Monday, August 26, 2013

Eleanor of Aquitaine in the movies

Having recently read Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir, I decided to watch a couple of movies relating to Henry II and Eleanor.

I first watched Becket staring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. Indeed, it seemed to be a star vehicle for them. I think it underplayed the serious purposes of Henry II, the turmoil in governance institutions in the Angevin empire, and the situation of the church in the 12th century. I note that Becket was portrayed as a Saxon while I believe he was Norman; his cultural differences with Henry II were probably more of social class than of a Norman versus Saxon nature. That in turn gave a strange twist to the story.

I then watched The Lion in Winter staring Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart. This was the TV movie, not the earlier film  I thought the script very interesting. It seemed to deal well with all the critical facts we know about Eleanor and Henry. As played by a very good cast, it provided a credible set of emotions that might have motivated the king, his wife released from prison after a decade, and their three sons -- Richard (who became Richard III), Geoffrey (the Duke of Brittany) and John (the prince regent in the Robin Hood tales and later king). It also built a couple of scenes (one in the suite of King Phillip of France and another in King Henry's bedroom) that let the actors chew the scenery to great effect. Glenn Close gives a spectacular performance.

The two got me to thinking about Machiavelli's tenets to be practiced by "the Prince" and especially:
Tenet One. The leader should always wear a mask. No leader should show his true self to his people. He must assume a persona, or mask, that hides his true self and his real intentions, the motives behind his actions, and his true goals. Showing his true colors will often work against his popular support and foil his efforts to achieve his objectives, which are often not those of the people.
Of course, showing his or her true motives and intentions to the world would also help the opponents to prepare their defenses and to distinguish feints from real attacks, retreats from traps. While Henry and Eleanor lives four centuries before Machiavelli, I suspect he learned his principles from observation of their practices and those of other successful monarchs of the time.

If kings and presidents are well advised to hide their ideas and plans and to build a persona for public consumption it is likely to be very hard for historians to separate reality from facade. That behavior gives great leeway for playwrights, or at least it did for James Goldman, the author of  The Lion in Winter.

What were the objectives of monarchs, dukes and archbishops in the 12th century? The kings presumably sought to maintain the state and extend its power, while the dukes sought to maintain their domains and extend them. So too, the archbishops presumably sought to maintain portion of the church that they led while strengthening them. Were there deeper motivations? Was it simply that all these people thought that they were occupying their posts by divine right and that implicit in their culture was a certain set of objectives of office. If so, they may never have articulated the reason that they wanted to do what they wanted to do.

Thomas Becket, at least in the film, did seem to want to protect the wealth and independence of the English church because that was in his opinion the best way he could serve God. I think it is hard for us to understand the depth and nature of religious faith in the 12th century, but this might indeed have been his motivation. On the other hand, there seemed to be other prelates who took advantage of their offices for other, less admirable reasons.

Machiavelli apparently thought that princes should emphasize the stability of their domains, with the implicit understanding that without stability people would suffer rather than prosper.  Henry II ended The Anarchy of war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda (his mother) for control of England when he accepted truce on condition that he would succeed Stephen as king. But Goldman's treatment seems to suggest that the underlying objectives were personal aggrandizement and winning over detested relatives.

Perhaps in democracies there is more likelihood that the objectives of presidents and prime ministers will include not only stability but also advancing the welfare of their citizens and (to a lesser extend) of others.

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