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The Lion in Winter: An Historical Perspective

Updated on November 17, 2014

The Lion in Winter is a 1968 film based upon the original play written by James Goldman. It takes place in the year 1183 and centers around the reign of King Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three surviving sons: Richard, Geoffrey, and John. The film focuses on the issue of succession which is plaguing Henry after the death of his second-born but eldest son, Henry the "Young King" who had died earlier that year.1 His other sons are each vying to be named as Henry II's successor, and the film attempts to portray the events immediately after the death of the Young King. Richard and Geoffrey are called to Chinon for Christmas Court, while Eleanor is retrieved from Salisbury Tower for the occasion. While making allowances for the artistic license of the entertainment industry, the movie The Lion in Winter is an accurate depiction of the late 12th century, overall.

The entire movie is a continuous question of who is on who's side, with Philip II of France also taking part in the constant back and forth between Henry, Eleanor, and their sons. Henry prefers his youngest son John over Richard, who is the eldest and next in the line of succession. His mistress, Alais of France, is betrothed to Richard and both Eleanor and Philip wish to see Richard as the next king. Geoffrey, who is hardly acknowledged by either of his parents, constantly swings back and forth, playing each side to what he feels would be his own advantage. In the end, the film still does not explain exactly what is done or offer any solution to the problems presented. Eleanor is simply sent back to her prison at Salisbury Tower, leaving on a rather light-hearted note for the darker tone of the film and there does not seem to be any resolution. Although the film focuses on the events of December 1183, there are many events from before this time which are alluded to throughout the movie. First the facts and historical points of the film will be analyzed, including the portrayals and descriptions of the various characters, and then the visual aspects will be addressed.

Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; 1968
Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; 1968

The film opens as Henry is sparring with this fourth and youngest son John. When they have finished, Henry walks to sit with Alais, where he expresses his confidence in John as his successor, despite him being the youngest of his sons. Earlier that year, Henry's eldest son and heir, the young Henry, died of a fever, thereby making Richard the eldest.2 According to historian David Hume, "As [the young] prince Henry had left no posterity, Richard was to become heir to all his dominions; and the king intended, that John, his third surviving son and favourite, should inherit Guienne as his appanage."3 Although this particular statement only refers to a portion of land rather than the entire kingdom, it nevertheless confirms the idea that Henry preferred John over RIchard. Interestingly enough, Guienne is a small norther portion of the Aquitaine,4 which is owned by Henry's queen Eleanor and given to Richard by her. Obviously, Richard would be reluctant to give up any of his own land to his youngest brother.

This exchange is explained in the movie and confirmed in one of Eleanor's many biographies, which states that Richard had received both Poitiers and Aquitaine, though at different points in time,5 and is considered to be the richest portion of France at the time. The movie never introduces the young Henry or his death until later, and the circumstances of his death are never revealed. According to Desmond Seward, one of Eleanor's modern biographers, John's brothers had reason to distrust him from early on, due to his not receiving any entitlement to any of his parents' lands, hence his name Jean Sans-terre, or John Lackland.6

One part of what Henry says in the beginning is definitely an interesting point to discuss. Henry begins speaking to Alais, saying "There is a legend of a king called Leir with whom I have a lot in common." This is interesting to note here because the story of King Leir is not unlike the story of Henry II as told through the film. The way in which Henry speaks of the legend is thus: Leir had three children, among whom he divided his lands, something which Henry refuses to do. Also like Henry, Leir favored his youngest child and from her (as Leir had only daughters) expected more loyalty and affection than from the others.7 The comparison of King Leir itself in thefilm is not necessarily out of place as Henry is described as a well-learned and well-read king, who was "a voracious reader...Theology plays no great part; scholarship and epic works of days gone by predominate."8 This particular description of Henry also can explain the character's disregard of religion in general, as shown in the movie he treats religion as an interfering necessity.

It is not simply characters of legend which deserve mention, of course. The names which have been mentioned in the movie's opening deserve further inquiry in order to place them within an historical context. First, we have Alais, who is never properly introduced in the film. It is implied that she is simply Henry's mistress or lover, but she is not given much description aside from this. Alais' character is based upon the elder half-sister of Philip II of France, one of the daughters of the previous king Louis VII (her name has also been spelled Alice or Alys, and in some cases as Aloysia9).

Alais makes mention of another woman named Rosamund. The name is mentioned many times throughout the movie but never truly explained except that she was a previous lover. This unknown Rosamund refers to Rosamund Clifford, who is explained by Seward as not only one of Henry's many mistresses, but a "genuine rival to the queen."10 This certainly explains the animosity towards Rosamund and Alais on the part of Eleanor of Aquitaine, making it an accurate representation. It was not simply jealousy, but the fact that Rosamund was the cause of Henry and Eleanor's split, and the problems they began to have between them. In the film, Eleanor had been locked away in Salisbury for ten years, though the reasons were never explicitly given. She was indeed imprisoned in 1173,11 though the exact location seems to be debated. One of Eleanor's later biographers states that it was likely Winchester Castle or Sarum Castle, both of which are located near Salisbury.12

Slowly, the movie introduces Henry's oldest surviving sons, Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey of Brittany. Richard, who is finishing a competition or training of some sort, describes himself later as a "constant soldier and sometimes poet," although the scene is probably an exaggeration in order to help establish his character. Amy Kelly writes of Richard: "This prince figured at tournaments less often...He had plenty of real warfare to divert him Poitou and Aquitaine and needed no mimic outlet for his genius on the jousting fields."13 The description goes on to detail Richard's personality, which at times does not entirely agree with the portrayal in the movie. Lion in Winter shows Richard as actively seeking the crown and marriage to Alais, if only for political reasons.

According to historical sources and Richard's biographers, however, the prince seemed to have little interest in actually becoming king and gaining the crown of England. His interests lay solely with fighting and leading the crusades. One interesting aspect of Richard's character is that he spoke and wrote in primarily Provençal, or langue d'oc, which was a language known to southern France.14 Although it is a dialect of the same language, it is not exactly the same as the language his brothers may have spoken. Langue d'oc, which is still spoken in some regions, was and is "closer to modern Portuguese or Spanish than to French."15 John and Geoffrey seemed to be much closer to each other than to Richard, and this may be due to language.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) and her favorite son, Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins)
Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) and her favorite son, Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins)

Geoffrey's role in the movie, however, is portrayed fairly well. He was said to have the "best mind in the family...and a persuasiveness that few could resist even when they knew they could not rely upon his plans or his promises."16 Geoffrey as he is seen in the film is the son who wants everything but expects nothing, including the love of his siblings and parents. He was ready to betray or support whomever he felt would give him the biggest advantage, but towards what end is never really explained. Geoffrey of Brittany "earned no special love or hate."17 Perhaps of all the characters in the film, Geoffrey is shown closest to how he is described by various sources, but he is also the least seen and heard in the film. This makes the comparisons between Lion and Winter's Geoffrey and history's Geoffrey a little easier to make. Hume describes him as the "most vicious perhaps of all Henry's unhappy family."18 However, one point which the film misses is Geoffrey and Philip's apparent friendship.

In the film, their relationship does not seem very important. In fact, aside from making plans for rebellion, Geoffrey and Philip have little to do with each other. Philip cares only for the marriage of his half-sister Alais and her dowry. Based on one source, Geoffrey was "living like a blood brother with his overlord in the palace on the Seine," and at his later death Philip "was scarcely restrained from leaping into the tomb of his bosom friend."19

The third son of Henry II, John, is portrayed as a greedy and sniveling youth. Based on the common idea of what people generally think of King John, it is an accurate portrayal but slightly different when other sources are taken into account. Kelly describes John as graceless, but that he "showed himself...liberal and affable, magnificent and generous in hospitality."20 In the film he only wants to gain and hold claim to what was rightfully belonged to Richard. He is slow, stupid, and all around a slimy sort of character that no one likes. However, the historical John has been described as being the quickest in wit compared to his brothers. His closer relationship with Geoffrey over Richard is also a fairly accurate representation.21 Of the characters in the film, John is both the best and worst played. Many different sources seem to agree that history has not taken kindly to John, and that he was not completely incapable as he appears in Lion in Winter. For the film, he was likely shown this way in order to make him more believable to the general audience.

Geoffrey d'Anjou (John Castle) and John Lackland (Nigel Terry)
Geoffrey d'Anjou (John Castle) and John Lackland (Nigel Terry)
Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and Philip II Augustus (Timothy Dalton)
Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and Philip II Augustus (Timothy Dalton)

Philip II is the last major character to be introduced; he strides in, confident and regal. The film's representation of Philip makes him appear very calm and composed, but forceful and stubborn in his dealings with Henry. He is adamant about seeing Richard and Alais' marriage carried out; if there is no wedding he demands that the Vexin (Alais' dowry) back under French control, based on the agreement made with Louis VII. This was certainly a real issue between the new French king and Henry II, and it was a constant back and forth to which neither side seemed ready to give. Philip continuously disagreed with Henry's changing proposals in the film until Geoffrey and John came to him with plans of rebellion. In the film, Philip is quick to offer his support to the brothers against Henry in order to be taken seriously as a king in his own right.

One point made in the movie, and which cannot be overlooked, is the moment when Philip and Henry were speaking, unbeknownst to Henry in front of all three of his sons, how Richard had confessed love for Philip. Some accounts, both contemporary and modern seem to agree upon Richard's possibly homosexuality and a potential relationship with Philip II: "Richard had gone to visit the French king and had struck up a close friendship with him...each taking keen delight in the other's company."22 In other accounts, their closeness is thought to be even more than simple friendship.

In the film, Philip's personality is otherwise shown to be calm and collected, but just as quick and scheming as any of the other characters. He is described as "lacking in humour, grace, and intellectual inclinations. Yet he had a real ability as a ruler, being tough on policy, clever, calculating, and far more astute than his father...he proved a crafty and greedy opportunist."23 Most sources tend to agree on these points given of Philip's personality, in addition to the many feats attributed him in history, which prove that he was not likely to back down on matters concerning France.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn)
Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn)

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, being the main characters around which the story revolves, are the most interesting of the cast. Henry is portrayed as tricky, smart, and determined to keep his empire whole. He is unyielding in his attempts to make John his heir to the Angevin lands, despite appearing to be the most incompetent of his sons. Henry also states in the film that Richard was too powerful; Henry had hoped to split some of Richard's lands to give to John.24 The movie depicts Henry as scheming and tricky, leading others on and making sure no one knows what he is really thinking. He is described by Rebecca Fraser as being "combined in his person...the cunning Angevin mind with its flair for diplomacy, as well as the Angevins' violent temper, and this was allied to the forcefulness of dukes of Normandy."25

Eleanor is, according to Lion in Winter, just as scheming and conniving as either Henry or Geoffrey. Despite this, unlike these two, she is portrayed as a very likable character. She is the Duchess of Aquitaine and owns all of those lands though they had been given to Richard, her favorite son and the one she wishes to see on the throne after Henry. She seems particularly fond of Philip, while at the same time slightly jealous, introducing herself as the queen who might have been Philip's mother had she born her previous husband, Louis, any sons.26 According to the film, she spent three months annulling her marriage with Louis, but never gives reasons why, though it is implied that the reasons were due to meeting Henry. Historically, Eleanor gave Louis two daughters, but no heir to the throne, and so she and Louis had their marriage annulled so that the French king could remarry, and Eleanor married Henry.

Eleanor's journey with Louis during the crusades is also mentioned, and supported by several contemporary sources, though none can seem to agree on the exact reason of her accompaniment.27 Otherwise, Eleanor's disposition is quite simple, and really no different than any of the other characters, though her focus is on her desire to see Richard crowned as the next King of England. One point on which the film is incorrect is the number of Eleanor's children: in the film she states that she bore six girls and five boys. Two of these girls were daughters of the French king, Louis VII. On the number of sons the film is correct: William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, but only three female names are given: Matilda, Eleanor, and Joanna.28 It is only a minor mistake, and in the film one of the few, the other being the issue surrounding Thomas Beckett, a name which is only mentioned once despite it being such a major event in Henry's life.

The only point where Beckett is mentioned is during one of Henry and Eleanor's many quarrels. Henry accuses Eleanor of the various affairs she has had, in comparison to Henry's rather few. While Henry and Beckett were known to be very close friends for much of their lives, their falling out after Beckett's appointment to Archbishop of Canterbury caused bad blood to flow between them. Eleanor uses her affair with Beckett to taunt Henry, as well as her affair with Henry's father Count Geoffrey, which Henry continuously denies. While there is not clear evidence of the affairs, there is clear evidence of the rumors.29

The visual aspects of the film are less accurate than the script, but Lion in Winter does a decent job bringing 12th century France and England to life, based on the available sources. Further, of those available sources, many of them are not entirely accurate. Physical descriptions and depictions of medieval life are rare and often exaggerated.

Although swordplay and fighting does not appear very often in the film, the weapons that are shown are very accurate. To use Richard's sword in the beginning as an example: a hilt curved towards the blade, a simple handle and a round disc on the pommel, and a long, straight double-edged blade. This sword resembles a southern European sword, possibly Italian, from the twelfth century.30 It shares a resemblance to many European twelfth century swords, some of which have straighter or shorter hilts. The armor and costume worn by the combatants is slightly more difficult to place, but based on some of the images given in Racinet's illustrated history, the costume is not entirely inaccurate.

There seems to be a great deal of variance between the types of clothing. The image of the foot soldier is comparable with the armor worn by Geoffrey's small group of soldiers: basic and plain with skirts underneath mail armor and bracers on the lower leg. The higher-ranking soldiers don a much more colorful form of clothing, closer in style to what appears when Richard and his opponent are jousting. Later in the film the helmets in particular are much more rounded, which does not conform with any of the images from Racinet, all of which have some sort of pointed or flat helm. Those shown in the film do, however, bear a slight resemblance to images of chess pieces found from the twelfth century.31 The pikes used by some of the soldiers in the background are strikingly similar to that of the illustrations given.

The clothing worn by Henry, Eleanor, Alais, and Philip also differs slightly. Henry dresses in rather plain clothing like that of Geoffrey and Richard. According ot a description given of him, however, this may not be far from the truth: "He cared little for ceremony or the trappings of rank and dressed carelessly, often in hunting gear."32 He certainly does not dress as splendidly as does Philip or Eleanor, except when he greets the younger king and wears a long purple cloak along with his crown. There is not much imagery given from the 12th century of Henry himself, but the stone effigy that adorns his tomb still exists which does not match what is shown in the film. Since the effigy is meant to portray the king in his younger years, it's likely this is the cause for the differences. Interestingly enough, Henry's robe which is worn in the film features a very high collar not seen in the sources that depict the clothing among the royalty, nobility, or even the peasantry, of the middle ages. It does appear quite similar to the colorful cloak used by clerics between 1300-1500, well after Henry's time period.33

In addition, Henry's common dress appears closer ot that of French peasants with the bulky mantle and heavy tunic.34 Richard, Geoffrey, and John each dress similarly with subtle differences. Their costumes are rather plain, with the exception of John, and also resemble a mixture of peasant-style functional clothing. John repeatedly wears more sophisticated tunics and tights, similar to that of the French nobility.35 Philip, who dresses much more ornately than the others appears much more in line with some of the illustrations that describe the clothing of French nobility.

Alais (Jane Merrow)
Alais (Jane Merrow)

Eleanor's clothing very closely resembles the various effigies that remain of not only her but of her daughter Matilda and John's wife Isabella. All three share specific traits which seem to lend to both Eleanor's and Alais' clothing. For most of the film, Eleanor is shown wearing a very tight cowl or mantle, which covers most of her head and neck. The hood leaves very little other than her face visible and her manner of dress is very loos and flowing, as if she were wrapped several times with fabric, which does mimic her stone effigy and the illustrations of other women during the time. The biggest difference is her crown; in the film it is very small, sitting on the top of her head whereas on her tomb the stone carving is shown to have a much larger, more ornate crown. All in all, the clothing design for the film is very well done and fairly represented.36

Alais is the oddity in some ways. While her costumes do represent the French style worn by nobility, it does not comply with the era in which the movie takes place. Her dress more closely resembles that of 13th and 14th century women's clothing.37 The wrappings and cloaks are similar to the English style which is represented in various images and effigies, but none exist for the historical Alais.

Over all, I believe the 1968 Lion in Winter to be fairly accurate in its portrayal of the characters and the events, and despite the age of the film it still holds up well today. The film itself spits out so much detail in the events, dates, places, and names from history that it is difficult to mine that which is incorrect from that which is correct. The film relies so heavily on such minute points that it begins to become tiresome to hear. Many of these points are historically correct but likewise the ones that are accurate do not happen to appear directly in the movie. Lion in Winter spans only over a few days, perhaps a week or so, and the events which happened are played out rather quickly. The visual elements are more diverse; there seems to be influence from many different sources both modern and contemporary. The most precise representations come from the characters' personalities rather than visual aspects of the film.

Each of the characters' behaviors and qualities match well with how they are described in various sources and biographies. That these events happened when they did at Chinon might be debated, though considering the fact that the castle at Chinon was Henry's stronghold and effectively served as the capital of the Angevin Empire makes it easier to accept. The directors did an overall good job of representing history. Whether the events happened exactly as depicted or not, the film gives a generally correct idea of the reign of Henry II and the many quarrels not only between himself and Eleanor, but between his sons as well. The film and play represented history in this way so that historical authenticity could be preserved without losing the interest of the general population, and the movie itself, given the date when it was produced, is not lacking in either information or appeal.

Endnotes

1Richard Barber, Henry Plantagenet (Barnes & Noble, Inc 1964), 21
2David Hume, The History of England, volume I, 1778 (New York: 1983), 364
3Hume 364
4Rosamund McKitterick, ed, Atlas of the Medieval World (London: Oxford University Press, 2004), m. 123
5Desmond Seward, Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Mother Queen (Barnes & Noble Books, 1978) 119
6Seward 119-20
7Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, Aaron Thompson and J.A. Giles, trans. The legend of King Leir explains how Leir favored his youngest daughter Cordeilla, but who he felt had betrayed his affection. When he grew older, he was usurped by his two eldest daughters and their husbands, and he went to seek help from Cordeilla.
8Barber 73
9David Miller, Richard the Lionheart: The Mighty Crusader (London: Orion Publishing Group, 2003) 51
10Seward 107
11Barber 66
12Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine: a life (New York: Ballantine Publishing, 1999) 207
13Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (Harvard University Press, 1950) 173
14Frances Gies, The Knight in History (New York: Harper & Row, 1984) 50
15Gies 50
16Kelly 174
17Barber 67
18Hume 364
19Kelly 226
20Kelly 291
21Weir 232-33
22Barber 222
23Weir 223
24Weir 232
25Rebecca Fraser, The Story of Britain (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2005) 126
26Kelly 74
27Weir 48
28Genealogy of the House of Anjou in Henry Plantagenet, 21
29Weir 52, 199
30David Edge and John Miles Paddock, Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight: An Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages (Crescent, 1996) 28
31Edge and Paddock 44
32Weir 81
33Albert Racinet, Illustrated History of European Costume: Period Styles and Accessories, Peggy Vance, trans. (London: Collins & Brown Limited, 2000) 37
34Racinet 29
35Racinet 24-5
36Weir
37Racinet 30-2

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