Geoffrey le Bel Count of Anjou August 1113 – September 7th 1151
Geoffrey Le Bel, Count of Anjou and briefly Duke of Normandy, has featured in several of my novels as a secondary character. Recently he had a strong supporting role in Lady of the English, and he will have his part to play in The Summer Queen, my work in progress about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Indeed, in a couple of highly suspect chronicles, his involvement in Eleanor's history is the source of shocking scandal, and has led certain 'popular biographers' to arrive at rather murky and sordid conclusions concerning his interaction with Eleanor, but we'll come to that in a while.
Geoffrey was born circa 1113, the first of the four children of Fulke V Count of Anjou and Erembourg of Maine. He had two dynamic sisters, Sybilla and Alais, and a brother Elias. Sybilla, after an eventful early life and two marriages, died in the holy land, where although a nun, she advised and helped her father's widowed wife Melisende to rule the kingdom of Jerusalem. Alais, having been widowed at a young age, eventually became an abbess at the Abbey of Fontevrault. Elias spent his time either rebelling against Geoffrey or being imprisoned by him and eventually died as a result of a spell of the latter.
Geoffrey was known as Geoffrey le Bel – meaning the good-looking. He is described as having ‘A fair and ruddy countenance lit up by the lightning glance of a pair of brilliant eyes, and a tall slender sinewy frame made for grace no less than for strength.’ He was also accounted to have ‘a gracious manner and a ready, pleasant speech.’ History has also left us the detail that he was red-haired. His tomb plaque shows us a dashing bronze-haired man dressed in the height of fashion and holding the blue shield with gold lioncels that was given to him at his knighting by his future father-in-law King Henry I of England.
Geoffrey was afforded the best education his father could arrange. He was quick-witted and intelligent and a fast learner. He was very interested in history, and could recount the battles fought and the deeds done by his ancestors and others. Not only did young Geoffrey absorb the necessary intellectual education, the skills of chivalry, etiquette and manners were honed until they shone in his public persona. Nor was his military education neglected and he learned all the warrior arts, both the practical and the theory.
Geoffrey is credited with being the founder of the Plantagenet line. The name comes from the yellow broom flower - the planta genista - that grows in abundance in Maine (France) and with which Geoffrey is supposed to have adorned his cap.
His life changed dramatically at the age of just 13 when Fulke V was offered the throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Around this time, Fulke and King Henry I of England began negotiating a marriage between Geoffrey, and Henry I’s 25 year old daughter Matilda. She had recently returned from Germany, a widow and her father had had his barons swear to honour her as the heir to England. Here was the chance of a lifetime for young Geoffrey. Even if he didn’t get to wear England’s crown and remained a consort to an eventually ruling queen, this was an ambitious hike up the ladder. There would be England and Normandy to govern in partnership with his wife, and the opportunity to sire future royalty.
What Geoffrey thought personally of marrying a woman 12 years older than himself and what the Empress thought of marrying a youth whose voice must scarcely have broken, is not recorded.
They married on the the 17th of June 1128 when Geoffrey was 2 months short of his 15th birthday and Matilda was 26. Soon afterwards they separated for 18 months. The reasons are not known. Some historians put it down to incompatibility, others say that Geoffrey was facing rebellions in his lands as his barons fought to dislodge their inexperienced young count and that it was prudent for Matilda to be out of the way. Whatever the reason, Matilda left Geoffrey in summer 1129 and did not return to him until September 1131. They were to be together for another 9 months before Matilda became pregnant. She bore their first son, the future Henry II in the March of 1133 when Geoffrey was just 19 years old.
The Empress was to bear Geoffrey two more sons. The birth of her second, Geoffrey, in Rouen in 1134 almost killed her. Having eventually recovered, she returned to Anjou and bore their third and last child William in 1136. Geoffrey also had at least two illegitimate children who were raised in his household - Hamelin, who was to become Earl of Surrey and Warenne and a staunch lifelong companion of Henry II, and Emma, who was to marry David, Prince of Gwynedd.
When King Henry I died, his lands were claimed by his nephew Stephen who was supported by the English and Norman barons, and Matilda was left out in the cold. She and Geoffrey swiftly set about attempting to reclaim her inheritance for themselves and their sons. Matilda’s arena was to be England while Geoffrey set about tackling Normandy. He was no longer the untried adolescent. Certainly he was still a young man, but a shrewd and battle-hardened one, and not a risk taker. He made mistakes, but he learned from them, and he was not afraid to cut his losses and try again if matters did not go his way the first time. He was dogged. His early attempts to make inroads into Normandy in 1136/7 were foiled when his army succumbed to dysentery and he was seriously injured in the foot. Geoffrey beat a retreat to Anjou, but like a tide, was only gone for a short while and returned each campaigning season and surge upon surge gradually brought Normandy under his rule. He was aided in this by the gradual defection of many of the Norman barons from Stephen. At one point Geoffrey did lay off activity, but only because Stephen agreed to pay him two thousand marks for three years to stay away. It was very likely money out of King Henry I’s quickly draining treasury and Geoffrey and Matilda would have viewed the sum not only as part of her inheritance from her father, but also as funds for their battle campaigin. Stephen wasn’t paying his enemies to stay away, rather he was funding their war chest for a later date.
Geoffrey eventually won Normandy and became its official duke in the summer of 1144. A couple of years after this, he began to consider an ambitious marriage alliance for his eldest son Henry. In 1145, the Queen of France, Eleanor Duchess of Aquitaine had borne a daughter, Marie. While the little girl could not inherit the French throne, she was heir to the vast and attractive lands of Aquitaine. Geoffrey proposed a marriage between Henry and little Marie, and Louis agreed to consider it. On the surface this might seem a little odd, since Louis’ sister Constance was married to King Stephen’s eldest son Eustace, but there is nothing like putting your eggs in more than one basket and Geoffrey, as Duke of Normandy was becoming increasingly powerful and a force to be reckoned with. As it happened, the proposal was nixed by the church who said that the degree of consanguinity was too great, but perhaps it was also a get out clause. Geoffrey, however, remained on cordial terms with the French crown, and even helped Abbot Suger to keep the peace while Louis was absent on crusade.
During his brief visits to the French court, Geoffrey would have mingled with the charismatic Queen Eleanor. There are rumours in the writings of the gossipy and highly unreliable pair Walter Map and Gerald of Wales, that Geoffrey had an affair with Eleanor. Walter Map, says that there were ‘rumours’ that Eleanor and Geoffrey of Anjou were lovers. The nearest he got to those rumours if they existed outside of his own head, was being a student in Paris in 1150-1160. Gerald of Wales who was a mere toddler at the time that Map would have heard the rumours (if there were any), reports almost 70 years later in 1216, that the affair actually happened. So Gerald has made into fact a piece of gossip from an unreliable source. Gerald himself is renowned for his agendas against the Angevins and for his poisoned pen. If he didn’t like you, then he made up scurrilous tales about you. I am reminded of the innuendo of today’s hack journalists. Also, having seen in the publishing industry how facts can become warped by a simple, innocent error, I’m inclined to be sceptical of Walter and Gerald. (The other day I was cited on the internet as having written the script of the movie First Knight. I didn’t. I adapted the script, which is a different matter entirely – kind of the difference between flirting and having and affair!)
Leaving that aside, it’s hard to know when Geoffrey and Eleanor would have had the time and opportunity to get it on. Geoffrey is not known to have spent much time at the French court, being too occupied in his campaigns in Normandy, and Alienor did not get much time to herself to go rutting in Aquitaine! Not only that, but they were both far too politically astute to be ruled by lust. There were way too many political brakes on the cart for it ever to run away. Certainly there may have been some flirting, strong eye contact and physical attraction, but I seriously doubt that it led to any sort of exchange of body fluids between the Queen of France and her husband’s vassal!
I have a notion – not quite a theory – that Eleanor may have flirted with Geoffrey at the French court in 1151 in order to put her husband Louis off the scent that she was considering a match with Geoffrey’s son Henry. Geoffrey had given the Duchy of Normandy to Henry in 1149 and the father and son’s visit to court in 1151 was part of an exercise in smoothing the waters. Around this time, Eleanor and Louis were in the throes of divorcing. Louis would have done everything in his power to prevent a marriage between Eleanor and Henry of Anjou had he known about it. So perhaps a flirtation with Geoffrey was by way of a decoy.
Following their visit to the French court, Geoffrey and Henry set off home. The end of summer weather was burning hot and 39 year old Geoffrey plunged into a river to cool himself off. The result was a fever from which he was to die on the 7th of September in the small border fortress of Chateau du Loire. His deathbed advice to his son was not to change the customs of the lands over which he would rule. Let each keep their own.
On his death, he was buried as requested not at Tours or Angers with his ancestors, but in his mother’s town of Le Mans where Henry himself had been born. All that remains today of the sumptuous original tomb that had stood in the cathedral of St. Julien is the enamelled plaque, which paints a vivid picture of Geoffrey, insomuch as medieval portraiture can ever do. It accurately shows his blue shield with its gold lioncels, the red-gold hair, and the brilliant eyes.
Historian Kate Norgate says of Geoffrey that he ‘lacked steady principle and genuine feeling.’ I disagree with her. I think Geoffrey had strong principles, and that he loved his son Henry very deeply indeed. Everything was geared towards putting Henry on the ladder and shouldering him upwards. Geoffrey (and Matilda) saw that their son was educated as a fitting king and Duke. If Henry II was one of the greatest kings England has ever known, then part of it is down to his father who played a great part in his son’s upbringing. However, Norgate does concede that he had ‘dogged Angevin thoroughness.’ Professor David Crouch calls it ‘remorseless patience.’ In his biography of King Stephen, Crouch is also of the opinion ‘In retrospect, one is rather driven to the conclusion that the Anglo Norman aristocracy had made a serious error when they rejected Count Geoffrey as their king-consort in 1135.’
Additional note and anecdotes.
Shortly after Geoffrey’s death, a history of his life was put together. Historia Gaufredi ducis Normannorum et comitis Andegavorum written by John of Marmoutier. It’s mostly a paen to its subject, but there are still moments that give us glimpses of Geoffrey’s character, and here are a couple.
There is the story of a discontented knight who's ill will against Geoffrey took the form of a wish that he had the neck of ‘that redhead Geoffrey’ fast between the two hot iron plates used to make a wafer cake called an oublie. It chanced that the oublie maker who had heard the knight say this, was making wafers for Geoffrey at St Aignan and told Geoffrey all about it. Not long after this, the knight who had made the remark was caught by Geoffrey harrying his lands. Geoffrey generously forgave the man, not only his depredations but also the fact that he had expressed a desire to make a wafer out of him!
Another time Geoffrey with a great train of attendants and guests was keeping Christmas at Le Mans. Leaving his private chapel where he had been attending the nocturnal services of the vigil he set out at the head of a procession to celebrate Christmas in the cathedral church. Near the door he met a poorly dressed young clerk whom he flippantly saluted with ‘Any news sir clerkling?’
‘Aye my Lord. The best of good news!’
‘What?’ cried Geoffrey all of his curiosity aroused. ‘Tell me quick!’
‘Unto us a child is born unto us a Son is given!’
Abashed Geoffrey asked the clerk his name and bade him join the other clergy and the choir and as soon as matters were over went straight to the Bishop and said ‘For the love of Him who was born this day, give me a prebend in your church.’ It was no sooner granted and taking his new acquaintance by the hand he begged leave to make him his substitute and added the further gift of a stall in his own chapel as a token of gratitude to the poor clerk, whose answer to Geoffrey’s thoughtless question had brought home to him the true meaning of Christmas morning.
You can find a third anecdote from this chronicle in Lady of the English, which involves Geoffrey becoming lost in the woods and having a discourse with a charcoal burner!
The Plantagenet Chronicles: General Editor Elizabeth Hallam: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1986
England Under the Angevin Kings Vol I - Kate Norgate – reprint by Elibron Classics
Eleanor of Aquitaine Queen and Rebel by John Flori – Edinburgh University Press (sets out in an unbiased and non sensational way, the arguments about whether or not Geoffrey had an affair with Eleanor)