Sara Cockerill studied law at the University of Oxford. She is a practising QC specialising in commercial law, and the author of a leading specialist legal text. She has had a lifelong interest in English history and has devoted her spare time over the past ten years to researching the life of Eleanor of Castile. ‘Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen’ is her first published work of history and is available from Amberley Publishing. For more information, see www.saracockerill.com or follow her on Facebook.
It is tempting to think that a Queen’s reputation is fixed forever. Catherine of Aragon, for instance, has always been seen as a “good queen”. But often how the queens of the past are seen is as much a factor of the mood of the time as it is of the evidence of their actions and habits.
Rarely can this be seen more clearly than in relation to Eleanor of Castile, Edward I’s adored queen in whose memory he constructed a series of beautiful monuments, the Eleanor Crosses, to mark the route of her funeral procession from Lincoln to London. Today Eleanor is little known – well over ninety percent of the responses I got when announcing that I was writing a book about her were confessions of ignorance. Almost none had heard of the Crosses, still fewer of the stories that she had saved Edward I’s life on crusade – and only the full time historians knew of her role as a very successful businesswoman. But even those who knew most about her would perhaps be astonished to hear the wild variations which her reputation has undergone since her death.
It is often said that Eleanor was unpopular in her lifetime, but there is actually very little evidence for this. Her general reputation, as reported by the chroniclers, is better described as sparse to neutral. Walter of Guisborough tells of a rhyme which a daring squire passed on to the king: “The King would like to get our gold/The queen our manors fair to hold.”, while the Dunstable annalist simply describes Eleanor as: “A Spaniard by birth, who obtained many fine manors”.
The suggestion that Eleanor was unpopular rests principally on an accusation in a letter to her by the Archbishop of Canterbury that her staff’s business practices were giving rise to much scandal around the country. However a close examination of the letter in context indicates that it should not be taken as gospel truth. It is probably fairer to say that on Eleanor’s death the chroniclers’ verdict was the general view, and otherwise attitudes polarised. Those who knew Eleanor personally seem to have mourned her genuinely across the spectrum of society. Her laundress, for example, made a substantial donation in Eleanor’s memory. However those, often magnates, who had crossed her in business, will certainly not have regretted her passing, for she had been a formidable and implacable opponent.
In the years immediately after her death it is the negative voices that were heard the loudest, due to Eleanor’s own request that there be an inquest into the running of her properties. What remains most clearly on the record, therefore, are the complaints about the extremely hardnosed way in which her business empire was run.
But the voice of those who had known her continued to be heard too. In the St Albans chronicle of 1308 a rather good, if rose tinted, view of the real woman was given for the benefit of her son Edward II, who had taken her arms of Castile as his personal badge. Eleanor is said to excel all women of that time in wisdom, in which she is compared to a Sybil; and great stress too was placed on her work in promoting religion. The chronicler goes on to note that she “was tearfully mourned by not a few… she was a pillar of all England, by sex a woman, but in spirit and virtue more like a man..”.
But the process of transformation in the light of current events was not long in coming. By 1327, with the favourite strewn reign of Edward II coming to an end, courtesy of the new King’s foreign friends and Queen’s Isabella’s political alienation, the eulogy was significantly reformed thus to offer a contrast: “[Eleanor] was the most pious, modest and merciful woman, a lover of all the English, …. In her time foreign favourites did not afflict England. The people were not troubled by royal officials, if the slightest suggestion of oppression came to her ears in any way. … she consoled the afflicted everywhere, and wherever she could, she reconciled those in discord.”
For centuries thereafter Eleanor’s story disappeared. When she re-emerged it was again to a clash between two very different reputations – the full story of which was first unpicked in John Carmi Parsons’ “Eleanor of Castile – Queen and Society in Thirteenth Century England”. The first step was at around the time of Mary Tudor’s ill-fated Spanish marriage to King Philip II when anti-Spanish feeling produced a ballad starring an emphatically bad Spanish Queen: Eleanor. It was called “The Lamentable Fall of Queen Eleanor who for her pride and wickedness by Gods Judgment sunke into the ground at Charing Crosse and rose up again at Queen Hive” and Eleanor features as a monster of sin and pride, who wanted all Englishmen close shaved, and all Englishwomen’s right breasts to be cut off, murdered the lady mayoress of London and had a bastard child by a friar. The number of copies of this delightful work which survive, suggest that it enjoyed a considerable vogue.
But by the late sixteenth century, great strides were being made in the study of history and earlier materials about Eleanor surfaced to contrary effect. Thus William Camden in his Britannia had three sources available to him: the crosses, whose significance had been lost, the recently discovered St Albans eulogy and an unreliable Spanish chronicler who had taken as fact an old story of Eleanor having saved Edward’s life on crusade. The three could be artistically linked – and Camden duly did this, creating the fiction that the crosses were erected by Edward in tribute to his wife’s heroic actions. At one stroke of that influential pen, Eleanor went from monster to become the perfect Queen, saving England’s greatest medieval monarch.
Anyone who has seen the touching pictures of Eleanor’s heroics by William Blake, Angelica Kaufmann and others might suppose that this reputation was now secure. But the effects of politics were again to intervene. Within a short space of time Spaniards were once more very unpopular, as a suggestion was made that Elizabeth I’s throne might descend to Isabella, the daughter of Philip of Spain, rather than the descendants of Mary Queen of Scots, with their French associations. The idea might now seem bizarre, but had some merit: Isabella was descended from both of John of Gaunt’s legitimate daughters, who carried the royal and Lancaster bloodlines.
The effect was dramatic (literally). The “bad Queen Eleanor” ballads were used by George Peele to sex up his play “Edward the First”. The result was hugely popular in the political climate – and also made great theatre (Eleanor’s disappearance into the ground and reappearance elsewhere must have been enormous fun). Consequently Eleanor’s reputation in the early part of the seventeenth century was terrible – and this cannot have helped to save the Eleanor Crosses when they came under scrutiny in the Civil War. Most of the lost crosses were destroyed in these years.
Reaction against republicanism would probably have assisted Eleanor’s reputation in any event after the Restoration, but the cult of the picturesque was to do more – and by the early years of the eighteenth century the surviving crosses were to become the focus of interest, speculation, and restoration. But a particular political situation was to draw yet more attention to Eleanor, and to Camden’s version of her story. For Edward’s position under King Henry III was picked on by supporters of George II’s son Frederick Louis as an analogy, and Camden’s romantic tale became another successful play. But in this play, Eleanor was no monster. Rather she was even more heroic than Camden suggested – sucking away the poison from Edward’s wound in the full knowledge that it would kill her. It was this play, which continued to be performed into the late eighteenth century, which gave rise to those wonderful paintings celebrating Eleanor’s heroism.
For nearly a century Eleanor’s reputation remained on a (rather artificial) pinnacle. Although the truth of the crusade story was soon doubted, the essence of “Good Queen Eleanor” was unchallenged, chiming beautifully with Victorian sentiments about hearth and home. Agnes Strickland’s categorisation of her as one of the “good queens” is well known. More surprising perhaps is the verdict of Beriah Botfield and Thomas Turner. In 1841 they produced, in a book for the Roxburghe Club entitled “Manners and Household Expenses of England in the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Century”, one of the first serious pieces of scholarship on Eleanor: a transcription and analysis of the accounts of her executors. These accounts show that there had been some less than creditable business in the management of Eleanor’s properties, but the authors nonetheless concluded that “No equivocal reputation is associated with Eleanor of Castile. She never … failed to perform the gentle and peaceful duties which belonged to [her position]. The memory of her unobtrusive virtues and worth passed away with those who witnessed, or were the objects of her care and solicitude.”
But from the mid-nineteenth century the tide was turning again. The executors’ accounts joined with the publication of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letters to force a consciousness that Eleanor was not the sweet sacrificial consort of the stage and art gallery. The word “grasping” began to be heard. And as more rigorous historical scholarship forced a focus on the contemporaneous correspondence – most of which does focus on the more difficult aspects of Eleanor’s character – the academic consensus began to be that Eleanor was in many ways the obverse of her Victorian reputation. Eleanor’s public reputation has perhaps disappeared precisely because of the difficulties in synthesising a view on a woman who indubitably exercised her considerable abilities with such force that the Archbishop might warn a prominent Abbess that “if she knew what was good for her” she would not cross the Queen; and who yet won from her “great and terrible” husband a most astonishing outpouring of affectionate remembrance.
I hope that from a twenty-first century perspective, readers will find it less implausible than earlier generations to recognise that it is possible for a woman of high abilities to dominate in a professional capacity without being a monster; and that such a woman can still be, as the records clearly show Eleanor to have been, an amusing companion, a good friend, a caring mother and a superlative wife.