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23 June 2009

All About Alais

People celebrate Father’s Day in their own special ways. This year, my family popped A Lion in Winter into the DVD player. As heartwarming family dramas go, it is right up there with King Lear. No one’s eyes get put out, but there’s plenty of paternal howling on the heath, filial betrayal, and general familial disillusionment. There is not a single son of Henry II who doesn’t betray him. Everyone gets disowned at least once. Stuff to warm the cockles of one’s heart. I’m just waiting it for the Plantagenet Guide to Parenting. One could shelve it right next to the Titus Andronicus Cookbook.

What I wanted to know was, what happened to Alais? For those who don’t know the story, A Lion in Winter is a (heavily fictionalized) account of the latter days of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, as their sons play parent off against parent in an attempt to snag the crown—while Eleanor and Henry play son off against son in an attempt to score points off each other in a long-standing love match turned grudge match. In the midst of it all is the sister of the French king, long ago betrothed to Richard, then Count of Poitou, sent as a child of nine to be raised in the English court, now mistress to Henry II, passed around as a pawn from prince to prince.

In the movie, Alais is the last joy of an aging king, the May in a May and December romance. Was the poor Princess Alais Henry II’s mistress? Contemporary chroniclers certainly seemed to think so. Giraldus Cambrensis claimed that Henry had plans to annul his marriage to Eleanor, disinherit his sons, marry Alais, and breed a new line of heirs to his empire. Whether those were his ultimate plans or not, the rumor that he had taken her to his bed echoed through two kingdoms. Alais was alternately promised to both Richard and John and in the end wed to neither. Not all that unlike the movie, minus the little matter of love.

So what happened to Alais after those final credits rolled? Throughout the reign of Richard, Alais was held in close confinement, first in Rouen, then in Caen. Brought to the English court at nine, she was thirty-three by the time she was finally released, traded back to her brother Philip as one bargaining chip among many in a treaty during the incessant wars between England and France. Although she was, by the standards of the day, not only used goods but well past her marital sell-by date, Philip found another matrimonial alliance for her: he married Alais off to Guillaume de Ponthieu, whose lands provided a buffer on the French frontier against those held by Richard on one side and the Count of Flanders on the other. She bore Guillaume three children, dying in childbed with the last at the age of forty.

Unlike the woman in whose shadow she spent her youth, the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine, Alais seems to have had little say in her own destiny. But one can't help wondering what it must have been like to have been at the front-lines of the Plantagenet squabbles, with all those larger-than-life characters charging about.

Someone really ought to write a book about her…. Are there any overlooked historical characters who you think deserve their own novel time?

14 Comments:

Anonymous RfP said...

Egad. I love that film (insofar as one can love two hours of emotional bloodbath), and somehow I've never so much as wondered about Alais. Overshadowed is the mot juste!

10:48 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Lauren. I totally agree that Alais should have her own historical fiction novel. The problem however would be editors who would probably insist that Alais is too obscure for a novel.

Ah how I miss the days when writers like Anya Seton could write novels about Elizabeth Winthrop and Katherine Swynford, Victoria Holt could write about Lettice Knollys and Anne-Marie Sosenko could write about Napoleon's ex-fiancee Desiree. Now it's all Tudors all the time.

I think a novel about Lady Sarah Lennox and her romantic history would be interesting. Loved by George III, married to a minor aristocrat, has a love affair and an illegitimate child, and then happily marries a career soldier and gives birth to famous soldier sons.

5:39 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lauren! I love "The Lion in Winter," and I've always liked Alais, particularly because I played her in acting class.

We've talked about Hortense Bonaparte as an interesting character for historical fiction (she plays a major role in "The Mask of Night" if I can ever get it published). I've also always thought Harriet Granville (the Duchess of Devonshire's younger daughter) would work well as the subject of a novel, particularly as she ended up happily married (to her aunt's former lover :-).

11:44 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What a fun and interesting post, Lauren. And I love how families manage to make the Hallmark calendar of festivals their own.

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Maryan said...

Oh, lordy, Lauren! Half the population has been female, most of whom have a story to tell. Speaking as an Americanist, I'm hoping someone will give Sally Hemings voice. And Mary Todd Lincoln's maid certainly has a tale to tell. For all you Continentalists, I'm waiting for Hildegard von Bingen's diary.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great post, Lauren! I've been intrigued by Alais ever since I played her in a scene from "The Lion in Winter" in a scene study class way back when.

Here's what happened to her -- from my nonfiction book, ROYAL AFFAIRS.

The match between Alys and Richard had been Eleanor’s idea. Richard was her favorite son and Eleanor was always on the lookout for ways to enrich him and strengthen his political and military position in western Europe. Alys was the countess of a continental territory known as the Vexin, which was strategically important to both England and France.

But the lands that might have eventually become Henry’s through Alys’s dynastic marriage with Richard paled in comparison to the landscape of her body—young, firm, and evidently willing. Henry’s libido recovered from Rosamund’s untimely demise with relative alacrity. By 1177, only one year after her death, the royal affair with Alys was an international scandal and rumors abounded that Henry was considering divorcing Eleanor so that he could be free to marry his new paramour. Alys’s reputation was roundly trashed. It was popularly bandied about that she had born Henry a son (who died before 1190), in addition to gossip that she had always been a promiscuous girl.

King Louis was livid that his daughter, by sleeping with her fiancé’s father, had become England’s royal whore, instead of marrying the son to become its future queen. Then, the issue of religion was added to the scandalous cocktail of sex and politics. Pope Alexander III’s emissary, Cardinal Peter of St. Chrysogonus, threatened to place England’s continental possessions under an interdict (which would have effectively excommunicated all of Henry’s subjects who abided there), if Henry didn’t proceed with the marriage between Richard and Alys in accordance with the treaty.

Finally, when Louis demanded his daughter’s return if no marriage was to take place, Henry begrudgingly agreed to permit the French princess to marry Richard, but neglected to mention a date, let alone a timetable, for this happy event.

In 1189, an ailing Henry promised Alys’s brother Philip, now King of France, that he would give up his twenty-nine-year-old mistress and see that she was put under the guardianship of any one of five men (to be named by Richard), and thence married to Richard upon his return from the Holy War in Jerusalem.

But after Henry died that year, his (possibly gay) crusader son, now King Richard I, made use of the popular (and convenient) story that Alys had given birth to his father’s child as an excuse to terminate their marriage treaty. Alys, who had lived in limbo for six years while Richard was a political prisoner of King Leopold of Austria, was sent home to France in 1195, shortly after Richard’s return to England. Later that year her brother arranged for her marriage to William III Talvas, Count of Ponthieu, who was eighteen years her junior, hoping the union would be childless so that Philip could assume control of the strategically located Ponthieu. Alys thwarted her brother’s aspirations, however, bearing the count three daughters, one of whom, Marie, inherited the county upon her father’s demise in 1221.

Alys is believed to have died in 1220 at the age of sixty, still Countess of Ponthieu. The circumstances surrounding her death are unknown.



And evidently, Alais is in fact getting her own book; someone is writing it for NAL. I found that out a couple of months ago when I proposed the idea and found that it had just been nabbed!

5:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Those poor women used as pawns in the politics of their time...

Makes me think of what I've been reading, Anne Carson's astonishingly alive translation of Aeschylus' AGAMEMNON. She says in her intro that she started conceptualizing this with Cassandra, Agamemnon's warprize from Troy, who's not exactly silent, but mad and unhearable -- she worked the story from the helpless Cassandra at its center to the furiously active Clytemnestra (rather more the Eleanor figure here).

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon mentioned Lady Sarah Lennox. I read a novel based on her life in the 1980s, published by Coronet in the UK - it was by Rosaleen Milne, and I think called The Ninth Statue.
Personally, I'd rather read a novel about an obscure historical figure than a really famous one. I find it easier to believe in the characterisation if I don't already know much about the real people. I'm happy for well-known people to have supporting roles, but I prefer the protagonists to be ficticous or obscure.
Unfortunately the publishing trend seems to be to have a famous name to hang the marketing on.
Lesley

7:24 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lesley makes a valid point about the current publishing trends. I can't tell you how many less well known subjects I've proposed (English and Continental) only to be told by my agent and editor that only a marquee name will sell. I've had novels published starring less well known women (maybe not to hoydens and our blog readers and participants, but to the general population) -- Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson -- (which, when I mention them to people and -- even to some in the publishing business, get the bunny-in-the-headlights vacant look, followed by a puzzled "who??") I have to admit that the readers didn't turn out in droves, although my editor loved the books and they were well received by professional reviewers.

4:32 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lesley, I think that is why you see so many books now set during the Tudor period but have fictious characters at the center. Publishers have run out of Henry VIII's wives to write about!

Pam, Marian Zimmer Bradley wrote a fabulous book about Troy from the viewpoint of Cassandra who lived after the fall of Troy. I think it was called The Firebrand.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm currently reading a book about Alais. It's "The Restless Princess", sorry can't put my hands on it right now, so I can't name the author. Fictionalized account of her place in the intrigues of the French court after her return from England.

8:16 AM  
Blogger ahmed said...

I have visted this site and got lots of information than that of i visited before a month.

work from home

3:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A book has been written by Christy English called The Queen's Pawn. Its good, but does take some creative license. She has included an Afterward to ensure that readers are aware of the actual events.

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon: the author of Désirée is Annemarie Selinko, not Anne-Marie Sesenko =). A lovely book!

3:09 PM  

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