28 September, 2014

Guest Post: Eleanor of Castile and her Relationship with her Children, by Sara Cockerill

I'm delighted to welcome Sara Cockerill, who's written a great guest post for us today about Edward II's mother Eleanor of Castile and her relationship with Edward and her other children.  Sara's excellent biography of Eleanor, The Shadow Queen, was published with Amberley Publishing recently, and I have a free copy to give away to a reader!  If you'd like to enter the competition, drop me an email at edwardofcaernarfon@yahoo.com, or send me a message on Facebook, either on my own page (if we're friends there; if not, your message will probably be diverted to my 'other' inbox and I might miss it) or on my Edward II page.  The winner will be notified both here and via email, so make sure to let me know your email address.

Eleanor of Castile, and her relationship with her children

There are two traditions relevant to a consideration of Eleanor of Castile as a mother here, on the Edward II blog.  The first is the tradition that Eleanor was an uncaring mother.  The second is that her absence from his life had a very substantial negative impact on her son, the future Edward II.

The first of these traditions is buoyed up by the undoubted fact that Eleanor did leave her children behind her twice  - once to go on crusade with Edward I in 1270-1272 (with a lengthy return 1272-4) and again in the period 1286-1289, when they spent three years in Gascony, trying to rescue the King of Aragon from papal wroth.  But these trips should not be taken out of context.  The reality of the situation is that Eleanor was far from the only royal wife to go on crusade – most of the principal crusaders, including the heir to the King of France and the heir to the Duke of Brittany, took their wives with them.  The fashion in this regard had been set by Eleanor of Aquitaine the previous century, and reinforced by Louis IX’s wife Marguerite of Provence in 1248.  This approach reflected that fact that for these young women their primary role was that of childbearer, and in a world where children died so very often, they might well be seen as falling short in their duty if they allowed their husbands to go off for a number of prime childbearing years.  And indeed, Eleanor added three children to her complement during the crusade years, although one of them did not survive.  Likewise Isabelle of Aragon, the wife of Louis’ heir Philip III, was pregnant at the time when he abandoned the crusade.

Similarly the Gascon adventure needs to be viewed in the light of the fact that, although the couple’s children were indeed left behind, ranging from eighteen year old Eleanora, the King of Aragon’s notional wife, to young Edward at two years old, it was actually envisaged that the trip would be over in a year, not the three it eventually swallowed.  These absences must therefore be viewed as a competition of priorities, in which Eleanor’s decision to place her main job as Queen above her children can hardly be said to be wrong.

And the role of Queen was indeed Eleanor’s main job.  It was highly unusual for royal wives to have a considerable close involvement with the raising of their children, at least at an early stage.  Part of this may be down to convention, but we may realistically imagine that with such levels of child mortality, convention reflected a self-protective instinct.  If Eleanor had been as close to all her children as a modern mother, it is hard to imagine how she could have emerged from the years of childbirth with the totals: children borne: 16+, children alive: 6, and kept her sanity.   It was mothers such as Eleanor of Provence, who stayed with her children for great portions of the year, and insisted on being at Edward’s side in illness, who were anomalous.  

Nor should it be imagined that Eleanor had no relationship with her children before they reached the age (about seven to ten) when they would reside more with her at court.  She ran a considerable children’s establishment, and gave careful attention to the details of their regime and routine.  Precise rules governed how much ale was available, and how many dishes at supper, and how many nightlights.  In the household of young Henry, the second son who died in 1274, we can see records of toys, buttons, shirts – and tragically in the weeks before his death a beautiful white pony, which he was never well enough to ride.  In the later household of Edward of Caernarfon there are salmon pies sent to him, as well as provision made for a (very hungry) camel for the children to ride, and (probably less popularly) Dominican tutors to assist young Edward in his reading. 

And Eleanor certainly cared to see her children – they were sent for to greet their parents on return from crusade, and for the coronation.  In the peaceful years which followed, regular stops were made at places where the adult and child establishments could merge for weeks at a time. And in the Welsh years, the children were hauled north to Robert Burnell’s house at Acton Burnell and to Bristol so that such closeness could be maintained. What is more, as death approached, Eleanor had them brought to her in Nottinghamshire – against her mother in law’s urgent warnings of bad air.

But of course it was, at best, a simulacrum of the situation where children are sent to boarding school from a very young age.  Eleanor did not see her children’s first steps, or hear their first words. And there were inevitably effects on the relationship between mother and child.  This is perhaps best documented in relation to the eldest surviving girl, Eleanora, who effectively saw nothing of her mother, but a good deal of her grandmother, before her fifth birthday owing to Eleanor’s departure on crusade.  Eleanora came to court aged about seven, but continued to spend considerable portions of her time with her grandmother, and when her marriage appeared imminent in her early teens, it was to her grandmother that she turned for what then seemed likely to be a final family visit.

Having said that, clearly a close relationship was built between Eleanor and her elder daughters.  Joan (of Acre), who was brought up by her maternal grandmother until she was seven, rushed north to see Eleanor in her final illness, even though she was herself pregnant, and had had a violent row with her parents over weddings just months before.  And Eleanor, though unable to establish a sufficiently consistent regime to see her children as thoroughly indoctrinated with her love of books as she would like, did nonetheless produce in her elder children literate people: Margaret took books with her on her marriage, Elizabeth was to raise a famous patron of learning and Eleanora could actually write – a rather unusual accomplishment for a prince, still more so for a princess. Mary, too could write – which suggests that Eleanor’s influence may have directed her education even in the convent which she entered at a young age.

And there will have been differences in the closeness she established with different children: Eleanora missed the whole first five years, but Margaret and Alphonso had their parents close for the whole first decade of their lives.  For Margaret the evidence is slight, but for Alphonso, the child to whom Eleanor was probably most close, she commissioned a beautiful psalter, now in the British Library, with illustrations that bear the hallmark of her own input and their shared interests.  So a lady – very possibly Eleanor - is seen hunting with dogs (as Eleanor loved to do) alongside a happy small boy; and the margins boast over twenty different varieties of birds.  Both Edward and Eleanor loved birds – and it is fair to assume Alphonso did likewise.

But what of poor Edward, the baby of the family?  While Eleanor’s concern for his well-being is clear in the evidences I have cited, the reality is that from just after his second birthday to well after his fifth birthday his mother was absent from his life.  What is more, there is reason to suppose that when she returned she was already terminally ill and she died only a little over a year later when Edward had not yet turned seven years old.  To add to this, her final year was a maelstrom of activity – picking up the threads of a business left running in neutral for three years, and making her preparations for death, on top of several marriage celebrations and plenty of travel.  Only in the spring, substantially spent around London and Langley where Edward was usually based, will the little boy have had a chance to get to know his mother. 

That in some way his mother made a powerful impression on Edward is perhaps testified to by his adoption of her Castilian arms as his badge in later life, and his determined fondness for all things Castilian – Kathryn’s book (which I have been lucky enough to read in proof form) shows again and again how Edward emphasised his tie to Castile – and indeed wished to strengthen it in the form of marriage.  There is in this a strong feeling that Edward felt Eleanor’s absence – and some of the accounts of his later household, with the little boy receiving her old friends, as well as a succession of bishops and ambassadors, is very poignant. 

But one cannot help but wonder too whether the absence of Eleanor was not most felt in the training Edward II plainly did not get in the duties of kingship.  Because in Edward II as a man I see a person at odds with the job of kingship – and this may not be surprising given that to Edward it surely must have seemed that it was kingship and queenship which kept him at the margins of his parents’ lives.  As Kathryn notes, his tragedy – and England’s – was that he didn’t have the option to do something else – he was born to do a job which was not at all to his taste.

Had Eleanor lived, it is she who would have superintended his upbringing – and with more consistent discipline and focus than Edward I (himself the product of loving indulgence) would be likely to bestow.  Her family had written at length on the theory of training a King, and she had herself enjoyed that kind of education.  It is a mark of this likely approach that already, when he was aged five, she was ensuring Edward had Dominican tutors.  Had she lived, therefore, it is likely that there would be no debate over Edward II’s literacy and that his education would have been much better designed to engage him with the job he could not escape. 

However, the perfect education can only do so much.  Eleanor’s own brother received the best education in the world, but failed as a king and died alone, abandoned by his family and deposed by his son in a coup in part orchestrated by Alfonso’s queen.  An odd resonance, don’t you think?


Sara, thank you for this great post and the insights you've given us!  I've often wondered myself how much Edward knew about Eleanor and her life in Castile, and how much her death when he was only six affected him.  In 1305 he called his much older cousin Agnes de Valence his 'good mother', and in 1312 addressed his wetnurse Cecily de Leygrave as 'the king's mother', so it does seem as though he needed and missed that maternal connection.  Best of luck with The Shadow Queen, and I hope it sells many, many copies!


Unknown said...

Thank you for the post, you have great friends! Edward II's Great Seal also had 2 castles on its face, on either side of the throne, to symbolize his connection to that royal line. (In turn, Edward III's first Great Seal simply added two fluers above the castles, symbolizing his own mother's royal line.) I wonder how different things may have turned out in the reign of Edward III if he had been married to a Castilian instead of Philippa of Hainault?

Kathryn Warner said...

Edward II betrothed two of his children into Castile and one into Aragon. I also wonder if he'd have been happier himself with a Castilian bride - maybe Isabel, daughter of Sancho IV, whom Edward's uncle Enrique proposed as a bride for him in 1303. Edward does seem to have been very aware of his Castilian connections, and his letters to the kingdom in the 1320s show a good knowledge of the political situation there.

Anonymous said...

Great post ... interesting that Edward felt so connected to his mother's roots when he didn't have much of a chance to get to know her.

Esther Sorkin

Anerje said...

Great post - a much needed bio of Edward's mother Eleanor. It's wrong to say she abandoned her children - it's the usual mistake of applying modern standards to different times. Even the current Queen Elizabeth left the young Charles behind when she went on overseas tours. It's royal life.

Libby said...

Great post , really interesting



Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

Fascinating read. Discussing whether the medieval queens were good mothers or not is pointless, at least in my view. Different approach to motherhood, especially "royal" motherhood, plus the usual duties of queenship... There's no point in dwelling on the subject. They did care, they did love, but viewed their maternal duties and affections differently. Doeas this make them bad mothers? Thank you for trying to "transform" Eleanor from the MA and picture her as a modern mum- that explains everything.

PS I have always found the Alfonso Pslater the most telling proof of Eleanor's maternal love. Even if we assume that he was her favourite child.

Sami Parkkonen said...

A Good one too!