Due to Eleanor’s fundamentally European mentality, and the political influence of her Savoyard relations at the English court, she would be a dominating political force in the struggles between her husband, her son and the baronage. During moments of crisis, she encouraged her husband to use contingents of foreign knights. At one point, Eleanor assembled an army in the Low Countries, and negotiated assertively with the papacy and with her brother-in-law, King Louis IX of France. And, perhaps most significantly, due to her commitment and energy, she played a major role in overthrowing the English baron Simon de Montfort, rescuing her husband and her son from his control.
Born in Provence c. 1223, Eleanor was the second of four daughters of Raymond-Berengar V and his wife Beatrice, daughter of Thomas, count of Savoy. The beauty of Eleanor and her three sisters was legendary. Her elder sister Marguerite married King Louis IX of France, her sister Sanchia married Richard, 1st earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, and Beatrice married Charles, count of Anjou. Sanchia and Beatrice would become queens of Germany and Sicily respectively.
Eleanor grew up in the troubadour culture of the Midi and delighted in reading romance novels. She loved devotional books and gardens and enjoyed hunting. She spoke Occitan, French and the Norman French of the English court along with a modicum of Latin. King Louis’ marriage to Eleanor’s sister Marguerite encouraged King Henry III of England to consider marrying Eleanor. After the customary negotiations and a perilous voyage to England, Eleanor and Henry were married on January 14, 1236 at Canterbury Cathedral. She would be crowned six days later in Westminster Abbey.
As a dower, Eleanor received Gloucester, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Droitwich, Basingstoke, Andover, Cheltenham, Godmanchester, King’s Cliffe, Kingston, Ospringe, Lothingland, Worcester and Bath. Eleanor was twelve years old and Henry was twenty-eight but they consummated the marriage immediately and slept together regularly. Henry rebuilt and refurbished nine royal residences for her to make her comfortable and more at home. He selected Nicholas Farnham, later Bishop of Durham, as her doctor and tutor and her early years in England were spent under his guidance. By 1227, Henry was keen on regaining his Angevin lands. Both King Louis of France and Henry wanted to secure the support of the House of Savoy, relatives of Eleanor’s mother.
Eleanor would rely not so much on her English servants as she did on her Savoyard uncles, all of whom were skilled and successful statesmen. Her mother had five brothers who guided her both politically and personally, embedding themselves within the English government and church. William of Savoy arrived with Eleanor in England and helped her get established. Thomas, Count of Flanders and Boniface of Savoy, as Archbishop of Canterbury, relied on Eleanor’s influence with the king. Peter of Savoy, to whom she was especially close, attentively advised Eleanor, encouraging her to bolster her position at court as mother of the king’s heir.
Eleanor gave birth to five children. The future Edward I was born in 1239, and Margaret, born in 1240 would marry Alexander III, King of Scots. Beatrice was born in 1242 in Bordeaux and would marry John II, Duke of Brittany. Edmund, born in 1245 would be endowed with the title of Duke of Lancaster. A disabled daughter Katherine was born in 1253 and died in 1257 to her parent’s sorrow.
In the early years of her marriage, Eleanor spent a great deal of time at Windsor with her young children. There is plenty of evidence in Eleanor’s accounts that she took an active interest in the lives of her children, devoting time to them and participating in the day-to-day details of their upbringing. Her success as a mother raised her high in royal favor. In 1244, after she had established some of her Savoyard uncles, clerks and knights in position in England, she began to exert more political influence and increase her own power. She was personally responsible for marrying some of her female Savoyard relatives to members of the English aristocracy. One hundred and seventy Savoyards enjoyed English royal patronage.
Following the birth of her son Edward, she worked with her uncles to protect the baby’s interests in light of the threat to his appanage by King Henry’s younger brother Richard of Cornwall. Eleanor and the king attempted to neutralize this threat by arranging a marriage for Richard with Eleanor’s younger sister Sanchia.
Eleanor would have limited relationships with the magnate class in England but maintained friendships with other reforming bishops and scholars. She would become a benefactor of the hospital of St. Katherine by the Tower, the Dominican priory of Guildford and patronized the Cistercian nunnery of Tarrant in Dorset, along with ardently supporting the Franciscans. Henry gave Eleanor more lands and the right to collect Queen’s gold, along with income from royal wardships, whereby the estates of a minor were managed to the profit of the holder of the wardship until the heir came of age. This would be a significant source of income for her.
Eleanor accompanied Henry on his disastrous expedition to his French holdings of Poitou and Gascony in 1242-3. The overtly foreign influence of the Savoyards at court caused resentment among the English nobility. This situation was magnified when Henry invited his French half-siblings to come to England. These were the children of his mother Isabelle of Angoulême by her second marriage to Hugh de Lusignan: William de Valence, Geoffrey, Guy and Aymer de Lusignan and Alice.
They arrived in 1247, causing a collision between the two royal families as they set themselves up as a counter-faction to the Savoyards. Eleanor would become the focus of these two factions. She encouraged an affinity between her son Prince Edward and her Savoy relatives, viewing the Lusignans as enemies from the moment they arrived. The conflict escalated as they all competed for royal favor and money. This would be further exacerbated by the influence of the king’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, who was married to Henry’s sister Eleanor. Montfort was shameless in using the king’s name as security for loans.
The next time Henry traveled to the Continent, in 1253, he went alone and left Eleanor as regent in England with his brother Richard of Cornwall as adviser. She admirably discharged her duties. In the summer of 1254, she joined her husband in Gascony and in December, Henry and Eleanor had a family visit in Paris with King Louis IX and Eleanor’s sister Queen Marguerite. The gathering went a long way in later achieving peace between England and France with the Treaty of Paris in 1259.
In 1254, Eleanor and Henry decided to commit to a disastrous scheme to obtain the crown of Sicily for their second son Edmund. They were backed by the pope and Eleanor’s Savoyard uncles in the venture but he demanded a high financial price for the crown. With England providing the funds, Henry’s government came under attack, leading to a revolution in 1258.
The mood turned against the Lusignans. A group of English barons called for the exile of all of them and demanded a council of twenty-four to help rule the king, greatly reducing his power. These provisions of Oxford impacted Eleanor as well. She was no longer able to make her own decisions regarding the sale of wardships, with the council taking over. The council also began administering the task of determining in which areas the tariff of Queen’s gold would apply. Eleanor was deeply offended by this and determined to undermine the power of the council. All of this temporarily put Prince Edward at odds with his parents, further complicating the situation.
From this point forward, they viewed Eleanor as the enemy of reform for the government. In 1261, Eleanor and a small group of activists around the king got their revenge when the pope released King Henry, Eleanor and their sons from their oath to uphold the provisions of Oxford. By 1263, the queen’s opponents retaliated and reduced her land holdings, as well as those of her supporters and kinsmen. Simon de Montfort, now the leader of the rebels, imposed harsh terms on the king. An angry Eleanor opposed any limitations on her husband’s power.
She made a valiant attempt to reach her son Edward at Windsor Castle on the river and was stopped at London Bridge. The London mob, who by now hated all foreigners, especially the queen, pelted her with stones and insults, calling her a whore and adulteress. The mayor, Thomas fitz Thomas, guided her to safety in the Bishop of London’s house.
The event would have a profound effect on Eleanor and only served to increase her resolve. Traveling to France, she enlisted her sister Marguerite and King Louis in assisting with arbitration. Naturally, Louis sided with Eleanor and Henry, thus inaugurating civil war in England.
The royalists were defeated at the Battle of Lewes in May 1264, leaving Henry virtually a captive and Prince Edward a hostage of Simon de Montfort. Eleanor raised a considerable army in Flanders and prepared to invade England. But due to a lack of funds, the invasion never sailed and she retreated to Gascony and engaged in a diplomatic offensive against Montfort. She tapped into her network of contacts, including the papacy and the French court and called on her vast material resources in Gascony, Ireland, the Welsh march and English refugees and exiles on the continent.
With her considerable resources, the royalists gained a resounding victory at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265. Eleanor returned to England in November. She petitioned the pope and he allocated to her sixty thousand pounds from a tenth imposed on the English clergy to pay her debts from her time abroad. When the civil war ended, Henry turned London Bridge over to Eleanor’s keeping, along with a portion of the fine levied on London. Due to a shortage of funds, or perhaps feelings of revenge, she failed to repair the dilapidated bridge. The song “London Bridge is Falling Down” commemorates the protests of the people in the city. From 1265 to 1267, Eleanor actively supported her husband in his efforts to reassert royal authority.
Eleanor relentlessly administered her lands, especially those she received from the crown in wardship. She used the financial services of many merchants and Jews. When Henry died in November 1272, her son Edward transferred her dower lands into her sole ownership the following August. Eleanor’s holdings made her one of the wealthiest landowning aristocrats in England. With the death of her husband, she found herself politically isolated and for the next ten years she lived for the most part on her dower properties at Guildford, Marlborough, Ludgershall and Clarendon and also in Westminster and Windsor.
Her daughter Margaret died of unknown causes in February 1275 and her daughter Beatrice died the following month. She would remain laser focused on her family all her life and her wishes carried considerable weight with her eldest son Edward when he became king. Although she was unpopular, she did maintain the respect of the people. She was intelligent, energetic and resourceful and committed to exercising her own authority. Graceful, charming, elegant and highly articulate, she had courage and the ability to withstand the greatest of adversity. Her husband and her children revered her and she was capable of being warm and personally kind. Eleanor’s letters indicate her forcefulness in defending her own rights, as well as those of her family.
In July 1286, Eleanor retreated to the convent of Amesbury, a daughter house of Fontevrault in France. She made considerable improvements to the place and would never become a fully professed nun, closely monitoring her lands and business affairs, maintaining her wealth and a modicum of influence in the outside world. Eleanor kept up a correspondence with her daughter-in-law, Queen Eleanor of Castile and with her son Edward. Over her daughter-in-law’s objections, she had her granddaughter Mary enclosed at Amesbury at the age of six.
Eleanor died at Amesbury on June 24, 1291 and was buried there on September 8 with the king in attendance. Her heart was buried in the London church of the Franciscans. Whatever monuments that existed over her tomb were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of King Henry VIII. Upon her death, all of her lands and holdings reverted to the Crown.
Further reading: “Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England” by Margaret Howell, “Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York” by Lisa Hilton, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on Eleanor of Provence written by Margaret Howell, “Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe” by Nancy Goldstone