21 December 2016

The Pearl of a Girl who Scared Bad King John

via Wikimedia Commons
What do you do with nieces and nephews who have better claims to the throne than you do? If you're King Richard III (or perhaps his nephew-in-law King Henry VII, history doesn't know for sure) you have them locked away in the Tower until one day they just disappear. As evil as some think Richard may have been -- and there's a whole society dedicated to his sanctification -- it's not a trick invented in his day. In fact, he or his successor Henry may have been inspired by their common ancestor, Bad King John.

Everyone knows petulant John from the Robin Hood legends. He tried to take over the kingdom while his brother, Richard the Lionheart. Others remember him from history class as the king who was bullied by the barons into signing the Magna Carta. Everyone agrees that John was a bad king.

While people today remember John and big brother Richard, they don't realize that John had more older brothers, notably the Young King Henry, who was crowned by their father Henry II to solidify his eventual succession, and Geoffrey, who was made Duke of Brittany. Despite a relatively happy marriage, Young Henry had no children but Geoffrey and his duchess produced Arthur and Eleanor. It was a large and power-hungry family. When the older brothers along with their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine rebelled against their father, only John was loyal, but he eventually turned against dad, too. (I told you, Bad King John.) After John died of dysentery on the battlefield and Geoffrey died in a jousting tournament, only Richard and baby brother John remained. Under the rules of primogeniture, the line of succession, should have been Richard, then Geoffrey's boy Arthur and then John.

That's not what happened. After Queen Eleanor's favorite son Richard was shot by an error, Queen Eleanor colluded with John, her least favorite child, to get the crown to him, since Arthur was barely 12 years old. Soon, Arthur partnered with the perennial English nemesis, the King of France, to wrest his crown away from Uncle John. It didn't take long for him to be captured and imprisoned. Then, one day, he disappeared and it became clear that he had been killed on John's orders. Rumors still persist that John actually did the deed himself and threw the body into the River Seine.

via Wikimedia Commons
But, this is a blog about princesses...Arthur's teenage sister, Eleanor, the Fair Maid of Brittany or Pearl of Brittany was captured at the same time. Upon Arthur's death, she became the heir to their mother, who was Duchess of Brittany in her own right. She had grown up caught in the crossfire of her warring family. Like most princesses, her marriage had been on the top of everyone's minds since her birth. Despite several agreements by her parents, grandparents and uncle King Richard, nothing had ever been completed.

Eleanor escaped the murderous hands of Uncle John and instead was sent to live imprisoned in an English castle, far from any possible rescue by her loyal subjects in Brittany, even after her mother's death would have made her the duchess. They also discovered that no amount of ransom was large enough to free her. Unlike his predecessors, John had no interest in finding a husband for Eleanor. After all, she was the child of his OLDER brother. Her husband and any children she might have would almost certainly have laid claim to the English throne on her behalf. In fact, John's son kept her under key when he came to the throne as Henry III. Better safe than sorry.

Eleanor is just one royal to have been put away because of her superior succession claims, but her 37-year captivity is the longest on record. However, she was not locked away in a dungeon or a tower. She was able to move about the grounds freely, given good food and good clothes, occasionally went to court. John even made her the Countess of Richmond, although Henry took the title away. John and Henry sent her gifts and sought to make sure she was comfortable. She was also regularly brought out in public to stave off rumors of an untimely demise.

Denied a family of her own, she was given companions when, about a decade into her captivity, the Scottish King William III's daughters were taken hostage and sent to live with Eleanor. However, the Scots princesses, Margaret and Isabella, were eventually released and married off to English earls while Eleanor remained her cousin's prisoner until her death at nearly 60 years old. She was in captive for 39 years, decades beyond the time that she could have given birth to a potential heir.

For more about Eleanor:
Eleanor of Brittany in Captivity on Plantagenesta
Eleanor, the Pearl of Brittany on History...The Interesting Bits

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