On 13th October 1162 (1161 has also been suggested, but most sources agree on 1162) the Queen of England gave birth to a 2nd daughter at Domfront Castle in Normandy, Eleanor. She was the 6th child of Europe’s most glamorous and controversial couple; Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Named after her mother Eleanor was baptised by Cardinal Henry of Pisa, with the chronicler Robert de Torigny standing as her godfather.
Of Eleanor’s 4 older brothers 3 had survived infancy; Henry, the Young King, Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey – later Duke of Brittany. Geoffrey was nearest to Eleanor in age, but already 4 years old when she was born. Eleanor’s older sister, Matilda, had been born in 1156 and would be married to Henry V ‘the Lion’, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, when Eleanor was just 6 years old. At the age of 3 Eleanor would be joined by a baby sister, Joanna, in the Plantagenet nursery and by a last brother, John, in 1166.
Eleanor’s birth coincided with an awkward period in her parents’ marriage. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vassals, unhappy with Henry’s rule, were attempting to get her marriage to Henry annulled on the grounds of consanguinity. Although the plot was unsuccessful and the Cardinals were unimpressed with the argument, it cannot have been an easy time for the King and Queen.
Eleanor’s early childhood was quite nomadic. She travelled often with her parents, in her mother’s entourage. Henry had been absent from the country for 5 years when Eleanor 1st came to England with her parents in 1163. The Royal family would spend the Christmas of 1164/5 at Marlborough, while in the midst of the crisis of Henry’s disagreements with his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket. Eleanor of Aquitaine would then take her children to Winchester, from where they visited Sherborne Castle in Dorset and the Isle of Wight before moving to Westminster.
In February 1165 3-year-old Eleanor was betrothed to the infant son of Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick, in order to cement a treaty with the Emperor. And following the conclusion of the treaty the Archbishop of Cologne was introduced to Eleanor and Matilda (who was to marry Henry the Lion). However, where Matilda departed for her new life in Germany in 1168, Eleanor’s proposed marriage was still in the distant future.
Some historians have speculated that Eleanor was educated for some time at Fontevrault Abbey, along with her younger sister Joanna and her baby brother, John, who spent 5 years there after initially being intended for the church. However, by 1168 she was with her mother, who had decided to settle in Aquitaine and was allowed, by Henry II, to have her children with her.
By 1170 Eleanor’s marriage to the Emperor’s son was no longer a part of Henry II’s plans, and he decided to look elsewhere for an alliance. Seeking to extend his influence across the Pyrenees and to prevent a French alliance with Castile, Henry betrothed Eleanor to Alfonso VIII, the 12-year-old king of Castile. Raoul de Faye, Seneschal of Poitou for Eleanor of Aquitaine, was influential in negotiating the marriage; arranging for Eleanor to receive Gascony as her dowry, but only after the death of her mother.
September 1177 saw Eleanor on her way to Castile. A month short of her 15th birthday, some historians suggest she was escorted as far as Bordeaux by her mother, but this is not supported by the contemporary chronicles. However, she would have been given a suitable escort – as the daughter of a king and as a future queen herself – to see her safely to her wedding at Burgos Cathedral.
Eleanor and Alfonso appear to have had a very successful marriage, and a close, trusting relationship. Eleanor is renowned for introducing her mother’s Poitevin culture into the Castilian court. The court encouraged the culture and architecture of Eleanor’s youth, whilst blending it with the luxuries offered by the neighbouring Moorish culture. Castilian poet Ramon Vidal described Eleanor as “Queen Leonore modestly clad in a mantle of rich stuff, red, with a silver border wrought with golden lions.” While the troubadour Pierre Vidal described to Eleanor as elegant and gracious.
Eleanor and Alfonso would have 7 children that survived infancy. Their eldest daughter Berengaria would marry Alfonso IX, King of Leon, and would act as regent in Castile for her younger brother, Henry I, before succeeding him as queen regnant. Berengaria and Alfonso’s marriage was dissolved by the papacy, on the grounds of consanguinity; but their children were declared legitimate. Shortly after succeeding to the throne of Castile, Berengaria abdicated in favour of her son, Ferdinand III, but continued to act as his closest adviser.
One daughter, Eleanor, married James I, king of Aragon, but they divorced in 1229. While another, Constance, was dedicated as a nun and eventually became abbess of the abbey of Las Huelgas, founded by her parents in 1187. The abbey’s nuns were drawn from the highest ranks of the Spanish nobility, they belonged to the Cistercian Order, a closed community mainly cut off from the world.
Alfonso and Eleanor had 2 sons who would survive childhood. The eldest, Ferdinand, predeceased his parents, dying of a fever in 1209 or 1211. Henry I would succeed his father, but died in 1217 when a loose roof tile fell on his head. He was 13 years old.
Two other daughters survived childhood. Eleanor’s 2nd eldest daughter, 14-year-old Urraca, was initially suggested as the bride of the future Louis VIII of France, son of Philip II Augustus. In 1200 the girls’ grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was instrumental in arranging the marriage; her dowry was to be provided from the territories Richard I had won from France at the end of the 12th century.
Eleanor of Aquitaine outlived all but 2 of her children With the deaths of Richard I and his sister Joanna in 1199, only Eleanor in Castile and her baby brother John, now King of England, remained of the once large brood of 4 boys and 3 girls who had survived infancy.
Such recent losses may have helped to persuade the 77-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine to travel to Castile, in person and in the depths of winter, to collect the granddaughter who would be Louis’ bride. The reunion of the 2 Eleanors would surely have been highly emotional.
She was received at Alfonso’s court with all the pageantry and courtesies appropriate for most remarkable woman of her time. The Dowager Queen of England stayed with her daughter for over 2 months, taking the opportunity to spend some time with her daughter and grandchildren, as the marriage would not be able to take place until after Lent.
In getting to know her granddaughters, Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have decided that 12-year-old Blanca would make a more suitable bride for Louis. Whether it was because of the girls’ temperaments or simply a matter of names, as some historians have suggested. Urraca was not a name easily translated into French, whereas Blanca, as Blanche, was easily recognisable.
It was, therefore, 12-year-old Blanche who travelled back to France with her grandmother to marry the Dauphin, Louis – the same Louis who would be invited to become England’s king by the rebel barons and laid siege to Lincoln Castle in 1216. Blanche and Louis were married in Normandy, as France was under papal interdict at the time; Blanche would be the mother, and lifelong adviser, of Louis IX (St Louis).
In 1206 Urraca married the heir to the throne of Portugal – the future King Alfonso II.
Eleanor of England and Alfonso VIII appear to have had a happy, successful marriage, producing a family of 4 sons and 8 daughters over a 16 year period. Eleanor enhanced the culture of the Castilian court and acted as a diplomatic conduit between her husband and brothers, Richard and John, in order to aid each other and keep the peace – most of the time. However, in 1204, following the death of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Alfonso had to resort to a show of military force in order to successfully claim his wife’s dower rights over Gascony from John.
Their happy marriage came to an end when Alfonso died in Burgos on 6th October 1214. He was buried in the Abbey of Las Huelgas, where their daughter, Constance, was now Abbess, leaving Eleanor as regent for their 10-year-old son, Henry I. Broken-hearted Eleanor, however, only survived her husband by a little over 3 weeks. Overcome with grief she died in Burgos on 31st October 1214, and was laid to rest beside her beloved husband; leaving their daughter Berengaria to take up the regency for Henry.
Of Eleanor’s grandchildren 2 were to become saints, Louis IX of France and Berengaria’s son Ferdinand III, king of Castile; her great-granddaughter and namesake, Eleanor of Castile (Ferdinand’s daughter), would become Queen of England as the wife of Edward I.
Sharon’s book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which looks into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley in September. It is now available for pre-order from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon.
©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: Brewer’s Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir; Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd; oxforddnb.com.