Princess Alys of France: a Twelfth-Century Patty Hearst?

A second instalment from students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’. Hayley Bassett grapples with sexual exploitation of female hostages.

6 January 1169: King Henry II of England and King Louis VII of France ratified the Treaty of Montmirail, in an attempt to settle their long-running territorial disputes in France. Henry agreed to divide his lands between his sons with Henry the Young King receiving the kingdom of England, Duchy of Normandy and County of Anjou. Richard would receive his mother’s Duchy of Aquitaine and become betrothed to Louis’ daughter Alys and Geoffrey would receive the Duchy of Brittany upon his marriage to its heir Constance (there is no mention of the infant John at this time). At the age of nine Alys was sent to the English court as Henry’s ward in preparation for her future wedding to Richard. There is nothing unusual in these arrangements, the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I, moved to the German court aged eight upon her betrothal to Henry V Holy Roman Emperor in 1110. The main issue of contention here was the absence of a wedding between the engaged couple which culminated in Alys being returned to the French court in 1195, still unmarried some twenty six years later.

Alys’ time in the Angevin court is poorly documented but embellished with scandal; most commonly she is depicted as Henry’s mistress prompting Richard to reject his father’s “conquest” as wife. The “real” Alys presents historians with a challenge but there are similarities to be drawn between her and later women in, if not identical, then certainly comparable circumstances. One such twentieth century example is Patty Hearst, granddaughter of US politician and media mogul William Randolph Hearst. In 1974, 19-year-old Patty was violently kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California, and held hostage for two years during which time she was repeatedly physically, emotionally and sexually assaulted by an organisation calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Patty’s time as a hostage is well documented; her family’s position in US society and her assimilation by the SLA guaranteed large scale media attention and it’s that transparency which allows parallels to be drawn with Alys. Alys position at Henry’s court offered her little security; she awaited a marriage and a bridegroom that, although promised, never came and was locked into an arrangement beyond her control, which neither her father nor Pope Alexander could force Henry to conclude. This position of abject helplessness also applied to Patty, when it became clear whatever action her family took to secure her release would not be sufficient for her kidnappers to release their “prisoner of war”. In her trial defence Patty insisted that the unrelenting physical and psychological pressure of her situation made her agree to anything, culminating in her public declaration of support for the SLA and participation in criminal activity (Nancy Isenberg, “Will the Real Patty Hearst Please Stand Up”, in Historic U.S. Court Cases: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, ed. John W. Johnson (New York, 2001), 142). Likewise for Alys, she had no bargaining power at the Angevin Court and self-preservation was her only option for survival, in whatever form that took.

For both women sexual exploitation was a factor in their confinement and was a weapon employed by the media of their respective time to denigrate them. Patty claimed she was consistently raped by William Wolfe whilst the SLA orchestrated the image of a “love affair” between them for the world’s media, who swallowed that interpretation. Similarly, Richard of Devizes and Roger of Howden, as well as the more scandalising Gerald of Wales, refer to Henry seducing Alys sometime around 1177, whereas a more accurate portrayal would suggest a powerful authority figure pressurising a dependent into a sexual encounter (Roger of Howden, Gesta, ii, 160. Richard of Devizes, Chronicon, 26. Gerald of Wales, Opera, viii: 232) For both women there would seem to be no choice in the matter and little prospect of protection from a third party. Alys and Patty did what they had to do in a difficult situation and whilst they might be divided by eight hundred years, they are testament to their own ability to endure difficult circumstances.

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