Features Films

Medieval Movie Review: The Lion in Winter

By James Turner

Yuletide logs are crackling merrily in the fireplace, decorations are hung with care upon a woefully anachronistic Christmas tree and the fate of an empire is at stake. The combatants chosen weapons, threats of renewed internecine warfare and the sort of stomach-churning invective guilt that only family can summon.

It’s Christmas 1183 and the Plantagenets gather. Their patriarch, the indomitable and canny Henry II is at height of his temporal power and self-regard. Yet Henry, who deeply fears the seeping torpor of old age, can sense his grip beginning to slip as his sons exert themselves. Each of them Richard, Geoffrey and John are willing in their own ways to fight their father and brothers’ tooth and nail for what they believe is rightfully theirs. Due to host the freshly crowned and vigorously ambitious King of France, Philip, over Christmas, Henry undertakes a daring gambit, releasing his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine from her decade’s long imprisonment at his hands in the hopes that she can wrangle their fractious sons into some semblance of solidarity.


The Historical Context

When taken in aggregate, the family ruled over, England, Normandy, Anjou, Brittany, Aquitaine, Poitou, La Marche, Berry and controlled significant portions of Wales and Ireland. Yet quarrels regarding the administration and division of this vast hegemonic realm had already been the subject of considerable tension within the family. Tension had more than once manifested itself in outright rebellion and open warfare. In 1173, the many grievances and quarrels which had seeped into Henry II’s patchwork realm were unleashed in a seemingly trivial reallocation of familial resources.

The king wished to detach three castles from the control of his eldest son and nominal co-ruler, Henry the Young King, and grant them to his youngest son, John. The younger Henry, who despite his royal status, was kept isolated from any real power, proved disinclined to yield any of the few meagre territories he did hold. Instead, he fled to the court of King Louis of France where he was soon joined not only by his brothers Richard and Geoffrey but also by his mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. This defection, not to mention the simultaneous invasion of Henry’s domains by the French and Scottish kings, was the signal for every disaffected noble within Henry’s empire to rebel. Henry II had tenaciously weathered this storm of misfortunes, eventually quelling the rebellions, and forcing his sons’ renewed submission.

By the beginning of the 1180s, Henry’s sons had become increasingly involved in the running of the empire, acting as the king’s deputies and occupying one or more of the subordinate offices from which the Angevin hegemony was composed.  This arrangement alleviated the colossal burden of managing such a disparate grab bag of territories and empowered Henry’s various male heirs to more effectively support him. However, even if they continued to acknowledge his overlordship, Henry was by allowing his sons to establish regional powerbases was undermining the long-term integrity of the empire and implicitly providing them with the phantom boundaries of this looming division. Whatever the king’s intentions, awarding or attempting to award several of his sons with their own domains and spheres of influence gave them something immediate and tangible to quarrel over, dealing a dolorous blow to the family’s political solidarity.

12th-century depiction of Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine holding court – BnF MS Français 123, fol. 229r

Richard, the king’s second eldest surviving son had made been made Duke of Aquitaine in 1171, seemingly with the consent and support of his mother Eleanor to whom the title rightfully belonged. In fact, Richard’s rise to Dukedom was a barbed political fiction. Unwilling to do homage to the king of France and acknowledge his subordinate status, Henry II instead had his eldest legitimate sons do so on his behalf. Richard was made the Duke of Aquitaine while his elder brother Henry, the Young King, held the Duchy of Normandy and the various other lordships and titles that made up the family’s vast French domains. In practice, however, Henry II retained all the real power while feeling gloriously, morally or legally unburdened by any sort of obligation to his French rival.

In the settlement that concluded the great revolt, Richard was able to secure control of two Aquitanian castles and a modest portion of the ducal incomes. Over the next decade he relentlessly campaigned to increase ducal authority within the region and bring its truculent and insular nobility to heel. Despite receiving the odd bloody nose here and there, Richard was highly successful in this endeavour in which he benefitted from his father’s increasing willingness to cede control of the trappings and mechanisms of ducal governance over to him. Indeed, as the two came to cooperate increasingly closely, in a move typically of the man, amidst much pomp and ceremony, Henry II formally recognized Richard as Duke of Aquitaine, a title he had already granted him seven years earlier.

Conflict between the Plantagenets next emerged in the early 1180s as Henry II sort to bulwark the political integrity of the empire and delineate with increasing coherency the nature of its partition between his sons. It seems that the Young King, already the co-ruler of England, was envisaged as inheriting the overlordship of the empire and his younger brothers. Henry was also increasingly determined to carve out a powerbase for John, who as the youngest of the royal sons has been absent from much of this necessary preamble but will become increasingly important in the events immediately around which the movie is set and its aftermath.


Having struggled for so long to gain control of Aquitaine, Richard refused to do homage to the Young King for the duchy or acknowledge his sovereignty. Following numerous failed diplomatic entreaties by their father, the younger Henry resolved to take matters into his own hands, invading Aquitaine in 1183. He was supported in this punitive campaign by another of the brother’s Plantagenet, Duke Geoffrey of Brittany, who was either more personally loyal, appreciative of the strategic advantages of a unified Angevin empire or simply wanted to profit from Richard’s misfortune. Despite early successes and the defection of many of Richard’s key supporters, the pugnacious Duke was able to fight his brothers to a stalemate at which point hostilities were brought to an end by the younger Henry’s sudden death from illness. At which point Richard, now the king’s eldest living son and primary heir, may well have revaluated his stance regarding the integrity of the empire and the legitimacy of its overlordship.

The Film

Directed by Anthony Harvey and released in 1968, The Lion in Winter is an intimate and visceral depiction of a fictionalized Christmas court held by Henry II following this clash and the death of his heir apparent. An adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name which upon its initial run in 1966 started Rosemary Harris as Eleanor, who is probably most recognisable to modern audiences as the Aunt May of Sami Rami’s Spiderman trilogy. The film benefits greatly from the continued presence and creative drive of playwright James Goldman who in penning the screenplay embraced the opportunity to sharpen and retighten his material to better suit the altered medium. Incidentally his brother, William Goldman, was the author of the novels Marathon Man and Princess Bride alongside numerous other works including the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

While The Lion in Winter was only the second film directed by Harvey, he was firmly ensconced in the world of high calibre cinema having previously worked as an editor during which time he collaborated with the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Antony Asquith and Brian Forbes. His first project as director in 1966 was an adaptation of Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman, which charts the meeting of a black man and white woman on a New York subway train. While seeing only limited commercial distribution, Harvey’s adaptation was an acclaimed critical success. It is an experience that shines through The Lion in Winter which deftly tacts between a revolving series of hushed conspiratorial meetings and soul-searching ruminations.


Unfortunately, Chinon Castle in which the winter court takes place, here played by various studio sets and a selection of castles scattered across Wales, Ireland and France, comes across in some scenes as rather dull and colourless. Of course, this is a problem with virtually every cinematic adaptation of the Middle Ages, a disconnect which no doubt has its roots in the modern experiences of castles as cold and inert almost cyclopean ruins. Nevertheless, there’s something slightly distracting about the way in which the goblet and vanity laden tables, about which the characters scheme and bicker, loom isolated and adrift in the rest of the rooms spartan untouched simplicity. Almost as if proceedings were taking place in a basement someone’s stepson had half-heartedly tried to convert into a hangout room.

A connected gripe, which can easily be traced to the film’s origins as a stage play, is how empty and sparsely populated the movie is. Historically, of course, the royal court was itinerant, moving from place to place throughout the Angevin empire. It would, therefore, have not only been accompanied by a large number of courtiers and functionaries, there to carry out and coordinate the complex business of royal governance, but also have attracted numerous local nobles and regional dignitaries eager to participate in the business of the court or bring issues before a royal official.

Of course, while failing to properly realise the dynamism and breadth of twelfth-century royal courts, this sepulchre silence plays into the movie’s strengths. Seclusion lends the summit an appropriately clandestine atmosphere while also fostering a sense of intimacy as we watch the cast sneak around, soliciting support and unveiling long-held grievances, unhindered by the presence of bystanders. Of course, there are a few supporting characters and extras lurking around. In a nod to those broadly familiar with the history, William Marshall serves as Henry’s much put-upon attaché, always a step or two behind the mercurial hurricane which is the king.

Of course, the historical Marshal, as a tutor and supporter of the Young King, probably didn’t transition quite so quickly into Henry II’s inner circle or ever expressed such a put-upon familiarity with him. In extremis, there can even be found a handful of guards to march menacing down corridors and get into somewhat obligatory action sequences with the martially inclined Richard. The three Plantagenet daughters Matilda, Eleanor and Joan were all married to powerful foreign princes and are presumably absent from proceedings because they had their own winter courts to oversee rather than because they would clutter the place up.


Where the movie truly shines, thrills in fact, is in its masterful performances and the whirlwind dialogue that launches the viewer through the characters’ fraught histories and the depth of roiling contradictory feelings with which they regard one another. This process is at its most natural and effortlessly engaging in the hands of Peter O’Toole’s Henry II and Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine whose soured romance forms the emotional fulcrum upon which much of the film’s drama turns. Indeed, having never seen the stage version, it’s hard to picture anyone else in these roles. They are at turns affectionate and venomous towards one another. Their barbed camaraderie is built upon robust mutual respect, yet because of this they cannot abide the damage the other can inflict upon their self-image.

Peter O’Toole, of course, played a younger, more openly profligate version of the king in 1964 Becket directed by Peter Glenville. In The Lion in Winter, O’Toole almost plays an aged version of the same character, still fundamentally selfish, impulsive and even callous at times but to whom even such excesses have become wry self-indulgences and sardonic displays. Deliberately dressed down to the point of shabbiness throughout the film, in the sole scene he dons a crown and kingly regalia, he tosses them on top of his regular garb with a casualness boarding on the contemptuous. He is a man foremost concerned with the exercise of power rather than the frippery of its trappings which he is content to leave to others. In fact, the retention of this power in the face of the clamourings of the new generation embodied by his sons and Philip is his most enduring and deeply buried motivation.

O’Toole imbues Henry with a reckless energy and belligerence which propels him torpedo-like through every scene. Prone to self-eulogization and emotive outbursts, Henry weaponizes these traits seeking to overawe his adversaries through sheer force of personality. A conversation with Philip implies, probably unfairly historically speaking, that Louis of France was utterly out his depth when dealing with the tempestuous English king who regards his deceased rival with an indulgent sort of fond pity. When asked what his plan is, prior to Philip’s arrival, he confidentially declares that there will be a volley of offers and counteroffers which will be repeated until he wins.

In this at least, Henry is as good his word, bouncing gamely between conversations, he ploughs forward shedding plots in the wake of his regal outrage. It is only towards the end of the film, when he is decisively forced to choose between the life of his sons and acknowledging the impractically of his vainglorious dreams of perpetual and unquestioned rule, that O’Toole lets us glimpse the great weariness and rust of which the character is so often complaining. Although typically of the man, even at this nadir, he still takes the time to threaten God with retribution for his misfortunes.

At the end of the film when Henry tells Eleanor he hopes they live forever, it is half admission, half begrudging compliment to the person he feels understands him the most. The implicit reason that Henry supports the candidacy of his youngest son John for the throne is because John’s youth means that Henry will not have to share power with him for some time. More than that, by delaying and thwarting his sons’ ambitions, Henry is symbolically at least rallying against and pushing back his own death. When the hopelessly outmanoeuvred John proves himself all too eager to expedite this process, Henry jettisons him. Instead, he alights upon a plan to disinherit all three of his surviving sons and marry his mistress, Princess Alias of France with the aim of fathering a new heir. It is as both Eleanor and an increasingly steely Alias point out, in their own ways, a deeply flawed plan. Impractical as it may be, in that moment it affords Henry what he wants most, an unimpeded and open road into the future.

If the film’s Henry is driven by an amorphous half-realised fear of usurpation at the hands of one of his loved ones, then Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor is living that reality having been first marginalised and then imprisoned by the husband that she so admires. Hepburn’s interrogative performance as Eleanor is fascinating to behold and quite rightfully earned the actress one of her four Oscars. Kathrine plays Eleanor as a woman possessed of iron self-control and regal dignity. From this bastion, she strikes strategically and suddenly at her opponents, meticulously needling at their insecurities and self-aggrandizement. When it looks like her plans have been thoroughly thwarted after a night of fruitless plotting, her only response to the crowing John is to primly tell him that she is tired and won’t be able to quarrel with him until the morning.

The perfect foil to Henry, Eleanor is far more incisive and honest in her self-reflection than her husband. The same awareness of their advancing age which drives Henry to tie himself in knots, provokes a clarity of vision in Eleanor which is alloyed closely with the prideful self-pity the Plantagenets seem to inspire in one another. The one facet of proceedings that she continues to flinch away from is her continued, deeply begrudging, love for Henry. Katharine plays Eleanor as a woman scorned to the hilt and it is an emotive and nuanced portrayal, although it initially struck me as stranger that so much of  Eleanor’s hatred towards Henry can be sourced in the king’s romantic indiscretions rather than political factors such as his imperious dispensation of her hereditary duchy and inability to share power.

Upon consideration though, I think it strangely fitting. Despite her apparent drive and efficacy, the historical Eleanor’s ability to exercise authority was always caveated and contextualised by her gender. The Eleanor of the play and film delights in taunting Henry with the knowledge of how close she came to unseating him in their civil war and how dangerous she still is. With the personality and nuances of the real Henry and Eleanor frustratingly obliterated by time, I think the further conflation of their political and romantic rivalry and her resulting marginalisation works as an effective shorthand within this heavily fictionalised context.

Eleanor is very open bout the fact that her primary goal, amidst the frantic politicking of the film is to vex Henry. She is portrayed as a rather indifferent maternal figure, with the possible exception of her complicated and contradictory feelings towards her former ward and romantic rival Alias. Yet she clearly favours the candidacy of her eldest son and personal protégé Richard who she attempts to manoeuvre towards the throne. When she rather tepidly professes her love for Richard, she is spitefully rebuffed by him. Richard accuses her of manipulation and truancy having abandoned him when he was no longer of any immediate use to her. It’s an interesting and raw relationship, although it would perhaps be nice if the film had the time to expand upon it more. As it is, it is simply tossed out at a moment of profound stress and then swept aside by the pace of events.

Speaking of Richard, Anthony Hopkins provides an unusually bellicose and tightly wound portrayal of a character that most cinematic audiences are accustomed to seeing team up with Robin Hood in the third act. Richard is introduced thrashing another knight in combat but then apparently overcome with bloodlust struggles to master his urges and leave off his hapless opponent. Hopkins lends Richard a sense of self-control that is at once frenetic and fragile and lends a sense of vulnerability to his occasional losses of composure. Geoffrey, played with an icy intensity by John Castle, is introduced masterminding but not participating in the ambush and slaughter of a band of armed men. Fittingly given the sparse regard he is afforded within the histography, he displays an acute case of middle child syndrome, questioning why his obvious intelligence garners neither respect nor affection from parents who each openly favour one of his brothers.

Nigel Terry imbues John with a strangely lurching almost simian physicality. This is no doubt an attempt by Terry to play a character far younger than himself and capture a measure of the young John’s awkwardness and heedless lack of self-awareness and dignity. It is nevertheless a little distracting for viewers who are more use to visualizing Terry as the tragically flawed by the earnest protagonist of Excalibur. In a room full of wits and warlords, John’s wretchedly pathetic attempts to strike back at one of his brothers with “You stink. You’re a stinker and you stink,” are a strange sort of highlight.

Practically Plantagenets themselves, given their conjoined histories and immersion in their feuds and rivalries, the family is joined by King Philip and his sister Alias, played by Timothy Dalton and Jane Merrow respectively. Dalton dazzles in his first onscreen film role as he gleefully allows the Plantagenet siblings’ schemes and attempts to solicit his support to disastrously pile up upon one another, cawing with delight. Philip’s stated purpose for attending the Christmas court is to press the matter of his sister’s marriage. By 1183, Alias has long been engaged to Richard, her dowry the strategically vital Vexin region which connects Normandy to the personal domains of the French king. Henry like his historical counterpart has refused to either relinquish the Vexin or allow the marriage to go forward. While the film embraces the idea that Alias and Henry had become lovers, this is far from a historical certainty. Certainly, her status as the Countess of the Vexin would have been enough reason for Henry to refuse to either send her back to France or allow any of his turbulent and ambitious sons access to her dowry.

An incongruous absence in the film, given its broad historical fidelity, is the lack of any mention of Henry, the Young King, whose recent death further catalysed the period of political and dynastic instability amidst which the film is set. While something of a shame, I understand that keeping the plot relatively self-contained and the razor-sharp dialogue focused on the interpersonal relationships of the cast has obvious advantages in accessibility and pacing.

Overall, the film is a fantastically engaging family drama which artfully combines bombast with emotional sensitively. In a sense,I can take it or leave it as a representation of twelfth-century medieval politics. Some of its character portraits skew slightly too far into the speculative for my tastes. Yet its portrayal of intergenerational anxiety and the joys and sorrows of a family makes for a heady brew. It is an abstract but itchingly universal theme that is brilliantly manifested and contextualised within its medieval setting by the struggle for a crown. Prior to this last rewatch I thought Eleanor’s iconic line, “Of course he has a knife. He’s always has a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians,” was a touch to wry or on the nose for the setting. I now realise that it’s an invitation to ask when it comes to family, the people who know best how to hurt us and who we can wound in turn, are we any different?

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

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