Pinned like a brilliant butterfly between the hardscrabble Carolingian reforms and consolidation and the black plague and hundred years war, the magnificent twelfth century in what is now northern Europe and England twinkles with personality and color.
Although the feudal system dominated, particularly on the continent, the circulation of money (begun in Charlemagne's time but growing steadily) was changing everything. Money allowed feudal lords to hire soldiers to fight their wars. No longer were they dependent on just their liege men for support. This allowed wars to expand and power to shift dramatically.
France was still a small kingdom, even at the end of the twelfth century when our story opens. The French kings controlled the Isle de France and some surrounding area. Powerful Burgundy lay to the East, the broad lands of Aquitaine to the Southwest, and Brittany and Normandy to the North and Northwest, independent dukedoms or counties all.
An attempt had been made in 1137 to broaden the French kingdom when the French King Louis le Gros (Louis the VI, the Fat) and William, the ninth Duke of Aquitaine agreed to the marriage of their children just before each of the rulers conveniently died. Louis the VII, called le jeune for obvious reasons, was seventeen at the time, and Eleanor, eldest daughter and Duchess of Aquitaine, was only fifteen years old. The royal couple eventually had two daughters, but no sons. This remained a sore point with Louis advisers and counselors, who feared for the succession.
The other power on the continent at that time, was Normandy. It was from Normandy two generations earlier that Duke William (later called the Conqueror, also for obvious reasons) had sailed to defeat King Harold at Hastings, and to assume lordship of England. William I's granddaughter, Mathilda, vied with her cousin, Stephen, for the crown of England after the death of Henry I, Williams's son. Stephen was the victor. After a stormy civil war, and the death of Stephen's only son Eustace, Stephen agreed to accept Mathilda'sson, young Henry of Anjou, as heir to the English throne.
Meanwhile, the marriage of Eleanor and the pious Louis fared badly. In 1122 Eleanor and Louis divorced and she immediately married young Henry of Anjou, who was about to become King of England. This apparently took Louis by surprise, and caused serious hard feelings for some time.
Eleanor brought with her to her new marriage her dowry of the broad and fertile lands of Aquitaine. Henry and Eleanor thus formed a formidable alliance against Louis. This caused years of intermittent wars, notably over land in Normandy and the Vexin, although periodic attempts were also made on both sides to reach some kind of peace.
Louis married again, and again, until he had the son he so desired. From his second marrige to Constance of Spain, Louis produced two more daughters, Marguerite and Alais. In one of the rare moments of detente, Thomas a Becket arranged for the marriage of these two daughters to Eleanor and Henry's two eldest sons. Marguerite married young Henry, called "the Young King" to distinguish him from his father, and Alais was betrothed to Richard, who came to be called 'the Lion Heart'.
The marriage of Alais and Richard never took place. Eventually, much of the land of the northern continent, and all of Aquitaine, Normandy and Brittany, came to be part of France. England went its own way, ruled for several centuries by descendants of the Plantagenet family of Anjou.
But for one century, politics and power was dominated by a score of people so interesting, so determined and so dramatic that their stories could have created a marvelous mini-series. Their destines seemed interwoven as if by divine design. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry of England and Louis of France, Richard the Lion Heart, John of England, Philippe of France, Thomas a Becket were unforgettable characters. And so, if you believe this story, was Alais, forgotten Princess of France.