsh Forest law to the area. His son King Rufus made punishments for breaking Forest law even more brutal. These punishments such as the blinding and mutilation of offenders had not been relaxed at the time of Eleanor’s residence at Lyndhurst.
The common folk would have been still reeling from the Norman invasion a couple of generations before. Now people of a different language with different ways from a different land ruled them with an iron fist. The Normans probably saw the locals as hardly human. What the locals thought of these Norman French Plantagenets has not been recorded but it’s not hard to guess!