Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291)

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Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291)

Queen of England, wife and consort of Henry III, king of England (1216–1272), mother of Edward I, king of England (1272–1306), who unjustly incurred the enmity of her nation. Name variations: Alianora; Eleanora; Elinor. Date of birth unknown but believed to be 1222, possibly in November; place of birth presumed to be Aix-en-Provence, Provence, which is now in France; died at the convent of St. Mary, Amesbury, Wiltshire, England, on June 24, 1291; her body was buried there in September 1291; her heart was interred at the churchof the Friars Minors in London; daughter of Raymond Berengar or Berenger IV (some sources cite V), count of Provence and Forcalquier (1209–1245) and Beatrice of Savoy (d. 1268); sister of Margaret of Provence (1221–1295), Sancha of Provence (c. 1225–1261), and Beatrice of Provence (d. 1267); married Henry III (1206–1272), king of England (r. 1216–1272), on January 14, 1236, at Canterbury, England; children: Edward I Longshanks (1272–1307), king of England (r. 1272–1307); Margaret, Queen of Scots (1240–1275, who married Alexander III of Scotland);Beatrice (1242–1275), duchess of Brittany; Edmund Crouch-back (c. 1245–1296), earl of Lancaster; and Katherine (1253–1257), Richard, John, William and Henry who all died young.

Crowned queen of England at Westminster (January 20, 1236); during Henry's absence in Gascony, named co-regent with her brother-in-law, Richard, earl of Cornwall (1253); after Henry's capture at the battle of Lewes, exiled in France (1264); returned to England when Henry regained his throne (October 1265); retired to the Convent of St. Mary, Amesbury (1276); took vows as a nun there (1286).

Eleanor of Provence was a forceful personality, strong-willed and determined with a great deal of common sense that turned this determination to practical use. Henry III clearly appreciated the strength in her character for in his will written before he left for Gascony in 1253, the king left his kingdom and his children, most particularly, his heir, in her care. He never changed this will. Their marriage was remarkable for their mutual fidelity, and their concern for the welfare of their children. Under her influence, the role of queen-consort developed in several areas, especially in the scale of income considered requisite for a queen's needs and in the manner in which it was managed. She acquired a political authority that was interpreted as interference by contemporary commentators who sowed the seeds of her unpopularity. This disaffection reached its peak in the summer of 1263 when the barge in which she was traveling on the River Thames was attacked both physically and verbally by the people of London and caused her 19th-century biographer, Agnes Strickland , to label her "the most unpopular queen that England ever had." Fortunately, many of Eleanor's letters have survived and are today preserved in the Public Record Office in London. These show her to be diplomatic and compassionate and go far to contradict this label.

Beatrice (1242–1275)

English princess and duchess of Brittany. Name variations: Beatrice Plantagenet. Born on June 25, 1242, in Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France; died on March 24, 1275, in London, England; daughter of Henry III (1206–1272), king of England (r. 1216–1272) and Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291); sister of Edward I Longshanks, king of England (r. 1272–1307); married John II (1239–1305), duke of Brittany (r. 1286–1305), in 1260; children: Arthur II (d. 1312), duke of Brittany (r. 1305–1312), and six others.

Beatrice of Savoy (d. 1268)

Countess of Provence. Name variations: Beatrice de Savoie. Birth date unknown; died in 1268 (some sources cite 1266); one of ten children born to Thomas I, count of Savoy, and Margaret of Geneva ; married Raymond Berengar V (1198–1245), count of Provence, in December 1220; children: Margaret of Provence (1221–1295), queen of France; Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291); Sancha of Provence (c. 1225–1261, who married Richard, 1st earl of Cornwall and king of the Romans); Beatrice of Provence (d. 1267, who married Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX). Beatrice of Savoy and her husband Raymond Berengar were renowned for their learning and influence on the arts.

Beatrice of Provence (d. 1267)

Queen of Sicily. Name variations: Countess of Provence. Died in 1267; daughter of Beatrice of Savoy (d. 1268) and Raymond Berengar or Berenger IV (some sources cite V), count of Provence and Forcalquier; sister of Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291), Sancha of Provence (c. 1225–1261), and Margaret of Provence (1221–1295); married Charles I of Anjou (brother of Louis IX, king of France), king of Sicily (r. 1266–1282) and Naples (r. 1268–1285), in 1246; children: Charles II, duke of Anjou (r. 1285–1290), king of Naples (r. 1285–1309); Beatrice of Anjou (d. 1275).

Eleanor was the second of four daughters born to Raymond Berengar IV, count of Provence and Forcalquier, and Beatrice of Savoy . No records survive of her birth date or place but it is generally accepted that she was born in 1222. Since her father's court was constantly moving from castle to castle, it is not possible to ascertain her exact place of birth, except to say Provence. Eleanor and her sisters were renowned for their beauty, their learning and for marrying kings. Margaret of Provence (1221–1295) became the wife of Louis IX, king of France (1226–1270); Sancha of Provence married Richard, earl of Cornwall who was elected king of the Romans in 1257; and Beatrice of Provence (d. 1267) married Charles I d'Anjou who became king of Sicily in 1266. Since Richard of Cornwall was brother to Henry III and Charles d'Anjou was brother to Louis IX, these marriages produced an interesting combination of family relationships and loyalties.

Eleanor's mother, Beatrice of Savoy, was one of ten children born to Thomas I, count of Savoy, and Margaret of Geneva . These eight sons and two daughters had little but birth and character yet they succeeded, mainly due to the efforts of Thomas and Beatrice, to spread the name of Savoy throughout the west of Europe. The royal court of England felt the full effect of the Savoyard invasion since, contrary to the usual practice, Henry did not dismiss those relations who accompanied Eleanor to England in 1236; instead, he lavished gifts and honors upon them which did little to endear Eleanor to her English subjects.

Eleanor's childhood in Provence gave her an appreciation of art and music, but it was dominated by poverty. As a result of early Moorish influences, Provence had become a center for literature and a source of culture and sophistication. Its troubadours and courts of love were renowned throughout the Western world; for two centuries, they had epitomized all that was most desirable in music and poetry. Her father was a skilled troubadour, and her mother a poet. Eleanor, herself, was said to have written an epic poem. Her tutor was Romeo de Villeneuve, who was also major-domo to her father, and responsible for the splendid marriages made by her and her sisters. His efforts were immortalized by Dante in his Divina Commedia, Paradiso, Canto vi:

Four daughters and each one a queen
Had Raymond Berenger: this grandeur all
By poor Romeo had accomplished been.

The financial problems of the count were acute. In 1235, Provence was a small county between the Rhône valley and the Alps. Its mountainous terrain and lack of access to the Mediterranean Sea denied it any role in the economic structure of the West. The family had an itinerant lifestyle traveling from castle to castle to take advantage of fresh food supplies. The daughters wore clothes handed down from their mother, which were then handed down among themselves. The court officials wore patched uniforms, and minstrels did not even get food as payment for their performances. There was no money for dowries, and both Henry III and Louis IX were forced to accept their brides on the understanding that these would be paid later. There is no record that they ever were. When Raymond Berengar died in 1246, he named Beatrice of Provence, the youngest daughter, then unmarried, as his heir. Her subsequent marriage to Charles d'Anjou made Charles the next count of Provence and Forcalquier. Since the normal practice was to divide an inheritance equally between daughters, reserving any title of dignity for the eldest, Beatrice of Provence's three sisters contested the will. Both Eleanor and Margaret continued for the rest of their lives to pursue Charles d'Anjou for restitution of their rights in Provence. Many of Eleanor's letters written in her widowhood are devoted to this subject. In May 1286, she granted her Provençal inheritance to her grandsons, Thomas, Henry, and John, sons of Edmund Crouchback, earl of Lancaster, her second son.

Escorted by Henry's envoys, Hugh, bishop of Ely, Ralph, bishop of Hereford, and the Master of the Temple in England, Eleanor arrived at Dover in January 1236 as the future bride of Henry III. She was aged about 14 years; Henry was 28 and in the 20th year of his reign. In accordance with royal tradition, the marriage was a diplomatic one. The couple had never met. Despite this, the marriage was to prove successful and happy, in direct contrast to the stormy married lives of both Henry's father, King John, and grandfather, Henry II. Henry hoped the alliance would counterbalance the effect of Louis IX's marriage with Eleanor's sister, Margaret of Provence, and would provide him with new allies on the Continent. His six earlier attempts at making such a marriage alliance had failed, although one of these, that with Joanna of Ponthieu , had reached the betrothal stage before being annulled. This was to have repercussions for Eleanor in the future, and in 1252 she was reputed to have paid the pope a large sum of money to confirm the annulment in order to safeguard both her own marriage and that proposed between her eldest son Edward I Long-shanks and Eleanor of Castile , daughter of Joanna of Ponthieu.

Eleanor was married at Canterbury by Edmund Rich, the archbishop, on January 14, 1236, and crowned queen a week later at Westminster. The coronation was a splendid occasion greeted with much rejoicing and reported in fine detail by Matthew Paris, the chronicler monk of St. Albans. The marriage lasted over 36 years, and Henry and Eleanor were remarkably faithful to each other, sharing a concern for the happiness and well-being of their children. Henry was overtly solicitous for her comfort. The Liberate Rolls which recorded the payments made from the royal coffer contain instructions for renovating and improving the royal residences, many of which were specifically for the benefit of Eleanor; for example, a covered walkway was constructed at Woodstock so that she could go to chapel "with a dry foot."

During her marriage, in her role as queen-consort, Eleanor was much maligned and verbally abused by contemporary writers, mostly monastic, who were traditionally against women in power and notably naive and uninformed about the machinations of a royal court. In truth, she was a skilled diplomat and a clever financier, who did much to hold Henry's throne for him. She fulfilled her many and varied duties with total commitment, never challenging or undermining the authority of the king but acting in his best interests and, later, in those of Edward, their son and heir.

As a mother, too, she was exemplary. Whenever possible her children traveled with her, and she kept in close contact with them after their marriages. She took an equally caring interest in her many grandchildren. It is noticeable that she suffered physical illness whenever any of her children was in trouble, for example, when Margaret, Queen of Scots was held as a prisoner during the early years of her marriage to Alexander III of Scotland, and when her youngest daughter, Katherine Plantagenet , who was born deaf, fell ill and died in 1257.

As well as settling considerable property on her as a dowry, Henry III was the first monarch to grant his queen her own wardrobe and household. In this context, the wardrobe was not merely a room where her robes and jewels were stored but an office with clerks, servants, records and accounts. In selecting its members, she showed equal favor towards those of English birth and those from Provence and Savoy. Her letters indicate her interest in and care of these members of her household.

Margaret (1240–1275)

Queen of Scots. Born on September 29 (some sources cite October 5), 1240, in Windsor, Berkshire, England; died at Cupar Castle, Fife, Scotland, on February 26, 1275; buried at Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland; eldest daughter of Henry III (1206–1272), king of England (r. 1216–1272), and Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291); sister of Edward I Longshanks (1239–1307), king of England (r. 1272–1307); Beatrice (1242–1275) , duchess of Brittany; Edmund Crouchback (c. 1245–1296), earl of Lancaster; and Katherine Plantagenet (1253–1257); married Alexander III (1241–1286), king of Scotland (r. 1249–1286), on December 26, 1251; children: Margaret of Norway (1261–1283, who married Eric II Magnusson, king of Norway); Alexander (1264–1284); David (1273–1281).

Margaret was only 11 when she married Alexander III, king of Scotland. He was ten. Fearful of English influence, Alexander's guardians confined the young bride to Edinburgh castle; she was only released by the intercession of her parents, Henry III and Eleanor of Provence . After the death of Alexander II, Margaret and Alexander III were married on December 26, 1251.

Katherine Plantagenet (1253–1257)

English princess. Born on November 25, 1253, in Westminster, London, England; died on May 3, 1257, in Windsor, Berkshire, England; buried in Westminster Abbey; daughter of Henry III (1206–1272), king of England (r. 1216–1272) and Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291). Katherine was born deaf and died at age three.

The establishment of her own wardrobe was perhaps the most significant gesture Henry made towards the independence of his wife. Her dowry, though considerable, would not be accessible to her before Henry died, so it was his intention to direct money from his own wardrobe to pay the expenses of the queen's household. But, though she had control of her expenses, she was still largely dependent on the king for income, and his extravagant lifestyle and ambitious building plans left her regularly in debt. Eleanor, therefore, had to rely on income from taxes in order to pay her bills, and it was from the exaction of these by the more aggressive members of her household that her unpopularity arose. No one likes paying taxes. Those open to her as queen-consort were from the queen's-gold or aurum reginae, which was an additional levy of ten percent paid to the queen-consort on voluntary fines made to the king, papal tenths, and the custom dues from Queenhithe, a quay on the river Thames. Another source available to her was the revenue to be gained from wardships, of which she had many. Under feudal law, if, on the death of their father, a male vassal was under the age of 21 years and a female under the age of 14 years, the king, as their feudal lord, was entitled to the wardship of both the person and their property. The right of marriage was often included too. The lord had full powers to appropriate to himself the revenues of such a minor and, by marrying a female ward to the highest bidder, the rewards could be greatly increased. Henry granted many to Eleanor, including that of Margaret of Lincoln , heir to William of Longespée, which amounted to £2,000 annually. (It should be noted that it is not possible to equate medieval monetary values to those of the 20th century.) Despite the considerable income that these sources provided, Eleanor was forced to make large loans from, among others, the Italian bankers, to solve both her own debts and those of Edward, her son. She became so successful at managing her own finances that by the end of the reign, as Margaret Howell concluded, she had revolutionized the scale and style of the provision hitherto considered requisite for a queen-consort. Her expertise, however, made her few friends.

Since she derived considerable income at the expense of the Jewry, who were frequently fined, Eleanor has been accused of anti-Semitism. It is true that in 1275 she obtained Edward I's permission to order that no Jews live in any of the towns that were within her dower. And the chroniclers had no doubt that Edward I's expulsion of the Jews from England in 1289 was influenced by his mother. It would be unfair to put all the blame onto Eleanor for a practice that was not uncommon in the 13th century, but the actions do neither her nor Edward I any credit.

The reign of Henry III was a momentous one dominated by his continental ambitions and the struggle of the English nobility to assert their rights. The weak and vacillatory nature of Henry added to Eleanor's difficulties. She accompanied Henry on his journeys both in England and abroad with the exception of that of 1253 when she remained in England as co-regent together with Richard, earl of Cornwall, Henry's brother. At this time, she was appointed Lady Keeper of the Great Seal. She took her duties very seriously, remaining, as her itinerary shows, mostly in Westminster, sitting as judge in the curia regis, interrupted only by the birth of her third daughter, Katherine, in November 1253, and twice summoning Parliament in order to raise funds for Henry. The manner in which Parliament was summoned in February 1254 marked a landmark in parliamentary history for which Eleanor can be said to be partly responsible. For the first time, as well as the great lay and ecclesiastical lords, the lesser nobility and clergy were included. Her appeals for money, however, were unsuccessful, and she was forced to meet Henry's needs from her own resources.

Her regency was cut short in May 1254 when Eleanor left England to attend the marriage of Edward and Eleanor of Castile at the monastery of Las Huelgas in Burgos in the Pyrenees. This was followed later that year by a reunion in Paris at the French royal court of Eleanor with her mother and sisters.

A return to the English court meant facing the faction war that was developing. The Savoyards and Provençals who had arrived with Eleanor in 1236 had been joined by the Lusignans in 1247. The Lusignans were Henry's 11 half-brothers and half-sisters born to Henry's mother, Isabella of Angoulême (1186–1246), by her second marriage to Hugh of Lusignan. Known as the "aliens" by their contemporaries, they were arrogant, violent and universally disliked except by Henry, who endeavored with limited resources to satisfy their needs. This led Henry to confiscate some of Eleanor's lands, but these were swiftly restored to her. The accounts of the queen's messengers show that though she was absent from court during much of this period she was in close communication with the king. There is no evidence to indicate whether or not she supported either faction, but she would have been very unlikely to agree to anything that could have undermined her son's future. And her absence should be seen as more of a tactical withdrawal than as evidence of a marital dispute. Baronial pressure finally forced Henry to expel the Lusignans, but it was too late to prevent the outbreak of civil war.

On May 14, 1264, Henry III was captured by Simon de Montfort, the leader of the rebel barons, at the battle of Lewes. Henry was held as prisoner by Simon until August 4, 1265, when, at the battle of Evesham, Simon was defeated and killed by a royalist army led by Prince Edward. Eleanor and her younger son, Edmund, had already crossed to France on September 23, 1263, where they remained until their return to England on October 28, 1265.

As head of a court in exile, Eleanor proved her ability to lead in what was then a man's world. Her household accounts for 1257–64 and 1264–69 show unusually high expenditure for horses and their equipment and "secret gifts and private alms." She made use of family ties on the Continent to raise money and mercenaries for the release of her husband. She successfully negotiated a considerable loan from Louis IX in exchange for three bishoprics of Limoges, Périgeux, and Cahors, which Henry had held by right of the French king through the Treaty of Paris; but failed in her appeals to Alphonse de Poitiers, Louis' younger brother, for ships. However, by the autumn of 1264, she had assembled a large army of German, Gascon, Breton, French, and Spanish mercenaries at the Flemish port of Sluys. Bad weather prevented it sailing, and as Eleanor's financial resources dwindled so did the army. Fear of it though had caused Simon de Montfort to draw up a line of defense along the south coast, and Alphonse did close the port of La Rochelle, disrupting English merchant shipping.

Edward's victory at Evesham paved the way for Eleanor's return to England. Her political role effectively ended now as Henry's declining health left Edward more and more in control. Her last official duty as queen-consort was in November 1272 when she sent messengers to Edward, who was on crusade in the Holy Land, to inform him of his father's death and his own accession to the English throne.

As queen mother, Eleanor was treated more generously by the chroniclers. Now the mother of a strong and successful king, rather than the wife of a weak one, she received praise instead of criticism. She adopted the role of family matriarch and traveled widely, both in England and abroad, visiting her children and grandchildren. Edward I clearly valued her advice and her other children were not afraid to leave their affairs in her control during their absences abroad.

In 1276, following the deaths of both her married daughters, she entered the convent of St. Mary at Amesbury in Wiltshire, a daughter-house of the great French Benedictine Abbey of Fontevrault, as a "vowess" or "veiled widow." In doing so, she followed the practice popular in the 13th and 14th centuries when widows, from royal, aristocratic and merchant families, chose to take a vow of chastity and live quietly in a religious house, accepting mantle, veil and ring, blessed by a bishop, as visible expressions of their status. Eleanor continued to travel, administer her own affairs and conduct family conferences. King Edward was a frequent visitor. Her letters show that Amesbury benefitted from her presence there. She became well known as a generous benefactor and was reported to donate £5, a considerable sum, to the poor at regular intervals. She endowed a hospital for women, St. Katherine's near the Tower at London, with lands and property. She commanded that alms be distributed there annually on the anniversary of Henry III's death.

In 1286, she took her vows as a professed nun of the order of Fontevrault, together with two of her granddaughters. She spent the remaining five years of her life in relative seclusion. A measure of the confidence her family retained in her is indicated by the fact that two important family conferences, in October 1289 and April 1290, were held in her presence at Amesbury, where both state and family business was discussed. The betrothal of Edward I's son and heir, also Edward, with Margaret, Maid of Norway (1283–1290), heir to the throne of Scotland, was among the matters under discussion. Also the succession was agreed, since Edward I was at that time planning to go on crusade again.

Eleanor of Provence died on June 24, 1291, aged nearly 70 years. Her burial was delayed until September 10, 1291, on the orders of Edward I who was in Scotland at the time of her death and wished to participate personally in the ceremonies. She was buried in the convent of St. Mary, Amesbury. Her heart was taken to London and buried in the church of the Friars Minors. Sadly, neither the fine tomb erected at Amesbury by Edward I nor her burial place in London exist today.

Eleanor was a competent and intelligent woman with a natural ability for leadership and plenty of common sense. She came to a foreign land as a child-bride to a king and survived. As a widow, she was not too proud to exchange her crown for a veil and refer to herself as the "humble nun of the order of Fontevrault." Of her nine children, only four lived into adulthood. Her sons, Edward I and Edmund, earl of Lancaster, survived her. Her daughters, Margaret, wife of Alexander III of Scotland, and Beatrice, wife of John of Brittany, both died in 1275.

There are no portraits, statues or effigies of Eleanor of Provence. There exists only a photograph of one very weather-beaten stone boss, which was to be found, before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on the north porch of Bridlington Priory, Yorkshire, England; it was said to commemorate her visit to York in 1251 for the marriage of her daughter, Margaret. There is nothing to compare with the crosses erected by Edward I in memory of his wife, Eleanor of Castile. The two queens are frequently confused. Not only did they share the same Christian name, but they also died within six months of each other. Only fragments of the seals of Eleanor of Provence remain today. Her most tangible memory lies in the collection of her correspondence which can be found in the Public Record Office, Chancery Lane, London.


Biles, Martha. "The Indomitable Belle: Eleanor of Provence, Queen of England," in Seven Studies In Medieval English History and other Historical Essays, Presented to Harold S. Snellgrove. Ed. by R.H. Bowers. Jackson, Mississippi, 1983.

Calendars of the Chancery Rolls for the reigns of Henry III and Edward I published by the P.R.O. (London).

Howell, Margaret. "The Resources of Eleanor of Provence as Queen-consort," in E.H.R. Vol. cii, 1987, pp. 373–393.

Johnstone, H. "The Queen's Household," in Chapters of Administrative History of Medieval England. Edited by T.F. Tout. Vol. V. Manchester, 1920.

Paris, Matthew. Chronica Maiora. Ed. by H.R. Luard. Rolls Series, 1872–84.

Strickland, Agnes. Lives of the Queens of England. 12 vols. London, 1841.

suggested reading:

Bémont, C. Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, 1208–1256. Trans. by E.F. Jacob. Oxford, 1930.

Blaauw, W.H. The Baron's War, including Battles of Lewes and Evesham. London, 1844.

Cox, E.L. The Eagles of Savoy: The House of Savoy in 13th-Century Europe. Princeton, New Jersey, 1974.

Crawford, Anne, ed. Letters of the Queens of England 1100–1547. Alan Sutton, 1994.

Powicke, F.M. King Henry III and the Lord Edward. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Oxford, 1947.

Snellgrove, H.S. The Lusignans in England 1247–58. New Mexico: University New Mexico Publications in History, No. 2, 1950.

Wood, M.A.E., ed. Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain from the beginning of 12th century to close of reign of Queen Mary. 3 vols. London, 1846.


A collection of Eleanor of Provence's letters is to be found in Ancient Correspondence (S.C.1) in P.R.0., London.

Margaret E. Lynch , M.A., Lancaster, England

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Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291)

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Eleanor of Provence (c. 1222–1291)