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.
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.
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.
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.
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.