Eleanor of Provence was born in the province of her name in 1223. She has come to England at the age of twelve to marry the king, Henry III. He’s sixteen years older, but was a boy when he ascended the throne. He’s a kind, sensitive sort whose only personal attachments to women so far have been to his three sisters. The youngest of them is called Eleanor too. She was only nine when, for political reasons, her first marriage took place, but she’s already a chaste twenty-year old widow when the new queen arrives in 1236. In a short time, this Eleanor will marry the rising star of her brother’s court, a French parvenu named Simon de Montfort, thus wedding the fates of these four people together in an England about to undergo some of the most profound changes in its history. It’s a tale that covers three decades at its heart, with loyalty to family and principles at stake, in a land where foreigners are subject to intense scrutiny and jealousy. The relationship between these two sisters-in-law, close but ultimately doomed, will reflect not just the turbulence and tragedy of their times, but also the brilliance and splendour.
Having just reviewed one of the best fiction books of 2019 in Angus Donald’s Blood’s Campaign, it is a pleasure to review one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year. Darren Baker’s The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a truly engaging book, delving into the lives of two very different women, friends who were on opposing sides during the Second Baron’s War and the rebellion of Simon de Montfort.
Told chronologically, with their lives running in parallel, Darren Baker recreates the experiences of Eleanor of Provence, queen of Henry III, and Eleanor de Montfort, sister of Henry III and wife of his bitter enemy, Simon de Montfort. Sympathetic but not overly sentimental, Darren Baker recreates the political and personal lives of his two protagonists, both on the national and international stage.
The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a wonderful analysis of the years between the issuing of Magna Carta and the death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham, clearly demonstrating the roles played by the wives of the two main protagonists in the ongoing battle between crown and barons. Darren Baker examines the conflict, and motivations behind it, from a new and innovative angle.
It cannot have been easy to write a dual biography about two women who shared a Christian name, but Darren Baker has a remarkable skill in always clearly identifying which Eleanor he is talking about at any particular time, negating any possible confusion for the reader.
As the banquet commences, Eleanor [of Provence] notices a man standing in close proximity to them, holding a basin of water for the king to clean his hands in before, during and after the meal. But e is clearly no servant. Besides wearing stately robes, he walks with Henry with a familiarity that suggests they are friends. More intriguing, his accent is very close to hers. Someone in the party whispers that it is Simon de Montfort, the son of the crusader who set most of their region ablaze three decades earlier. Simon too grew up in the south of France until his father was felled in the conflict. When the crusade was over, he ventured to England to claim the earldom of Leicester through his grandmother’s noble lineage. The earldom came with the office of steward, which is what this tall and handsome knight, then in his late twenties, is doing in attending the king at the feast.
Simon looks at the party from Provence with equal suspicion. He survived a purge of foreign courtiers only a few years before and is worried this new crowd from abroad might re-ignite that peculiar English obsession with aliens. His position seems safe because he is one of Henry’s most trusted confidants. He has recently shown his loyalty to him by proposing marriage to two widowed countesses on the Continent, presumably at the king’s urging. Henry has grand ideas about creating alliances across the Channel as a means of recovering the lands seized by the French from his father. ‘Do that,’ he intimated, ‘and I’ll find you a suitable bride if it doesn’t work out.’ Simon returned empty-handed.
Widows abound in this feudal society and the king gets to decide who marries the rich and powerful ones. None is more desirable than his own sister, who is also named Eleanor. She was younger than her new sister-in-law when she was betrothed to William Marshal II, son of her brother’s first regent. Because of her extreme youth at the time, it was years before she and William began cohabiting. Their marriage waas successfull but childless.
Don’t be fooled by the flowing narrative, The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is an in-depth analysis, not only of the lives of the two women, but of the events which shaped their world and threatened the very stability of England and the monarchy. Darren Baker delves into the motivations of both women, their loyalty to their husbands and family and examines the lengths that each went to in order to protect their own interests.
The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a pleasure to read. It provides great insight into the lives of Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor de Montfort, their husbands and children and the impact that their family feuding had, not only on England, but also on the European stage. The author does not run to judgement and provides a balanced analysis of both sides of the conflict of the Second Barons’ War. He clearly points out the character strengths and flaws of both Eleanors, using chronicles and letters to build clear images of their characters and personalities.
The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort firmly places Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort within the thirteenth century world in which they lived. Darren Baker brings their stories to life, with his passion for his subjects clearly visible in the elegant narrative. This book is a must for anyone interested in medieval women or in the conflict between Henry III and Simon de Montfort. Placing the focus on the two women who saw their husbands and sons drawn into the Second Barons’ War shines a whole new light on the period.
It is an enjoyable and fascinating read!
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About the author:
Darren Baker is a translator and historian who took his degree at the University of Connecticut. He currently lives in the Czech Republic.
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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly