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.
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.
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.
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.
There have been two English Holy Roman Empresses in history. The first was the more famous one, Henry I’s daughter, Matilda, who would end up in a struggle for the English throne with her cousin, King Stephen, during the Anarchy (1135-1154). And then there was Princess Isabella, daughter of King John and younger sister of Henry III.
Isabella had the great misfortune of being born the daughter of one of the worst kings of England and, in my opinion, one of the least sympathetic women of the Middle Ages, Isabella of Angouleme. Their marriage was ill-advised from the get-go, though the future Empress, born at the tail end of her father’s life, in 1214, missed most of the drama. She joined two older brothers, Henry and Richard, in the royal nursery, as well as a sister, Joan. The following year, as their father was forced to sign the Magna Carta, a final child, Eleanor, was born.
One of the most pivotal Plantagenet reigns was that of Edward III between 1327 and 1377. Part of that is due to its sheer length – 50 years would be a remarkable reign today, so imagine how that felt in the 14th century. Another facet is everything that was accomplished during that time, not least of which were strategic victories against the French at Crecy and Poitiers. But its greatest legacy was the dynasty that Edward left behind, one which in some respects was night and day from the England which he inherited as an adolescent, and in others was an eerie mirror image of it.
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.
Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainaut are best-remembered for their plethora of sons, but between them they also produced five daughters, the eldest of whom was Isabella of England. Believed to be her father’s favorite, Isabella was born at Woodstock Castle on June 16, 1332 and named for her paternal grandmother, Isabelle of France.
Fun fact: Henry VIII was not the first monarch to divorce their spouse from the throne. That auspicious honor goes to none other than King John, who, upon ascending the throne in 1199, divorced his wife, Isabel of Gloucester, and married the young Isabella of Angouleme. There are a few reasons why this divorce is of less fame, though it was its own 13th century scandal at the time. For one, this would be John’s only divorce and he stopped at two wives. Secondly, there was no religious component – the annulment, for all its detractors, was approved. And finally, instead of casting aside a princess and marrying an Englishwoman, John did the reverse. Isabel of Gloucester was no Katherine of Aragon and she didn’t have the familial ties of claiming relation to the Holy Roman Emperor. For that matter, we don’t know whether Isabel had any desire to stay married to John in the first place.
Which brings us to Isabella of Angouleme, who had one notable characteristic in common with Anne Boleyn – they were both wildly detested by the public.
There once was a woman who married the King of France and the King of England, and her name was Eleanor of Aquitaine. You might have heard of her. Not only did she marry her way into two of the most prestigious European dynasties, she also divorced a king on her way to doing so. Consider the outrage and disdain with which Wallis Simpson was met in the 1930s and compare that with the fact that Eleanor went through a divorce and came out on top back in the 12th century. Let’s just say there’s a reason she’s famous.