Christine de Pizan

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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Eleanor of England, countess of Pembroke and Leicester

Eleanor of England, countess of Pembroke and Leicester (died 13 April 1275)

Eleanor of England,
from a fourteenth-century
genealogical roll
Probably born in the year 1215, Eleanor of England, named in honor of her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was the daughter John, king of England, and his second wife, Isabelle, countess (in her own right) of Angoulême. 

In order to marry Isabelle of Angoulême, King John had to have his first marriage, to Isabel, countess (in her own right) of Gloucester, annulled--he not only dissolved this inconvenient marriage, he managed to keep his discarded wife's "person" and her lands in his control, but that is another story . . . 

And then, aside from disentangling himself from his own wife, John faced another small difficulty before he could marry Isabelle of Angoulême--she was already betrothed to Hugh IX of Lusignan and living with his family. But that too proved no problem for the determined English king. Isabelle's father "abducted" his twelve-year-old daughter in order for this more desirable match to be made. Isabelle married John on 24 August 1200 in Angoulême.

The marriage caused disaffection and rebellion among the Lusignan family and its allies, and although John eventually prevailed, he also wound up losing Normandy. In a peculiar twist, while John was fighting in France, his second wife seems to have been placed, at least for a while, in the care of his discarded first wife, Isabella of Gloucester.  

John thus spent much of his time during the first years of his second marriage, at least through 1206, fighting on the continent. (A final truce with Hugh IX of Lusignan wasn't settled until 1214.) Either because of their separations or because of Isabella's extreme youth at the time of her marriage, Isabelle bore no child until 1207, when a son and heir, Henry, was born. Four children followed: a second son, Richard, in 1209, and three daughters, Joan (b. 1210), Isabella (b. c. 1214), and Eleanor (b. c. 1215). 

King John died in October 1216, less than a year after Eleanor's birth. After arranging for the coronation of her son, Henry, Queen Isabelle promptly left England for Angoulême, which she held in her own right. The dower queen thereafter married Hugh X of Lusignan, son of the man to whom she had been originally betrothed. In one final note of weirdness, Isabelle had taken her eldest daughter, Joan, with her when she returned to the continent, and it was Joan, not Isabelle, who had been intended as Hugh X's bride . . .

With all that as a preliminary, we can now turn our attention to Eleanor, the youngest of the royal children. Very little is known of her early childhood. After the death of her father and the departure of her mother for the continent, Eleanor and her elder sister, Isabella, were placed in the guardianship of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, one of King John's most loyal supporters. Payments for her household survive in the records of the bishopric of Winchester from the years 1217 to 1221.

As Eleanor's recent biographer, Louise Wilkinson, notes, little information survives about Eleanor's education, though she was literate and would have "received instruction in the Bible and other religious works." Letters to her, written in the 1240s by Adam Marsh, a Franciscan friar, contain references to many biblical passages as well as to "Christian models of acceptable feminine behaviour," suggesting something of the education to which she must have been subjected. I appreciate the succinct comment here of the great nineteenth-century historian Mary Anne Everett Green; writing about Eleanor's "early education," she notes, "Small, however, was the modicum of learning which was considered sufficient for females even of the highest rank."

Whatever her childhood upbringing, at some point before 1219 she was betrothed to the eldest son of William Marshall, first earl of Pembroke, her brother's protector and regent of England during the young king's minority. Eleanor was married to William Marshall, second earl of Pembroke, on 23 April 1224--she was nine years old, her husband, thirty-four. (Another one for "traditional marriage"!) Given her age, Eleanor remained at her brother's court, and her marriage was likely not consummated until 1229, when she was fifteen.
A thirteenth-century
depiction of
Eleanor of England,
as countess of Pembroke
As the sister of Henry III, Eleanor brought her connections to the royal family with her as a marriage portion, though the young king eventually settled upon her ten manors that were to provide her with a dower income in the case that she were widowed. This gift was made in 1229, probably at the time of the consummation of Eleanor's marriage. 

Although Eleanor accompanied her husband as he traveled throughout England, France, and Ireland, she did not bear him any children, and he died not long after their marriage, on 15 April 1231. 

The second earl of Pembroke's brother and heir, the third earl, sold Eleanor's estates in order to pay her husband's debts, and the various arrangements that had been negotiated for her support at the time of her marriage were not honored. Increasing tensions between Henry III and Eleanor's brother-in-law, Richard, also complicated matters.

Wilkinson suggests that Eleanor's subsequent vow of chastity, which she took in 1234, was perhaps made as part of her struggle over her dower rights. Green, more fancifully, attributes the "public and solemn vow" to the young widow's grief.

Eleanor spent the next years at her brother's court and at the castle of Odiham, in Hampshire, which the king gave her in 1237. But on 7 January 1238, Eleanor broke her vow of chastity and married Simon de Montfort in a secret ceremony in Winchester.

Although the couple married with the king's approval, the clandestine union resulted in a scandal--while a pregnant Eleanor remained in England, no longer at court but sent by her brother to Kenilworth Castle, Simon traveled to Rome in order to get a papal dispensation (after the fact). A victorious Simon de Montfort returned to England in October 1238, with time to spare before the birth of the couple's first son, Henry de Montfort, in November.

What survives of Odiham Castle,
In February 1239, Simon de Montfort was invested as sixth earl of Leicester, a sign of the king's favor, and a few months later, he was one of the godfathers named for Edward, Henry III's son and heir. On this occasion, Eleanor returned to court for the first time since her marriage.

But the couple were soon in conflict with Henry. In August, on the occasion of the queen's churching, the king, who seemed to have been enraged over the couple's debts, claimed that Simon had "seduced his sister" and that he had allowed their marriage only to avoid scandal. 

Eleanor and her husband left England for the continent. Simon de Montfort returned briefly to England in 1239, welcomed once more by the king, but in 1240 he left to go on crusade in the Holy Land. Eleanor does not seem to have returned to England at this time. While her husband was on his crusade, she gave birth to a second son, named Simon, after his father.

On Simon's return from crusade, the couple went back to England, and the earl joined Henry III's 1242 campaign against the French king. The queen and women of the court followed the men to France, as did Eleanor, presumably--she gave birth to a third son, Amalric, in 1242 or 1243.

Over the course of the next few years, Simon de Montfort served his brother-in-law, the English king, in a number of ways, fighting with Henry in Wales, acting as his representative in Gascony, undertaking diplomatic missions in France and Scotland, defending the king against his subjects' discontent in the late 1250s.

Throughout these years, Eleanor's principal residence was at Kenilworth, though she did travel with her husband at times (notably, her daughter, Joanna, was born in Bordeaux). She gave birth to four more children: Guy (b. 1244), Joanna (born and died between 1248 and 1251), Richard (b. 1252), and Eleanor (b. 1258). 

But the king's increasingly erratic behavior resulted in increasing baronial opposition, and by 1258, Henry had been forced to come to terms and signed the Provisions of Oxford, agreeing to a council of barons and to calling a parliament every three years. Although he sought--and was given--a papal dispensation, releasing him from this oath, civil war loomed. During the conflict, Simon de Montfort joined the opposition, and fled to France in 1262, returning in 1263 when civil war broke out.

Simon de Montfort proved victorious and took control of the government, becoming de facto ruler of the realm, but his victory was short-lived, and the king regained some measure of control. The ongoing conflict of the Second Baron's War lasted from 1264 to 1267.

It was during this period that Eleanor de Montfort took on a notable role beyond that of the medieval noblewoman. At times, from her manor of Odiham, "she acted as a communication hub between her husband and sons as they took control of key areas of the country while networking with supporters, including the Bishops of Lincoln and Worcester, and housing prisoners such as the royalist Sir Robert de Brus" (for the English Heritage discussion of Eleanor de Montfort's role during the Second Baron's War, click here).

Along with her husband, she also presided over a great Christmas court at Kenilworth in 1264, but by 19 February of the following year, she was in Wallingford. On the 21st, she was in Reading, and then back at her manor, Odiham. 

After learning that Prince Edward had escaped from custody on 28 May 1265, Eleanor moved quickly to Dover Castle, "where she could hope to influence the important Cinque Ports (the confederation of the five ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Sandwich and Dover)." Surviving household records show the haste of her journey: she left Odiham, traveling all night to reach Porchester the next morning; she stayed in Porchester until 12 June, arriving in Wilmington on the 13th; she was on to Winchelsea on the 14th, and arrived in Dover the next day. 

There she remained, in control of the castle, shoring up its defenses by bringing in a siege engine and an engineer. But on 4 August, Eleanor de Montfort's husband and eldest son were both killed at the battle of Evesham by Prince Edward and his allies. Rather than surrendering the castle, Eleanor remained in Dover. She worked desperately to save her remaining children, securing Richard and Almaric's safe departure for the continent, for example,* and she did her best for her remaining allies. But she was soon under siege:
Attacked from both within and without, Eleanor negotiated a settlement in which she was exiled to the continent, all goods in the castle other than personal clothes and arms were handed over to the king, but her supporters would receive pardons. The success of her negotiations is shown by the fact that at least one of the men with her at Dover, the deputy constable Sir John de la Haye, had his lands returned to him as early as 9 November.

The great tower of Dover Castle,
the where Eleanor de Montfort held out against
Prince Edward and his army

Having secured her own safe passage, Eleanor of England, countess of Pembroke and Leicester, left England on 28 October 1265 and made her way to France, eventually entering into the Dominican abbey of Montargis, which had been founded by Simon de Montfort's sister, Amicie. By the terms of a settlement reached with Henry III, she received an annual payment of 500 pounds from her dower lands and financial provision for Simon, now his father's heir. Not satisfied, she continued her negotiations; eventually a further settlement was reached for herself and for her surviving children. Nevertheless, she continued to make claims about moneys owed to her at least through 1273.

Eleanor died at Montargis on 13 April 1275.

I've linked above to Louise J. Wilkerson's biography, Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England. I do have a great deal of fondness for Mary Anne Everett Green's multi-volume Lives of the Princesses of England, from the Norman Conquest (Eleanor of England's chapters are in the second volume)--with its exhaustive use of documentary evidence, it remains an impressive work of scholarship, and her account of Eleanor's life is full and detailed.

The letters written to Eleanor of England by Adam Marsh are found at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters (click here). There is also a wealth of detail from surviving household accounts there, and if you want more, see Wilkerson's The Household Roll of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and Pembroke, 1265: British Library, Additional MS 8877.

To listen to the English Heritage podcast episode "Woman at War: Eleanor de Montford at Dover Castle," click here.

 *Eleanor's son Simon de Montford was at Kenilworth when his father and elder brother died; he was besieged there for six months before escaping and leaving England for the continent. 

Guy de Montfort was held prisoner in Windsor Castle until 1266; he bribed his jailers and rejoined his family in France. 

Eleanor's daughter, also named Eleanor, was thirteen when her father and brother were killed; she left England with her mother and accompanied her mother to Montargis; her father had arranged for her marriage to Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, prince of Wales, and after her mother's death in 1275, the younger Eleanor was married by proxy and set off for Wales with her brother, Almaric. The two were captured en route by their cousin Edward, now king. She was held as a prisoner until 1278, when she was finally released to her Welsh bridegroom. Now princess of Wales, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Gwenllian, in June 1282, but she died during or shortly after childbirth, on 19 June 1282, just thirty years old. 

After Llewellyn ap Gruffydd's death in battle in December 1282, King Edward of England confined Gwenllian of Wales in Sempringham Priory (Lincolnshire). She remained there until her death, fifty-four years later, on 7 June 1337.