Christmas at the court of Henry II probably became increasingly fraught as his sons grew to adulthood. They revolted at various times against their father and feuded with one another. Vincent and Harper-Bill reference in particular the Christmas of 1182. Eleanor of Aquitaine was not in attendance having been kept a prisoner since she’d sided with her three elder sons in their first revolt against Henry in 1173. The one thing that Christmas 1182 wasn’t, was the season of peace and goodwill to all men.
The Young King had semi-revolted against his father by waging war with brother Richard over Poitou. In the spring of the following year his brother Geoffrey of Brittany would join up with Young Henry against their father and brother as well. William Marshall, widely accepted as the hero of the age and all round trustworthy chap on account of his loyalty to a succession of Plantagenets, was facing accusations of adultery with none other than the Young King’s wife, Princess Margaret of France. And, just because things come in threes rather like buses, William de Tancarville was insisting on his right to wash the king’s hands.
The great and the good were summoned to Caen for the celebrations. More than a thousand knights attended. William Marshall took the opportunity to challenge the Young King to bring out Marshall’s accusers – the non-too-subtle implication being that Marshall would then proceed to thrash them soundly. He volunteered to fight three accusers on three successive days and if he lost any of the knightly bouts then he would be deemed guilty of adultery through trial by combat. Young Henry did not accept the challenge. So Marshall then suggested that if no one would fight him they could cut off one of his fingers and then have the fight. Unsurprisingly this resulted in a stunned silence. Now, what should have happened is that Marshall should have been declared innocent of the crime that no one was naming on the spot because quite clearly his accusers weren’t prepared to put themselves in dangers way. However, the Young King didn’t do what protocol required, it should also be added that some historians believe that Marshall’s biography makes much of the accusation because he was actually guilty of being ambitious and greedy and he was trying to make the adultery smear into a scandalous smokescreen for his real activities (think more along the lines of Game of Thrones than Sir Walter Scott). Marshall announced that he was being denied justice. Henry II gave the knight safe conduct and Marshall left in what can only be described as a bit of a righteous huff…it also gave him an excuse to leave his lord…yes, that’s right…the same lord who was just about to rebel against his father. Marshall did not rejoin the Young King until he was dying of dysentery and he’d sought permission not only from Henry II but also Philip of France. Make of it what you will.
Meanwhile William de Tancarville, who was a hereditary chamberlain, insisted on his hand washing rights. Apparently the king was just about to have his hands washed when Tancarville pushed his way to the front and grabbed at the silver basin that the chamberlain was using. The person who had been about to wash Henry’s hands kept hold of the basin and I suspect that much sloshing about ensued until Henry told the bloke with the basin to hand it over to Tancarville who then made a great show of ensuring that Henry had clean hands – ceremonially speaking of course. And then he proceeded to pocket the basin that had held the water for the king’s clean up as well as the basins employed for the handwashing of the princes. It turns out that the silver basins were a perk of the job, which would perhaps account for why the first handwasher-in-chief wasn’t keen on letting go of it in the first place.
Good will at the Christmas Court at Caen in 1182 seems noticeable only by its absence. By January the king and his sons were heartily fed up of one another and took themselves off for a spot of perennial Plantagenet family fisticuffs – de Tancarville siding with the Young King.
Click on the image of the festive feast to open up a new tab and a post about the Young King at Christmas including 1182.
Christopher Harper-Bill, Nicholas Vincent Henry II: New Interpretations
William M. Reddy The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan 900-1200 CE