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Eleanor's First Letter to Pope Celestine

      When Richard decided to go on a Holy crusade to save Jerusalem, both him and Eleanor did not think that their parting would be unusually long. However, fate would not allow that Richard would return home safely, immediately from the crusade. Instead, he was taken hostage by Duke Leopold of Austria, and held prisoner for an enormous ransom. Eleanor, acting as regent in King Richard's absence, took action on many levels to free her son. One of these actions was writing a letter to the Pope, begging him to help free her son. The letter is evidence of the strong relationship that Eleanor had with her son, Richard.

Eileen Page as Eleanor of Aquitaine in Catherine Muschamp's Mother of the Pride
Click on the picture to find out more about this play about Eleanor

      To the reverend Father and Lord Celestine, by the grace of God, the Supreme Pontiff, Eleanor, the miserable and-would I could add- the commiserated Queen of England, Duchess of Normandy, Countess of Anjou, entreats him to show himself to be a father of mercy to a pitiful mother.

      O holiest Pope, a cursed distance between us prevents me from addressing you in person, but I must give vent to my grief a little, and who shall assist me to write my words? I am all anxiety, both within and without, whence my very words are full of suffering. Without are fears, within contentions, and I cannot take one breath free from the persecution of my troubles and the grief caused by my afflictions, which beyond measure have found me out.

      I am all defiled with torment, my flesh is wasted away, and my bones cleave to my skin. My years pass away full of groans, and I wish they were altogether passed away. O that the whole blood of my body would now die, that the brain in my head and the marrow of my bones were so dissolved into tears that I might melt away in weeping. My very bowels are torn away from me. I have lost the staff of my old age, the light of my eyes, and would God accede to my prayers He would condemn my ill-fated eyes to perpetual blindness that they no longer saw the woes of my people.

      Who may allow me to die for you, my son? Mother of mercy, look upon a mother so wretched, or else, if your Son, an unexhausted source of mercy, requires from my son the sins of the mother, then let Him punish me, for I am the irreverent one. Do not let Him smile over the punishment of an innocent person. Let He who now bruises me take up His hand and slay me. Let this be my consolation- that in burdening me with grief, He does not spare me.

      O wretched me, yet pitied by no one. Why have I, the Lady of two kingdoms, the mother of two kings, reached the ignominy of this abominable old age? My bowels are torn away, my very race is destroyed and passing away from me. The Young King and the Count [sic] of Brittany sleep in the dust, and their most unhappy mother is compelled to live that without cure she may be ever tortured with the memory of the dead.

      Two sons yet survive to my comfort, who now live only to distress me, a miserable and condemned creature. King Richard is detained in bonds, and his brother John depopulates the captive's kingdom with the sword and lays it waste with fire. In all things the Lord has become cruel towards me, turning His heavy hand against me. His anger is so against me that even my sons fight against each other, if indeed it can be called a fight in which one anguishes in bonds and the other, adding grief upon grief, tries by cruel tyranny to usurp the exile's kingdom.

      O good Jesus, who will grant me Your protection and hide me in Hell itself until Your fury passes away, until Your arrows, which are in me, by who's very vehemence my spirit is drunk up, shall cease? I long for death, I am weary of life, and though I thus die constantly, I yet desire to die more fully. I am reluctantly compelled to live, that my life may be the food of death and a means of torture. Blessed are those who pass away by a fortunate abortion and never know the capriciousness of this life, who do not know the waywardness of this life and the unpredictable events in our inconsistent fate!

      What do I do? Why do I yet live? Why do I, a wretched creature, delay? Why do I not go, that I may see Him who my soul loves, bound in beggary and irons? At such a time as this, how could a mother forget the son of her womb? Affection for their young appeases tigers, nay, even the fiercer witches.

      Yet I fluctuate in doubt, for if I go away, I desert my son's kingdom, which is laid waste on all sides with fierce hostility and in my absence it will be destitute of all counsel and solace. Again, if I stay I shall not see the face of my son, that face which I so long for, and there will be no one who will study to procure the liberation of my son. But what I fear still more is that this most fastidious of young men will be tortured for an impossible sum of money, and, impatient of so much affliction, will be easily brought to the agonies of death.

      O impious, cruel, and dreadful tyrant [i.e., the Emperor], who has not feared to lay sacrilegious hands on the Lord's Anointed; nor has the royal unction, nor the reverence due to the holy life, nor the fear of God, restrained you from such inhumanity.

      Yet the Prince of the Apostles still rules and reigns in the Apostolic See, and his judicial rigour is set up as a means of resort. It rests with you, Father, to draw the sword of Peter against these evildoers, which for this purpose is set above peoples and kingdoms. The Cross of Christ excels the eagles of Caesar, the sword of Peter is a higher authority than the sword of Constantine, and the Apostolic See higher than the imperial power.

      Is your derived from God or from men? Did not the God of God's speak to you through His Apostle Peter, that whatsoever you bind on Earth shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever you loose on Earth be loosed also in Heaven? Why then do you so long negligently, nay cruelly, delay to free my son, or is it rather that you do not dare? Perhaps you will say that this power is given to you over souls, not bodies: so be it, I will certainly be satisfied if you bind the souls of those who keep my son bound in prison.

      It is your province to release my son, unless the fear of God has yielded to a human fear. Restore my son to me, then, O man of God, if indeed you are a man of God and not a man of mere blood. For know that if you are slow in releasing my son, from your hand will the Most High require his blood.

      Alas, alas for us, when the chief shepherd has become a mercenary, when he flies from the face of the wolf, wen he abandons in the jaws of a bloodthirsty beast the lamb put in his care, or even the chosen ram, the leader of the Lord's flock. The good shepherd instructs and informs other shepherds not to fly when they see a wolf approaching, but rather to lay down their lives for their sheep. Save, therefore, I entreat you, your own soul, while, by urgent embassies, salutary advice, by the thunders of excommunication, general interdicts and terrible sentences, you endeavor to procure the liberation, I will not say of your sheep, but of your son. Though late, you ought to give your life for him, for whom as yet you have refused to say or write one word. My son is tormented in bonds, yet you do not go to him, nor send anyone, nor are moved by the sorrow which moved Joseph. Christ sees this and is silent, but at the last judgement there shall be a fearful retribution for those who are negligent in doing God's work.

      Three times you have promised us to send legates, yet they have not been sent. If my son where in prosperity, we should have seen them run in answer to his lightest call, expecting plentiful rewards from his munificent generosity and the public profit of his kingdom. But what profit could they consider more glorious than the freeing of a captive king and the restoring of peace to the people, quiet to the religious, and joy to all? But while the wolf comes upon its prey, the dogs are mute: either they cannot, or they will not bark.

      Is this the promise you made me at the Castello Radulphi, with such protestations of love and good faith? What benefit did you gain from giving my simple nature mere words, from mocking the faith of the innocent with a hollow trust? Alas, I know now that your cardinals' promises are but empty words. You alone who were my hope after God and the trust of my people, forced me to despair. Cursed be he who trusts in man!

      Where's my refuge now? You, O Lord my God. The eyes of Your handmaiden are lifted up to You, O Lord, for You recognize my distress. You, O King of Kings, Lord of Lords, grant sovereignty to Your Son, and save the son of Your handmaiden. Do not visit upon him the crimes of his father or the wickedness of his mother.

      We know from a certified public report that, after the death of the Bishop of Liege, whom the Emperor is said to have killed with a fatal blow from his sword, though wielded by a distant hand, he miserably imprisoned the Bishop of Ostia, four of his provincial bishops, and even the archbishops of Salerno and Treves. And the apostolic authority ought in no way to deny that unlawfully and tyrannically he has also taken possession of Sicily. The Emperor's fury is not satisfied with all these gains, but his hand is still stretched out. Fearful things he has already done, but worse are still certainly to be expected.

      Where is the promise the Lord made to His Church: "I shall make this the pride of ages, a joy from generation to generation"? Once the Church trod upon the next of the proud with its own strength, and the laws of emperors abate, the sacred canons. But now things have changed- not only canons, but the makers of canons are restrained by base laws and profane customs. No one dare murmur about the detestable crimes of the powerful, which are tolerated, and canonical rigour falls on the sins of the poor alone.

      The kings and princes of the Earth have conspired against my son, the Lord's Anointed. One tortures him in chains, another ravages his lands with a cruel enmity. The Supreme Pontiff sees all this, yet keeps the sword of Peter sheathed, and thus gives the sinner added boldness, his silence being presumed to indicate consent.

      But I declare to you that the time of dissension foretold by the Apostle is at hand, when the son of eternal damnation shall be revealed. The fateful moment is at hand when the seamless tunic of Christ shall be rent again, when the net of Peter shall be broken, and the solid unity of the Catholic church dissolved. These are the beginnings of sorrows. We feel bad things, we fear worse.

      I am no prophetess, but my grief suggests many things about the troubles to come. Yet it also steals away the very words which it suggests. A sob stops my breath, my sadness saps the strength of my soul, and absorbing grief shuts up by its anxieties the vocal passages of my soul. Farewell.

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