Born in 1258, probably at Kenilworth Castle, Eleanor de Montfort was the only daughter and sixth child of Eleanor of England. Her mother was the fifth and youngest child of King John and Isabella of Angouleme, and sister of Henry III. Her father was Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, leader of the rebels in the Second Barons’ War.
Eleanor had 5 older brothers; Henry, Simon, Amaury, Guy and Richard.
Her father, Simon de Montfort, is remembered as one of the founders of representative government. He was a leading figure of the Second Barons’ War. He and his eldest son, Henry, were killed at the Battle of Evesham on 4th August 1265. On her father’s death, Eleanor fled to exile in France with her mother and brother, Amuary. The women settled at the Abbey at Montargis until Eleanor of England’s death there in 1275.
In 1265, in return for Welsh support, Simon de Montfort had agreed to the marriage of his daughter, Eleanor, to Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales. De Montfort’s downfall had postponed the marriage, but in 1275, in a move guaranteed to rile Edward I, King of England, Llewelyn reprised his marriage plans and the couple were married by proxy whilst Eleanor was still in France.
Shortly afterwards, Eleanor set sail for Wales, accompanied by her brother, Amaury, who was now a Papal Chaplain and Canon of York. Believing the marriage would ‘scatter the seeds which had grown from the malice her father had sown’, Edward arranged for Eleanor to be captured at sea. When Eleanor’s ship was taken in the Bristol Channel, the de Montfort arms and banner were found beneath the ship’s boards.
Eleanor was taken to close, but comfortable, captivity at Windsor; whilst her brother Amaury was imprisoned at Corfe Castle for 6 years.
In 1276 Llewelyn having refused to pay homage to Edward I, he was declared a rebel. Faced with Edward’s overwhelming forces, and support slipping away, Llewelyn was forced to submit within a year. The Treaty of Aberconwy reduced his lands to Gwynedd, but paved the way for his marriage to Eleanor, at last; it’s possible that the marriage was one of the conditions of Llewelyn’s submission.
The wedding celebrations of Eleanor de Montfort and Llewelyn ap Gruffydd were an extravagant affair, celebrated at Worcester Cathedral on the Feast of St Edward, 13th October 1278. The illustrious guest list included Edward I and Alexander III, King of Scots. Edward and his brother, Edmund of Lancaster gave Eleanor away at the church door, and Edward paid for the lavish wedding feast.
While the marriage did not prevent further struggles between the Welsh and the English king, there was relative peace for a short time and Eleanor may have encouraged her husband to seek political solutions. She is known to have visited the English court when Princess of Wales; and was at Windsor on such a visit in January 1281. Eleanor herself wrote to Edward on 8 July 1279, not only to assure him of her ‘sincere affection’ and loyalty, but also to warn him against listening to reports unfavourable to Wales from his advisers:
Although as we have heard, the contrary hereto hath been reported of us to your excellency by some; and we believe, notwithstanding, that you in no wise give credit to any who report unfavourably concerning our lord and ourself until you learn from ourselves if such speeches contain truth: because you showed, of your grace, so much honour and so much friendliness to our lord and yourself, when you were at the last time at Worcester.Anne Crawford, Letters of Medieval Women
As a testament to her diplomatic skills, Eleanor uses words of affection and flattery whilst clearly getting her point across, a technique her predecessor Joan, Lady of Wales, had used to good effect with Henry III. As it had been with Joan, Eleanor, too, was not beyond humbling herself to King Edward in order to achieve her objectives and wrote to him again in October 1280, this time regarding her brother, Amaury, who was still in the king’s custody. She wrote to the king,
with clasped hands, and with bended knees and tearful groanings, we supplicate your highness that, reverencing from your inmost soul the Divine mercy (which holds out the hand of pity to all, especially those who seek Him with their whole heart), you would deign mercifully to take again to your grace and favour our aforesaid brother and your kinsman, who humbly craves, as we understand, your kindness. For if your excellency, as we have often known, mercifully condescends to strangers, with much reason, as we think, ought you to hold out the hand of pity to one so near to you by the ties of nature.Anne Crawford, Letters of Medieval Women
Amaury was released shortly afterwards.
However, on 22nd March, 1282, Llewelyn’s younger brother, Dafydd, attacked the Clifford stronghold of Hawarden Castle and Llewelyn found himself in rebellion against Edward I yet again. At the same time, Eleanor was in the final few months of her pregnancy and Llewelyn held off taking the field until the birth of his much hoped for heir.
Eleanor and Llewelyn’s only child, a daughter, Gwenllian, was born on 19th June 1282; Eleanor died 2 days later.
Llewelyn himself was killed in an ambush on 11 December of the same year, at Builth, earning himself the name of Llewelyn the Last – the last native Prince of Wales.
Their daughter, Gwenllian was given into the guardianship of her uncle, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, but was taken into Edward I’s custody when David was defeated and captured by the English. She was sent to be raised at the Gilbertine convent at Sempringham, where she eventually became a nun. She died there on 7th June 1337, the last of her father’s line. It is said that she was never allowed to speak, hear or learn her native language. It has been assumed that she was not aware of her heritage, although she was once visited by her cousin, Edward III, who paid £20 annually for her food and clothing. However, as David Pilling has pointed out, she does in fact call herself ‘Princess of Wales, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’ in a petition inside the volume of petitions from Wales edited by William Rees.
Eleanor de Montfort was the first woman known to have used the title Princess of Wales. She was buried alongside her aunt Joan, illegitimate daughter of King John and wife of Llewelyn the Great, at Llanfaes on the Isle of Anglesey.
Eleanor’s story, and that of her mother and daughter, is told in my latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.
Sources: castlewales.com; snowdoniaheritage.info; Marc Morris A Great and Terrible King; David Williamson Brewer’s British royalty; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Oxford Companion to British History; The History Today Companion to British History; Derek Wilson The Plantagenets; Anne Crawford, Letters of Medieval Women; author David Pilling.
Pictures taken from Wikipedia, except that of Edward I, Alexander III and Llewelyn, which was taken from castlewales.com.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly