‘I talk people, and you answer back in provinces’: gender history in ‘The Lion in Winter’

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Courtesy of Héloïse Audry http://www.parcheminetparpot.com


Tomorrow I’m teaching a seminar on gender horizons in the 12th century and how kinship and marriage patterns shaped new models of woman sociology. As I was preparing, I remembered the brief tête-à-tête between king Henry and his mistress Alix in James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter. It could be a good exordium to the class discussion tomorrow.

For those of you less familiar with the story, in the 1180s, Henry Plantagenet is king of England with lands in France, he’s married to famous Eleanor of Aquitaine (Richard of Lionheart’s mum and duchess de iure of Aquitaine) but he later imprisoned her after she had spurred her children against him into civil war. Alix is the king of France’s sister and a reminder of an old political alliance project that would only be achieved with Alix’ marriage to Henry’s son Richard. Betrothed to the latter, she became the mistress of the former and a wife-ersatz in all things to a man that can’t let her go.

The treaty provides for Henry gaining possession of the Vexin, a key province neighbouring Normandy that would bring Henry’s lands closer to the French power base, thus keeping his opponent in check. King Philip of France is young and ambitious and will not yield to Henry’s double-dealing. John is the youngest of Henry’s sons and, apparently, his favourite, though more of a fool than royalty. Henry tries to have everyone believe that he intends to make John king.

ALIX: What difference does my dowry make? Let Philip have it back. It isn’t much. I can’t.

HENRY: The Vexin is a little county, but it’s vital to me.

ALIX: And I’m not.

HENRY: It’s been my luck to fall in love with landed women. When I married Eleanor I thought, You lucky man. The richest woman in the world… she owns the Aquitaine, the greatest province in the continent, and beautiful as well.

[…..]

ALIX: What am I to you, a collection plate? Or am I all you’ve got, like John?

HENRY: I’ve got to get the Aquitaine for John.

ALIX: I talk people, and you answer back in provinces!

HENRY: They get mixed up.

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