Marriage and Fateful Widowhood

This day of 24 April in 1224 should have seen the start of the honeymoon for Eleanor, the youngest daughter of King John, and William, the oldest son of William Marshal. They were married the day before, probably at Westminster Abbey because the court can be found in Westminster at this time. A couple days later it moved to the New Temple outside the walls of London, giving rise to the suggestion that the marriage took place in that church, which would have been quaint given that Marshal was buried there (as would be the groom). The reason there was no honeymoon was because the bride was only around 9 years old. The marriage was obviously a political match that had been first proposed a few years earlier.
   It starts with the death of Marshal, the first regent for Eleanor’s brother King Henry III, in May of 1219. William junior, a former rebel against King John, becomes the 2nd earl of Pembroke. He is holding Fotheringhay Castle, which King Alexander II of Scotland wants back as part of his forthcoming marriage to Henry’s oldest sister Joan. By treaty, Henry himself is supposed to marry Alexander’s oldest sister Margaret, but as she is 15 years older than him, it was decided that she should instead marry an Englishman of some standing. Marshal, a widower with no children and already in his thirties, is interested. Marriage to a princess would give him greater standing and Margaret is about the same age. They could start cohabiting and have children together.
   Henry’s regime, however, is wary of his marriage prospects. He’s rich and powerful and his family has too many connections abroad, especially to the French monarchy. But if they are going to deny him a princess, they would have to find him another one, and Eleanor is it. She’s only 5 years old, well below the age of consent (12), but the big question is disparagement. Magna Carta prohibits the marriage of high-born women to men of lower social status. Henry defends the marriage by calling his sisters his greatest treasure. He wouldn’t waste Eleanor on Marshal unless he’s sure of the benefits. William junior commissions the famous biography of his father at this time perhaps as an attempt to win over doubters about whether his lineage is good enough for the royal family.
   In the end, it’s Marshal’s success against the Welsh that allows the marriage to go forward. Henry appoints him his justiciar of Ireland and sending him there as his brother-in-law gives him the clout he needs to reassert royal authority there. Eleanor remains with her governess in England and it’s not until October of 1229, when she’s about 14, is their marriage consummated. She accompanies William on her brother’s continental expedition in 1230 and it’s hoped they would conceive a child, because William’s heir is his brother Richard, a liege-man of the king of France. Eleanor is still not pregnant a year later when William dies suddenly. She’s thrown into deep mourning, as is her brother the king, who was very fond of William. Little did either realize how his death would change the entire course of Henry’s reign and English history.

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