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All That:

The Lion in Winter

by Kali Harlansson of Gotland
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The Lion in Winter. What a great movie! Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, the film debuts of Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, and three Oscars - Best Actress, Screenplay from Another Medium, and Original Score! And what a great excuse for an essay.

How good is the movie as history? The specific setting is fictional: there was no Christmas Court at Chinon in 1183. Rather, the movie combines a summit between Henry and Philip of France from that year, with events from a royal court in 1184 and with Henry's general love of Christmas Courts. But the background to the situation is indeed correct: Henry the Young King (Henry II's designated heir) had died in the summer of 1183, and over the winter the three surviving sons were scrambling for power again - with Henry and Eleanor scheming, bullying, and manipulating on behalf of their favorites.

[It's traditional at this point to say something to the effect that "the rules of primogeniture were not yet fully established." That's putting it mildly: no king of England had been succeeded by his oldest living son since Edmund Ironside succeeded Aethelred the Unready in 1016 - 167 years and two foreign conquests before.]

Besides the setting, personal relationships are also accurately shown. While the details - in Geoffrey's words, "who did what to whom and how it felt" - are of course made up, they fit well with what we know of the historical characters. The relationship between Henry and Eleanor especially: it's usually hard to guess at personal feelings from historical accounts, but as far as we can tell the young Henry and Eleanor really had a legendary romance, which really turned, through ambition, frustration, and exhaustion, into the ruined love at the heart of the movie.

Sure, there are little things they got wrong: the armor is off by one or two centuries; neither port nor brandywine are period references; the Christmas tree and wrapped presents are right out. On the other hand, we're talking motion-picture medievalism here: compared to Camelot just the year before, the film is a marvel of hard-nosed authenticity. And some things we're just better off they got wrong: the real Philip Augustus was unprepossessing and a bit of a cold fish; instead, we get the handsome and charming Timothy Dalton (yum!).

Speaking of which, yes, Richard was pretty clearly homosexual: not only did he fail to produce an heir and was generally awkward with women, but there were a couple of drunken, very public confessions. But with Philip in particular? While there were indeed rumors at the time, that relationship has to be considered Not Proven. (Considering the way Philip carried on at Geoffrey's funeral, the rumors may have pegged the wrong Plantagenet.)

And then there's John. I've already addressed the question of John's character in another essay, but in brief: James Goldman wrote Prince John as a brat spoiled by his father, neglected by his mother, and abused by his entire family, based on the "classic" version of grown-up King John as a greedy, lazy, treacherous brute. He later regretted this portrayal, and in the novel Myself as Witness he recast John in line with more recent historical interpretation, as a comparatively modern mind constantly at loggerheads with his feudal-minded nobility.

A couple of interesting historical characters are sadly neglected. The great and redoubtable William Marshal has practically no lines, but at least he's there. Completely missing is Henry's illegitimate son Geoffrey the Bastard, who was brought up with the other boys, was the only son still loyal to Henry at his death, and was eventually made archbishop of York. The story of a dysfunctional family in meltdown is surely the poorer without him and the dynamics he'd bring to this Christmas.

Most of all, there's Eleanor of Aquitaine: brought up in the wealthiest and most cultured province of France, the granddaughter of Duke William IX the original noble troubador. At the age of 15 she inherited the Aquitaine on the death of her father, was quickly packaged into an arranged marriage to the heir to the French crown, and then (on the death of Louis' father) was Queen of France before the newlyweds had even arrived in Paris. She fought against the constraints of court life, intimidated her pious husband, and insisted on going along on the Second Crusade. When the royal marriage ended in divorce - after 15 years, two daughters, and no sons - she had already taken up with Henry Plantagenet, the handsome young Count of Anjou, heir to the crown of England, and a lover like Louis could never be. With her daughter Marie, she essentially invented the concept of Courtly Love, which Marie's chaplain Andreas wrote up at their direction. She was always a major political force in her own right, successfully standing up to Henry, and pushing Richard and John around during their reigns.

As a rule, women had a very marginal role in the First Middle Ages. In most of our period, in most of Europe, they were second-class citizens at best: uneducated, unable to own property, and regularly denounced by the Church as the source of sin. When Barbara Tuchman was looking for an essentially typical figure from the 14th century, a viewpoint character around which to center her book A Distant Mirror, she knew she could not write about a woman: "any medieval woman whose life was adequately documented would be atypical."

Eleanor refused to be confined to this kind of social role; she knew what she wanted, and saw no reason why being a woman should stop her from getting it. She dominated the 12th century with her beauty, her brains, her forceful personality, and her overwhelming willpower - and always as a woman, not by out-doing the men at their own game. It can be fairly claimed that her invention of courtly love was a deliberate vehicle for feminine empowerment.

And one more thing: at one point in the movie, Henry boasts "I'm the oldest man I know." Through all their years of love and/or marriage together, Eleanor was 11 years older than Henry.

In the Current Middle Ages
In the Current Middle Ages women have a far less marginal role. Even though we're re-creating medieval society, we come to it from a modern mundane grounding that makes truly medieval treatment of women unthinkable. So for us, Eleanor isn't so much an exceptional figure as an exemplary one: she doesn't stand out as unique or weird, but as a great and authentic role model for women, and as a wonderfully interesting person for everyone to get to know.

Which isn't to say that there haven't been any issues where women have encountered gender bias in the SCA. Heavy-list fighting of course is the prototypical manly activity for manly men reeking of sweat and testosterone. In years past, women who tried to take up fighting encountered real resistance: marshals who enforced anatomically pointless armor standards, Weresheep with warning stickers, condescending nicknames like "sword-broads" and "chicks with sticks." But in more recent years, and in Carolingia at least (I'm proud to say), there's been less and less of this attitude around: many Weresheep are now known for their chivalry, archery and fencing - where women always had a more equal footing - now enjoy prestige on a par with rattan combat, and we've got lady fighters like Ankara who can command the respect of any stickjock.

Further Reading
To begin with, the script of the play The Lion in Winter has been published in book form (Penguin, 1983). If you love the movie, this is practically a must-read.

There are several biographies of Eleanor out there, of varying quality. The classic for years has been Amy Kelly's Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (1950), which is romantic and readable but has its problems by today's standards of scholarship. Eleanor of Aquitaine: a biography, by Marion Meade (1977), is more discriminating and better annotated, but you do have to check those notes carefully to see what is documented and what is just inference and conjecture. Most recent is Alison Weir's book, Eleanor of Aquitaine: a life (1999); I haven't read this yet myself, but I have read other books by Weir and it's bound to be good.

And speaking of the lives of fascinating, strong-willed women, in Katharine Hepburn's autobiography Me: stories of my life (1991) there's a wonderful photo of her on location for Lion in Winter, sitting in costume in a folding camp chair. Look it up (p. 258), she looks exactly like she could be at Pennsic. Then read the rest of the book.

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text copyright 2001 by Caleb Hanson (e-mail)
Links to Books
book cover Goldman, James
The Lion in Winter
(paperback, Reprint edition (March 1983), $8.00 at Amazon.com)
book cover Kelly, Amy
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings
(paperback, 1991, $11.31 at Amazon.com)
book cover Meade, Marion
Eleanor of Aquitaine: a Biography
(paperback, 1991, $11.87 at Amazon.com)
book cover Weir, Alison
Eleanor of Aquitaine: a Life
(paperback, 2001, $11.17 at Amazon.com)
book cover Hepburn, Katharine
Me: Stories of My Life
(paperback, 1996, $11.17 at Amazon.com)

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last modified on Nov. 24, 2004

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