Royal history shows younger sons to be hit or miss. Some of them demonstrate commendable loyalty, but all too often there is resentment over losing the birth order lottery, scrapes with rebellion, ill-advised treks abroad in the hopes of finding glory or private lives that caused embarrassment. Edmund Croucback, Earl of Leicester and Lancaster was the good sort and his life and career demonstrated the ideals of Medieval brotherhood.
Son of Henry III and and Eleanor of Provence, and younger brother to Edward I, Edmund’s birth began with pomp and circumstance. Born more than five years after his brother, Henry III was so eager for another son that he had 1,000 candles placed before Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral and another 1,000 placed in St. Augustine. When Queen Eleanor successfully delivered a boy in January 1245, he was christened Edmund in honor of the Confessor.
Edmund’s fate began to percolate just five years later, but far from England. On December 13, 1250, Frederick II, Holy Roman Empire and King of Sicily, died in Apulia after a long illness and an attack of dysentery. In the mid-13th century the kingdom of Sicily was comprised of not only the island itself, but also a sizable swathe of southern Italy, making up the Regno. Frederick left this kingdom, along with the HRE, to his son, Conrad, however Pope Innocent VI was not particularly pleased with either and sought to limit the younger man’s authority by means of breaking up his inheritance.
Edmund’s name, as a younger son, was put forth as a possible contender for the Sicilian throne. Henry accepted the proposal to nominate him in 1254, as did the Pope by confirmation of the Grant of Regno that spring. The entire matter was facilitated by the Savoyards, the relations of Queen Eleanor, many of whom accompanied her to England and were wildly unpopular with the public. Nevertheless, they had long and deep roots into Europe, including the Vatican, and it was they who were able to successfully lobby for Edmund’s recognition.
All would likely have come to fruition had Conrad not died in May 1254 and his claim to the throne – and the implied struggle with Rome – were picked up by his illegitimate half-brother, Manfred. That December Pope Innocent also died, and without the familial support brought about by the Savoyards the only way to secure Sicily for Edmund would have been through a long and costly war.
When the new pope, Alexander IV, refused to help finance a military campaign, Henry and Eleanor – never great at sensing the tides of public opinion – siphoned funds from the English clergy set aside via the crusading tax. In 1255, Edmund was invested in traditional Sicilian costume as king at Westminster, but it was only ever a pipe dream – and frankly one of Eleanor’s at that.
Shortly after the crowning, Thomas of Savoy (relation of Eleanor) was taken prisoner by his own subjects in Turin and any funds were needed to negotiate his release. In order to keep the “business of Sicily” going, money was raised through letters of obligation issued in Eleanor’s name against religion houses in England. It’s, well, a good example of why Eleanor was so disliked. In any event, the English barons refused to chip in and Rome’s grant for the kingdom was revoked in the late 1250s or early 1260s (there are discrepancies as to when exactly the Pope made this move).
But if Edmund’s future didn’t lay abroad, then it could certainly be found in England. On October 25, 1265, when Edmund was 20, he was made Earl of Leicester (and eventually Lancaster) after the death of Simon Montfort, the one-time great thorn in his parents’ side from the Second Barons’ War. He was also helped by a mother who continued to work tirelessly to enrich her younger son, not particularly caring who she angered by doing so. When Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby was imprisoned, he was allowed to be freed and restored to his land after the payment of 50,000 pounds to none other than Edmund.
His mother also arranged for him to marry the wealth heiress to the Aumale and Devon earldoms, Aveline de Forz, in April 1269 at Westminster Abbey. According to historian Lisa Hilton, Eleanor conspired with Aveline’s guardians to defraud Ferrers, allowing Edmund access to his lands in addition to Aveline’s. We don’t know very much about the new Countess of Leicester and Lancaster, except that she was born in January 1259, making her 14 years Edmund’s junior. The marriage remained unconsummated until Aveline turned 14 in 1273. She died the following November after giving birth to twins who didn’t survive.
In the meantime, Edmund joined his brother, Edward, on the ninth crusade in 1271. It is from this period that he is believed to have received his nickname, “Crouchback,” which means “Cross back.” Edmund was allowed to stitch a cross on to the back of his garments, thus giving his appearance some distinction as the two young men traveled through Europe to Palestine.
Henry passed away in November 1272 and while Edward remained abroad, Edmund had by then returned to England. The start of Edward’s reign, particularly given that he was without a son for many years, meant that Edmund was not only close to the throne, but first in line for it. He took his proximity to the King seriously and displayed notable loyalty to him, holding his rule in England when Edward was abroad.
In 1276, Edmund remarried to Blanche of Artois, the 28-year-old widow of King Henry I of Navarre. Blanche had spent her two years of widowhood serving as regent for her daughter, Jeanne, her husband’s sole surviving heir. Vulnerable to neighboring kingdoms like Castile and Aragon who wanted to incorporate Navarre into their dominions, Blanche took her daughter to France and sought the protection of Philip III. In 1275, she signed the Treaty of Orleans which promised her daughter to the eldest of Philip’s sons, meaning that she eventually became the queen of France’s mother and Edmund her stepfather. Edmund was 31 at the time of their wedding. The couple had three sons between the years 1278 and 1286: Thomas, Henry and John. Their favorite residence when not at court was Grosmont Castle in Wales.
In serving his brother, Edmund spent a considerable amount of money on endowing religious houses throughout the country. He also played crucial roles in the wars against the Welsh in the 1280s, as well as in Edward’s conflict against the French in the 1290s. At the dawn of 1294, Edmund found himself in France with Blanche, his stepdaughter and the Dowager Queen of France. The four hashed out terms of an agreement for handling the English occupation of Gascony that was meant to improve Anglo-Franco relations. In it, a slew of Gascon towns would be given to Philip IV to keep at bay his critical lords, while it would be quickly reversed via a summit at Amiens between Philip and Edward. There, Philip was meant to re-grant Edward Gascony on friendlier, updated terms. Instead, Philip took the lands and ran with them, though there is discrepancy as to whether he meant to do so all along, or whether he was forced to due to political pressure.
After a serious illness in the autumn of 1294, Edmund prepared to handle the catastrophe for his brother through military campaign. Unfortunately, during a siege of Bayonne, the English ran out of money and the army disbanded, a humiliating blow to a royal prince and a man with as much military experience as Edmund.
Aged 51, Edmund once more fell ill in Bayonne and passed away. At the time, he was regarded as having died of a broken heart. His body was brought back to England and interred with his first wife’s in Westminster Abbey.