Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Devil's Brood, Part 5: Revenge of the Momma's Boys

Henry the Young King. Richard the Lionhearted. Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond. John Lackland.

They were the four legitimate sons of Henry II who survived until adulthood. Three of them, at one time or another, were kings of England themselves. And they are baffling.

If you give a cursory glance at their lives, they seem to have spent the majority of their teens and twenties rebelling against their father or fighting one another, often both at the same time. You'd think that after the first civil war, Henry would have gotten the message - these kids have issues. Instead, the record shows Henry forgiving them for their rebellions over and over...and then a few months or years would pass, and they'd be at it again. It was a dysfunctional family drama in which the people who were really hurt were the soldiers and civilians who died in the fighting.

If you were brought up to believe that war is, at best, a necessary evil, then this mess of swords, raids, and hurt feelings makes no sense. But medieval attitudes toward war - and medieval war itself - were different.

Nobles were raised to fight. They were members of the "First Estate" - it was their job. (The other two estates, if you're interested, were priests and peasants. Where merchants and craftsmen fit into this scheme is a question all its own.) Nobles also had the best armor and the best weapons - and they were often fighting acquaintances and relatives, who would capture rather than kill, and then ransom the prisoners. So war was still dangerous, and still a big deal, but it often wasn't the horror show that, say, World War I or the American Civil War became - at least, it wasn't for the nobility. (There were exceptions, of course.)

So histories of the time are often dizzyingly complicated accounts of battles, truces, treaties, betrayals, captures, ransoming, and reconciliations. In fact, in between his two big rebellions, Richard helped Henry put down other rebels, including his elder brother, Henry the Young King. Still, it must have cut Old Henry deep, to have his sons at his throat. The Young King (called that because Henry had crowned the kid himself, while he was still alive) rebelled against him twice, in 1173 and again in 1183. The second time, the Young King died...not in battle, but of dysentery. According to the chroniclers (this might just be a pious fiction, of course) Young Henry died begging for Old Henry's forgiveness.

It wasn't like the brothers came up with these revolts all on their own, of course. Eleanor egged them on; and so did Philip of France, who played the whole family against itself like a real pro. In fact, it seems that both Philip and Eleanor were experts at the game of favorites - letting one son think he was the best-loved, then shifting to another brother. Eleanor loved Richard best for a while; Philip liked all of the Plantagenet boys...until they became kings. Then he turned on them. (The exception was Young Henry, who was the king of England in name only.)

The motives of Eleanor and Philip are clear. Eleanor wanted to get back at the husband who humiliated  her with adultery, was never around, and couldn't be influenced. Philip wanted to break the power of the Plantagenets, who (thanks to Old Henry) held more land in France than he did. But the motives of the kids are murkier. There were reasons, of course - Young Henry was in debt and wanted control of Normandy; Richard wanted to be recognized as heir to the throne; and both Geoffrey and John wanted lands that they owned in their own right. But when you look at the record, you have to believe that something more was going on.

Henry seemed determined to keep his sons powerless while he lived, for instance. He gave both Young Henry and Richard the poisoned chalice of a powerless royal title, and kept Young Henry on a short leash where money was concerned. For a long time, Geoffrey held Brittany through his marriage to Constance of Brittany, not in his own right. After Richard was finally confirmed as Duke of Aquitaine, Henry wanted to take it away before he confirmed Richard as his successor. And so on.

In the end, all we can really say is that Old Henry was intensely energetic, intelligent, well-educated, and ambitious...and that men like that often aren't the world's greatest dads. He played favorites, just like Eleanor and Philip. And, as in so many wealthy families, the members confused love with other things, like power, land and money.

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