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Is It True?

By Ace Pilkington

“Is it true?” That’s one of the first questions audience members ask about a historical play such as The Lion in Winter, The answer, of course, is, “yes, no, and maybe.”

James Goldman said, “This play, while simplifying the political maneuvering–and combining a meeting of the French and English Kings in 1183 with a Royal Court held at Windsor the following year into a Christmas Court that never was–is based on available data” (The Lion in Winter [New York: Penguin Books, 1983], ix). He admits that he got John wrong, that his dissatisfaction is rather like “what biographers must feel at having missed the . . . essence of their subject” (vi). For the others, he feels he has reached that essence, arguing that the depths of fiction are often more revealing than surface facts: “The truth of things is always underneath. It has to be imagined” (vii).

The big picture Goldman paints of a family at war with itself and its neighbors is not in doubt. The constant fight was as much a family heritage as the lands about which they fought. The Angevins (from Anjou their ancestral province; Plantagenet, a popular nickname centuries later, refers to early family members who stuck sprigs of broom in their caps) were a superbly capable, astonishingly irascible bunch. They believed they were descended from the devil, and most people who got in their way agreed. Henry II’s sons repeated what Abb, Bernard said about their father as an infant, “‘From the devil he came; to the devil he will go”’ (Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950], 170).

Henry II’s father, Count Geoffrey of Anjou (Henry also had a brother and a son named Geoffrey.), finding himself in a dispute about whether he or the canons of the bishopric of Seez should select the next bishop, had the canons and their bishop-elect castrated (Alfred Duggan, Devil’s Brood [New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1957], 10). Following her divorce from King Louis VII of France, Eleanor, who probably already had an understanding with Henry, was ambushed by “Geoffrey of Anjou (aged sixteen), the enterprising younger brother of Henry who.. . plotted brigand-wise to possess himself of her person and her fiefs” (Kelly 80). Eleanor’s escort defeated him, but he was a faithful harbinger of the family feuds to come. Such squabbles were, as Goldman shows, continued in the next generation. Henry barely survived the revolt by his wife and sons for which he imprisoned Eleanor, but as Philip Warner says, his “personal troubles were not over, and never would be. When not jealous of their father, his restless sons were jealous of each other” (Sieges of the Middle Ages [New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1968], 116).

The Lion in Winter’s portrait of these family rivalries is essentially correct. Goldman has Richard say, “I’m not a second son. Not now. Your Henry’s in the vault, you know” (49).

“Of all his sons Henry loved this eldest one [who died before the opening of the play] with special predilection” (Kelly 171), and Richard was painfully jealous. With the death of young Henry John became his father’s favorite (Richard Barber, The Devil’s Crown [Pennsylvania: Combined Books, 1997], 67), and Richard had yet more to resent. Part of the trouble between Henry and Richard was, as Goldman shows, that Eleanor preferred Richard (Kelly 173).

Goldman’s characterizations are also basically accurate. Richard was as ruthless and Geoffrey as deceptive as the play suggests. Richard, in Amy Kelly’s words, “took the fortresses of his enemies, razed their castles, burned their towns, uprooted their orchards and vineyards, sowed their fields with salt, ordered the hands of his captives cut off and their eyes gouged out, and dishonored the women of his hostages with a very sovereign severity” (195). And Geoffrey was even more brilliantly devious in real life than he is in the play, with, Kelly says, “an extraordinary ingenuity in intrigue and a persuasiveness that few could resist even when they knew they could not rely upon his plans or promises.” She continues with what might almost be a summary of one of Goldman’s scenes: “Confronted with his own crookedness, he was shameless, crafty, full of excuses” (174).

Goldman’s Eleanor and Henry are also much like their historical originals. Eleanor herself was brilliant, charming, much concerned with growing old (Marion Meade, Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography [New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1977], 247), and an enormously troublesome wife. Her first husband, Louis VII, when he and Eleanor were on crusade and she demanded a divorce, also found it necessary to hold her captive (Kelly 60-2), and Henry considered a variety of options for dealing with her, including divorcing her and then imprisoning her in a nunnery (Kelly 190). Henry had most of the good and bad traits of the Angevins: ferocious energy, a fierce temper, an appetite for mistresses, and impatience with the powerful (Warner 116). He also had other qualities.

Goldman claims for him, a preference for peace over war and a genius for making just laws and good government (Kelly 203-04). However, not all of Goldman’s materials are equally reliable. The rumor that Eleanor had had a sexual relationship with Henry II’s father, Count Geoffrey the Handsome (so called for his appearance, not his behavior), is probably untrue (Desmond Seward, Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Mother Queen [New York: Dorset Press, 1978], 60). Much more likely is the affair between Alais and Henry and Henry’s plan to start a new family while disinheriting the old one (Kelly 192-3). Perhaps the most misleading use of rumor in the play is the suggestion that Philip and Richard had a homosexual relationship. Both Anthony Bridge (Richard the Lionheart [New York: M. Evans & Company, Inc., 1989], 141) and John Gillingham (Richard the Lionheart [New York: Times Books, 1978], 161-2) cite rumors that suggest Richard was an extremely active heterosexual. Perhaps a more serious issue than choosing which rumors to believe is what Goldman calls “simplifying the political maneuvering.” He has deliberately distorted Henry II’s goals for and attitudes about his empire. In all probability, he was not trying to secure the crown of England for John but to put Richard in the position of eldest son following young Henry’s death. Since Richard was now to receive his father’s lands of England and Normandy, his mother’s property—Aquitaine— should go to John, who, at that point, had nothing. Richard was distrustful and understandably reluctant to trade actual rule of “the richest province on the Continent” (Goldman 43), where he felt at home, for a promise of power in the alien north. Henry’s policy of trying to give each of his three sons something while simultaneously trying to deprive the most warlike and dangerous of them of his power base makes excellent sense, as does Richard’s resistance (Richard Barber, Henry Plantagenet, 1133-1189 [New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1964], 212-13).

Ultimately, though, all plays, historical or not, must be judged not according to how accurately they have employed facts but how profoundly they have explored truths. In her director’s notes, Kathleen E. Conlin says The Lion in Winter is “about the demotion of royalty into the messy, psychological passions of human frailties and human families.” Goldman has his Henry tell us that he has much in common with King Lear, another king demoted to the status of troubled father. However, in the end these plays about families must also be capable of raising their characters to transcendent heights—beyond the vicissitudes of family and royalty to central truths about humanity. Shakespeare’s King Lear, of course, does so. Has James Goldman also succeeded? That is a question, not for a historian, but for a theatre audience.

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