Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Eleanor of Provence, Queen and Regent of England

Eleanor of Provence, queen of England (married 14 January 1236)

Eleanor of Provence was one of the four daughters of Berengar, count of Provence, and his wife, Beatrice of Savoy--born around the year 1223, Eleanor was the second of the sisters. Her elder sister, Margaret, was born in 1221; following Eleanor's birth was Sanchia, born c. 1228; and Beatrice, born c. 1231.

Notably, these four sisters would all become queens. Margaret of Provence was married to Louis IX of France in 1234. As queen of France, Margaret was the daughter-in-law of a powerful female politician, Blanche of Castile. Margaret's marriage to the French king in 1234 raised the profile of the remaining daughters of the count of Provence and his wife.

This head, in the Muniment Room of
Westerminster Abbey, is believed to
represent Eleanor of Provence,
c. 1250s
Sanchia of Provence (died 1261) was married in 1243 to Richard, earl of Cornwall. Although he was an English prince (the second son of King John), Richard was elected as king of the Germans in 1256 and, a year later, as king of the Romans (though he made only four trips to Germany before he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1271). 

Beatrice (died 1267), who inherited Provence from her father, was married to Charles I of Anjou (Louis IX's brother) in 1246. According to one story, when she and her husband were in Paris for a Christmas gathering in 1254, when all four sisters and their spouses were together, Queen Margaret refused to seat Beatrice with the sisters who were queens--because Beatrice was not a queen. Charles promised to make Beatrice a queen--he kept his promise by invading and conquering Sicily. He became king of Sicily in 1266, making Beatrice the queen of Sicily on 12 February of that year. She enjoyed her title only briefly, dying in September 1267. 

As for Eleanor, she was the second of the sisters and the second of the four daughters to marry. She was only twelve when she was married to to the twenty-eight-year-old King Henry III of England, at Canterbury Cathedral on 12 January 1236. 

A romantic story exists that Henry's younger brother, Richard, earl of Cornwall (he would later marry Sanchia, the third sister), who had visited Savoy on his way to fight in the Holy Land, extolled the beauty of Eleanor to his brother, causing the king to abandon his negotiations for a marriage with Joan, countess of Ponthieu and decide to marry Eleanor instead. 

A manuscript illustration of
the marriage of Elanor of Provence
 and Henry III, king of England
Widely recognized for her beauty, her education, and her courtly accomplishments--she wrote poetry--Eleanor was beloved by her husband and heartily disliked by the people of England, in particular Londoners. The fact that she brought no dowry with her did not help her reputation.

Eleanor was attended in England by a number of her Savoyard relatives, and her devoted husband granted them influential and lucrative positions in government--and for this reason, she (rather than Henry) was the target of resentment, unrest, and friction. (She was also blamed for tax increases.)

The fact that one of these influential Savoyards was her uncle, William, did not help matters either--he had been involved in the negotiations over Eleanor's dowry, which had resulted in no money accompanying her to England--only the promise of some money that never materialized.

Together the couple had five children, the eldest of whom, Edward (b. 1239), became King Edward I following the death of Henry in 1272.

Despite resentment and outright hostility. Henry left his queen as regent of England in 1253 when he launched a military expedition in Gascony. (He named his brother, Richard, as co-counsel, not as co-regent.) Her insistence on collecting taxes and fines, intended to help fund her husband's war efforts, caused even more resentment.  

Her role as regent was limited, however; early in 1254, she left for Gascony with her son, Edward, to seal the peace her husband had won--the young prince was to be married to Eleanor of Castile, the daughter of Alfonso of Castile, Henry's opponent in Gascony. 

In 1264, the queen was the flashpoint in one of the most serious rebellions during Henry's reign, known as the Second Barons' War--her barge was attacked by Londoners as she left the Tower, Eleanor pelted with mud and rotten vegetables. A failed attempt at arbitration by the French king left Eleanor in France, with Henry returning to fight to subdue his recalcitrant barons.

But things went horribly awry at the battle of Lewes, with the king, his brother, Richard of Cornwall, and Prince Edward all taken prisoner. The barons ordered Eleanor to join her husband in captivity. Instead, she began plotting an invasion of England to come to his defense. 

Another manuscript illustration of Henry and Eleanor.

By the fall of 1264, she had a significant force ready on the Flemish coast, but she was trapped there by bad weather for several months. Without money to pay her troops, she was unable to retain them. But early in the next year, Edward escaped his imprisonment, raised his own army, and defeated the barons, restoring his father to power. Eleanor rejoined him in November of 1265. 

Having regained the throne, Henry concentrated on securing the hard-won peace. Increasingly ill, he named his son as Steward of England (though Edward would leave on crusade in 1270) and focused on his spiritual health and his religious devotions. 

After King Henry III's death in 1272, the dowager queen remained briefly at court, caring in particular for her grandchildren, but after the deaths, in 1274 and 1275, of her grandson, Henry, and two daughters, Margaret and Beatrice, she retired to the convent of Amesbury. She died there in 1291.

Letters from and to Eleanor of Provence, queen of England, can be found at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters, accessed by clicking here. The Epistolae site also includes a very good biographical essay. There is also a brief entry on Eleanor in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The most complete treatment is Margaret Howell's Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England.

For a wonderful biography of all four sisters from Provence, see Nancy Goldstone's Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe

For a post on Garsenda of Forcalquier, the grandmother of Eleanor and her sisters, click here.

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