Her elder sister Marguerite’s marriage to the King of France, paved the way for Eleanor of Provence to make a glittering dynastic match of her own. In 1236 she married Henry III of England becoming Queen of England. Yet despite building a close loving family with Henry and their five children, she was one of the most unpopular English Queens to sit on the throne.
This was partly due to her loyalty to her mother Beatrice of Savoy’s family. Many Savoyards visited England with at least seventy settling permanently in Eleanor’s kingdom. Eleanor was close to her family and helped secure prominent positions for them. As an example, her uncle Boniface became Archbishop of Canterbury and her uncle Peter became Earl of Richmond. The Savoyard faction became significant political players at the English court, much to the chagrin of English nobles.
She was a capable politician, and was made co-regent with Richard of Cornwall* in 1253 when Henry was abroad. Yet despite her capabilities, her reputation suffered further during the ‘Sicilian Business’. In a nutshell, the Pope told Henry in 1254 if he could obtain Sicily, then his second son Edmund would be granted the kingdom and its crown. This endeavour was expensive and ultimately unsuccessful. In a turn of irony, Eleanor’s sister Beatrice would later become Queen of Sicily and Naples in 1263.
I think Eleanor’s commitment to her family is one of her most positive characteristics, although it proved to alienate many powerful people in her adopted country. The famous chronicler Matthew Paris reportedly criticised Henry as “being under the influence of his wife” and allowing her to keep her relations at court. Yet Matthew knew not to bite the hand that fed him, as he made a book about St Edward the Confessor for Eleanor, and wrote a letter describing her as “noble lady of high birth, Eleanor, rich queen of England, who are the flower of ladies in goods and honors; there is no man who does not love and prize your goodness, sense, and nobility”.
The poor relationship between Eleanor and her subjects hit a particularly dangerous point in 1263 during the civil war, when she tried to travel from the Tower of London to Windsor where her son Prince Edward was residing. As described in the Annals of Dunstable:
“The queen left the Tower by the Thames on her way to Windsor by boat and came to London Bridge; when the Londoners assailed her and her men shamefully with foul and base words and even casting stones; so that freed with difficulty by the mayor of London and driven by necessity she went back to the Tower”.
This was a harrowing episode for Eleanor, and one that could have ended really badly. Despite the civil war, her husband Henry managed to just about keep his throne and it passed smoothly to their son Edward I on Henry’s death in 1272.
Eleanor outlived her husband by nearly 20 years, and during this time focused on her family, including help raise some of her grandchildren. She and Marguerite remained close until her death in 1291 (Sanchia and Beatrice having sadly died much earlier).
What do you think of Eleanor of Provence? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
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*Richard of Cornwall was Henry III’s brother and married Eleanor’s sister Sanchia.
Epistolae: Eleanor of Provence https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/76.html
Epistolae: Letter from Matthew Paris to Eleanor of Provence: https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/666.html
Queens of the Crusades: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Successors 1154-1291 by Alison Weir
England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York by Elizabeth Norton
Wikipedia: Eleanor of Provence
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