“Here lies Eleanor, sometime Queen of England, wife of King Edward son of King Henry, and daughter of the King of Spain and Countess of Ponthieu, on whose soul God in his pity have mercy. Amen.” Norman-French inscription around Eleanor of Castile’s tomb
While researching this enigmatic queen, I found Eleanor of Castile to be unique in many ways. In doing a survey of English queens from the time of William the Conqueror to King Charles II in the early modern period, there were only four queens from the Iberian Peninsula: Berengaria of Navarre, Katherine of Aragon, Catherine of Braganza and Eleanor. Most wives of English kings came from France and England with a few noted exceptions. Eleanor was an intelligent, energetic woman who devoted herself to her husband, travelling with him constantly while directing a property acquisition and management business. And she did all this while having as many as sixteen children!
Eleanor was born in November of 1241 in Burgos. She was the daughter of King Ferdinand III of Castile and his second wife Jeanne de Dammartin, heir to the French county of Ponthieu. There is next to nothing in written records of Eleanor’s childhood. We know from her love of literature and manuscripts later in life that she was educated and literate.
Her marriage was debated when she was very young but nothing serious materialized until a match with Prince Edward, son of King Henry III of England was discussed. The English king had lost much of the royal lands in France brought to the crown by Eleanor of Aquitaine with the duchy of Gascony being all that was left. In 1252, King Ferdinand was making an ancestral claim to Gascony which King Henry contested, chiefly with diplomatic maneuvers. By 1254, there were negotiations for Eleanor to marry Prince Edward with Ferdinand transferring his claim to Gascony to Edward. It was also agreed that Ferdinand would knight Edward in Castile before the wedding.
The teenaged couple was married at the monastery of Las Huelgas, Burgos on November 1, 1254. After their marriage they spent a year in Gascony where Edward learned government administration and Eleanor may have aided him. It is believed Eleanor had a child during this time which didn’t live. Because Eleanor was only fourteen, it was probably a difficult birth and she postponed having any more children for some time after. Eleanor went to England in October of 1255 at King Henry’s bidding and Edward joined her a few months later.
Eleanor travelled with Edward on the continent from 1260 until 1263 when disgruntled barons rebelled against King Henry’s rule in England. Eleanor and Edward returned to England bringing archers from Ponthieu. Eleanor was installed at Windsor Castle during the hostilities where she held the castle and contained baronial prisoners there for Edward. In June of 1264, the baronial leader Simon de Montfort ordered Eleanor removed from Windsor after the royalists were defeated at the Battle of Lewes. Edward was captured at the battle and Eleanor was held in custody at Westminster Palace where she struggled for money and provisions.
Edward managed to escape from prison and rose to power after the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Eleanor’s prestige was increased along with Edward’s, especially after she gave birth to a son named John in July of 1266. Another son, Henry was born in 1268 and a healthy daughter named Eleanor was born in June of 1269. It was at this time Eleanor began acquiring properties with Edward’s approval in an effort to augment royal holdings and increase the Queen’s dower income.
In 1270, Eleanor and Edward left England to go on Crusade. They were supposed to meet up with King Louis IX of France but Louis died in Africa so they spent the winter in Sicily, moving on to Acre in Palestine in the spring of 1271. It was here that Eleanor gave birth to a daughter who was known as Joan of Acre. The Crusade was uneventful and unproductive but Edward’s reputation as a fighter was so notable there was an assassination attempt on his life. A man stabbed him in the arm with a poisoned dagger. The infection became dangerous, Edward’s life was despaired of and a surgeon was forced to cut away the diseased flesh. A story about Eleanor sucking the poison from his arm to save him was written years later and is clearly a myth but perhaps it is indicative of the devotion to each other this couple displayed.
The Crusade ended and Eleanor and Edward left Palestine in September of 1272. While in Sicily, they learned about the death of King Henry on November 16. They were in no hurry to return and made their way to Gascony where Eleanor gave birth to a son named Alphonso before they arrived in England. A joint coronation ceremony was held on August 19, 1274 at Westminster Abbey making them the first king and queen to be crowned during the same ceremony since the Norman Conquest.
Eleanor’s marriage to Edward had never been popular as the people distrusted “foreigners”. There was a concern Eleanor would bring troops from Spain during the baron’s wars. She was a supporter of her brother, Alfonso X, King of Castile and Leon, throughout her life but she was careful to do it in a way that didn’t garner hostility. Eleanor was very adept at matchmaking, marrying her female relatives to English barons.
Although the marriage was not viewed positively, Eleanor and Edward do appear to have been dedicated and faithful to each other. Edward is one of the few medieval kings known to have had no extramarital affairs or illegitimate children. She travelled with him continually from the time of their marriage, even in times of war. Her last son, Edward was born in Caernarfon Castle in Wales in 1284 during a military campaign.
Eleanor’s acquisition of properties, as noted by the chroniclers, was exceptional. Edward himself assigned her the responsibility of rearranging and augmenting the Queen’s dower rights and increasing the royal income. Several reasons for this are given. He may have given her the task to keep her from meddling in political affairs. She doesn’t seem to have had any documented position in the government although she may have had much personal influence on the king. One chronicler commented on her negative influence on him. The other reason given for her acquisitions is the royal treasury needed an increase in funds and by allowing Eleanor to acquire her own properties with the requisite income, it kept her from taking money from the king’s revenue. The holdings she amassed during her lifetime became the core for dower assignments given to English queens into the fifteenth century. In 1279, she succeeded her mother and became Countess of Ponthieu in her own right which gave her even more holdings and income.
Eleanor procured quite of bit of property from 1278 to 1281 by securing English knights’ debts to Jewish moneylenders then obtaining the lands guaranteed for the debts at reduced prices. She came under criticism for this by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham. After 1281, her transactions tended to be regular purchases. By the year 1290, Eleanor’s properties brought in £2500 of income. There is evidence Eleanor had a temper and her operatives may have acquired land and rents by using heavy handed tactics. Any time someone brought these unwanted methods to her attention however, she was prompt in making things right.
Eleanor was well-educated and cultured and refined in her tastes. She was a patron of letters and collected and commissioned manuscripts, going so far as to have her own scriptorium, the only one in Northern Europe. She was a patroness of English universities and founded several Dominican houses in England. She was very generous in her charity and distribution of alms.
Eleanor was an avid hunter and kept dogs and horses for this pastime. When Eleanor arrived in England she brought with her carpets and tapestries which were not widely used in England at the time. At first it was believed the use of these items was an extravagance but eventually their use came to be popular in England. Eleanor was instrumental in developing and expanding garden designs for royal properties, including the use of water features like the ones she was used to in Castile. She also used elegant tableware such as forks and decorated knives.
Eleanor was a healthy, energetic and active woman all her life. However, in 1287, Eleanor and Edward left England for a nearly three year sojourn on the continent and shortly after arriving there, records begin to appear for medicines for the Queen. She contracted what was called a double quartan fever. This type of fever occurs for two days, goes into remission for one day and then returns for two days and is associated with a form of malaria. It’s not certain where Eleanor would have contracted malaria but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It has also been suggested she had tuberculosis. Whatever illness she had, she suffered for the last three years of her life.
Eleanor appears to have known of her impending death. Arrangements were made for the marriage of her daughters Margaret and Joan and negotiations began to marry her son Edward of Caernarfon to Margaret, Maid of Norway, heir to the throne of Scotland. She began ordering tombs for the resting places of her remains. In the summer of 1290, a tour of her northern properties began but her progress was impeded by her illness. In the fall, Parliament was held in Clipstone rather than Westminster and Eleanor’s children were called to visit her after it ended.
When Eleanor and Edward reached Harby, the journey was halted and she came to rest at the home of Richard de Weston. She received the last rites and made her final requests of Edward, one of which was for a comprehensive reckoning of the acquisitions of her properties so that any irregularities could be corrected. She died on November 28, 1290 at the age of forty-nine with Edward by her side after a marriage lasting thirty-six years. Government came to a halt for three days.
There was a seventeen day cortege with Eleanor’s embalmed body from Harby to London. At each overnight stop where her corpse lay, a site was chosen and Edward commissioned a stone cross to be erected in her memory. These became known as the Eleanor Crosses, three of which have been extensively restored or replaced and still exist today. As requested, Eleanor’s viscera were interred in Lincoln Cathedral and her heart in the London church of her beloved Dominicans, a practice which was not unusual for the time. A splendid funeral was performed at Westminster Abbey on December 17 and her body was buried in an elaborate tomb with a magnificent gilt bronze effigy near the sepulcher of King Edward the Confessor behind the high altar. Edward was married again to Marguerite of France in 1299 but when he died in 1307, he was buried next to Eleanor.
Further reading: “Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England” by John Carmi Parsons, “Eleanor of Castile” by Jean Powrie, “Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen” by Sara Cockerill, “Queen’s Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York” by Lisa Hilton, entry on Eleanor of Castile in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by John Carmi Parsons