History: A medieval woman’s life – Eleanor of Castile

Women’s history is something that’s often rather intangible. All too often, they’re relegated to a footnote in the stories of ‘great men’. Whilst more modern historians are working to redress this balance, it’s still often hard to get a picture of the everyday struggles of women.

To help with this, I thought I’d give a brief life-history of one woman: Eleanor of Castile (wife of England’s Edward I). Whilst she’s hardly an example of an everyday medieval woman, her life does in many ways epitomise the struggles noble women faced, particularly with regards to family and childbearing.

Eleanor of Castile, BL Cotton Nero D II, f. 179v, before c. 1307.

Eleanor was born in 1241 in Burgos, Castile to Joan, Countess of Ponthieu. Castile was a powerful country that, at this time, ruled the majority of modern-day Spain. Incidentally, although we know her by it, Eleanor was not actually her name – she was christened Leonor and when she later moved to England she was called Alienor.

The Iberian peninsula in 1300, showing Castile.

When Eleanor was only eleven, her father died and her half-brother, Alfonso, became king of Castile, León and Gallicia. Within the year, he began negotiating her marriage to Theobald, a boy only two years older than her who was heir to the throne of Navarre, the smallest Christian kingdom in the Iberian peninsula. However, in the following year (1253), Theobald’s father died and his mother, acting as regent, made an alliance with the competing major power in the Iberian peninsula, Aragon. Eleanor’s potential marriage was promptly cancelled.

Instead, Alfonso looked to England. This isn’t as strange as it might seem. Firstly, due to England owning Aquitaine in southern France, English interests were geographically quite close to Castilian ones. Additionally, there was precedent between the families – indeed, Eleanor was named after her paternal great-grandmother, an English princess who married into Castilian royalty.

Eleanor’s namesake, Eleanor of England, (1162-1214) and her husband Alfonso VIII of Castile. El Tumbo Menor de Castilla, f. 1, 13th C.

On November 1st, 1254 Eleanor married Edward (later Edward I of England) at the monastery of Las Huelgas in Burgos, Castile. It was a political marriage – part of a deal affirming England’s sovereignty over Gascony. Eleanor was 13 and Edward 15.

Despite the couple’s young age,  Eleanor became pregnant almost immediately. In May 1255, possibly on the 29th, Eleanor gave birth to her first child whilst in Bordeaux, France. The daughter was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Little did the young couple know, this foreshadowed the story of their lives. Eleanor was to give birth to 16 (or perhaps 14) children in her lifetime, 10 (or perhaps 8) of whom would not live to see their eleventh birthday.

Medieval childbirth. Bodl. Douce 211, f. 27v, c. 1300-25.

Eleanor returned to England in the late summer after she gave birth, shortly followed by her husband. There is little record of her life until the 1260s. However, before June 17th, 1264 she gave birth to a second daughter, who was named Katherine. Little Katherine lived 10 weeks, dying on the 5th of September. In 1266 Eleanor gave birth to a third daughter, Joanna. This child managed to live a little longer, perhaps giving the couple hope, but died before September 7th, aged less than 9 months.

A few years pass before Eleanor gave birth again, some of which may be explained by the Second Barons’ War of 1264-67 in which Eleanor played an active part. On July 13th, 1266, now aged twenty-five, she gave birth to her first son. They named him John, likely after his paternal grandfather. On May 6th 1268, she had a second son, Henry, and on June 18th 1269 her fourth daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor and Edward must have thought their luck was changing.

Crusading. BNF Fr. 22495, f. 154v, c. 1337.

In 1270, Edward and Eleanor left England to join Edward’s uncle, Louis IX of France, on the Eighth Crusade. After spending the winter in Sicily, the couple travelled to Acre, Palestine, arriving in May 1271. By this point, Eleanor was already entering her third trimester – during the summer, she gave birth to her fifth daughter, possibly named Juliana. However, Juliana died on September 5th of that year and, devastatingly, Eleanor’s firstborn son, John, died on August 3rd. It seemed like her bad luck had returned.

Eleanor and Edward stayed in Acre another year, during which time their sixth daughter, Joan of Acre, was born. However, the worsening military situation and an assassination attempt on Edward in June 1272 meant they decided to return home. Stopping in Sicily on the way back, they learnt of the death of Edward’s father, Henry III, on November 16th, 1272. However, possibly due to Edward’s still-poor health and the stable political climate in England, they made a leisurely journey north overland, reaching England on August 2nd 1274.

During this journey, Eleanor was once again pregnant, giving birth to her third son, Alphonso, on November 24th, 1273 whilst in Bayonne, Gascony. However, having been back in England barely three months, her second-born son (and heir to the English throne), Henry, died at Guilford, cared for by his paternal grandmother, Eleanor of Provence. Possibly because Henry had always been sickly, Eleanor and Edward didn’t realise the gravity of his illness until it was too late. They were a scant 30 miles away in London, but didn’t visit their son before his death.

Eleanor of Provence. BL Royal 14 C VII, f. 134v, c. 1250-59.

At Windsor Castle in 1276, now aged thirty-five, Eleanor gave birth yet another daughter (her eighth) who was named Berengaria, likely after her maternal grandmother. However, little Berengaria died at some point during the following year, aged no more than 18 months. Near Christmas 1278, Eleanor is thought to have had yet another daughter, but she, too, died shortly after birth.

Despite Eleanor’s increasing age, the couple kept trying for children – after all, they only had one living male heir and hardly a good track record on infants surviving to adulthood. On March 11th or 12th, 1279 Eleanor gave birth to her tenth daughter, Mary. In 1280, she is thought to have given birth to a short-lived son.

On August 7th, 1282, whilst assisting Edward in his Welsh campaign, Eleanor gave birth to her eleventh daughter, Elizabeth, in Rhuddlan Castle, Denbighshire. Two years later, still in Wales, she gave birth to her final son, Edward, at Caernafon Castle, Gwynedd. It was April 25th 1284 and she was forty-three – a rather remarkable age for a natural conception and labour, irrespective of the era.

Edward’s birth came barely soon enough. His only living brother, Alphonso, died a scant four months later, aged ten.

Edward is crowned as Edward II. BL Royal A 20 II, f. 10r, c. 1307-27.

Following Edward’s birth, Eleanor had no further children. It’s likely that she’d reached the menopause by this age. However, she was still a very active figure in England. Since Edward’s birth, Eleanor suffered ill health and in 1287 it was recorded that she had a double quartan fever, so it is possible that she was suffering from a strain of malaria. Despite this, she still travelled to Gascony with her husband in 1287. On her return, she appears to have recognised that death was approaching. Marriage arrangements were made for her daughters Joan and Margaret as well as for her son Edward, a tour through her northern properties was arranged and parliament was held en route in Clipstone, rather than in London as usual.

On November 28th, Eleanor died in a minor nobleman’s house in the obscure village of Harby, Nottinghamshire. She’d been unable to complete the journey from Clipstone to Lincoln. After days of mourning, her embalmed body was carried in state from Lincoln to Westminster where she was buried. Famously, her bereaved husband ordered a cross to be built at each overnight stopping-place of the procession.

Effigy of Eleanor of Castile, Westminster Abbey.

Eleanor of Castile was a remarkable woman. In her forty-nine years she travelled widely, seeing not only her native Castile and home-by-marriage of England but also France, Italy, Sicily and Palestine. She was by the side of her husband throughout their lives, be it whilst crusading or during his wars against the Welsh.

Yet, in some ways, her experiences were like that of countless women in medieval Europe. Like many medieval noblewomen, she was married young. Like many medieval women, she suffered first-hand from the devastatingly high infant mortality rate of the age. However, I suspect her experiences, particularly of childbirth, stillbirth and the struggle of conceiving as an older mother, are ones that make her relatable to women right down to the present day.

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