William of Poitiers

William of Poitiers

William of Poitiers was born in Normandy in about 1030. After studying in Poitiers he served as a Norman knight. Later he became a priest and was eventually appointed as the Archdeacon of Lisieux. It was at this time that William became friends with William, Duke of Normandy.

When William became king of England in 1066 he invited William of Poitiers to become his personal chaplain. William's book, The History of William the Conqueror, was published in about 1073. Although William of Poitiers was in Lisieux during 1066, his book provides the most detailed description that we have of the Battle of Hastings.

Edward, king of the English, who had already established William as his heir and whom he loved as a brother or a son. To confirm his promise to William he sent to him Harold, of all his subjects the greatest in riches.

There came a report, that King Edward was dead and his crown was worn by Harold. William as determined to avenge the wrong by arms. A large force of 50,000 volunteers were assembled, all confident in the justice of his cause.

Duke William excelled both in bravery and soldier-craft. He dominated battles, checking his own men in flight, strengthening their spirit, and sharing their dangers.

William was a noble general, inspiring courage, sharing danger, more often commanding men to follow than urging them on from the rear. The enemy (at the Battle of Hastings) lost heart at the mere sight of this marvellous and terrible knight. Three horses were killed under him. Three times he leapt to his feet. Shields, helmets, hauberks were cut by his furious and flashing blade, while yet other attackers were clouted by his own shield.

Early life and marriage to Louis VII

Eleanor was the daughter and heiress of William X, duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitiers, who possessed one of the largest domains in France—larger, in fact, than those held by the French king. Upon William’s death in 1137 she inherited the duchy of Aquitaine and in July 1137 married the heir to the French throne, who succeeded his father, Louis VI, the following month. Eleanor became queen of France, a title she held for the next 15 years. Beautiful, capricious, and adored by Louis, Eleanor exerted considerable influence over him, often goading him into undertaking perilous ventures.

From 1147 to 1149 Eleanor accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade to protect the fragile Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, founded after the First Crusade only 50 years before, from Turkish assault. Eleanor’s conduct during this expedition, especially at the court of her uncle Raymond of Poitiers at Antioch, aroused Louis’s jealousy and marked the beginning of their estrangement. After their return to France and a short-lived reconciliation, their marriage was annulled in March 1152.

William of Poitiers

Norman historian, born of a noted family, at Préaux near Pont Audemer, Normandy, about 1020. One of his sisters was abbess of a monastery at Préaux. About 1040 he went to make his studies at Poitiers (whence his surname). After leading the life of a knight and taking part in several battles, he took orders, and became chaplain to Duke , whose history he resolved to write. Hugh, Bishop of Lisieux, brought him to his cathedral and appointed him archdeacon. He fulfilled these duties under Hugh and his successor Gilbert Maminot, who had founded a sort of scholarly academy where astronomical and mathematical questions were discussed. William was considered one of the best informed men of his time he knew the Greek and Latin authors. He lived to an extreme old age, the date of his death being unknown, but it is placed about 1087. He is chiefly known through Ordericus Vitalis (I, IV, passim), who speaks of his talent for versification and says that he communicated his verses to young students in order to instruct them in the poetic art. His sole extant work is his Life of William the Conqueror, "Gesta Guilelmi II, ducis Normannorum, regis Anglorum I". It exists only in a single manuscript (Cottonian Manuscript, British Museum), almost destroyed, according to which the work has been published (ed. Duchesne, "Norman. Scriptores", 178-213). This work was composed as a single writing, and was offered to King William by the author between 1071 and 1077. The beginning (as far as 1047) and the end of the work (from 1068) are lost. According to Ordericus Vitalis the account stopped at 1071. As sources he made use of Dudon de St. Quentin and annals now lost. He also interrogated the witnesses of events and reproduced in part personal recollections. Hence his work has the value of a contemporary source based on direct testimonies. Although the style has the pretentious character of the writings of that period, the composition is careful the tone is that of a panegyric of William. Among the most important passages must be mentioned the sojourn of Harold in Normandy and the Conquest of England. Unfortunately the first part, dealing with the early life of Duke William, has disappeared. Editions of his work are: A. Duchesne, "Normannorum Scriptores" (Paris, 1619, 178-213), reproduced in P. L., XLIX, 1216-70 Giles, "Scriptores rerum gestarum Willelmi Conquestoris" (London, 1845), 78-159, French tr. Guizot, "Collection de mémoires relatifs à l'histoire de France" (Paris, 1826), XXIX.

KÖRTING, Wilhelms von Poitiers Gesta Guilelmi. Ein Beitrag zur anglonormann. Historiographie (Dresden, 1875) Histoire littéraire de la France, VIII, 192-97 DAWSON, History of Hastings Castle, the castlery, rape and battle of Hastings (London, 1909).

Critiques of the Gesta Guillelmi

William of Poitiers undoubtedly thought of himself as an historian. He mentions in the Gesta Guillelmi that the duty of a historian is to remain within the 'bounds of the truth.' but he failed to obey this rule. Antonia Gransden in 'Historical writing in England c. 550 to c. 1307' shows that William of Poitiers was just as much a panegyrist as a historian. She summarises Gesta Guillelmi as 'biased, unreliable account of events, and unrealistic portraits of the two principle protagonists.' [5] Moreover, Orderic Vitalis, who uses the Gesta Guillelmi as his principal source in creating his 'Ecclesiastical History', chooses to omit or contradict many of Poitiers' passages in the Guesta Guillelmi, including denial of King William's mercy to the conquered English having been brought up in England from 1075–1085, Orderic knew better. However, the Gesta Guillelmi cannot be dismissed most of the panegyrical passages are easy to isolate, and there is a lot of material that William of Poitiers probably reports accurately.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William of Poitiers

WILLIAM OF POITIERS (c. 1020-c. 1090), Norman chronicler, was born at Préaux, near Pont Audemer, and belonged to an influential Norman family. After serving as a soldier he studied at Poitiers, and then returning to Normandy became chaplain to Duke William (William the Conqueror) and archdeacon of Lisieux. He wrote an eulogistic life of the duke, the earlier and concluding parts of which are lost and Ordericus Vitalis, who gives a short biography of him in his Historia ecclesiastica, says that he also wrote verses. William's Gesta Guilelmi II. ducís Normannorum, the extant part of which covers the period between 1047 and 1068, is valuable for details of the Conqueror's life, although untrustworthy with regard to affairs in England. According to Freeman, " the work is disfigured by his constant spirit of violent partisanship." It was written between 1071 and 1077, and was used by Ordericus Vitalis.

The Gesta was first published by A. Duchesne in the Historiae Normannorum scriptores (Paris, 1619) and it is also found in the Scriptores rerum gestarum Willelmi Conquestoris of J. A . Giles (London, 1845). There is a French translation in tome xxix. of Guizot's Collection des mémoires relatifs à l'histoire de France (Paris, 1826). See G. Körting, Wilhelms von Poitiers Gesta Guilelmi ducis (Dresden, 1875) and A. Molinier, Les Sources de l'histoire de France, tome iii. (Paris, 1903).

Bad weather or a strategic move?

Now, the contemporary sources say that William didn’t sail because the weather was bad – the wind was against him. Since the 1980s, historians have argued that the weather idea was clearly just Norman propaganda, however, and that William was evidently delaying until Harold stood his army down. But the numbers don’t seem to work for that argument.

Historians with greater nautical experience would argue that when you’re ready, when D-Day comes and the conditions are right, you have to go.

The great problem with arguing that William was waiting with his army until Harold stood his own army down, however, is that the two men were facing the same logistical problem.

William had to keep his thousands-strong mercenary force in a field in Normandy from one week to the next, all the while dealing with the attendant difficulties of supply and sanitation. He didn’t want to watch his army consuming his carefully hoarded stockpile, he wanted to get going. Thus, it is perfectly credible to see how the Norman duke could have been delayed by the weather.

We’re told by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that on 8 September 1066, Harold stood down his army because he couldn’t keep it there any longer it had run out of material and foodstuffs. So the king was forced to disband his forces.

A quick overview

The eldest daughter of William, Duke of Aquitaine, Eleanor was married to Louis VII, King of France. During the Second Crusade, her relationship with her husband soured, and in 1152, they officially divorced. Shortly afterward, she married Henry of Anjou, who in two years would become King Of England.

The royal couple had 8 children, five sons, and three daughters. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine remained heavily involved in the ruling of King Henry II's vast empire in France and England.

Read more: On the trail of gothic cathedrals

In 1173, Henry's sons started a revolt against their father with Eleanor siding with her sons. Henry stifled the revolt and, as punishment for her involvement, confined her. Henry II died in 1189, and Richard II, the Lionhearted, became king.

Another of her sons, John, rose against Richard along with the King of France. Eleanor supported Richard. Later, when her grandson tried to claim the throne, she supported John. She died in 1204 at the age of 82.

This restless queen swept across the 12th century, changing the face of Europe.


The role she played

Endowed with intelligence, creative energy and a remarkably long life. Eleanor of Aquitaine played a major role in the 12th century, an impressive achievement given that medieval women were considered nothing more than chattel. Assets of brains and enterprise served her well in the chaos of the time unrelenting hostilities between Plantagenets and Capets, crusades and struggle between church and state. They equipped her to advance civility in a ruthless era by promoting the songs of troubadours and the ideals of courtly love. Even in a century of imposing personalities—the likes of Thomas Becket, Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abélard—Eleanor took center stage.

As the queen consort of King Louis VII of France and of King Henry II of England, and as the mother of King Richard I and King John, she held the spotlight, wielding power over the most important men of her time. She was the daughter and heir of the imperious William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, who possessed the largest domains in northwest Europe, indeed larger than those held by the king of France. When her father died in 1137, she came into her inheritance and, complying with the dictates of a territorial agreement, at age 15 married the heir to the French throne. Barely a month after the wedding, King Louis VI died, thrusting Eleanor’s 16-year-old groom to the throne of France.

Eleanor found court life as queen of France stultifying. Her timid, sweet-tempered and devout husband exasperated her. Formed during her childhood at the court in Poitiers where she was rarely disciplined and always admired, her strong ego impelled Eleanor to create a lofty royal vision for herself, one that did not encompass the subordinate role as queen of France.

After a decade of marriage she was as beautiful and capricious as ever, but even more headstrong and domineering toward Louis. From 1147 to 1149 she accompanied him on the Second Crusade. According to Simon Schama in A History of Britain , while Louis took the cross to atone for his sins, “Eleanor went with him in a magnificent rather than penitential style,” adding, “Dismayed to discover that crusading was an arduous, pious business, she quickly developed an unhealthily warm relationship with her uncle, the slightly impious Raymond of Poitiers.” Raymond apparently ensconced at Antioch for the duration of the crusade, aroused Louis’jealousy, which caused an estrangement between Eleanor and Louis.

Though at one time Louis had adored his wife, after 15 years of marriage he was willing to let her go for the sake of the Capetian royal line. She had not borne him a son and heir, only two daughters. Eleanor, on cue, illuminated her predicament, explaining that her husband’s infrequent visits to her bed accounted for the fruitlessness of their union. In the end, the marriage was annulled on the convenient grounds of consanguinity: Eleanor and Louis were too closely related for the church to tolerate.

After her marriage

Following the dissolution of her marriage, Eleanor regained possession of Aquitaine and Poitou. This wealth combined with her loveliness attracted suitors well before the annulment was final, one of whom was Henry of Anjou (a domain bordering Poitou), soon to be known as Plantagenet. Most historians agree that Eleanor and Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry’s father, were sexually intimate before she met Henry. Schama notes, “It was rumored that Geoffrey of Anjou had personally verified Eleanor’s appetite for passion before recommending her to his son.” Be this as it may, 30-year-old Eleanor and 18-year-old Henry felt passionately attracted to one another. Henry’s unsurpassed physical courage and keen political acumen resonated with Eleanor’s ambition for power.

Schama writes, “Barely eight weeks after Eleanor’s divorce in May 1152, Henry stood at the altar beside this considerably older woman whom all contemporary accounts describe as a dark-eyed beauty, disconcertingly articulate, strong-minded and even jocular and not at all the modestly veiled damsel in the tower.” For her part, Eleanor was willing to look beyond her groom’s stocky frame, barrel chest and boyish freckles to his arrogant self-confidence and royal objectives. Though they may have had little in common because of the age difference, the pair shared similar backgrounds. “Their native worlds,” writes Schama, “were not all that far apart…knights astride brightly caparisoned chargers thudding into each other in the lists or obliging their overlords by burning down the opposition’s manors.”

(Via: Granger Collection, New York).

Two years after the wedding, Henry became King Henry II of England, and Eleanor his queen. Stretching from the Pyrenees in the south to the Cheviots in the north, their empire was indeed vast. Their Plantagenet offspring would rule England and parts of the Continent for the next 330 years, an era of insatiable royal ambition, family jealousies, and territorial overreach.

During a tempestuous marriage of nearly 40 years, Eleanor and Henry produced seven children who survived to adulthood, four of whom were sons. The oldest surviving son, known as the Young King Henry, died of dysentery at age 28 while leading troops in rebellion against his father. Another disloyal son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, died a mysterious death in Paris, also at age 28. Eleanor’s favorite son, Richard the Lionheart, and Henry’s favorite, John Lackland, would both, in turn, inherit the crown of England. Throughout her childbearing years, Eleanor participated in the administration of the realm, particularly in the management of her own domains, Aquitaine and Poitou.

Accounts of Eleanor’s activities at court in Poitiers reveal a softer side to this aggressive woman. Captivated by the romantic legend of King Arthur and stories of the knights of his Round Table, she filled the court with troubadours whose performances evoked King Arthur’s world—a milieu of chivalry and courtly love. The precepts of chivalry held that women were to be silent, passive goddesses to be approached with reverence. Perhaps the troubadours’ tales appealed to Eleanor because of their contrast to her callous life of action.

In an 1840 painting by Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse, young Louis VII, Eleanor’s first husband, takes the banner of St. Denis in 1147. The original hangs at Versailles.

Chivalry notwithstanding, circumstances anchored her in reality. Time after time her adult sons’ intermittent revolts against her husband lured her attention away from cultural pursuits. When her sons staged a rebellion in 1173 Eleanor gave them support in the form of troops and money. Indeed, some historians believe that Eleanor initiated the plot. She and Henry had long been estranged, the 12-year age difference proving an obstacle in the marriage. Eleanor resented Henry’s infidelities, particularly his blatant association with the fair Rosamund (a beauty much lauded by English poets). Yet more important than Eleanor’s resentment was her consummate ambition for personal power. She believed that with one of her sons on the throne, she herself would rule England.

Quest for power

The rebellion failed and King Henry II held the throne intact, and for her role in the drama, Eleanor was confined under guard at various castles throughout Henry’s kingdom. When her imprisonment ended with her husband’s death in 1189, Eleanor, undaunted at age 67, returned with a vengeance to public life. Schama points out that she greeted the death of Henry with dry eyes, and continues, “With Richard—a character formed by her own educated passions—finally seated on the throne, she could assert herself again in the business of state.”

Her opportunity came on the heels of King Richard’s coronation, an event she stage-crafted with the fullest measure of pageantry. The Third Crusade was underway and crusading fervor had enveloped England. Yet Eleanor viewed the rescue of the Holy Land from the Turks as a distraction from the business at hand the real concern, she believed, was not Saladin but the preservation of the House of Plantagenet, particularly in England. Against his mother’s advice, King Richard was determined to join the crusade, a decision undoubtedly fueled by childhood exposure in Poitiers to his mother’s world of chivalric idylls. Like an Arthurian knight, he would travel with courage and honor to rescue the besieged city of Jerusalem.

At Fontevrault Abbey, France, Eleanor’s tomb lies between those of her husband, Henry II, and her favorite son, Richard the Lionheart.

King Richard was away for five years, during which time his mother ruled England as administrator of the realm, simultaneously thwarting the intrigues of his brother John Lackland in his attempts to seize the throne. Participation in the crusade did not account for Richard’s entire absence. While returning from the Holy Land he was captured and taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria. Characteristically competent and resourceful, Eleanor not only collected her son’s considerable ransom but also made the formidable journey to Austria to escort him back to England. King Richard the Lionheart died in 1199 near Aquitaine, besieging a castle belonging to a rebellious vassal.

Because he died without an heir, Richard’s younger brother, and least capable of Henry and Eleanor’s brood, John was crowned king. From the outset of his reign, territorial wars against the Capetian rulers of France occupied King John. With typical political savvy, Eleanor resolved that her granddaughter Blanche should marry the son of the French king, thus initiating peace between the Plantagenets and Capets. Amazingly, in 1200 when she was nearly 80 years old she crossed the Pyrenees on horseback to fetch Blanche from the Court of Castile.

Still, her work was not completed. That same year, in order to secure King John’s continental possessions, Eleanor helped him to defend Anjou and Aquitaine against her grandson Arthur of Brittany (son of Geoffrey). Records show that in 1202 King John was again in his mother’s debt for holding Poitou against Arthur. But that apparently was her final curtain call. Following the battle, she retired to the monastery at Fontevrault in Anjou, where she died in 1204.

In the years immediately following her death, historians judged Eleanor harshly, spotlighting only her youthful indiscretions and ignoring the political wisdom and tenacity that marked the years of her maturity. The nuns of Fontevrault, however, wrote in their necrology, “She was beautiful and just, imposing and modest, humble and elegant.”


Since the eighteenth century, troubadours have haunted the French cultural imagination. Jean-Baptiste de La Curne de Sainte-Palaye published in 1774 a three volume work, Histoire littéraire des troubadours, in which he gave a detailed account of “their poems, lives, mores, and customs.” In 1817, François-Just-Marie Raynouard provided six volumes of troubadours’ selected poems, Choix des poésies originales des troubadours.

From 1802 to the mid-nineteenth century, the “troubadour style” flourished in French painting. Its masters (e.g., Pierre Révoil, Fleury Richard, François-Marius Granet and Jean-Antoine Laurent) and patrons (e.g., Empress Josephine, Louis XVIII, the duke and duchess of Berry) were not exactly focused on Jaufré Rudel, Marcabru, Bernard of Ventadour and their peers. By “troubadour” they did not mean a kind of poet, but anything medieval including Roland, Charlemagne, Ivanhoe, Bayard, Francis 1st, the One Hundred Years War, the fountain of youth, ladies with long braids, young men with pointed shoes, crenellated towers, arch bows, greyhounds, and huge fireplaces. It is striking that “troubadour” could have represented the “medieval” in a nutshell for early nineteenth-century public. The metonymy is not that absurd after all--far less absurd as a label than “pre-Raphaelite,” which logically should include paintings in the Lascaux style. The troubadours did something remarkable to their times: they gave it an air, which eventually became the quintessence of the “medieval” for post-medieval, or, rather, post-troubadour eras. And yet, for all this French excitement about troubadours, they were not even French.

The first known troubadour is Guilhem de Peiteu, in translation: William IX (as duke of Aquitaine) or VII (as count of Poitiers), or William IX of Poitiers. Born in 1071, he died in 1127, lord of a larger, richer and more populated land than the king of France, Louis VI. His maternal language was a romance dialect part of what is called today Occitan language. By the time of William, the corpus of written texts in Occitan was larger than the corpus of texts in Old French. However, it seems that the earliest development of Old French epic poetry is contemporary to the earliest development of Occitan lyric poetry: both date from the late eleventh-century.

The Occitan substantive “trobador” derives from the Occitan verb “trobar” meaning “to compose.” Experts disagree on its etymology: some relate it to medieval Latin “tropus” meaning a musical variation in Gregorian chant others to Arabic “tarab” meaning song, poem, intense emotion. It may derive from both.

The modest corpus of eleven poems preserved under William IX of Poitiers’s name contains many of the forms, themes and terms that later troubadours will use as their basic material. At the same time it has . . . character: Impish, energetic, humorous, thoughtful, ambivalent, and never shy. Some of William's songs may not correspond to our idea of courtly love. Or perhaps should we revise our idea of courtly love, and remove from it any cuteness, prudishness or meekness that nineteenth-century troubadourification might have introduced in it. “Totz lo joys del mon es nostre, Dompna, s'amduy nos amam.” [All the joy of the world is ours, Lady, if we love each other.] (William of Poitiers, “Farai chansoneta nueva”). This is a great boast, expectation or threat, which involves mutual sexual enjoyment and is about joy in this world, and not in any other one.

William IX was not the only poet to compose and sing in this language at this time, but his elevated status probably contributed to elevate poetry itself, to make of it an ennobling pursuit worthy of the efforts of talented individuals, a pursuit that could be shared collectively in towns and castles, at home and on the roads. William claims that he could compose “en durmen sobre chevau” [asleep, riding] (in “Farai un vers de dreyt nien”). Composing asleep is not something a modern poet could do, driving, without dire consequences.

The golden age of troubadours poetry lasted until the mid-thirteenth century. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) allegedly targeted Catharism. In fact, beside effectively crushing this allegedly abominable heresy by killing and terrorizing its adherents, the Crusade devastated the South and put it under the control of the Capetian monarchy. Social and political dynamic changed, and even if Occitan poets continued to compose, one cannot help to think, while reading the poetry of the late thirteenth to the fifteenth century, that it was not the same. The dompnas of yesteryear tended to be replaced by Dompna Maria, perhaps as a gage of full religious orthodoxy. The creative impulse passed in the Italian peninsula, where some troubadours took shelter. Toscan poets, well aware of their legacy, started to renew it in their own vernacular.

The corpus of troubadours’ songs counts more than 2500 texts and about 240 melodies. This repertoire came to us mostly in the form of chansonniers or manuscript compilation of songs, made in the thirteenth and fourteenth century (some in Italy). Some of these chansonniers contain biographies of the poets (vidas) and explanation of poems (razos). Some are illustrated with portraits of the poets. A noticeable number of troubadours were female (sometimes called “trobairitz”). Women were not only inspiring objects but also critics, connoisseurs, patrons, and authors of troubadours’ poetry.

Beside influencing Italian poets including, down the road, Dante and Petrarch, the trobar reached northern France (see: Trouvères) and Germany (see: Minnesinger). Overall, it had as much impact on the history of European poetry as Romanticism. The art of trobar is much about forms and variations, subtle differences, reconfigurations of well-known elements. Think about wines: all are made with fermented grapes, so what’s the big deal? Troubadours are like wine-makers. They use the same basic stuff (the grapes of troubadours are desires and frustrations) and turn them into something unique and uniquely enjoyable, although one wine make you think about a lot of other wines. Do you prefer your poem ric (rich), sotil (subtle), escur (obscure), cobert (covert), clus (closed), or leu (light)?

The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers

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