Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290)

views updated

Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290)

Paragon of medieval queenship, who was an active partner of her husband Edward I, accompanying him to the Holy Land on Crusade, to Gascony and Wales, while also bearing 15 children. Name variations: Eleanora of Castile; Eleanor the Faithful. Born in late 1241 in Castile; died at Harby, Nottinghamshire, on November 28, 1290; daughter of Ferdinand III (1199–1252), king of Castile and Leon (r. 1217–1252) and Joanna of Ponthieu, Countess Aumale (d. 1279); became first wife of Edward I Longshanks (1239–307), king of England (r. 1272–1307), in 1254; children: Eleanor Plantagenet (1264–1297, who married Alphonso III, king of Aragon); Joan (1265–1265); John (1266?–1271); Katherine (1271–1271); Henry (1267–1274); Joan of Acre (1272–1307), countess of Gloucester; Alphonso (1273–1284); Margaret (1275–1318), duchess of Brabant; Berengaria (1276–c. 1279); Mary (1278–1332, became a nun); Isabel (1279–1279);Alice (1280–1291); Elizabeth (1282–1316), countess of Hereford and Essex; Edward II (1284–1327), king of England (r. 1307–1327, who married Isabella of France [1296–1358]); Beatrice (c. 1286–?); Blanche (1290–1290).

Eleanor of Castile was the only daughter of the five children born to Ferdinand III of Castile and Leon (1201–1252) and his second wife Joanna of Ponthieu (d. 1279). The chroniclers and historians who recorded the middle ages rarely paid as much attention to women as they did to men, even when those women were of royal birth. As a consequence, the birth and early childhood of Eleanor of Castile remain sketchy. Although contemporaries did not record the date of Eleanor's birth, recent scholarship has uncovered enough information about her life to deduce that she was probably born sometime in late 1241.

The first attention that contemporaries seem to have paid to Eleanor was in 1254, when plans for her marriage to Edward (I Long-shanks), heir to the English throne, became known. In 1252, Eleanor's half-brother, Alphonso X the Wise, had succeeded to the Castilian throne upon the death of his father, Ferdinand III. Almost immediately Alphonso promoted his claims to the wealthy province of Gascony, which at that time belonged to the king of England, Henry III. While Alphonso's claims were questionable and his ability to drive the English out of Gascony doubtful, in 1253 Henry III was facing increasing financial difficulties and did not want to engage in a long and expensive war with Castile over Gascony.

In 1253, therefore, Henry III and Alphonso X began diplomatic negotiations concerning Gascony which resulted in an alliance between the two kingdoms, to be sealed by the marriage of Eleanor to the English prince. It is quite possible that this diplomatic solution—an alliance with England sealed by a marriage—was what Alphonso X had in mind when he first made his claims on Gascony. An alliance with England could protect him against other aggressive neighbors and would at the same time allow him to provide well for his half-sister's future. English envoys finished negotiating the terms of the treaty with Alphonso in April 1254. In June, Henry III sent Edward in "great pomp and splendor" to Spain to receive knighthood and be wed. Alphonso welcomed the young prince and satisfied himself that Edward was suitable to wed his sister. Then in October 1254, he knighted Edward, and the young couple—Edward was 15 and Eleanor was around 13—were married at Burgos, beginning one of the happiest royal marriages in English history.

Alice (1280–1291)

English princess. Name variations: Alice Plantagenet. Born on March 12, 1280, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England; died in 1291, age 11; daughter of Edward I Longshanks, king of England (r. 1272–1307), and Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290).

Joanna of Ponthieu (d. 1279)

Queen of Castile and Leon. Name variations: Joan of Ponthieu; Joan de Ponthieu; Jean de Ponthieu; Jeanne de Dammartin; Countess Aumale. Birth date unknown; died in 1279; daughter of William of Ponthieu (though some sources cite Simon de Dammartin, count of Ponthieu and Aumale) and Alais of France (b. 1160, daughter of Louis VII of France); became second wife of Fernando also known as St. Ferdinand or Ferdinand III (1199–1252), king of Castile and Leon (r. 1217–1252), in 1237; children: Fernando, count of Aumale; Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290); Luis; Simon; Juan.

Soon after, the newlyweds left Castile and traveled to Gascony where Eleanor met her father-in-law Henry III, who had not attended the wedding. She remained in Gascony for almost a year, until, in late 1255, she and her household journeyed northwards for her first glimpse of England. The princess, without Edward, who had stayed behind in Gascony, landed at Dover with such a large retinue that some of the English looked upon her arrival with suspicion. So large was her household, which was composed largely of Spaniards, that one contemporary, Matthew Paris, wrote, "fears were entertained that the country would be forcibly taken possession of by them."

These fears, if they actually existed, were minimized by the king, who apparently had developed a fondness for his young daughter-inlaw. He ordered that Eleanor should be received with all honor and reverence at London as well as other places. The Londoners responded enthusiastically. They rode out to meet her dressed in holiday clothes and mounted on richly decorated horses. The city itself rang out with bells and songs, and the townspeople staged processions, illuminations, and other special events to welcome and honor the young woman who would someday be their queen.

When Eleanor entered her apartments, she found them hung with palls of silk and tapestry, "like a temple," and even the floor was covered with arras. The English did not cover the walls and floors of their living quarters with tapestries and carpets, which caused Matthew Paris, a critic of such ostentation, to remark that while "this was done … in accordance with the custom of the Spaniards," it showed excessive pride and excited the laughter and derision of the English. One can imagine, though, the 14-year-old princess' gratefulness to her father-in-law for providing her with familiar surroundings when she was so far removed from her native Castilian culture. Even in the last years of life, Eleanor kept herself surrounded with tapestries, even weaving some herself.

Matthew Paris was not the only critic of Eleanor's arrival in England. There were those who were disturbed by Henry III's evident fondness for the foreigners. His desire to please Eleanor and her entourage and the conspicuous displays he ordered to welcome them to England astonished and dismayed many. Watching the favors that their king heaped upon the new princess and her entourage, the English feared that Henry held his own people in less esteem than almost any other. Many were suspicious of the foreigners because they felt that their own fortunes would suffer. A large part of this distrust was the result of events that had transpired before Eleanor's arrival in England. When the last royal bride, Henry III's wife Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291), had appeared in England, she had brought with her an entourage much larger than that of Eleanor of Castile. Eleanor of Provence's relatives and compatriots quickly found themselves appointed to a number of important positions in the English government. This provoked a reaction among the English nobility against the queen's relatives especially and against foreigners in general, a distrust that was still evident in England when Eleanor of Castile arrived. Throughout her life, Eleanor showed the political savvy and wisdom that made her a valuable part of the English political scene. She quite consciously worked to avoid rekindling the earlier xenophobia by adopting a much more judicious policy with her appointments and patronage. Most of those advanced in the queen's court were women who were not appointed to places of high government office. Moreover, most of the relatives patronized and promoted by Eleanor had some former connection to England.

Between 1255 and 1270, Eleanor is mentioned only briefly. During the Baron's Revolt in 1264–65, Henry III was captured by a faction of rebellious nobles and had to hand over Prince Edward as a hostage. Eleanor, who had already given birth to two children, was at that time sequestered in Windsor Castle, awaiting the birth of her third child, Joan, who was born in January 1265. To protect them from possible harm during the rebellion, in June of that year, Henry III ordered Eleanor and Joan to leave England and stay in France until the troubles with the rebels were over. Not long after Eleanor departed, Edward escaped his captors, raised an army in support of the Crown, and in August defeated the rebel barons at the battle of Evesham. Unfortunately, in September 1265, Joan fell ill and died.

One of the most important functions of a queen was to provide for the succession by producing children—preferably sons. In this aspect, Eleanor was remarkably successful. Eleanor had 12 more children during the next 19 years. Her last, Edward of Caernarvon, the future Edward II, was born in April 1284. She gave birth to 15 in all, but in an age of high infant mortality, only six—Eleanor Plantagenet (1264–1297), Joan of Acre (1272–1307), Margaret (1275–1318), Mary (1278–1332), Elizabeth Plantagenet (1282–1316), and Edward (1284–1327)—survived her.

In 1268, Eleanor of Castile took up the cross and in 1270 accompanied Edward on a Crusade to the Holy Land. Her decision to accompany her husband on Crusade was unusual but not unprecedented. Women had gone on crusade ever since the First Crusade in 1096, often with their husbands, but not always. For instance, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204) had accompanied her first husband, Louis VII of France, on crusade in 1147, and Ida of Austria had gone on her own in 1101. Even with these precedents, Eleanor's decision to make the arduous journey reveals much about her devotion to the church and to her husband. The trip to the Holy Land was difficult, and the rigors of military campaign and camp life could be harsh.

It was during this Crusade that Eleanor became involved in an episode that has become part of English historical folklore. In 1272, Edward I Longshanks was camped outside the town of Acre, alone in his chamber, when a Muslim attacked him with a poisoned dagger. Edward, known for his fighting ability and swift reflexes, fought with the assassin and in the ensuing scuffle managed to kill him. During the melee, however, he was wounded in the forearm with the dagger. According to popular legend, Eleanor rushed to her wounded husband and courageously sucked the poison out of the wound on his arm, thus saving his life. This story, while accurate in its portrayal of the genuine affection and devotion that husband and wife felt for each other, is most likely merely a product of later embellishment. Eleanor's real role during the attack on Edward shows her no less devoted to him, but less integral to his survival and recovery. Walter of Guisborough, who wrote about the incident, maintained that after several treatments Edward's wound began to fester. An English doctor said that he could cure him, but that his remedy would be painful. Fearing for his life, Edward agreed to the doctor's solution, which was to cut away the decayed flesh from the wound. Eleanor, who was present, began weeping and had to be escorted from the room by her brother-in-law, Edmund, and other of Edward's close friends, Edward telling them that "it was better that she, rather than the whole of England, should weep."

In 1272, Henry III died. Upon hearing the news, Edward and Eleanor left the Holy Land and returned to England. As queen, Eleanor continued to bear Edward children and accompany him on diplomatic missions and military campaigns. Even as queen, though, Eleanor's activities are shadowy and little better recorded than her earlier life. Financial records compiled for her household expenses during the last year of her life reveal that Eleanor of Castile was a cultured woman. She never lost her fondness for tapestries or fine furnishings, maintaining trading contacts as far away as Syria for the pieces that adorned her chambers and the spices that graced her table. She possessed a library of romances, the popular literary form of the day, and employed scribes to copy and write these and other books and paid painters to illuminate them. She even persuaded the archbishop of Canterbury to write a scholarly work for her. There are also references to her playing a game called Four Kings, probably a four-handed variant of chess.

Eleanor Plantagenet (1264–1297)

Queen of Aragon. Name variations: Princess Eleanor; Countess of Bar. Born on June 17, 1264, at Windsor Castle, Windsor, Berkshire, England; died on October 12, 1297 (some sources cite 1298), at Ghent, Flanders, Belgium; interred at Westminster Abbey, London; daughter of Edward I Longshanks, king of England (r. 1272–1307), and Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290); married Alfonso also known as Alphonso III the Liberal (1265–1291), king of Aragon (r. 1285–1291), on August 15, 1290, at Westminster Abbey; married Henry de Bar (d. 1302), count de Bar, around 1293 in Champagne, France; children: (second marriage) Lady Eleanor of Bar; Joan of Bar (b. 1295); Edward I, count of Bar (b. 1294).

Elizabeth Plantagenet (1282–1316)

Duchess of Hereford and Essex. Name variations: Elizabeth Bohun. Born in August 1282 in Rhuddlan Castle, Caernarvon, Gwynedd, Wales; died on May 5, 1316, in England; daughter of Edward I Longshanks, king of England (r. 1272–1307), and Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290); married John I, count of Holland and Zeeland, on January 18, 1297 (died 1299); married Humphrey Bohun (1276–1322), 4th earl of Hereford, 3rd of Essex, on November 14, 1320; children: (second marriage) ten, including John (1306–1335), 5th earl of Hereford, 4th of Essex; Humphrey (c. 1309–1361), 6th earl of Hereford; Edward; William (c. 1312–1360), 1st earl of Northampton; Eleanor Bohun , countess of Ormonde; and Margaret (Bohun) Courtenay .

As queen, Eleanor of Castile possessed landed wealth in her own right. She was expected to be able to live off her lands and estates, which were extensive and brought her about 4,500 li. per year. Eleanor, though, apparently found it difficult to run her large and constantly moving household on this income. As a result, like many other large landholders of the period, she and her estate officials resorted to harsh measures to maximize the income from her lands. In the years after Eleanor's death in 1290, the queen's tenants complained about the extortionate and high-handed activities of these estate managers. One charge held that one of Eleanor's lesser officials had seized a house from its owners, imprisoned them unjustly, and dumped their baby in its cradle in the middle of the road. In another instance, the men of the queen's manor of Havering recalled how she had arbitrarily limited local hunting rights by extending her own hunting rights. A number of tenants had tried to resist the queen in this case, but they were imprisoned for three days for their efforts and forced to wait until after the queen's death to reassert their complaint. Such was the queen's reputation as a landowner towards the end of her life that a popular rhyme had been composed which criticized the more acquisitive aspects of the king and queen: "The king he wants to get our gold/The queen would like our lands to hold."

While Eleanor cannot be released of her responsibility for the actions of her officials, some of the blame for her harsh reputation as a landlord can be laid at the feet of the men who managed her estates. One of the queen's stewards was an unpopular clerk named Hugh Cressingham. Cressingham had a reputation for thoroughness and high-handedness which undoubtedly caused the queen's tenants and peasants to regard him bitterly. His success in the queen's household brought a more important position in the king's service, and eventually Edward I appointed him treasurer of Scotland. As treasurer, Cressingham's well-established tactics quickly earned him the hatred of the Scots, and, when they rebelled in 1297, he was killed, skinned, and a sword strap made from his hide. While Cressingham is the most notorious of Eleanor's officials, and a few others had similar reputations, on the whole they were no more grasping and ambitious than officials of the king's household or those of any other great noble.

In 1290, Eleanor of Castile died at the age of 49 at Harby in Nottinghamshire, and the king lost his most devoted and trusted partner. The reaction of Edward I at her death shows the depth of his devotion. The king was on his way north to adjudicate a succession dispute in Scotland in late 1290 when word reached him that Eleanor had taken ill. He rushed south to her bedside to be with her in her last illness, and after her death was disconsolate, putting aside state business for months while he grieved over his loss. He made arrangements to have her body divided and buried in three separate tombs. The practice of dividing corpses was not unusual at this time, although it would be forbidden by the pope in 1299. Her entrails were buried at Lincoln; her heart taken to London and buried in a tomb at Blackfriars; and after the long journey south, her body laid to rest in an elaborate gilded tomb in Westminster Abbey. Edward I also commissioned a series of memorial crosses that were to be erected at each site where the queen's funeral cortege stopped to rest for the night on its journey to Westminster. Altogether there were 12 magnificent crosses erected from Lincoln to London and all were complete by 1294. The cost of the tombs and crosses is impressive—almost 2,200 li.—and is further evidence of Edward's grief. The death of Eleanor of Castile in 1290 robbed Edward I of his life's companion, a woman who had given him 16 children, traveled with him on crusade, and who, throughout their 36 years of marriage, had been a paragon of medieval queenship. In 1299, Edward married Margaret of France , the daughter of the king of France, and had two more sons and two more daughters; he named the youngest Eleanor (1306–1311).


Paris, Matthew. Matthew of Paris's English History from the Year 1235 to 1273. Translated by J.A. Giles. 3 volumes. London. 1854.

Parsons, John C. "The Year of Eleanor of Castile's Birth and Her Children by Edward I," in Mediaeval Studies. Vol. 46, 1984.

——. The Court and Household of Eleanor of Castile in 1290. Toronto. 1977.

Prestwich, Michael. Edward I. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1988.

Douglas C. Jansen , Ph.D., Medieval History, University of Texas, Austin, Texas

About this article

Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Eleanor of Castile (1241–1290)