When I was 12, my mother and I developed a sort of ritual on Thursday nights. We would lie on my bed and watch PBS, which was mostly running British comedies like To the Manor Born. But one week, I think after the shows that we were watching, they ran The Lion in Winter (1968, dir. Anthony Harvey). My mom remembered having seen it, and so we watched it. I fell in love with it before it was done, and in some ways it is the thing that sparked my life-long fascination with the Middle Ages. It planted a seed that grew when I was in college and began studying history. It’s my all-time favorite movie, for reasons that are too numerous to count.
If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s wonderful. The cast is great. Katherine Hepburn won an Oscar for her performance as the faded beauty Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, while Peter O’Toole chews the scenery something fierce as the aging King Henry II of England. (Four years previously, O’Toole had played a much younger Henry II in Becket.) A young Anthony Hopkins plays his son Richard the Lion-hearted, while an equally-young Timothy Dalton makes his film debut as King Philip II of France. It’s based on a Broadway play of the same name by James Goldman, who adapted it for the screen.
What It’s About
While the performances are solid, the real strength of the movie is in the script. The plot is complex, but it develops entirely out of the actual political situation in 1183. Henry II is king of England, but he’s also the ruler of territories technically within the kingdom of France. He inherited the Duchy of Normandy (as well as England) from his mother and the Counties of Anjou, and Maine from his father. His wife Eleanor is by her own right the Duchess of Aquitaine, a territory that compromised close to a quarter of all of France. As a result, they control close to half of all of France, a much larger chunk of territory than the king of France controls. Their oldest son, the ‘Young King’ Henry, has just died, and the couple have gathered for Christmas at the French castle of Chinon along with their three surviving sons, in part to decide how the Young King’s death will affect the inheritance rights of their other sons.
In the 12th century, the system of primogeniture (the oldest son inherits almost everything) has not fully taken hold yet. With the oldest son being dead, the possibility is open that any of the sons might receive the lion’s share (if you will) of Henry’s vast domain. Eleanor favors the rights of Richard, her second son and undeniably the best soldier of the three, while Henry favors his youngest son, John (Nigel Terry) but worries that John cannot keep Richard from usurping the kingdom after their father has died. The middle son, Geoffrey (John Castle), resents his parents for ignoring him and schemes to manipulate everyone around him. And into the middle of this family quarrel comes the young French king, Philip, who is determined to take advantage of this political rift to break up Henry’s holdings. Philip’s half-sister Alais (Jane Merrow) is engaged to be married to Richard, and has in fact been raised by Eleanor almost as a daughter, but Henry has taken Alais as his mistress, because he and Eleanor do not get along. And to complicate things further, Eleanor is the ex-wife of Philip and Alais’ late father King Louis VII of France.
The movie follows the shifting plots and alliances that emerge between the characters, as Henry and Eleanor try trick after trick to get the upper hand over each other. They manipulate their rebellious children and their children manipulate them right back. Philip drops a bombshell to Henry that he and Richard were once lovers. Geoffrey betrays both brothers and both parents as the opportunity arises, and Eleanor and Alais struggle to maintain their love for each other in the face of their rivalry over Henry. And through all this, the movie is still a love story about Henry and Eleanor.
What is so remarkable about all this tangled mess is that it is basically true to the facts. In 1183, the political situation between France and England and within Henry’s domain really was this complex. What Goldman did was to take the complex political situation and then interpret the people involved as a 20th century dysfunctional family, in the vein of Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller. By projecting modern notions of family tensions back on Henry and Eleanor’s brood, he was able to explore how these real people might have felt about their actual family relationships if they had been more like 20th century men and women emotionally. So the movie has to be watched with an awareness that much of construction of the characters is hypothetical. We don’t know how Henry and Eleanor felt about each other personally; all we know is that very soon after Eleanor was divorced by the king of France, she very quickly married the man who was to become her ex-husband’s main rival; later on, she rebelled against him, and he had her kept under house arrest for several years while he took concubines. We don’t know what the relationship between Eleanor and Alais was like, but we can imagine that Eleanor’s feelings toward the girl she raised would have become very complex once that girl had displaced her in Henry’s affections (which is not a provable fact, but only a rumor from the period). So while the personal relationships are largely fictitious, they certainly feel plausible and they fit with many of the known facts, and the well-written characters are brilliantly realized by the impressive cast.
What makes the movie even stronger is that Goldman understood a good deal about how politics worked in this period. Whereas current films about the Middle Ages often anachronistically depict politics as being about abstract ideologies such as ‘freedom” and show kings having to justify their rule to their subjects like modern politicians, The Lion in Winter places the medieval politics right where it belongs, at the intersection of land-ownership, marriage, and noble titles. Henry has inherited much of his position and short of open warfare, there is little those around him to do to stop him. Henry’s marriage to Eleanor has created a political situation in which he rules much more of France than Philip does, but Philip is still the king of Henry’s French territories, which gives him an advantage that Henry can’t completely counter. And while Henry technically rules the Aquitaine, he doesn’t actually own it; it belongs to Eleanor but is currently held by Richard. The nobles in that region are more likely to support Eleanor and Richard than Henry, just as Henry is unlikely to support his lord Philip. Henry could try to remove Richard from his position, but that would create an opportunity for Richard and Eleanor to ally themselves with Philip who would support their claim over Henry’s.
Alais’ dowry is a strategically important chunk of land that puts Henry’s troops a day’s march from Paris, so he doesn’t want to give it up, and he doesn’t want to give up Alais for more personal reasons. But Alais is betrothed to Richard, and Philip is pressuring Henry to either go ahead with the marriage or return both Alais and her dowry (which would put Philip’s troops about a day’s march from Rouen, Henry’s continental capital). What the characters are arguing over is who is going to marry Alais, who is going to inherit key pieces of land and Henry’s titles, and how these developments will affect them militarily. What they actually fighting about is whether they love each other. In doing all of this, the characters are being far more true to actual medieval politics than Mel Gibson or Orlando Bloom ever managed in their ventures into the Middle Ages, and at the same time the characters are still deeply modern.
The script even manages to include the role of medieval religion. Eleanor has been on crusade with Louis. Henry contemplates asking the pope to annul his marriage to Eleanor (which would bastardize all his children and allow him to start over with Alais), and his marriage to Eleanor was based on the annulment of her marriage to Louis. The characters generally treat religion very cynically, but even that has at least some basis in medieval realities.
The film does take a few liberties with the facts. It is set at Christmas 1183, by which time Henry had already met with his surviving sons and settled, at least for the time being, the question of their inheritances, and Henry met with Philip on St. Nicholas’ Day, Dec 6th, to sign a new treaty dealing with Alais’ marriage and wedding. So none of the main events of the film actually happened. The film takes as a fact Henry’s relationship with Alais, which was only a rumor that circulated to explain Henry’s reluctance to marry off Alais; his desire to keep her dowry is more probably the reason for his hesitance. In one scene, the film depicts Hugh de Puiset, the Bishop of Durham, as a doddering old man when in fact he was a sharp politician and regional power in his own right. But when set against a script that feels true to the period if not to all the facts, it’s easy to overlook the film’s inventions. If film-makers have to ignore certain historical facts to tell their story, I’d much rather they did it this way than the way 300 does it.
If the movie has a weakness, it’s Prince John. In the film he’s portrayed as generally being a miserable human being. He’s selfish, petulant, greedy, cowardly, and incompetent, even though the film acknowledges that he’s quite well-educated and intelligent, and it’s not particularly clear why Henry loves this little turd so much. Goldman’s depiction of the future King John has much in common with traditional views of him. But in recent decades, historians have reappraised John and generally acknowledge that he was intelligent, a good administrator (far better than Richard was) and even quite skilled militarily. His servants were deeply loyal to him, and he possessed much of his father’s restless energy. His great problem was that he was not good at building relationships with his nobility, and that caused him a great deal of difficulty toward the end of his reign. Personally, I like the historical John a good deal more than Richard, but it’s hard to find anything likeable about Nigel Terry’s John. (Terry later went on to play a far more likable English king, King Arthur, in John Boorman’s Excalibur.)
The Lion in Winter is, for my money, the best movie ever made about the Middle Ages, not because it gets all the facts right, which it sometimes doesn’t, but because it gets enough of them right, and gets the important bits right. If Goldman’s treatment of Richard is little too philosophical for my sense of Richard and John is unlikable, O’Toole certainly captures Henry’s boundless energy and fiery temper, and Hepburn’s Eleanor is such a believable character that I suspect most medievalists secretly imagine that the real Eleanor looked and acted a lot like Katherine Hepburn. And I’m probably not the only medieval scholar this movie helped produce.
Want to Know More?
The Lion in Winter (1968) is available through Amazon. There’s also an, in my opinion, inferior 2004 remake starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, The Lion in Winter. The performances are all good, but they simply can’t compete with the originals.
If you’re looking to learn more about the principle characters in the film, you have a lot of choices so I’ll stick to just one for each character. W.L. Warren’s Henry II (English Monarchs)is an excellent study of the king and his administration, although it’s quite long and not for the casual reader.
There are a lot of not-very-good popular biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, such as Alison Weir’s book. These biographies tend to romanticize Eleanor and make a lot of assumptions about what we can actually know about this intriguing woman. Skip that and get Ralph V. Turner’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of Englandinstead. If you insist on something more popular, Amy Kelly’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (Harvard Paperbacks) is your best option; it does an excellent job of putting Eleanor in her 12th century context. (Ok, I lied. I just had to give you two books on Eleanor, whom I’m secretly in love with.)
John Gillingham’s study of Richard Iis less a conventional biography than an examination of Richard’s reputation and the many myths that have sprung up around him.
W.L. Warren’s King John (English Monarchs)is getting a little old now, but I still like it for its even-handed treatment of this much-maligned ruler.
There aren’t a lot of works in English on Philip II of France (also called Philip Augustus), which is unfortunate, because he’s one of the most important French monarchs. Jim Bradbury’s Philip Augustus: King of France 1180-1223 (The Medieval World) is probably your best option if you want a biography.