Eleanor of Woodstock had the misfortune to be born a daughter of Edward II and Isabelle of France, but the stubbornness, resourcefulness and tenacity that she may have inherited from them saw her through the dark side of a Medieval arranged marriage.
Born on June 18, 1318 at Woodstock Palace, Princess Eleanor was her parents’ eldest daughter, joining two older brothers, Princes Edward (age six) and John (age two). The baby was named for her paternal grandmother, Eleanor of Castile. Her father, King Edward, rushed to his wife’s side after she gave birth and paid £333 to celebrate her “churching,” or purification after leaving the birthing chamber.
Even so, the marriage of Edward and Isabelle was already rocky and Edward’s reign was already veering towards disastrous. Over the course of Eleanor’s childhood, the two would evolve from tense to pitted against one another in all out warfare. The crux of the issue likely stemmed from Edward’s presumed homosexuality, an affront made worse for Isabelle by his long-term relationship with Hugh Despenser. There’s enough evidence from the period, from Isabelle’s own words to the cryptic (and sometimes not-so-cryptic) allusions made by contemporary chroniclers to assert the relationship between Edward and Despenser was of a sexual nature.
Whether anything transpired between Despenser and Isabelle to make their hatred of another anything more than that of lover versus wife is debatable, but Despenser was ruthless in his aggression towards the Queen. In 1324 he had Isabelle’s three younger children (a fourth child, Joan, was born in 1321) removed from her care on the pretense that as a Frenchwoman she couldn’t be trusted. The siblings were placed in the household of Despenser’s wife, Eleanor de Clare, and the girls were eventually moved to that of his sister, Isabella, Lady Monthermer.
While history has branded Isabelle a “she-wolf,” an adulteress and too politically ambitious to be a good mother, the reality of the situation was there is little evidence to support that. It would be ridiculous to argue she was a hands-on mother given the standards of the age, but given that all four of her children remained devoted to her in adulthood, all signs point to her taking an active interest in their lives and well-being. Certainly the fact that her three youngest were in her care in their formative years (Prince Edward had been given his own establishment as heir to the throne), indicates she had plenty of opportunity to play a direct role in their upbringing and when they were reunited with her in 1326 her joy was evident.
By this time rebellion was well on its way, a topic covered in more detail here. The affair ended in Isabelle of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer, taking control of the English government and forcing the abdication of King Edward. He died on September 27, 1327, possibly on the orders of Mortimer and Isabelle. Given that Eleanor was only nine as at the time of her father’s death, it’s unclear how much of the loss she felt or how much of its circumstances she was aware of. Given how much time they spent apart, he would have been a remote figure to her, her mother and her siblings being by far more familiar.
Her eldest brother, now Edward III, married Philippa of Hainaut in 1328 and by the end of 1329, her first pregnancy was announced. But Eleanor, soon to be 12, the legal canonical age of consent, was about to enter into her first betrothal. On January 25th of 1330, Parliament met to address its policy towards France, a situation made all the more complicated given that Isabelle and Mortimer still effectively controlled the government and Isabelle was not only French, but maintained deep personal and political ties to her home country and family. An English envoy was sent to France to negotiate an alliance cemented in the marriage of Eleanor and her brother, John, with a son and daughter of King Philip VI.
The marriage never came about and the alliance was dropped. In June 1330, Philippa gave birth to a son, christened Edward after his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, and by the end of the year, chafing at the yoke kept on him by his mother and Mortimer, Edward effectively staged a coup, took the reins of his government and Mortimer was executed. Isabelle was initially put under house arrest, but she was always financially cared for and as the years went on, her restrictions lessened. It does not appear, by some interpretations, that Edward disliked or was angered by her actions, so much as careful about her influence and cognizant of her reputation within England.
There is also reason to believe she was involved in the marriage preparations of Eleanor to Reginald II, Duke of Guelders in 1332. The ceremony took place in May, about a month shy of the bride’s 14th birthday. The groom was 23 years older and was best-known in Christendom for having kept his insane father imprisoned for six years after gaining power. Per Alison Weir’s biography of Isabelle:
“Isabelle’s hand may perhaps be detected in the trousseau that was prepared for Eleanor. The Princess’s wedding gown was Spanish cloth of gold embroidered with brilliant silks and was worn with a crimson velvet mantle and a white lawn veil. When she sailed from Sandwich, she took with her caps, gloves, shoes of Cordoba leather, a bed hung with green velvet and silk curtains, rare spices, and loaves of sugar and traveled in a painted chariot upholstered in purple velvet and decorated with gold stars.”
The marriage got off on a strong enough start, though there is little evidence as to how the couple felt about one another personally. The people of Guelders were enraptured by their new Duchess, no doubt pleased to be able claim an English princess as their new mistress. Eleanor also became stepmother to four daughters, the eldest of whom was only two years younger than she – again, what the domestic dynamic was behind closed doors is anyone’s guess.
Within three months of the wedding, Eleanor was pregnant and she gave birth to a son, Reginald, on May 13, 1333. A second son, Edward, was born three years later on March 12, 1336. By this time the marriage had seemingly disintegrated, according to Weir Eleanor had grown into a nervous, anxious young woman who was so eager to please her husband and required so much attention that he was repulsed by her. The repulsion was likely due to her behavior and not her physical appearance given that her parents, particularly her mother, were noted for being some of the most attractive European royals of their day.
In 1338, when Eleanor was 20, Reginald banished her from court on the pretense that she suffered from leprosy and attempted to annul the marriage. Her response makes a strong case for her being her mother’s daughter, or at least having inherited an independent streak from her father. She returned to Reginald’s palace in Nijmegen, wearing a cloak, where, in front of his entire court, she removed it to display either her naked body or a sheer shift (record vary), proving without a doubt that she was not, in fact, a leper.
Reginald, humiliated and outed as a liar, was forced to take Eleanor back, however there’s little sign of what home life was like after the entire fiasco. They lived together for another five years until Reginald’s death in 1343 after he fell from his horse in Arnhem.
The lands and titles that belonged to her husband now passed to Eleanor’s 10-year-old son, Reginald III. Initially, Eleanor was named regent for her son as he waited out his minority, however the position was more nominal than anything and the government was slow to recognize her. In 1344 she was made to step down and in 1350, after discovering that Eleanor had encouraged his younger brother, Edward, to rise up against him, Reginald confiscated her lands and sources of income. Reginald, apparently, was quite the little namesake, but the parallels between Eleanor and Isabelle are also highly evident.
Too proud to ask her brother or mother for financial help, Eleanor retired to a convent and lived in poverty for five years. She died on April 22, 1355, aged 36.
Her son, however, continued to be a disaster. After over a decade of fighting, Edward eventually deposed his brother and established himself as Duke of Guelders and from 1361 to 1371, he actually governed effectively and powerfully. Upon Edward’s death, Reginald, who had been kept under house arrest, was restored to his position – legend has it he had grown so fat while imprisoned that walls had to be cut down so that he could leave. Very possibly an exaggeration, there is at least some truth to the matter given that his moniker was “Reginald the Fat.” His restoration lasted four short months until his death in December 1371. The duchy passed to his half-sister (Eleanor’s stepdaughter), Mathilde of Guelders and her third husband, John II, Count of Blois.