Eleanor, the ‘Pearl of Brittany’

cafc4ebfe479d11225f5ed912a69da3dEleanor of Brittany was born around 1184, the daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet Duke of Brittany by right of his wife, and Constance of Brittany. 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; Matilda, born the following year, died young and Arthur, who was killed by – or at least on the orders of – King John in 1203.

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.

At the age of 9, she 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 travelled to Germany with her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the rest of the ransom and hostages.

She was allowed to return to England when Duke Leopold died suddenly, and his son had ‘no great inclination’ for the proposed marriage. Further marriage plans were mooted in 1195 and 1198, to Philip II of France’s son, Louis, and Odo Duke of Burgundy, respectively; though neither came to fruition.

Eleanor’s fortunes changed drastically when Arthur rebelled against Richard’s successor, King John, in the early 1200s; he was captured while besieging his grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau on 1st August 1202. Eleanor of Brittany holds the sad record of being the longest imprisoned English royal in British history.

Alienor_of_BrittanyEleanor was captured at the same time, or shortly after. And while her brother was imprisoned at Falaise, she was sent into perpetual imprisonment in England.

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.

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’.

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’. She was granted the manor of Swaffham and a supply of venison from the royal forests. The royal family sent her gifts, but throughout her captivity she is said to have remained ‘defiant’.

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. But his plans came to nought.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where Eleanor was imprisoned. 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. But by 1241 she was confined in Bristol castle where she died at the age of about 57, after 39 years of imprisonment.

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.

1280px-Amesbury_Abbey

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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

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015

12 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.

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

  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:

    http://www.princessgwenllian.co.uk/tpgstf.htm

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    • 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

      Like

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

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

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

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