Eleanor of Woodstock, Duchess of Guelders

Eleanor of Woodstock, Duchess of Guelders

Eleanor was born on June 18, 1318 in the royal manor of Woodstock, the daughter of King Edward II of England and Queen Isabella of France. She was named after Edward’s mother, Queen Eleanor of Castile. Pleased with the birth of his daughter, the king spent £333 for a feast to celebrate Isabella’s churching. In the beginning, Eleanor and her siblings were in the care of their mother and she was given an education worthy of her rank.

In 1324, hostilities broke out between England and France. King Edward’s favorites, Hugh Despenser the Elder and the Younger, took the opportunity to accuse Isabella of being an enemy of the state. They drastically reduced her income and removed her three younger children from her custody. Eleanor, her brother John of Eltham and sister Joan initially were put into the care of Eleanor de Clare, the king’s niece and the wife of the younger Despenser, along with Despenser’s sister Isabella, Lady Monthermer. Eventually, all the children ended up living with the Monthermers in their homes of Pleshy and Marlborough.

During the troubles with the Despensers, Isabella eventually triumphed in 1326 and was reunited with her children at Bristol where they had been under the guardianship of Hugh Despenser the Elder.  Isabella was a loving, caring and ambitious mother and her children would remain devoted to her for the rest of her life. Isabella would depart England for France in 1325 and Eleanor’s elder brother, Prince Edward would soon follow his mother to do homage to the French king for the duchy of Aquitaine.

Eleanor remained in England, most likely in the care of her father. That same year, discussions took place for Eleanor to marry Alfonso XI of Castile. As part of this arrangement, her brother Edward was to also marry a Castilian princess. But these negotiations fell through.

Hostilities between Isabella and her husband had reached a breaking point as the Despensers held King Edward in an iron grip. Isabella reached a decision to invade England in order to, at the very least, dislodge the favorites from court. Following her arrival in England, she gained the cooperation of various lords, bishops and Parliament. Along with a strong army, they managed to capture the king and his two favorites. Both the Despensers were executed. Parliament agreed Edward II could no longer rule and his son, Prince Edward was declared guardian of the realm while Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer began a new regime to rule England in his name.

After several attempts to help Edward II escape were discovered, the former king was most likely murdered. From 1328, Eleanor lived in London at the court of her brother King Edward III and his new wife, Philippa of Hainault. In January 1330, Parliament was convened to discuss future relations with France. Marriages between Prince John and Eleanor were discussed with the daughter and son of King Philip VI. These matches had first been suggested the previous summer at Amiens.

All of these marriage negotiations were an attempt to marry Eleanor to, if not a king, a potential king. Therefore, it was surprising she eventually married someone not of the royal class but a mere count. Guelders, the oldest principality on the Lower Rhine, had dominated the area since the fourteenth century. It was relatively large and strategically placed in the area now known as the Netherlands. Reinald I, Count of Guelders had a son Reinald, born c. 1295. In the winter of 1311, a marriage was arranged between young Reinald and Sophia Berthout, daughter of the Lord of Mechelen. They were married in 1318 and Sophie bore four daughters before her death in May of 1329.

Reinald II, Duke of Guelders

In 1316, the younger Reinald had a disagreement with this father, and argued he was no longer able to look after the interests of his territories. He took over the administration of his father’s patrimony. An arbitration conference took place on September 3, 1318 and Count Willem III of Holland decided Reinald could rule as ‘son of the Count of Guelders of the County of Guelders and Zutphen’. The elder Count was imprisoned in the castle of Montfort. When his father died, Reinald appointed himself count of Guelders and Zutphen as Reinald II.

At the time, the Low Countries were greatly dependent on the wool of England for the weaving of cloth. Reinald made the conscious decision to form an alliance with Eleanor’s brother, King Edward III of England against France and would remain one of Edward’s closest allies among the German princes during the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War. The idea of a marriage was secondary to the alliance. It is possible Edward III’s father-in-law, William I, Count of Hainault, along with the German Emperor, had an interest in an Anglo-Guelders alliance, promoting or mediating the marriage project on his own initiative. 

In the fall of 1331, the king organized a knight’s tournament. According to a London chronicler, the beautiful Princess Eleanor was the guest of honor. She now had her own household and prenuptial agreements were drawn up for a marriage between Eleanor of England and Reinald II, Count of Guelders. Preparations for the wedding of fourteen-year-old Eleanor began. Her gown was made from Spanish cloth of gold, embroidered with silks along with a crimson velvet mantle and a white veil. Some of her belongings included caps, gloves and shoes made of Cordoba leather, bed hangings of green velvet and silk curtains, spices, sugar loaves and a painted chariot with purple velvet upholstery adorned with gold stars.  

Before she left England, on May 5, she gave alms to twenty-four paupers, along with a special gift to a hermit. When she disembarked at Sluys on May 10, she gave 1d to forty paupers. These offerings may have been associated with prayers for a safe crossing and thanksgiving for landing. She was warmly welcomed by her husband’s subjects. The wedding took place at Nijmegen in May 1332 and the couple took up residence in Rosendael Castle. Eleanor would give birth to two sons, Reinald III in 1333 and Edward in 1336. The Franciscan Broederenkerk in Deventer, Holland was built between 1335 and 1338 upon the orders of Eleanor.

Following the birth of her second son, problems arose in the marriage. A German chronicler relates that Reinald became confused and began to rely more heavily on his chaplain, chief adviser and chancellor Jan Moliart. The chronicler goes so far as to say Moliart had complete control over Reinald. Moliart’s opponents accused him of isolating the Duke and keeping him away from his wife. He is said to have spread rumors Eleanor was suffering from leprosy and had her banished from court. She lived in Rosendael Castle, probably with her youngest son. It’s unknown if she retained custody of her eldest son.

Moliart may have tried to have Eleanor’s marriage annulled. He was in contact with the French king in an effort to initiate an alliance, despite Reinald’s faithful and long-standing loyalty to Eleanor’s brother King Edward III. Eleanor became angry and she decided to walk from Rosendael Castle to Valkhof in Nijmegen where her husband met with his council to confront him. In the hall, she either threw off her cloak or bared her arms (the stories vary) to prove she did not have leprosy.

Following this confrontation, Eleanor lived in Veluwe where she maintained an independent household and cultivated a circle of faithful followers. In March 1339, Count Reinald II was elevated to Duke of Guelders and his county to a dukedom. He is also enfeoffed with East Friesland. This decision came about due to Reinald’s support of Emperor Louis IV in a power struggle in the German Empire. Reinald had many debts due to his alliance with the English king and because he had to keep up appearances at court after being elevated to Duke.

There are two stories relating to the death of Reinald II in 1343. One says he died from a riding accident in Arnhem. The other says he died during the celebration of Mass due to falling off his chair and breaking his neck. And because he died during a religious service, this was seen as a punishment from God and earned him the nickname the ‘Black’, implying guilt for his death and mischief. This story may be apocryphal. According to tradition, he was called the ‘Red’ because of his red hair.

As a widow, Eleanor took custody of her ten-year-old son, Duke Reinald III and ruled as regent of Guelders and Zutphen, issuing charters in her son’s name and controlling the finances with the aid of a number of nobles and ministerial knights. She created two mints where she had her own coins minted. She did her best to reconcile her quarrelsome son with his brother Edward, something Reinald greatly resented.

With the death of Reinald II, Moliart’s position of power collapsed. Eleanor had him imprisoned and his possessions confiscated, and sued him, accusing him of enriching himself, favoritism and the unlawful use of the ducal seal. She testified against him, once again disproving her alleged leprosy and demanding the death penalty. He narrowly escaped death, being sentenced to imprisonment instead.   

Seal of Eleanor of Woodstock, Countess of Guelders and Zutphen, 1338 from: AP van Schilfgaarde, ‘Stamps and genealogical data of the Counts and Dukes of Gelre, Counts of Zutphen’

Eleanor’s regency had been officially accepted but she had to contend with opposition from some members of the council. Reinald’s eldest daughter by his first wife created more conflict by maintaining her claim to rule the duchy. Eventually, her son asserted himself at eleven years old and obtained permission to declare his majority. Eleanor retired from public life and used the title of ‘Lady of Veluwe’ after the area she had been given as a widow’s estate.

She became a patron of various monastic communities both inside and outside of Guelders. She favored the Order of St. Clare and traveled to various Clarisse monasteries. Toward the end of her life, she lived in Deventer. Eleanor died on April 22, 1355 at the age of thirty-seven and was buried in the church of Broederenkerk which she founded.

Her eldest son Reinald III married a daughter of the Duke of Brabant and her second son Edward was betrothed to Catherine, daughter of the count of Holland, Zeeland and Hainault. Neither son had any legitimate heirs. They battled it out for the title of Duke of Guelders. With the sudden death of Reinald III in December 1371, the last male scion of the House of Flamenses or Wassenberg perished and the family line of Guelders became extinct.

Further reading: “Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England” by Alison Weir, “In the Shadow of Burgundy: The Court of Guelders in the Late Middle Ages” by Gerard Nijsten, “The Princely Court: Medieval Courts and Culture in North-West Europe 1270-1380” by Malcolm Vale,   “Gueldres: Dynasty, Country and Identity in the Late Middle Ages” by Aart Noordzij, “Memories from the History of Gelderland, Part 1 and Part 2” by Is. An. Nijhoff, entry on Eleanor of England in the Digital Women’s Lexicon of the Netherlands written by Dimphéna Groffen, entry on John Moliart in the Biographical Dictionary of Gelderland written by Bert Thissen

2 thoughts on “Eleanor of Woodstock, Duchess of Guelders

  1. Royal marriages between England and the Lowlands were critical in that age. Philippa of Hainault was another woman, much like Eleanor, who cemented the nation and provinces.

    When Edward III shifted the Wool Staple to Calais, he laid the groundwork for England to become a manufacturing nation rather than a wool exporter. Lowland weavers were encouraged to come in Philippa’s train and set up communities for the sole purpose of making cloth from English wool, eliminating European wool brokers. Up until then, England had few manufactured exports, instead relying on raw materials such as tin and wool to bulk up national finances.

    Thus the embryonic English weaving trade. In a few generations England was exporting more finished cloths than woolsacks, eventually monopolizing European weaving until and beyond industrialization. When England exported finished woolen cloth from home weavers it seriously undermined a major Lowland craft, from which said land had trouble recovering, especially in the wake of the Black Death.

    Some people lend small credence to the importance of women’s influence in historic European alliances. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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