The Early Years of Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Eleanor of Aquitaine stands as one of the most recognizable names from the Middle Ages. For those who know a bit about her, her status as an heiress in her own right might come to mind, as might her rather shocking divorce from the king of France. In fact, the period of time that truly solidified Eleanor’s reputation for the better came much later in life, after the death of her husband, Henry II, and while her son, Richard I, sat on the throne. Her efficient administration and tireless survey of his estates, combined with her famous beauty and colorful past, helped cement her status as a woman worth knowing. Yet, a significant chunk of time in-between, the period of her second marriage and when she was in fact the queen of England, was altogether quieter in its early years.

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Lionheart’s Wife: Berengaria of Navarre

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Berengaria of Navarre, wife of Richard I, is perhaps the least-known and easiest to forget queen consort in English history. Indeed, for the entirety of her husband’s reign she never once set foot in his country and without any children to anchor her to the Plantagenet dynasty, his death untethered her and easily removed her fingerprints from history. Nevertheless, her husband is one of England best-known monarchs thanks to his military prowess, his role in the Crusades and a rather catchy nickname – “the Lionheart” – that keeps his memory alive. For nearly eight years, Berengaria was his wife.

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Joan of England & the Black Death

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Joan of England came into the world at some point between December 1333 and February 1334, the second daughter and third child of Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainaut. By the time of her birth, the succession had been secured via her elder brother, Prince Edward, and an elder sister, Isabel, while the minority government held by her grandmother, Isabelle of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, had been cast aside by her father a few years previously.

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The Younger Brother & Almost King: Edmund Crouchback

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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.

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A Clash of Church & State: The Murder of Thomas Becket

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“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest,” said Henry II to his councilors. And with the alacrity of men whose fortunes rose and fell with the pleasure of their king, they leapt at the chance to murder Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury one December night in 1170. The phrasing gave Henry plausible deniability, or the so the legend goes, for it allowed him distance from the crime – offered him room to say his words were misinterpreted. Today the words are held up as an example for how leaders have a responsibility to wield their power responsibly.

The phrasing reaches us thanks to the oral tradition of storytelling in subsequent centuries and the chances of those exact words coming from Henry’s lips are slim. Even so, the fact remains that at one time the King of England had the Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated, ushering in a violent clash between the state and the church and calling into question who was more powerful, king or pope?

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The Much-Detested Eleanor of Provence

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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.

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The Child Queen, Isabelle of Valois

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Isabelle of Valois was born on November 9, 1389 to Charles VI of France and Isabeau of Bavaria. Though she would eventually become the eldest of her parents’ children to reach adulthood, at the time of her birth she joined an older sister, Jeanne, and followed a son, Charles, who died as an infant. Jeanne died in 1390 and was followed by another Jeanne in 1391, Charles in 1392, Marie in 1393 and Michelle in 1395. These would make up the siblings that Isabelle grew up with before her first marriage.

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Margaret Plantagenet, Queen of Scotland

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Before Margaret Tudor married James IV of Scotland in 1503, there was another English Margaret who married a king of Scotland. And while this marriage didn’t bring about Great Britain, it did put the wheels in motion for what would lead to the wars between England and Scotland during the reign of Margaret’s brother, Edward I, solidifying centuries of tension between the two countries.

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The First Princess of Wales

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If there ever was a case study for a Medieval woman’s life taking the shape of a romance novel plot, it would be Joan of Kent, England’s first Princess of Wales. Born “royal adjacent,” she grew up close to the throne, married three times (though not all of them were legal), delivered seven children and constantly found herself going up against the power brokers of court and the Vatican.

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Edward I’s Second Wife, Marguerite of France

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On November 28, 1290, Eleanor of Castile, Queen of England and wife of Edward I died at the age of 49. Her widower erected 12 statues to mark the procession of her body from Nottingham where she died to Westminster Abbey in London where she was buried. Edward’s marriage to Eleanor was arranged, but over the years it solidified into a love match and when she died, he genuinely mourned her. Had he not been king, he likely wouldn’t have married again.

As it was, despite 16 pregnancies over the course of their marriage, Eleanor only produced one son who reached maturity, Prince Edward. Given the mortality rate, particularly for children (Prince Edward was only six when his mother died), it was in the national interest that Edward take a second wife. He did just that nine years later when he married Marguerite of France, sister to King Philip IV of France.

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