Eleanor of Provence came in the middle of a string of unpopular queen consorts. Her mother-in-law, Isabelle of Angouleme, deserted her English children after King John’s death and married her daughter’s betrothed, Hugh X of Lusignan. Her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile, married the future Edward I as a young teenager but never bothered to learn English and despised interacting with her husband’s subjects. Back a generation further and you have Eleanor of Aquitaine who never believed the English were as sophisticated or interesting as the French, and a generation down you have Isabelle of France who staged a coup against Edward II with her lover.
The issue wasn’t just that England had uneasy relationships with royalty or women (though they did), but rather foreigners. All of these women were imported in their youths and many of them clung to remnants of home, including fellow countrymen. This was certainly the case with Eleanor of Provence, who arrived in England at age 12 to marry King Henry III and brought with her a plethora of Savoyards, the kinsmen of her mother. Their power around the throne – their influence and the extent to which Eleanor helped elevate them – would have a lasting impact on her successors. For centuries to come, future royal brides would have by far less leeway in making up their own households, with a firm insistence that each be surrounded by Englishmen and women – that each essentially pretend to become English.
Eleanor was born in around 1223 to Ramon Berengeur IV, Count of Provence and his wife, Beatrice of Savoy. Beatrice was a famed beauty, having inherited the looks of her mother, Margaret of Geneva, who almost married Philip II of France. Cursed with only daughters, Beatrice nevertheless saw to it that all four of them became queens. The eldest, Marguerite, married Louis IX of France in 1234, while her youngest, Beatrice, married Charles I of Sicily in 1246. In-between came the marriages of Eleanor and Sanchia, both of which would be intertwined with England.
When Eleanor’s sister became the queen of France, her stock rose in the eyes of Europe. In October 1235, Henry had managed to disentangle himself from another marital agreement and sent two envoys to Provence to inspect the Count’s daughter. A proxy wedding solidified the arrangement in November and Eleanor duly took leave of her parents.
She arrived in England in January 1236 and traveled to Canterbury for the official wedding ceremony on the 14th. Despite the fact that Henry was 28 and Eleanor only 12, the marriage was immediately consummated. Even by Medieval standards, this was on the early side – 12 being the canonical age of consent. For Henry, however, it was of the utmost importance that he secure the succession. At nearly 30 he had never been married, despite having been on the throne since the age of nine, and the start of his reign was plagued not only by his minority but the fact that England was mired by the Barons’ War. Royal authority was on the chopping block thanks to a powerful noble class and securing the Plantagenet hold on the throne was supported by a line of future princes.
Eleanor was crowned queen six days later at Westminster Abbey, an occasion which also marked her entry into London. The marriage started out on a good note and the couple appeared to genuinely enjoy the other’s company. Henry went out of his way to invest in his wife’s accommodations, ensuring that she had new chambers in Westminster and the Tower of London, among other residences. She took pleasure in gardens, thus herb and flower gardens were installed at Clarendon, Winchester and Woodstock, to name but a few. Some of this might have stemmed from the fact that Eleanor didn’t hesitate to point out ways in which England failed to meet her expectations.
Compared with the culture of southern France, England was sorely lacking, if not downright provincial. The weather was cold and dreary. The courtiers less literate and artistically inclined. In short, it was all by far less fashionable. While it might have been politic to keep such opinions to herself, they were only reinforced by the presence of the Savoyards, who accompanied Eleanor to England. By 1240, two of her uncles installed themselves at Henry’s court and a third joined by 1244. One of them, Peter, served as a mentor to Eleanor, particularly as she grew older and became more invested in politics.
Eleanor’s first child was born in June 1239, nearly three-and-a-half years after her wedding. He was christened Edward thanks to Henry’s veneration of Edward the Confessor, despite it not being a popular name in the 13th century. The infant’s birth changed the succession, for Henry’s younger brother, Richard of Cornwall, had long-served as heir. Worried about what would happen in the case of Henry’s death, Eleanor took steps – guided by Peter – to ensure Edward’s wealth and power base were secured and that she was empowered at Richard’s expense. The problem, of course, was that Eleanor and Peter were foreigners and should Henry have died before his son was an adult, there would have been little appetite for England to be ruled by non-Englishmen. To appease Richard, Henry arranged for him to marry Eleanor’s younger sister, Sanchia.
The presence of the Savoyards made Eleanor deeply unpopular, not just with the limited number of English magnates who stood to directly benefit from royal patronage, but widely with the general public. It’s not difficult to see why, and certainly it can’t have been confusing to Henry, so why was this situation allowed to unfold? Some of it may have to do with his mother’s Lusignan marriage, which brought him a plethora of half-siblings who made their way to England expecting handouts. The Savoyard faction ensured that the Lusignans didn’t become too powerful, and they protected Eleanor’s interests. She may have reasoned that having allies she could genuinely rely on was a fair trade for popularity.
Eleanor gave birth to her second child, Margaret, in September 1240, and her third, Beatrice, in June 1242, while she accompanied Henry on a military campaign in Poitou, though the time was mostly marked by how embarrassingly disastrous the war went for the English. Hugh of Lusignan, Henry’s stepfather, defected at the last minute and Henry’s own life had to be saved by Richard in one particularly precarious moment.
When the dust settled, the royal party returned to England and celebrated Richard and Sanchia’s wedding, a match also unpopular with the English people, who had little desire to see another Provencal woman in the country. This was further magnified in 1245 when Eleanor’s father died and the Savoyards arranged for Provence to be absorbed by the French at the expense of the English.
Eleanor gave birth to her fourth child, Edmund, in January 1245. For the next eight years there is no record of further children until the birth of their last, Katherine, in November 1253. It’s entirely possible that Eleanor did give birth to other children during this period who died in infancy – or that she suffered a series of miscarriages – however these years also coincide with a period of disharmony between her and Henry.
After conflict broke out between Eleanor’s uncle, Boniface, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Aymer of Lusignan, Henry’s half-brother, Eleanor attempted to intervene on her uncle’s behalf. Angry that his wife strayed from her lane, Henry sent her from court and took control of her lands and fortune. This argument came at the same time it became clear they had differing attitudes in how to address the issue of Henry’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, who had illegally married Henry’s sister, was generally disrespectful, but also enormously powerful. Eleanor favored appeasement, while Henry was nearing the end of his rope.
The couple were reconciled by Christmas 1252 and the following December, Princess Katherine was born.
Simon de Montfort had been serving as lieutenant of Gascony, however his incompetence led to an uprising in 1252 that gained the support of King Alfonso X of Castile. Eleanor was of the opinion that the Gascons caused the issues, while Henry and his Lusignan siblings were more interested in using this as an opportunity to finally rid themselves of Simon. In the middle of this, Henry chose to go to Gascony personally and quell the outbreak, leaving Eleanor as regent from August 1253 until May 1254. The end result was that England and Castile made peace, Prince Edward was put in charge of Gascony and a marriage alliance between Edward and Eleanor of Castile was cemented.
Edward and the younger Eleanor were married in November 1254 and spent the first several months of their marriage living in Gascony. They were called back by Henry the following year when it became clear that father and son were stepping on each other’s toes over the governance of the territory and the couple were separated. The latter point is particularly interesting in light of Eleanor of Provence’s own trajectory. She had been a year younger than her daughter-in-law when she married, but she was a strong advocate for the separation in 1255, despite the marriage having already been consummated. It was a particular concern when Eleanor of Castile gave birth to a stillborn daughter before her 14th birthday and it’s possible the Queen stepped in first as a mother. It also raises the question as to whether Eleanor suffered her own miscarriages or stillbirths in the three years between her wedding and the birth of Prince Edward that went unrecorded.
In the middle of all of this, Henry and Eleanor traveled slowly through France where Eleanor was reunited with her mother and three sisters. Henry, meanwhile, met with Louis IX and the end result was the Treaty of Paris – finalized in 1259 – as well as a new-found warm friendship between the two kings. Henry agreed to pay homage to Louis for his French territories and to renounce his claims to Anjou, Poitou, Maine and Touraine in exchange for Louis standing down on Gascony and other territories.
What followed next was markedly less successful. Eleanor decided that she wanted her second son, Edmund, installed as king of Sicily following the death of Emperor Frederick II in 1250. Frederick was succeeded by his son, Conrad, however the Pope decided that he wanted his own man in the role and accepted the candidacy of Edmund. The plan fell apart when Conrad and the Pope died and Sicily was seized by Conrad’s illegitimate brother. The new Pope promised to support Edmund, but said the necessary military invasion would have to be financed by England. When Henry ordered funds diverted from the English church for five years, the plan became deeply unpopular at home and a military excursion ended in the captivity of Thomas of Savoy. Without enough money to free her kinsman, she was forced to borrow money she didn’t have and the entire affair was a fiasco.
By 1258, the magnates had had enough of Henry. In the spring, several lords, led by Simon de Montfort and the Savoyards – and likely with the secret backing of Eleanor – launched a coup to oust the unpopular Lusignans from court. Henry, afraid that he would be deposed, agreed to govern through a council made up of nominees selected by the barons and his own picks, which were Lusignans. The Provisions of Oxford were forced through a new Parliament in June, which created a smaller council made up only of the barons’ choices. The problem, however, was that the magnates themselves were not in alignment – but then again, neither was the Royal Family. Prince Edward allied himself with Simon and helped pass the Provisions of Westminster in 1259 that led to further limitations on his father’s authority.
Henry and Eleanor left England for France in 1259 to solidify the Treaty of Paris with Louis IX, returning in the spring of 1260. Henry’s brother, Richard, helped mediate between the factions, Henry was reunited with Edward and Simon was put on trial, though the last only further devolved the back-and-forth into chaos. While Henry nominally supported the Provisions to save his own skin, he began negotiating with the Vatican for foreign support. In June 1261 he told Parliament that Rome had freed him of the promises he had made to the government and he began purging Westminster of his enemies thanks to a foreign army raised he and Eleanor raised. His actions united his opponents and by 1264, the Second Barons’ War began, the rebel party led (of course) by Simon.
For 15 months England was mired in civil war until the Battle of Evesham in August 1265. The royal army was led to victory by Edward and Simon was killed. This was followed up in May 1266 by the Battle of Chesterfield, which also saw the royal army prevail. Five months later the rebels made peace with Henry, solidified by the Dictum of Kenilworth.
Edward left for Crusade in 1270 and was out of England when Henry finally passed away at Westminster on November 16, 1272 with Eleanor at his bedside. Eleanor devoted her remaining years to caring for her grandchildren, as well as her two daughters, Margaret and Beatrice, who had become the Queen of Scotland and the Duchess of Brittany, respectively. When her daughters predeceased her within a few weeks of one another in 1275, she retired to a convent.
Eleanor died in June 1291 in Amesbury. The exact site of her burial is unknown.
Eleanor’s legacy is significant, though it’s easy to dismiss her. The simple truth of it is that she wasn’t a particularly successful queen in many ways, a fact only reinforced through modern eyes. She was a ruthless businesswoman, a highly ambitious and self-interested politician and a royal woman who genuinely believed the English were beneath her. None of this, however, made Eleanor an anomaly of her time. Her most lasting impression was her lack of regard for her people. That, combined with the group of Savoyards she surrounded herself and Henry with, left a bad taste in the mouth of the English and ensured that none of her successors would be afforded the same leniency.
One thing that can be said of her is that she was a devoted mother. Edward remained close to her until her death, she fought hard for the rights of her second son, Edmund, and she visited, corresponded with and intervened on the behalf of her daughters once they married. Her youngest, Katherine, was apparently born with disabilities, but was doted on and cared for by her parents in an age when it wasn’t uncommon for such children to be stashed in the country or in a religious house. When Katherine died at the age of three-and-a-half, her parents were publicly distraught and invested in an elaborate funeral and tomb. Eleanor was apparently so upset that she became physically ill. The fact that there were no further children, despite Eleanor only being in her mid-30s at the time of Katherine’s death, could be read as a further consequence of the couple’s grief.