On (or perhaps shortly before) 1 November 1254*, a group of English, Castilian and Gascon nobles gathered in the church of the Cistercian monastery of Las Huelgas in Burgos, northern Spain, to witness the wedding of Lord Edward, son and heir of King Henry III of England, and Infanta doña Leonor, or Eleanor as she is known nowadays, half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile.
Edward was fifteen at the time, and had been heir
to the English throne since the moment of his birth in June 1239. Eleanor, almost certainly, had just turned thirteen or was soon to do so, and was definitely not nine or ten, as some writers continue
to state (that's an invention of the nineteenth century). It is easier to say who was not present at the wedding than who was: neither Henry III nor his queen Eleanor of Provence attended, although the queen had set sail from England with her son in late May and been with him in Gascony until October. The bride's mother Jeanne, dowager queen of Castile, also did not attend, having departed for her native county of Ponthieu in northern France some weeks previously following a dispute with her stepson Alfonso X over her dower lands. Jeanne had been betrothed to Henry III in 1235, but the dowager queen and regent of France Blanche of Castile stepped in and put a stop to it, as Jeanne's inheritance of Ponthieu, although only a small county, bordered Normandy and thus would give England a strong position from which to attempt to regain the duchy, lost to the French in 1204. Blanche, determined that France and her son Louis IX should keep Normandy, arranged Jeanne's marriage to her widowed nephew Fernando III of Castile instead, with the aid of her sister Queen Berenguela, in 1237. Now, nearly twenty years later, Jeanne's daughter married Henry's son. Somewhat ironically, England did end up gaining control of Ponthieu, as Eleanor (the only one of Jeanne's children to outlive her) inherited it from her mother on the latter's death in 1279 and it passed to the future Edward II on Eleanor's own death in 1290, but by then it didn't really matter as any possibility of England regaining control of Normandy was many decades past.
Perhaps present at Edward and Eleanor's wedding in addition to Alfonso X, though here I'm only speculating, were Alfonso's queen Violante, daughter of King Jaime I of Aragon; Alfonso and Eleanor's uncle, Fernando III's brother don Alfonso, lord of Molina; and Alfonso X and Eleanor's surviving siblings, such as the wonderfully scandalous don Enrique, who would shortly be forced to flee from Castile after rebelling against his brother the king and who would spend several years in England cheerfully sponging off Henry III, don Fadrique, who in 1277 would be secretly executed by Alfonso, also for rebellion, and don Sancho and don Felipe, respectively archbishops of Toledo and Seville. I don't know the identities of Edward's companions, though his retinue seems to have been smaller and less magnificent than one might expect, given that the future king of England was marrying into the royal family of Castile. On the same day as the wedding, Alfonso knighted Edward, an honour he had insisted on performing throughout the negotiations for the marriage; some of Edward's companions were also knighted by the king. The monastery of Las Huelgas where the wedding took place had been founded in 1187 by Alfonso VIII of Castile and his queen Eleanor of England (see also below for more about them).
In a charter issued at Las Huelgas, Alfonso wrote: "I, don Alfonso...the first time I came to Burgos after I acceded to the throne, also came here don Eduardo, the first son and heir of King Henry of England, and was knighted by me in the monastery of Santa Maria la Real of Burgos, and married my sister, the princess doña Leonor, and received the blessing there with her." [Cited in Alfonso X, the Learned: A Biography, by H. Salvador Martinez, translated by Odile Cisneros, 2010, pp. 132-3.]
King Alfonso X (23 November 1221 - 4 April 1284) was the eldest of the fifteen children of Fernando III of Castile and Leon, Eleanor the twelfth, and twenty years younger than her half-brother (Alfonso had an illegitimate daughter, Beatriz, later queen of Portugal, who was only a few months Eleanor's junior). Alfonso was a fascinating character, known as 'the Wise' or 'the Learned', el Sabio, and 'the Astrologer' because of his interest in the subject; the Alphonsus crater on the moon is named after him. He was also a talented poet and musician who wrote the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a CD of which I was listening to as I wrote this, and an enthusiastic law-maker who began the compilation of a comprehensive law code known as the Siete Partidas. Following his accession to the throne in May 1252 on the death of Fernando III, he had been self-confidently pushing for greater influence on the European stage for himself and Castile; in 1257 he put himself forward as a candidate for election as king of Germany, though lost out to Henry III's brother Richard of
Cornwall. And in 1252/53, he claimed that Gascony, the southern part of Aquitaine and then ruled by England, rightfully belonged to him. Alfonso's great-grandmother Eleanor of England, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, married Alfonso VIII of Castile, who was to claim that he had been promised Gascony as his wife's dowry, and even launched a rather desultory invasion of the duchy soon after Eleanor of Aquitaine's death. For a long time nothing came of this - Alfonso VIII's grandson Fernando III was far more focused on Andalusia in the south than on his northern neighbours - but fifty years later with most of Andalusia re-conquered, Alfonso X revived his great-grandfather's claim, presenting himself as the heir of Arthur (1187-1203), nephew of Richard Lionheart and King John, whom the king of France Philip Augustus had recognised as duke of Aquitaine on Richard's death in 1199.
In order to forestall a war, Henry III offered the marriage of his son and heir to Alfonso's sister in exchange for Alfonso's giving up Castilian claims to Gascony, which he duly agreed to.** Henry moved swiftly into action on hearing of Alfonso's interest in the duchy, and several entries on the Patent Roll of May 1253 (Patent Rolls 1247-58, p. 230) mention negotiations with Alfonso for the "marriage of Edward, the king's son, with A. sister of the king of Castile." 'A.' presumably is short for Alianore, the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century English form of the name Eleanor. Whether she brought any dowry to her marriage is unclear. Little is known of Eleanor of Castile's childhood before she married Edward; her biographer John Carmi Parsons states that she was born in the north of Castile almost certainly in late 1241 and named after her great-grandmother Eleanor/Leonor of England, and soon moved south with the rest of the family as her father campaigned against the Moors in Andalusia, which culminated in his glorious re-conquest of Seville in 1248. Growing up at the courts of two such remarkable and able men as her father and half-brother must surely have provided a stimulating environment for the young girl. Within a few days of the wedding, Eleanor left her homeland forever and spent the next year in Gascony with Edward, finally arriving in England in October 1255. She met her brother the king again in Bayonne in November 1273, when Alfonso X travelled there to attend the christening of Edward and Eleanor's third son Alfonso, whose godfather he was. Edward, at that point, had been king of England for a year.
On 1 November 1254, Alfonso X, in the knowledge that his sister would now be queen of England and duchess of Aquitaine, formally renounced his claims to Gascony. The Castilian claim did not entirely die, however, at least in some people's minds: 70 years later in 1324, Edward II's then steward of Gascony, Ralph Basset, wrote in a letter to Hugh Despenser the Younger that he had heard from "some old people" (ascunes auncienes gentz) that the kings of Castile had once claimed homage as far as the River Dordogne and "several people remember that [they] should have the right," and advised Despenser to "have the treasury of our lord the king searched, to see if you might not find an old remembrance touching Castile...". England and France were then at war over Gascony, and presumably Basset was hoping that the regents of Castile - ruling for the under-age Alfonso XI, great-grandson of Alfonso X - might decide to enter the war on the English side and fight France for a share of Gascony. Hugh Despenser didn't even bother to respond to this entirely impractical and unrealistic suggestion in his next letter to Basset.
It is astonishing, really, to think that Edward I and Eleanor of Castile's heir Edward II would not be born until 25 April 1284, a few months short of thirty years, a massive thirty years, after their wedding. Edward and Eleanor had been married for thirty-six years and produced at least fourteen children by the time of Eleanor's death on 28 November 1290, when she was forty-nine. In January 1291, Edward I sent a sad letter to the abbot of Cluny, referring to Eleanor "whom in life we dearly cherished, and whom in death we cannot cease to love." He remained a widower for nine years, until war with France necessitated his marriage to Marguerite in September 1299. The 1254 wedding of two teenagers, intended to forestall a war between England and a Spanish kingdom over territory over France, was the start of what would prove to be a highly successful and happy royal marriage.
* The date of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile's wedding is not completely certain, and may perhaps have taken place slightly earlier; Edward
arrived in Burgos on 18 October 1254.
** Obviously the situation was far more complex than I've made it appear, and I haven't mentioned the Gascon rebellion of Gaston de Béarn, who fled to Alfonso X when it failed, or the negotiations between Henry and Alfonso. I decided the post was quite long enough without delving into the complexities of mid-thirteenth-century politics in southern Europe. :-)
- John Carmi Parsons, Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England (1995)
- Michael Prestwich, Edward I (1988)
- Margaret Howell, Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England (1998)
- Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (2008)
- Anthony Goodman, 'England and Iberia in the Middle Ages', in Michael Jones and Malcolm Vale, eds., England and her Neighbours 1066-1453: Essays in Honour of Pierre Chaplais (1989)