Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Eleanor of Castile, Queen of England

Eleanor of Castile, queen of England (died 28 November 1290)


First of all, Eleanor of Castile, queen of England, is not to be confused with Eleanor of England, queen of Castile. Got that? 

Eleanor of Castile's tomb effigy,
Westerminster Abbey
Eleanor of England (1162-1214) was the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine--she was married to Alfonso VIII of Castile in 1177. Eleanor of England's namesake, Eleanor of Castile, is her great-granddaughter, the daughter of Ferdinand III of Castile and his second wife, Joan of Dammartin, countess of Ponthieu in her own right. (By the way, I'll be posting about Eleanor of Aquitaine next month.)

Our Eleanor married Edward of England, the son and heir of Henry III of England; when Edward succeeded his father as king of England, becoming Edward I, Eleanor of Castile became queen consort of England. 

(Interestingly, there were plans for Joan of Dammartin, Eleanor of Castile's mother, to have married Henry III of England, Eleanor of England's brother. Sheesh! All this gets so complicated!) 

Eleanor of Castile was probably born in the year 1241. On the first anniversary of her death, the commemoration included forty-nine candle-bearers, one for each year of her life--thus suggesting the year of her birth. 

As John Carmi Parsons writes in his study of Eleanor of Castile, "A single paragraph would suffice to state the year of her birth and all that is known of her life in Castile, but pages are needed for the negotiations preceding her marriage in 1254, and the sources thereafter fall silent again until Edward's accession in 1272."

About Eleanor of Castile's early life, Parsons notes that is is "unlikedly that Eleanor was raised like her half-brothers, in spartan conditions." She seems to have imbibed the values and ideals of chivalric culture in a royal court that was both cultured and cosmopolitan. 

As a queen, Eleanor gave birth to sixteen children between 1255 and 1284, six of them surviving into adulthood--the youngest, Edward of Caernarvon, succeeded his father as Edward II. She accompanied her husband to the Holy Land on the Eighth Crusade, leaving England in 1270. Eleanor gave birth to two daughter while she was in Palestine, only one of whom, Joan of Acre, born in April of 1272, survived. The royal couple learned of the death of Henry III on November 1272 while on their trip back to England (they were in Sicily when they received the news in December). The couple were crowned on 19 August 1274. In 1279, Eleanor succeeded her mother as countess of Ponthieu.

As queen, Eleanor took up the business of queens, negotiating marriages for her royal family (mostly her maternal relatives), her "matrimonial ventures" avoiding the kinds of opposition and suspicion that her mother-in-law Eleanor of Provence had encountered. By contrast, Eleanor of Castile's arrangements were "businesslike," with the aim of generating loyalty to the crown through these marital alliances rather than personal gain. 

Eleanor had spent her childhood in "the most aggressively literary court in Europe"; as an adult, she established scriptoria for the production of books, was a patron of literature, and commissioned writing both secular (an Arthurian romance, for example, and the life of a count of Ponthieu) and spiritual--several noted psalters were produced for her. 

She was also a patron of the emerging universities at Oxford and Cambridge, supported the Dominican order and the foundation of numerous Dominican institutions, and popularized the incorporation of tapestries and carpets in domestic spaces and specially designed gardens in exterior spaces. 

After she died in 1290, her husband constructed a series of crosses to mark each day's stage as her body traveled from Lincoln to Westerminster Abbey. At each of the twelve overnight stops, an Eleanor Cross was erected (giving the name to London's Charing Cross). Three of the original crosses remain (Geddington, Hardingstone, Waltham). 

The surviving Eleanor Cross
at Geddington (Northamptonshire)
Given the limits of the evidence about Eleanor of Castile's life, Parsons's work is not a biography but, as I noted above, a study: Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England. Parsons focuses a great deal of attention on medieval queenship in his analysis of Eleanor's accounts and her administration of household, her wardrobe, exchequer, and treasury records, and her administration of her lands. 

While all "foreign" queens suffered from some degree of suspicion and gossip (as we have seen with Isabeau of Bavaria, queen of France, to name just one example), Eleanor of Castile's property deals caused controversy--providing another rich source of information about her. As Parson notes, the queen "acquired a great amount of land by means that were often questionable, and popular reaction was negative." 

In a wonderful section of his book, "Outcry and Gossip, Rumor and Scandal," Parsons analyzes correspondence (and the and the rumors, complaints, and gossip they conveyed in these letters), petitions, contemporary verse ("The king desires to get our gold / The queen our manors fair to hold"), and chroniclers ("a Spaniard by birth, who acquired many fine manors") that were either addressed to the queen or were written about the queen.