In August of 1253, King Henry III sailed to Gascony to put down an uprising against his recalled lieutenant Simon de Montfort. Before leaving, he named his wife Eleanor of Provence to govern the realm in his absence, adding that his brother Richard of Cornwall should assist her. Because Eleanor was pregnant at the time, modern historians have assumed that Richard did the real work of the regency. One look at the rolls shows it’s a completely misplaced argument. Eleanor issued the majority of letters, sometimes with Richard and other councilors, but often alone.
On this day of 25 November, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter Katherine, her first child in 8 years, but even on that day she had a writ issued. Katherine was two months old when the queen, as the head of state, convened parliament to seek funds for Henry’s expedition. The outcome was inconclusive, so acting with the advice of her council she ordered the shires to elect local representatives for the next parliament, the first democratic mandate of that institution. Although Eleanor’s name alone appears on one of the writs to the sheriffs, historians again like to credit Richard for this innovation.
Not until May of 1254, when Eleanor left for Gascony, did Richard become full-time regent, but even then he wasn’t the first choice of the council. Eleanor took her 14-year old son Edward with her, but the other children remained behind. When she and Henry returned at the end of the year, it must have been clear there was something wrong with Katherine. She was sent away to the countryside in Berkshire in the hope of improving her health, and in one touching letter Henry asked the local keeper to catch a roe deer as a pet for his daughter. The little girl, described as beautiful but unable to speak, died in May of 1257. Her parents were inconsolable. Later they had a magnificent tomb built for her in Westminster Abbey.