Eleanor of Provence (1223-91)

She was the second of four daughters of Raymond Berenger V, the Count of Provence, and his wife Beatrice of Savoy. Her older sister Margaret had been married to Louis IX, King of France, almost two years earlier. That marriage had been the work of Louis’s mother, Blanche of Castile, who had her eye on Provence as another acquisition for the French Crown. Some of those earlier acquisitions had come from the English Crown, which Henry III wanted back. His decision to marry Eleanor was part of pursuing that policy.

If Eleanor of Provence was 12-years old at the time of her marriage to Henry in January 1236, we may guess that she was born around 1223. She was fortunate that her husband, who was 16 years her senior, was a pious, sensitive type who had never been with a woman before. Henry made gifts to his new bride and saw to her comfort. Learning that she loved Arthurian romances, he took her to Glastonbury to see what were reputed to be the graves of Arthur and Guinevere.

Given his young wife’s fondness for gardens, Henry made sure she had one at all their country retreats. The finest was at Woodstock north of Oxford, but in 1238 they had a harrowing call there when a would-be assassin slipped in through the window one night. He found the king’s chamber empty because Henry was with Eleanor in her bed. One of the queen’s damsels spotted the intruder and raised the alarm. He was apprehended and executed. A few weeks later, Eleanor discovered she was pregnant.

She gave birth to their first child, Edward, in June 1239. She next gave birth to a daughter Margaret in 1240. Eighteen months later she was nearing the end of another pregnancy when she accompanied her husband and his expeditionary force to Gascony, which was his last overseas possession. Henry was aiming to recover Poitou to the north, but his French allies had made such a mess of their plans that he was almost captured by Louis and his army not long after landing. Eleanor gave birth in the meantime to another daughter, Beatrice, in Bordeaux.

She and Henry returned to England in late 1243. Eleanor helped arrange the marriage of her sister Sanchia to Henry’s brother, Richard of Cornwall. It was hoped that it would strengthen English claims to Provence, but Raymond Berenger named his youngest daughter Beatrice as his successor. When he died in 1245, Blanche of Castile swooped in and got her for her youngest son Charles of Anjou, who then moved in and took Provence for himself.

That same year Eleanor gave birth to a second son, Edmund. By this time, she was raising her young family at Windsor. In 1246, 7-year-old Edward fell ill while the family was visiting Beaulieu Abbey and Eleanor insisted on nursing him back to health herself. It created something of a scandal because she had to stay within the confines of the abbey, where women were not permitted.

In March 1250, Eleanor joined her husband in vowing to go on crusade. They were going to follow Louis and her sister Margaret, who had left for the Holy Land two years earlier. Since crusading would take them overseas for several years, Henry and Eleanor decided to hold the contracted marriage of their daughter Margaret to King Alexander III of Scotland, even though both were only about 10-years old. The ceremony was held in York in December 1251.

The following year proved the most fraught in her own marriage. She and Henry clashed over the patronage of one church and a similar conflict between their relatives revealed growing divisions at court. These had begun a decade earlier when Henry recruited Eleanor’s uncles from Savoy to enter his service. He wanted them as allies in his struggle with France. Eleanor was all for it, but she had reservations when the king also brought his Lusignan half-siblings from his mother’s second marriage to England. He needed their support to secure Gascony, but they were also ready competitors for his favours.

The king and queen quickly reconciled and she found herself pregnant. She had not had a child in eight years. She could have had miscarriages or stillbirths, but the claim in a later century that she had had two children before this time and two after it is unfounded. Whether the pregnancy was planned or not, Henry was putting together another expeditionary force to go to Gascony to save it from the mess created by Simon. In July 1253, the king named Eleanor as his regent. In November, she gave birth to Katherine, their last child. A month later, as the acting head of state, she became the first woman to send out a writ of summons to Parliament.

Together with her brother-in-law Richard of Cornwall, she lobbied Parliament for a tax because it looked as if war was imminent between Henry in Gascony and the new king of neighbouring Castile, Alfonso X. The assembly ended inconclusively, so in February 1254 Eleanor of Provence summoned another Parliament, this time with local knights elected by the counties. It was an historic occasion, because for the first time Parliament met with a democratic mandate.

War was averted by having Edward, now 15-years old, marry Alfonso’s half-sister. Eleanor accompanied her son to Gascony, which her husband had brought under control. While Edward went off to Spain to get married, Eleanor and Henry headed north to meet Louis and Margaret, who were back after six years abroad. Their crusade had been an unmitigated disaster, with Louis captured by the forces of the sultan, and Margaret, who was about to give birth, having to rush around to organise his ransom.

Eleanor and Margaret had not seen each other in 18 years and they were joined by their other two sisters Sanchia and Beatrice and their mother. Henry and Louis, both former boy kings, took an instant liking to each other. Although Henry was loath to give up his claims to former Angevin lands, the meeting put both kingdoms on a course towards achieving that elusive peace.

While abroad, Henry and Eleanor worked on a scheme to make 10-year-old Edmund the King of Sicily, the result of a schism between the papacy and Holy Roman Empire that arose in the 1240s. Despite Edmund’s young age, Henry accepted the throne for their son for two reasons. Edward’s marriage had required a huge endowment of land that left nothing for Edmund and Henry had spent all of his treasure saving Gascony. He had nothing left for his crusade. The only chance he could keep his vow was if it was commuted to Sicily.

It was not to be because of the papacy’s imperious attitude towards the English clergy. Other setbacks in these years included an uprising in Wales, which threatened Edward’s own inheritance, and the court became rent with factionalism as Henry’s store of patronage dried up. Poor weather in the late 1250s ruined crops and brought on famine. Then in 1257 came the death of young Katherine, who had developed a disorder early in life. Both parents were distraught and suffered nervous breakdowns.

There was nevertheless still some hope of making Sicily work when Henry summoned Parliament in 1258 to ask the barons to chip in. They agreed to do what they could in return for the king carrying out certain reforms of the realm. By this time, the queen was worried about the influence of the king’s half-brothers over Edward. She conspired with seven nobles, Simon de Montfort one of them, to oust their Lusignan faction from power during Parliament. It turned out better than she had hoped. They were exiled from the realm.

The peace treaty was ratified in Paris in December 1259. The king and queen spent Christmas with the French royal pair and in January attended the wedding of their daughter Beatrice to John of Brittany. They did not return to England afterwards, however, because rumours reached them that Simon de Montfort, angry over his wife’s outstanding claims against the Crown, was raising sedition and that he had recruited Edward to his cause. All opposition drifted away when Henry marched into London in April with a strong force of foreign knights. Edward was also reconciled with his mother, who was said to be ‘the cause of the whole trouble’.

In the summer of 1262, Eleanor’s daughter Beatrice gave birth to her first grandson, a boy named Arthur. The following year Simon returned to England to lead the Marcher lords in rebellion. The royal family was caught off guard by the blitzkrieg and violence against foreigners. One chronicler identified the queen as the ‘root, the originator, and the sower of all the discord’ in the land. She boarded a barge to seek safety upriver at Windsor, but the crowds were alerted to her flight and gathered on London Bridge. As the oarsmen attempted to shoot one of the arches under the bridge, the mob began pelting her and the other occupants with stones and rotten eggs and calling her ‘whore’ and all kinds of other abuse.

Simon and his men took over the government, but Henry and Edward slowly began to reclaim power. By December, it was decided to go to France and let Louis decide. In his ruling, the Mise of Amiens, he completely quashed the Provisions of Oxford. The Montfortians refused to accept his award and war broke out again. Henry was on the verge of winning it when at the battle of Lewes in May 1264 Simon exploited a major error on Edward’s part and won the day. He captured both him and the king and once again installed a constitutional monarchy.

Eleanor wasn’t there because she had stayed behind in France. Hearing of the disaster, she gathered a huge army in Flanders for an invasion. Reluctantly, she agreed to hold back the signal to launch while a papal legate tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The legate was out of his league with someone like Simon and by the time he threw up his hands in disgust, Eleanor had no more money to pay for her army and it disbanded.

She went south to Gascony to rule as the Duchess of Aquitaine and plot her next move against Simon. In May 1265, she had a hand in the landing of royalist troops and securing Edward’s escape. In August, Simon and his men were defeated at the battle of Evesham. Her former friend and ally turned nemesis was killed in the mayhem and chopped up on the battlefield. In late October, Eleanor of Provence returned to England after an exile of two years. She shared in the spoils that came from the disinherited Montfortians.

Henry died in November 1272. Eleanor looked after her brood of grandchildren until their parents arrived from the east. Edward’s coronation was held in August 1274. It was a grand affair and the last time Eleanor had all her children together. Then tragedy struck as her beloved grandson Henry, the heir to the throne, died aged six, followed by Edmund’s wife in childbirth. Early the next year both her daughters, still only in their 30s, died in quick succession.

Approaching her 60s, Eleanor retired at the nunnery of Amesbury. She was supposed to be buried in Westminster Abbey next to him, but her daughter-in-law Eleanor of Castile predeceased her and Edward decided she would be the only Queen Eleanor interred in the royal mausoleum. The queen dowager died on June 24th, 1291. Her grave became lost when, in the 16th century, men under Henry VIII plundered and destroyed the church.