The Much-Beloved Eleanor of Castile


One item on the itinerary for the state visit of King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia is a visit to Westminster Abbey that will include a stop at the tomb of Eleanor Castile, wife of Edward I and queen of England from 1272 to 1290. Eleanor’s memory is actually commemorated well outside the Abbey – “Charing Cross” is no doubt familiar to most; the location is one of the more famous spots in London, if for no other reason than it’s a Tube stop. Just south of Trafalgar Square, it’s unofficially noted as the very center of London and its site is now marked by a large statue of Charles I on a horse.

The statue has been there since 1675 courtesy of his son, Charles II, the very location that one of the “Eleanor crosses” used to stand. In fact, it was ninth in a series of 12 lavish monuments built in her memory by Edward I after her death. Three of the memorials still survive today, marking the procession her body took when it was transported to London for burial.

One of the three surviving monuments

Needless to say, Edward I loved Eleanor very much. The success of the marriage, however, was a fluke. It was as arranged a match as any that befitted their rank and was solidified in Las Huelgas, Burgos on November 1, 1254. The groom, eldest son of Henry III and his wife, Eleanor of Provence, was 15; the bride, half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile, was just shy of 13.

The year before, Henry III had confidently stated, “Friendship between princes can be obtained in no more fitting a manner than by the link of conjugal troth.” Perhaps this is what he had in mind, then, when Alfonso decided to lay claim to Gascony, which England had held since the reign of Henry’s grandfather, Henry II, thanks to his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. England swiftly and successfully defended its territory and by early 1254, Alfonso was ready to negotiate a peace.

The year was a pivotal one for Prince Edward, bringing him his first sea voyage, his first taste of warfare and a birds-eye view of the benefits of successful diplomacy. Still seen as a child by his parents, it was nevertheless his entree into adulthood.

For his bride, the year was a rough thrust into an utterly foreign environment. Raised in Burgos, the product of King Ferdinand III’s second marriage, Eleanor has the unique distinction of being one of England’s most learned Medieval queens thanks to a surprisingly thorough education. Her childhood ended abruptly in 1252 with Ferdinand’s death in Seville, at which she is believed to have been present at his bedside. Within months her marriage was in negotiations and within a week of that she had left home for the last time.

Edward and Eleanor traveled to Gascony on their way back to England, slowing their progress so that Edward could make the most of his new-found independence in the duchy. Indeed, they were still there by the spring of 1255 when dissension broke out after Edward and Henry both levied significant taxes at the same time. The rebellion was quelled by the summer and Henry ordered his son to leave Gascony for Ireland, with Eleanor entering England for the first time alone.

Henry III

The reasons for the forced separation of the young couple were two-fold. Eleanor, a Castilian princess, was a lofty match for Edward and her rank and pedigree would have made it unlikely that the English Royal Family would have exposed her to the “wildness” of Ireland. And for all that that was an unfair description of the country, the frequent warfare certainly didn’t make it hospitable to royal and noble women with regularity. The second reason was that Edward and Eleanor appear to have consummated their marriage and Eleanor had given birth to a stillborn daughter. Not yet 14, she was technically below the age recommended by the Church for consummation and it’s possible it was considered advisable that the couple live apart until they were a few years older.

While it may have been parental concern that spurred Henry III and Eleanor of Provence’s decision, the marriage had already become a love match. The ordered separation did nothing to help relations between father and teenage son.

Unfortunately, Eleanor’s entrance into London wasn’t particularly well-received. Her mother-in-law was deeply loathed by the public, in large part because of the entourage of Savoyards who surrounded her. Taken together with a contingent of Lusignans, the products of Henry’s mother’s second marriage after the death of King John, the royal court had gained a reputation for being full of foreigners. The site of Eleanor in her traditional Spanish dress, surrounded by Spaniards, might have seemed majestic to their eyes, but it was both off-putting and maddening to the Londoners camped along the sides of roads as her procession passed in October 1255.

Soon the couple were kept apart not by orders, but by circumstances. In 1258 a group of magnates presented King Henry with the Provisions of Oxford directed at his Lusignan half-brothers, and while Edward at first opposed the reformist faction, he took a turn the following year and briefly aligned himself against his father. The move caused a formal break between the two, during which time Eleanor was likely kept in her father-in-law’s household. Though eventually reconciled, Edward then spent a good portion of 1260-1261 abroad in France on his father’s orders, and in 1263 spent a substantial amount of time in Wales.

The outbreak of the Second Barons’ War in 1264, which lasted three years, meant even further time apart. Eleanor supported the effort by holding Windsor Castle for her husband, though to what extent she was in communication with Castile to bring in a fresh army was debatable. It was apparently believed true by the rebel leader, Simon Montfort (Henry III’s brother-in-law, though that’s a matter for another day), that he ordered her removal from the Castle after the Battle of Lewes in May 1264.

Edward I

The couple were reunited the following year, however after 11 years of marriage, they had little to show for it. Eleanor had given birth to a second child, Katherine, some time after 1261, but she died by September 1264. A third daughter, Joan, had only lived a few months, dying in the summer of 1265. It wasn’t until the birth of a healthy son that Eleanor’s position was solidified.

And in case you thought the Great Kate Wait of 2013 was festive, the birth of a new prince in 1266 saw Londoners award themselves the next day off from work and dance and drink their way through the city streets. The choice of the name John was particularly bold, coming in the middle of the baronial war and referencing an earlier king who was seen by many as a near-tyrant who had deeply abused his office.

The civil war over, on May 6, 1268, John was followed by a second son, Henry, and on June 18, 1269, a daughter, Eleanor.

The succession seemingly secure and domestic peace having resumed, Edward and Eleanor elected to go on a crusade. They, accompanied by an entourage and army numbering around one thousand, departed England on August 20, 1270, their three children left in the protection of Edward’s uncle, Richard, Earl of Cornwall.

Five days after their departure and before they had arrived, their ally, Louis IX of France, died in Carthage, undermining the chances of the crusade’s success. Even so, the English forged on, reaching Acre in May 1271. Edward was horrified to find Christians and Muslims living and conducting business peacefully, a situation he immediately – and unsuccessfully – tried to put an end to. Close to achieving their goal of reaching and conquering Jerusalem, the couple tarried in Acre long enough for Eleanor to present her husband with both a copy of De re militari, a Roman text on warfare, and a daughter, Joan, in April 1272.

Against Edward’s wishes, a 10-year truce between the crusaders and Sultan al-Zahir Baybars was agreed upon shortly thereafter. Indeed, it was so much so against his wishes that Edward was one of the few who refused to sign it. This move aroused anger from the enemy camp and on June 17th an assassination attempt was made on the Prince. While Edward managed to kill the would-be killer, he was wounded by a poisoned dagger. Legend has it that Eleanor saved her husband’s life by sucking the poison out of his blood, but this is highly unlikely. Instead, Edward slowly convalesced until his departure from Acre on September 24, 1272.

The English moved to Sicily where they spent the next several weeks until news reached their party that Henry III had died in London on November 16th. Edward was king.

Remarkably, Edward and Eleanor didn’t rush home, though this was likely due to the fact that the country was secure and there was no challenge to Edward’s supremacy. Three days after Henry’s death, the lords of the realm had sworn homage to the new king and on his deathbed, Henry had begun transitioning authority to his son. The succession, too, remained secure thanks to the presence of Edward and Eleanor’s children, though their eldest son, John, had died that summer. That left them with one male heir, Henry, age four.

Edward I, center

Incredibly, Edward seemed more interested in finally governing Aquitaine rather than England in his own name. Moving through Gascony, Edward left Eleanor to travel alone to Paris where he pledged fealty as duke to King Philip III of France. And while Edward kept busy with a rebellion in Gascony and new diplomatic relationships on the continent, Eleanor was able to meet her half-brother, Alfonso, who she named godfather of a son she delivered in Bayonne on November 24, 1273.

All told, Edward and Eleanor didn’t return to England until August 2, 1274, after an absence of four years. They were crowned, side-by-side, on August 19th, a custom unique to coronations throughout history.

The details and political considerations of Edward’s reign will remain topics for other posts, but in the interest of staying focused on Eleanor we will instead note the continued uncertainty of the succession. Two months after the coronation, Prince Henry died in Surrey, aged six, leaving the infant Prince Alfonso as heir. Five months after that, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter, Margaret, at Windsor, who was followed by two more girls, Berengaria and Mary, in 1276 and 1279, respectively. Berengaria also died young, passing away in 1278.

In either 1280 or 1281, a son was born, but he died shortly after birth and there is no reliable record of his name. Another daughter, Elizabeth, was born on August 7, 1282 at Rhuddlan Castle. Finally, on April 25, 1284 at Caernarfon Castle in Wales, Eleanor gave birth to another healthy boy, named Edward for his father. And good thing, too, for Prince Alfonso died just four months later at the age of 10.

All told, 30 years after her marriage, and aged 43 instead of 13, Eleanor finally delivered a future king after the birth of four sons who died young and five daughters who lived until adulthood. In full, she went through 16 pregnancies and deliveries, not counting any number of miscarriages that weren’t recorded and rumors of additional children of which there is no certain record.

Edward I and Eleanor of Castile

Eleanor’s tenure as queen was noteworthy in a number of ways, one of which was her level of economic activity. Edward arranged for her to acquire a considerable amount land, providing her with an independent stream of revenue that ensured she and her children would be taken care of separate and apart from the King. Her head for business however, gave her a bit of a Scarlett O’Hara reputation. She made a habit of acquiring debts Christian landlords owed Jewish moneylenders, canceling the debts and often taking in the debtors as knights in her household. The Archbishop of Canterbury warned her household that the visual of an English queen making such deals was garnering her a bad reputation, and it appears that was true, though to be clear, the criticism was less about a woman handling business and more springing from the rampant antisemitism of Edward’s reign.

Despite evolving into a popular queen in later centuries, Eleanor was little-loved by the English people in her own day. Indeed, there is a school of thought that the Eleanor crosses built by Edward were actually meant to rehabilitate her reputation – if that was the case, it worked. A popular contemporary rhyme went: “The king would like to get our gold/The Queen, our manors fair, to hold.”

Some of that was squarely Eleanor’s fault, for the English have always liked to see their royalty, even consorts, and while that may have been foreign to the one-time Castilian princess, it was her duty as queen to manage her reputation. Instead of giving way to this demand, Eleanor rarely interacted with her husband’s subjects, instead carrying out her public duties via a surrogate. Her foreignness didn’t help, but then again, she didn’t help herself – despite coming to England before her 14th birthday, she never learned to speak the language.

Her independence was further established by the death of her mother, the Queen of Castile, in March 1279. Joanna, or Jeanne, of Dammartin had been French and Countess of Ponthieu in her own right. When she died, the title and associated territory were left to Eleanor. After Eleanor’s death, the title was absorbed by her son, Edward, into the English crown, though it was later confiscated by King Philip VI of France during the reign of her grandson, Edward III.

Culturally, her influence had staying power and she is responsible for bringing to England a number of continental touches that had hitherto been missing. Tapestries and floor rushes were introduced by her. Originally derided as a vain Spanish custom, they would become ubiquitous within a century to make castles grander and more comfortable. She imported citrus fruits and olive oil from abroad, hallmarks of the Castilian cuisine of her youth, and she was an active patron of the arts, particularly literature.

By and large, her life was one of leisure once queen. She enjoyed hunting alongside her husband, employed gardeners at her estate and had the luxury for at least a decade of being able to take an active role in her children’s upbringing and education. In short, she lived the life that a Medieval queen was meant to live, but rarely did.

By 1282, Edward was mired in the Welsh wars that would lead to its final occupation. Eleanor was often by his side, explaining why their last child, Edward, was born there – indeed, it is because of this controversial activity that the title “Prince of Wales” came to be used as it is now. Edward and Eleanor were the first king and queen to bequeath it to their heir, beginning a trend that still continues today.

Eleanor’s tomb

There is some speculation as to what kind of mother Eleanor was, but honestly, when isn’t there? Much of this stems from the fact that Edward and Eleanor didn’t return to England when news reached them that their then-eldest son, Alfonso, had died, but this can probably be linked to the fact that they were in the middle of managing the situation in Wales, not a lack of concern or grief. In fact, Eleanor requested that her son’s heart be preserved so that it could be buried next to her. It’s also possible that given how many of their children died, they were forced to view them with a certain level of detachment, but there is just as much evidence that they took an active interest in their offspring.

Regardless, they were forced to spend considerable time away from them over the course of ’80s. In 1286, Edward and Eleanor departed for the continent, spending a large portion of the next few years in Gascony. When they returned to England in 1289, they were greeted at Dover by their six remaining children, none of whom had seen them in three years.

There is some evidence that Eleanor’s health had begun to fail after Prince Edward’s birth in 1284 given records of the purchase for various medicines, however what proved to be fatal was a malarial fever contracted in 1289. Knowing death was on the horizon, the Queen made arrangements to move to Lincoln so that she could be near the shrine of St. Hugh, however the journey proved too strenuous. The party stopped at the home of Sir Richard Weston, a knight who lived close to the village of Harby, and it was here, on November 28, 1290, where Eleanor finally passed away.

The long procession of moving the Queen’s body from Harby to London eventually made up the pathway of the Eleanor crosses, begun by Edward in 1291 and finished in 1294. Edward’s grief was considerable – their marriage can safely be assumed to have been a true a love match not only for the public way in which he honored his late wife’s memory, but also by the fact that over the course of nearly four decades of marriage he had remained faithful, a rarity in the 13th century.

Edward would eventually remarry, but the decision was prompted more from a need to safeguard his dynasty than personal desire. Prince Edward was only six at the time of his mother’s death and given the frequency with which Edward’s other sons had died, he can be forgiven for his caution. Negotiations to marry King Philip IV of France’s half-sister, Marguerite, began in 1293, however the wedding didn’t take place until 1299. They went on to have three children of their own, two sons and a daughter, the latter of whom they named in Eleanor’s honor.

In 1307, when Edward I finally died, it was Eleanor’s son who succeeded him as Edward II.

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