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’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

17 January 2010

Cinderella Sisters, Part 1 of 4: Marguerite

Once upon a time, a debonair count and his beautiful wife ruled over the idyllic land of Provence, stretching from the edge of the Alps to the sunny coast of the Mediterranean. They spent all of their money on good food and wine, elaborate clothes and lavish entertainments. At the center of this jolly count’s world were his four gorgeous daughters: Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia and Beatrice. Unlike most men of the time, Count Raymond did not move hell and earth hoping to get a male heir. Instead, he focused his attention on making excellent marriages for the girls. As a mere count, he could hardly have hoped for kingly sons-in-law, but that is what happened. These are the Cinderella sisters.


Statue of Marguerite
located in the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris

By LPLT via Wikimedia Commons
As the eldest, Marguerite desperately needed to make a good marriage. Her success would make it easier for the others. Other than her beauty and intelligence, however, Marguerite didn’t have much to offer a 13th century prince. On the other hand, Provence was literally in middle of things; wedged between two super powers, the Holy Roman Empire and France, Provence’s location became Marguerite’s main attraction.

Following a war of succession, Blanche of Castile had secured the French throne for her young son, Louis IX, and it was she who dominated both him and the kingdom. But she needed an ally to the south. The 12-year-old Marguerite, “a girl of pretty face but prettier faith,” was invited to Paris along with her dowry of ten thousand silver marks (most of which Raymond borrowed, financed or promised for later).

Blanche had no intention of giving up her power to her successor. When she discovered that Louis and Marguerite were in love, she took drastic measures to keep them separated. As long as the bride did not become a mother, Marguerite would have little claim on France. For years, the young couple met in secret, lingering on staircases, sneaking into each other’s chambers, and relying on faithful servants to warn them of approaching footsteps.

As years passed without a pregnancy, Frenchmen began whispering that the king should get rid of his barren wife, but Blanche had no pity for her daughter-in-law, even when Marguerite became deathly ill. As Louis sat at his wife’s bedside, his mother called him away saying, “you’re doing no good here.” Marguerite cried out, “Whether I live or die, you will not let me see my husband!”

Marguerite recovered, but Blanche continued to humiliate her, even sending her to pray publicly at a shrine for barren women. After six years of marriage, Marguerite finally became pregnant, but the child was a girl—good enough for a Count of Provence but not for a King of France. Two years later, another girl. Marguerite could not catch a break. Then, Louis fell ill. He was nearly declared dead when he suddenly awakened. Always a pious man, he celebrated this miracle by deciding to go on a crusade.

Blanche begged him not to go, afraid he would never survive a holy war. Marguerite wasn’t sure Louis could do it either, but now, at last, she could see a way of weakening her mother-in-law’s influence. Not only did Marguerite support Louis in his intention, she decided to go with him.

Her devotion and enthusiasm apparently sparked some devotion and enthusiasm from her husband: in the four years it took them to raise money and armies for the crusade, Marguerite gave birth to two sons. As they traveled across the Mediterranean to fight the Muslims, the couple’s romantic endeavors were rewarded once again. Marguerite arrived in Egypt with a baby on the way. Louis left her with a contingency of knights and mercenaries at Damietta while he went to fight.

With communications cut off between them, Marguerite was left to oversee Damietta as her pregnancy progressed. In her ninth month, lookouts announced that they could see the king’s army approaching, but they were not entirely correct. The king and what was left of the army were returning as prisoners of the sultan. Marguerite secured the city and then went into labor. She kept an old knight at her side, ordering him, “If the Saracens take this city, you will cut off my head before they can take me.”

After the birth of her third son, Jean Tristan, many of the mercenaries threatened to abandon the city. Unable to get up, the queen negotiated with them from her childbed, imploring them to “at least take pity on the poor weak creature lying here, and wait till I have recovered.” She also offered to personally pay them off.

Marguerite eventually bought off the Muslims too, offering them money, surrendering Damietta and promising to leave as soon as the king and his men were returned. But Louis would never be the same.

By failing in his crusade—losing thousands of men, including his brother, Robert—he felt he had failed God. He became increasingly stringent in his religion, even wearing a hair shirt to mortify his flesh. Marguerite once asked him to dress more appropriately for a king. “I’ll dress as you wish,” he responded, “if you’ll dress as I wish.” Marguerite dropped the topic; she had no intention of giving up her fine clothes.

She also had no intention of giving up the power she had won by her leadership in Egypt and by the death of her mother-in-law while she was away. Despite Louis’ growing fanaticism, she and the king had two more sons and three more daughters. Two decades after his first crusade, Louis took up the cross again. This time, when many of their children decided to go with him, Marguerite was less than supportive. If the king had been unsuccessful when he was young and strong, why should he be victorious now?

Marguerite stayed home.

When the crusaders arrived, their camp was struck by typhus. One of the first to die was Jean Tristan, who had been born on the last crusade. Three weeks later, the king died too. After negotiating peace, Marguerite’s other children headed home, but the journey was perilous. Her son-in-law grew ill and died. Her pregnant daughter-in-law was thrown from a horse, gave birth prematurely to a stillborn son and died. Another son and his wife both succumbed to illness. Her widowed daughter survived just two months after reaching France. Only the new King Philippe returned unscathed.

In essence, Louis had decimated his family, but he received his heavenly reward: he was canonized. As St. Louis, his name lives on in many places, including in the “Gateway to the West,” St. Louis, Missouri . (Marguerite refused to testify in favor of sainthood.)

Marguerite tried to follow her mother-in-law’s example, but King Philippe would not allow his wise mother any influence. It was not the only sign of his incompetence.

Marguerite turned her attention to the land and family of her birth. The eldest daughter, she outlived all of her sisters and seven of her children. She survived her sainted husband by 26 years.

Read about her sisters:
Eleanor | Sanchia | Beatrice

Work Consulted for This Post

01 January 2010

The Next Princess: Tatiana Blatnik

2009 TELVA Fashion Awards
On Dec. 28, 2009, the King and Queen of Greece announced the engagement of their 40-year-old son, Prince Nikolaos, to his longtime girlfriend, Tatiana Blatnik.