24 January 2010

The Cinderella Sisters: Part 2 of 4: Eleanor

As the second daughter of a count, Eleanor of Provence had even fewer chances of marrying a king than her sister, Marguerite, the new Queen of France. Close in age, Eleanor and Marguerite enjoyed a lifelong friendship. Indeed, the older sister frequently came to her younger sister’s rescue.

Eleanor Of Provence
Eleanor’s royal fate had as much to do with her future husband’s fickle nature as her family’s political machinations. King Henry III of England had inherited a throne in the middle of a civil war when he was only nine. By the time, his father died, England—which had once controlled more of France than the King of France—had lost all its continental territory except the small county of Gascony.

In his twenties, Henry wanted to expand his continental position so he started looking for a wife among the daughters of rich French lords. Each time he found one, however, his aims were thwarted by the politically astute French regent, Blanche of Castile, who had no intention of letting the English King gain a foothold and thereby challenge her son, King Louis IX of France.

Henry was betrothed to a French heiress, but engaged in a legal battle—with the opposition funded by Blanche—to have the proposed marriage approved by the Pope, when the Count of Provence’s advisors put another thought in his head. If a daughter of Provence was good enough for France, wouldn’t her sister be just as good for England? Reports of the 12-year-old Eleanor’s beauty didn’t hurt. Henry became so desperate to marry Eleanor that he even agreed to take her without a dowry. Blanche made no objection to this odd decision, figuring that it was better to have the English king marry a poor girl than a rich one whose money could support armies.

When young Eleanor arrived in England, she was immediately wedded, bedded and crowned by her besotted husband. Henry showered her with expensive gifts and unlike her sister, Marguerite, Eleanor had no mother-in-law to cramp her style—Henry’s mom, Isabella, had made a new home for herself in France as the wife of the Count of Lusignan.

Eleanor fulfilled her duty of providing an heir, Prince Edward, by the time she was 16 and four more children soon followed. Henry indulged Eleanor, even providing positions, properties and incomes for her relatives. (Blanche had kicked these same folks out of France when they came with Marguerite.) More than 300 of her countrymen eventually made themselves quite comfortable in England; her Italian uncle even became Archbishop of Canterbury. The English barons were not pleased.

They were also frustrated by Henry’s continental ambitions. Encouraged by Eleanor, Henry accepted the first opportunity to attack a French neighbor from his base in Gascony. Eleanor, certain of his victory, went with him, even though she was pregnant with her third child. But, Henry was no warrior. The war was over almost before it began and he was forced to pay homage for Gascony to King Louis.

His hopes of regaining Normandy now dashed, Henry took consolation in having secured a lasting peace with France, partially engineered by Marguerite and Eleanor, who encouraged their husbands to become good friends. Back home, however, the natives were restless. Already irritated by Eleanor’s foreign relatives, they were now also distressed by the king’s growing favoritism for his French half-brothers, the Lusignans.

At about this time, Henry and Eleanor were offered an opportunity to secure continental prestige while also providing an inheritance for their second son, Edmund. Eleanor was a devoted mother, personally nursing her sick children and sending an army to defend her daughter, the child-bride of the child-king of Scotland from the Scottish regent. So, it is not surprising that she seized the Pope’s offer of the Crown of Sicily for her youngest son. The only problem was that the Pope didn’t really have control of Sicily—Henry and Eleanor had to pledge money they didn’t have to help him wrest the crown from the current king.

The English had had it. They forced Henry, Eleanor and Edward to sign the Provisions of Oxford, granting the barons the right to review royal decisions. But, supported by the Pope, the English royal family refused to honor the Provisions. Civil war, led by the king’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, ensued. At one point, trapped at the Tower of London, Eleanor tried to reach Edward, who was holding Windsor Castle. As her boat approached London Bridge, the crowds recognized her. They pelted her with rocks, vegetables and mud. As the mob grew more violent, Eleanor could neither retreat nor advance. Her life was only spared when the Mayor of London intervened.

Meanwhile, Marguerite and Louis came up with a plan to save their royal relations. Louis demanded his vassals, King Henry and Simon de Montfort, come to France. Although they both agreed to let Louis mediate, neither was willing to negotiate. When the king returned to fight in England, Eleanor remained safely in France. After he and Edward were captured by the rebels, Eleanor pawned the crown jewels (which had been brought to Marguerite for safekeeping), sold her jewelry, borrowed money from everyone she could think to ask and raised a huge invasion force. As it became clear that an invasion wouldn’t guarantee her husband’s and son’s safety, Eleanor ran out of money and the army dispersed. So, she hatched another plan. With Louis’ collusion, she sent a small band to Wales, near the castle where Edward was being held. Edward outsmarted his captors and joined the force his mother had sent. At the gruesome Battle of Evesham, the prince’s knights rescued the king and slaughtered Simon de Montfort.

Eleanor finally returned to England although the English barons never forgave her for raising an invasion force. Her relationship with her beloved son, Edward, had also been transformed; he himself had rebelled against his parents’ poor leadership before the war started and only fought on their side because he realized their fate was his fate. In trying to secure a crown for Edmund, Eleanor and Henry had nearly lost the crown for Edward. To make matters worse, amidst the chaos, the Pope had withdrawn his Sicilian offer—Edmund never got a crown.

Henry reigned, though not without difficulties, for another eight years. Before his death, the popular and capable Prince Edward joined his uncle, King Louis on crusade. After the French royal family’s devastation, Edward spent a couple more years in the Holy Land, personally killing an assassin sent to kill him. He found out he was king on his way home.

Back in England, Edward had little time for his mother. Eleanor’s presence was a reminder of the strife of the previous reign. So, she quietly retired and looked after some of her grandchildren. She survived her husband by nearly 20 years, but she was not buried at his side in Westminster Abbey—Edward had given her place to his own wife who had died the year before.

Read about her sisters:
Marguerite | Sanchia | Beatrice

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