11 July, 2013
Eleanor of Provence and her children (guest post)
Today I'm delighted to bring you a guest post by my lovely talented friend Sarah, formerly of Sarah's History, who now runs a fab new blog about Edward II's grandfather Henry III (see end of post for link). Sarah tells us all about Henry's queen Eleanor of Provence and her relationship with her children and grandchildren, including the future Edward II.
Eleanor of Provence was not a faultless woman. In her time as queen she made many enemies, both within her court and among her subjects. She was skilled politically, but often advanced her Savoyard relatives ahead of those who were of English birth, which of course did nothing for her own reputation. The king, Henry III, advanced his own Lusignan relatives, causing further rifts within royal circles. During the struggles of the 1260s, the Simon de Montfort led barons of England called for all those of foreign birth to be expelled from the country, so angry were they with Eleanor’s influence (Simon de Montfort himself was, of course, not of English birth, but that didn’t seem to matter). The monarchy’s survival, for over a year, hung in the balance.
Putting political issues to one side, Eleanor and Henry were an extraordinarily close couple, loyal to one another throughout their marriage. Eleanor raised troops for Henry in 1264 following his defeat at Lewes, stood side by side with him throughout the struggles he faced during his reign, and was thought to have been at his bedside as he died (Howell, p.253). There was not a whiff of sexual scandal during their marriage, no mistresses, no lovers. Eleanor and Henry had five children together, and through them over twenty grandchildren.
Eleanor’s family was important to her, and this is demonstrated by her actions with regards to them. I’ve briefly spoken of her commitment to her husband so will say no more of that; today, I want to discuss Eleanor’s relationships with her children and grandchildren.
Of her five children, the relationship which is best documented is that between Eleanor and her eldest son, Edward, who was born at the Palace of Westminster in June 1239 and baptised at the abbey a few days later (Morris, p.5). Edward was very quickly installed with his nurses at Windsor Castle. His parents spent over £10,000 making improvements to Windsor, which of course means Edward was raised with the best of everything; stone chambers, fireplaces, tiled floors, beautifully painted walls and hygienic privy chambers- having enough hygienic toilet facilities, as well as their maintenance and condition, was important to Henry III (Wade-Labarge, p.25). Edward ate from a silver plate and wore clothes of the finest fabrics (Morris, p.6); he was raised in wonderful comfort. His education, too, was of the utmost importance. Though the exact details of what Edward learned are as yet unknown to us, we can safely assume he was taught to read, though not necessarily how to write (Morris, p.8), as well as languages, knightly skills, history and theology.
Eleanor, as queen, was required to move around the country with Henry III, so she did not spend every day with her children. She did visit Windsor often, however; the queen on average spent more than half of the year, every year, with her children at Windsor Castle (Morris, p.6). This was, by the standards of the time, a lot of time to be spent with one’s children. King Henry, too, spent a lot of time at Windsor with his family, though not quite as much as Queen Eleanor. Edward was joined quickly by three siblings; Margaret was born in 1240, Beatrice in 1242 and Edmund in 1245. All of the royal children were raised at Windsor with the help of nurses, guardians and the queen’s relatives from Savoy.
As the children grew older the love of their mother and the concern for their welfare remained constant. One incident that demonstrates the depth of the love held by Queen Eleanor is that of when Edward fell sick while travelling with his parents in 1246. The family had travelled to Beaulieu for the rededication of the royal Cistercian foundation, and while there, Edward suddenly became extremely ill - so ill that it was thought too dangerous to move him. The queen decided quickly that Edward was to stay at Beaulieu and that she would stay with him (Howell, p.101). A woman staying within the walls of a Cistercian abbey was unheard of as it seriously breached their rules, but Eleanor would not move. She stayed with her son for three weeks, refusing to leave him in the care of doctors, nurses or monks, risking her own health at a time when medicine was not what it is now.
Eleanor showed a similar display of concern, it could be argued, soon after Edward married Eleanor of Castile in November 1254. Eleanor of Castile had almost certainly fallen pregnant soon after her marriage and given birth to a stillborn daughter the following May (Morris, p.22); a heartbreaking incident, which had stirred King Henry and Queen Eleanor into wanting to protect the thirteen year old princess. Henry III requested that Lord Edward travel to his lands in Ireland, while his wife was to be received by the king and queen in England; the separation would obviously mean that Eleanor would not fall pregnant again soon, protecting her health and safety from the dangers of being pregnant so young. Edward defied his parents and travelled to England instead, arriving home six weeks after Eleanor of Castile (Morris, p.23). It would seem the older couple had the younger couple’s interests at heart, though were probably thought of by the young prince as interfering. The worry about a daughter in law dying in childbirth became a tragic reality when in 1274 Aveline, the wife of Eleanor’s second son Edmund, died while giving birth to twins.
In 1253 a daughter had been born to Eleanor and Henry after an eight-year period with no children. Little Katherine was not in good health; she is thought to have been born deaf and mute, as Matthew Paris described her as muta et inutilis, and she was not strong like her siblings. She died in her fourth year, in November 1256 (Howell, p.101). The king and queen were devastated, both so deeply grieved their little daughter that they became sick, the queen dangerously so (Howell, p.101). Masses were said daily for the little girl’s soul, a demonstration of the love and affection felt by the king and queen for their lost daughter. She had not been betrothed or served any political purpose yet; she was grieved so deeply simply because she was loved. Henry and Eleanor loved all of their children. Messengers were frequently travelling between their courts and the new courts of their older, married daughters; excellent marriages were made for the four surviving children, with the girls not endangered by early consummation; and though they were grown and left home Eleanor’s daughters visited often.
Eleanor of Provence was widowed in November 1272 and entered into a new phase of her life as queen dowager. Just before he died Henry III placed Windsor Castle in Eleanor’s custody, and it was to here that she moved (Howell, p.288). Just like her children, the households of some of Eleanor’s grandchildren were established at Windsor- Edward I’s son Henry and daughter Eleanor were both there. When she was awarded her dower lands by her son the following summer, Eleanor established herself a household at her palace at Guildford, her grandchildren with her.
It is with her grandson Henry, named after her husband, that Eleanor seems to have had the closest relationship. He was a sick child, and as she had cared for his father in 1246 she cared for his son. Physicians that were held in high esteem by the dowager queen were appointed to care for young Henry (Howell, p.289) and on one occasion he was bathed in a gallon of wine, at a cost of 4d, as the process was thought to be strengthening (Wade-Labarge, p.26). Henry died aged just six years old in October 1274, shortly after his parents had returned from crusade and had been crowned king and queen. He died at his grandmother’s palace at Guildford (Howell, p.289); presumably, she had been with him as he died too, just as she was likely with his grandfather. It was at the dowager queen’s insistence that a gift of £10 a year for Henry’s nurse was made permanent, and it was she that founded a Dominican priory at Guildford in his memory (Howell, p.289). These are the actions of a woman who is clearly grieving for someone beloved. The following year both of Queen Eleanor’s daughters died, too; the chronicler Thomas Wykes commented that the grief of losing her daughters was only comforted by the joy Eleanor found in their children.
After Eleanor left Windsor for Guildford, she was frequently visited by her grandchildren, and more were still to come. In April 1284 Edward of Caernarfon was born, who quickly became heir apparent when another of the dowager queen’s grandchildren, ten year old Alfonso, died later that year. By this time Eleanor was making preparations to enter the convent at Amesbury for the rest of her days, though she still took an active interest in the well-being of her grandchildren. Edward I was advised by his mother not to take young Edward north, for the fear of the cold weather making him ill.
Eleanor entered Amesbury in July 1286, shortly after her two granddaughters were veiled; Eleanor of Brittany was the ten year old daughter of Beatrice, and Mary the six year old daughter of Edward (Howell, p.300). The girls took their vows with other girls from noble families in grand ceremonies in March and August of 1285 respectively. Eleanor is often accused at this point of acting selfishly; the installation of her granddaughters would of course make life at Amesbury more appealing. However, the entry of girls into convents was regarded as an act of great piety, and Eleanor may have been thinking of the well-being of her family’s souls as well as her own interests. The younger Eleanor and Mary were protected from the danger of dying in childbirth, they were protected by God as nuns and their lives were not as restricted as one might think, as both girls visited their families at the royal courts and Mary took part in several pilgrimages. Eleanor of Brittany eventually became an abbess, and both women lived long lives in good health.
Eleanor of Provence is an often maligned queen and was politically unpopular in her time. She was, however, a loving and committed wife, mother and grandmother, and while this was not politically important in the grand scheme of things, it gave her immediate descendants a love and security that is often thought to be missing in medieval families. Eleanor and Henry, and their children and grandchildren, experienced love, trust and a familial closeness that would be difficult to replicate in their times.
Margaret Howell, Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth Century England, Blackwell Publishing, 2001
Margaret Wade-Labarge, Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century, Phoenix Books, 2003 (Originally published in 1965)
Michael Prestwich, Edward I, Yale English Monarchs Series, 1997 (Originally published in 1988)
Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, Hutchinson/Random House, 2008
Seymour Phillips, Edward II, Yale English Monarchs Series, 2010