Eleanor, the ‘Pearl of Brittany’


Eleanor of Brittany was born around 1184, the daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet Duke of Brittany by right of his wife, and Constance of Brittany. Whilst estranged from his father, Henry II, Geoffrey had been trampled to death while competing at a tournament in Paris, in August 1186.

Described as beautiful, she has been called the Pearl, the Fair Maid and the Beauty of Brittany. A granddaughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, she was the eldest of her parents’ three children; a second daughter, Matilda was born the following year, but died young and a son, Arthur who was killed by – or at least on the orders of – King John in 1203. The birth of Eleanor’s brother Arthur in 1187 diminished her value on the marriage market; she no longer came with Brittany as her dowry, like her mother had done.

Initially, Eleanor’s life seemed destined to follow the same path as many royal princesses; marriage. Richard I, her legal guardian after the death of her father in 1186, following his sister Joanna’s adamant refusal, offered Eleanor as a bride to Saladin’s brother, Al-Adil, in a failed attempt at a political settlement to the 3rd Crusade. However, nothing came of the suggestion and, shortly after, at the age of nine, Eleanor was betrothed to Friedrich, the son of Duke Leopold VI of Austria, who had made the betrothal a part of the ransom for Richard I’s release from imprisonment by the Duke. Eleanor was travelling to Germany in the care of Baldwin de Béthune when news arrived that, Duke Leopold had died suddenly. The duke’s s son had ‘no great inclination’ for the proposed marriage and so Eleanor and her party turned around and returned home. Further marriage plans were mooted in 1195 and 1198, to Philip II of France’s son Louis, the dauphin, and Odo, Duke of Burgundy, respectively; although neither came to fruition.

Duchess Constance then pressed for Eleanor to be released from royal custody and by the time of Richard’s death, in 1199, Eleanor was living in France with her mother and brother. Eleanor’s fortunes changed drastically when Arthur rebelled against Richard’s successor, King John, in the early 1200s, encouraged by King Philip II of France. As the posthumous son of John’s older brother, Geoffrey, Arthur had a strong claim to the English crown, but had been sidelined in favour of his more mature and experienced uncle. He was also heavily influenced by the French king, a fact which did not go in his favour. Arthur was captured while besieging his grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau on 1st August 1202.

Eleanor was captured at the same time, or shortly after. And while her brother was imprisoned at Falaise, and later Rouen, in 1203 she was sent into perpetual imprisonment in England. Eleanor of Brittany holds the sad record of being the longest imprisoned English royal in British history.

If the laws of primogeniture had been strictly followed at the time, Eleanor would have been sovereign of England after her brother’s death. John and his successor, Henry III could never forget this. However, the experiences of Empress Matilda and her fight with King Stephen over her own rights to the crown – and the near-20 years of civil war between 1135 and 1154, had reinforced the attitude that a woman could not rule.

This did not, however, mean that Eleanor was no threat to John and Henry; should she be allowed to marry, her husband may be persuaded to fight to assert her rights, of form the focus to a rival faction at court – and an alternative royal line. Imprisoning Eleanor mean that John not only kept control of her, but also eliminated any possible opposition building around her rights to the throne.

Bowes Castle, North Yorkshire

Although her confinement has been described as ‘honourable’, Eleanor’s greater right to the throne meant she would never be freed, or allowed to marry and have children. King John gave her the title of Countess of Richmond on 27th May 1208, but Henry III would take it from her in 1219 and bestow the title elsewhere. From 1219 onward she was styled the ‘king’s kinswoman’ and ‘our cousin’.

It seems Eleanor did spend some time with the king and court, particularly in 1214 when she accompanied John to La Rochelle to pursue his war with the French. John planned to use Eleanor to gain Breton support and maybe set her up as his puppet Duchess of Brittany, replacing her younger half-sister Alice. Alice was the daughter of Eleanor’s mother, Constance, by her third marriage to Guy of Thouars. She was married to Peter of Dreux, a cousin of King Philip of France and Duke of Brittany by right of Alice. Using the carrot and stick approach, John offered Peter the earldom of Richmond to draw him to his side, while at the same time dangling the threat of restoring Eleanor to the dukedom, just by having her with him. Peter, however, refused to be threatened of persuaded and chose to face John in the field at Nantes. John’s victory and capture of Peter’s brother in the fighting persuaded Peter to agree to a truce, and John was content to leave Brittany alone, thereafter, advancing on Angers. His plans to restore Eleanor abandoned and forgotten.

Eleanor’s movements were restricted, and she was closely guarded. Her guards were changed regularly to enhance security, but her captivity was not onerous. She was provided with ‘robes’, two ladies-in-waiting in 1230, and given money for alms and linen for her ‘work’. One order provided her with cloth; however, it was to be ‘not of the king’s finest.’ She was granted the manor of Swaffham and a supply of venison from the royal forests. The royal family sent her gifts and she spent some time with the queen and the daughters of the king of Scotland, who were hostages in the king’s custody. Throughout her captivity she is said to have remained ‘defiant’.

King John

Eleanor was well-treated and fed an aristocratic diet, as her weekly shopping list attests; ‘Saturday: bread, ale, sole, almonds, butter, eggs. Sunday: mutton, pork, chicken and eggs. Monday: beef, pork, honey, vinegar. Tuesday: pork, eggs, egret. Wednesday: herring, conger, sole, eels, almonds and eggs. Thursday: pork, eggs, pepper, honey. Friday: conger, sole, eels, herring and almonds.’ In her sole surviving letter, written in 1208 with John’s consent, she is styled ‘Duchess of Brittany and Countess of Richmond.’

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where Eleanor was imprisoned at any one time.  Over the years, she was held in various strongholds, including the castles of Corfe (Dorset), Burgh (Westmorland), and Bowes (Yorkshire).  Corfe Castle is mentioned at times, and it seems she was moved away from the coast in 1221 after a possible rescue plot was uncovered. She was also held at Marlborough for a time, and she was definitely at Gloucester Castle in 1236. By 1241 she was confined in Bristol castle, where Eleanor was visited regularly by bailiffs and leading citizens to ensure her continued welfare. Eleanor was also allowed   her chaplain and serving ladies to ensure her comfort. She died at the age of about fifty-seven, after thirty-nine years of imprisonment, achieving in death, the freedom that had eluded her in life.

She was initially buried at St James’s Priory Church in Bristol but her remains were later removed to the abbey at Amesbury, a convent with a long association with the crown.


Sources: Douglas Boyd, Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine; Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: the Kings who made England; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Britain’s Royal Families; Oxford Companion to British History; The History Today Companion to British History; Robert Lacey, Great Tales from English History; Mike Ashley, A Brief History of British Kings and Queens and The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens; findagrave.com; spokeo.com.

Pictures: Wikipedia, findagrave.com; Bowes Castle is ©Sharon Bennett Connolly


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21 thoughts on “Eleanor, the ‘Pearl of Brittany’

  1. Kristie 24/01/2015 / 16:00

    Hi Sharon, Great blog as usual!

    Eleanor also spent some time in Gloucester Castle. I came across it when researching for my book. I feel sorry for her (obviously I feel sorrier for her brother). Being kept in captivity and never being allowed to marry would have been a sad fate for her.


    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 24/01/2015 / 16:14

      Thanks Kristie. Yes it seems Gloucester and Bristol were her 2 main prisons, but she was held elsewhere at times.


  2. karrrie49 24/01/2015 / 16:15

    Reblogged this on karenstoneblog and commented:
    Another gem on a lesser known noble lady who, if the rules had been different could have been a Queen

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Janey Mack 25/01/2015 / 01:14

    Nice article! I have often thought that the story of Eleanor of Brittany was a sad one; she does seem to have been largely forgotten by history, although she has appeared in the occasional romance novel as a minor character. However she does not hold the record for ‘longest imprisoned royal in English history’ by a long shot.

    That title must certainly belong to the Princess Gwenllian, daughter of Llywelyn the Last, Prince of Wales, who was locked up in the convent of Sempringham in Lincolnshire from the time she was slightly over a year old to the time of her death shortly before her 55th birthday (1283–1337)–a span of nearly 54 years! Gwenllian would not have remembered her father, who died when she was 6 months old (her mother, Eleanor de Montfort, a granddaughter of King John, died at her birth); she would not have remembered the sound of her native language of Welsh, and likely was kept in ignorance not only of events outside the convent walls, but also of her own true identity.

    Second place would go to Gwenllian’s cousin Gwladus (daughter of Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd), imprisoned in the convent of Sixhills for nearly as long (there is much less ready evidence for her life than Gwenllian’s, but she apparently died in 1336 after being placed there in 1283).

    The reason for their imprisonment was the same as the reason for Eleanor’s, of course–they were put safely away where they could not possibly breed and pass on a bloodline that could have been inconvenient or troublesome to the Kings of England–it was Edward I who incarcerated them, and Edward II carried on that imprisonment, just as Henry III had continued the imprisonment of Eleanor after the death of his father.

    You can look here for information on Gwenllian:



    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 25/01/2015 / 10:14

      Thank you so much for your input, Janey. Several sources named Eleanor as the longest-serving royal prisoner. And so I have spent a very pleasant morning looking into why Gwenllian and her cousins are not counted in that list.
      At first I thought it may be that the Welsh rulers were not thought of as royal – but there are 2 Welsh princes on the list and King Edward himself styled Gwenllian as ‘Princess’ when appealing to the pope for concessions for Sempringham.
      So, I think it may have something to do with the fact that she was in a convent. That it was not a conventional prison may have caused her exclusion. All those included in the list were held in the more conventional castle prisons. It may also be that she stopped being considered a prisoner if she took her vows.
      However, I certainly couldn’t find a definitive reason for her exclusion from the list.
      If I ever find out, I’ll let you know.
      Best wishes, Sharon


  4. annemariebouchard329 02/03/2015 / 20:31

    Sharon I never knew about Eleanor of Brittany before, what a very sad story. Beautifully written.


    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 03/03/2015 / 09:49

      Thank you Anne Marie. I do feel sorry for Eleanor, locked away for life, just because of the blood running through her veins. It’s the unfairness of it.


  5. susanfeuille 11/08/2017 / 15:56

    I really enjoyed your blog on Eleanor the Unfortunate (my term). May 2018 is a long time to wait for your new book, so I am so glad that you mentioned Book Depository! I have ordered from them in the past and have been pleased with their service.


    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 11/08/2017 / 18:04

      Thank you Susan, that’s lovely to hear. Totally agree Re Depository – why wait when they can get it to you in September? Best wishes, Sharon ☺


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