Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and England

Tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevrault

Eleanor of Aquitaine is the only woman to have ever worn the crowns of both England and France. Eleanor was the ultimate survivor and, despite many setbacks, lived to a great age, revered and respected to the very end. Her life story has filled many a volume over the years; she has even been promoted as the first feminist. However, Eleanor lived within the bounds of medieval society, even if she did break the mould in many ways. Eleanor was born in the early 1120s, probably around 1122–4. Her father was Guillaume, 8th Count of Poitou and 10th Duke of Aquitaine. Her mother was Alienor, or Aenor, daughter of Aimery I, Vicomte of Châtellerault. Eleanor was one of three children; she had a sister called Petronilla and a brother, Guillaume. Little Guillaume died during childhood, shortly before the death of the children’s mother. After the death of her brother, Eleanor became her father’s heir, at least until he remarried.

Duke William died unexpectedly during Easter week 1137, while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Eleanor was somewhere in her mid-teens at the time of her father’s death, and was not expected to be able to rule the valuable inheritance of Aquitaine alone. Just months after her father’s death, in July 1137, she was married to Louis VII of France. It is entirely possible the marriage had been planned during her father’s lifetime and brought forward due to the Duke’s untimely death. At the time of the wedding, Louis was heir to the French throne. Although he had been crowned as junior king in 1131, during his father’s lifetime, a tradition in the French royal house, a way of securing or at least signalling the succession. Shortly after the wedding on 1 August 1137, he succeeded as sole King of France, when his father, Louis VI, died of dysentery. During the years of the marriage the significance of Eleanor’s lands was highlighted by the fact Louis went by the combined title of ‘King of the French and Duke of Aquitaine’.

A 14th-century representation of, at left, the wedding of Louis and Eleanor; at right, Louis leaving on Crusade.

There seems to have been some issue concerning Eleanor’s fertility, with her first child not arriving until eight years into the marriage. There is a story that the revered abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, had a meeting with Eleanor sometime around 1144, at St Denis, and promised to intercede with God for a son and heir to the French throne. Although Eleanor’s first surviving child was born soon after, in 1145, it was a daughter, Marie, rather than the much-desired son. The year 1144, however, also saw the fall of Edessa, far away in the Holy Land, prompting the pope to call for a new Crusade. A Crusade appealed to Louis, who was seeking atonement for an atrocity committed in his name during the invasion of Champagne, in support of Eleanor’s sister, Petronilla. Petronilla had caused scandal at the French court, by running away with Raoul of Vermandois and marrying him, despite the fact he already had a wife, the niece of the Count of Champagne. As a consequence, the two lovers were both excommunicated. However, conflict with Champagne soon followed. When Louis’ men took the town of Vitry, some 1,300 men, women and children sought sanctuary in the town’s church. Every single one of them perished when the church was burned to the ground by Louis’ marauding soldiers.

It may well be that Eleanor joined the Second Crusade in the hope that God looked favourably on her, enough to give her a son. Maybe she wanted to help her uncle, Raymond of Toulouse, who was Prince of Antioch, who had sent presents accompanied by appeals for help, to his niece and her husband. Or maybe it was Eleanor’s own desire for adventure. Whatever her reason, it was both Eleanor and Louis who took the cross at Vézelay on Easter Day, 31 March 1146, following an inspiring call to arms by Bernard of Clairvaux.

Louis VII

The Second Crusade proved to be the defining point of Eleanor’s marriage to Louis. Led jointly by Louis and the German emperor, Conrad III, it was an unmitigated disaster. Louis lost his personal bodyguard in the heavy defeat by the Seljuk Turks, at Laodicea, in January 1148, while still en route to Outremer. The French forces finally reached the Holy Land, arriving at Antioch, the home of Eleanor’s uncle, Raymond, just a few months later. The warm welcome and lavish attention to his niece soon brought about rumours that Raymond and Eleanor were more than niece and uncle. The persistent rumours of Eleanor’s infidelity, and incest with her uncle, led Louis to put her under close guard, despite a lack of any firm evidence of wrongdoing. She remained under such supervision – although discreetly, so as not to offend her vassals from Aquitaine, who made up a considerable part of Louis’ army. Looking at the evidence today, it is impossible to know whether the rumours, which included not just infidelity but also the birth of a child, had any foundation in truth or were merely fanciful accusations.

Louis fulfilled his pilgrimage by entering Jerusalem in 1148, making the final leg of the journey to the Holy Sepulchre, on foot and fasting, just like countless pilgrims before him. In a council at Acre, Louis and his allies then decided that the best course of action was to take Damascus, with the original aim of the Crusade – to retake Edessa – being forgotten or sidelined. However, attempts to retake the city ended in failure and Louis returned, first to Antioch and then to Jerusalem. The Second Crusade was at an end and, owing to the rumours of infidelity, Louis and Eleanor’s marriage had been dealt a fatal blow.

In 1149, Louis celebrated Easter in the Holy City of Jerusalem, before embarking at Acre for the return journey to France. Eleanor and her ladies travelled separately in another ship. They were reunited in September 1149 and were given a magnificent reception at Potenza, by King Roger of Sicily. From Sicily, they visited the pope, Eugenius III, at Tusculum. Eugenius attempted mediation in the royal marriage, going so far as to insist that they sleep together in a bed which he had personally blessed. Some temporary reconciliation must have been achieved, as their second daughter, Alix, was born within a year. However, with the failure to produce the desired male heir, a permanent reconciliation escaped them and
a divorce, on the grounds of consanguinity, was finally proclaimed during Lent of 1152.

Henry II

Louis attempted to retain control of Aquitaine by insisting that he approve of any prospective husband of Eleanor’s; but the duchess rode away from the French court, and her daughters, returning to her own lands in Aquitaine in the spring of 1152. Eleanor’s marriage – and Aquitaine – was a coveted prize and her journey home was not without its perils. She is said to have narrowly escaped ambushes by the Count of Blois and Geoffrey of Anjou, second son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Eleanor had already decided her future even before her divorce was proclaimed by the clerics at Beaugency. A year earlier, Henry of Anjou and his father, Count Geoffrey, husband of Empress Matilda, had been in attendance at the French court for Henry to swear fealty for the Duchy of Normandy, and to settle disputes over the northwestern county, the Vexin. Although the Vexin issue was far from settled, Henry rode away, confirmed as Duke of Normandy and, possibly, with a promise of marriage from the soon-to-be divorced queen.

Although the marriage of Henry and Eleanor is often presented as a love-match, it was a marriage of hardheaded practicality with mutual benefits. Eleanor needed a husband who was strong enough to stand up to Louis. As Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, and with the possibility of the crown of England tantalisingly close, Henry was the ideal choice as Eleanor’s new husband. They were married in Poitiers Cathedral in May 1152; Eleanor was around thirty years old and Henry was nineteen. Louis was furious and called Henry to court to explain himself for having married without the permission of his liege lord. When Henry failed to appear, Louis formed a coalition against him, persuading King Stephen to attack Normandy from England, while he attacked from the south. Stephen was keen to oblige, hoping to secure the English succession for his son, Eustace, and neutralise the threat posed by Henry. Louis’ other allies included Thibault of Blois, recently betrothed to Alix, the two-year-old daughter of Louis and Eleanor; and Henry of Champagne, who was now married to seven-year-old Marie, Louis and Eleanor’s eldest daughter, and Eleanor’s heir to Aquitaine, at least until Eleanor and Henry had a son.

Louis had thought Henry was preoccupied with plans for invading England. Instead, he quickly reacted to the French king’s aggression, conducting a lightning campaign, which caught Louis off guard. The French king was completely outmanoeuvred and was quick to acquiesce when the Church called for peace. Henry
could then turn his attention to England, which he invaded in However, the death of Stephen’s oldest son and heir, Eustace, in August of that year ultimately led to the Treaty of Winchester, with Stephen bypassing his youngest son, William, in order to settle the succession on Henry and bring to a close the twenty years of warfare, known as the Anarchy. When Stephen died the following year, Henry’s accession followed peacefully. Henry and Eleanor were crowned, together, in a magnificent ceremony in Westminster Abbey, on 19 December 1154. They now ruled an empire that stretched from the borders of Scotland in the north, to the borders of Spain in the south.

Tomb effigies of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevrault

By the time of her marriage to Henry, Eleanor had already survived the birthing chamber on at least two occasions, with the births of her daughters, Marie and Alix, by Louis VII. Although she had only produced two children in fifteen years of marriage to Louis, by the time of her coronation Eleanor had already provided Henry with a son and heir, William, born in August 1153. William died in England in 1156, aged just three, with his mother by his side, and his father away in the family’s Continental domains. However, he had already been joined in the nursery by another son, Henry, born in February 1155, and a daughter, Matilda, who was two months old when little William died. Childbirth was a dangerous time for women, with no guarantee that having survived once, twice or three times, you would survive a fourth or fifth confinement. Nevertheless, after William’s death, Eleanor safely delivered another five children into the world. Her favourite son, Richard, who was her choice as heir to Aquitaine, was born in September 1157 and another son, Geoffrey, who became Duke of Brittany when he married the duchy’s heiress, Constance, arrived twelve months later. Eleanor, who would become Queen of Castile, was born in October 1162, and Joanna, who would initially marry the King of Sicily and then Raymond VI of Toulouse, arrived in October 1165. Eleanor’s fifth son, and tenth and last child, John, was born at Christmas, 1167. Having given birth to ten children over the course of twenty-two years, Eleanor had survived the most perilous aspect of any medieval woman’s life. She would have been well aware of the risk she was taking every time she entered the birthing chamber, knowing that either she or the baby, or both, may not survive.

During their married life together Henry was constantly on the move, travelling between his vast domains, dealing with restless barons, dispensing justice and holding court. Eleanor joined him when she could, depending on her state of pregnancy or recent childbirths. In 1156, for example, still grieving for her three-year-old son William, Eleanor crossed the English Channel with her surviving son, eighteen-month-old Henry, and daughter Matilda, when Matilda was just two months old, journeying to join Henry in Anjou, before moving on to Aquitaine in October. Travel had its own dangers; the English Channel is not the calmest of sea roads and Henry’s own uncle, William, son and heir of Henry I, had been killed in the White Ship tragedy in 1120, when his ship had foundered leaving harbour, killing all but one of the people on board.

Tomb effigy thought to be William Marshal, the Temple Church, London

Land journeys could be equally hazardous. Indeed, Eleanor was almost kidnapped or killed in April 1168, when travelling through the hills of Poitou, escorted by Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and his men. The party were ambushed by Eleanor’s rebellious vassals, Geoffrey and Guy de Lusignan. Salisbury and his men were travelling, unarmoured, when the de Lusignans fell upon them. The earl ‘sent the Queen on to the castle’ at Poitiers while he and the remainder of his men held off the attackers, giving the queen time to make it to safety. The earl was killed by a lance during the vicious skirmish; his nephew, William Marshal, was wounded in the thigh and captured after having his horse killed under him. William spent several months in captivity, his wounds healing despite the harsh treatment meted out by the de Lusignans. William was a young, penniless knight and was finally released when Queen Eleanor agreed to pay his ransom. William then joined the queen’s household, before joining that of her son, Henry. William Marshal would faithfully serve five English kings – Henry II, Henry, the Young King, crowned during his father’s lifetime, Richard I the Lionheart, King John and, finally, Henry III, for whom the aged Marshal was regent.

The years 1169 to 1173 were spent, almost exclusively for Eleanor, in her duchy of Aquitaine with her son, Richard, who she was training as her eventual successor. Richard was invested as Count of Poitou and, in 1169, paid homage to Eleanor’s first husband, King Louis, for the Duchy of Aquitaine. In 1173, however, news reached Henry II that his sons were plotting against him. The boys – now men – were tired of frequently having the possibility of power and responsibility dangled before them, only for their father to withdraw it at the last minute. Henry’s eldest son, Henry, the Young King, fled to the court of Louis VII, his father-in-law since his marriage to Louis’ daughter, Marguerite, in 1160. For unknown reasons, Eleanor sided with her sons against their father. It was later suggested that Eleanor had been incensed at Henry’s relationship with Rosamund Clifford – the Fair Rosamund – and that, wounded by this betrayal, had joined or incited her sons’ rebellion.

Eleanor prepares to poison Rosamund by Evelyn De Morgan

There is, in fact, no contemporary evidence that the affair caused Eleanor’s rebellion and her reasons remain obscure. She may have resented the restrictions of power placed on her, or the fact Henry would not allow their sons any exercise of power. Whatever the reason, Eleanor joined the rebellion, and lost. Her sons were outmanoeuvred and defeated by Henry. Far from humiliating them, however, Henry came to terms with his sons and an uneasy peace ensued. On the other hand, Henry was not so forgiving of Eleanor, who was captured while trying to escape Poitou; she had tried to reach the safety of the French court, dressed in men’s clothing. In 1174, Henry sent his queen to imprisonment in England, possibly at Salisbury, under heavy guard.

Eleanor was kept securely at first, but her imprisonment was relaxed as the years passed, especially after the death of her son, Henry, the Young King, who had pleaded with his father from his deathbed in 1183, that his mother be treated less harshly. In subsequent years, Eleanor was allowed at court for some ceremonial occasions, and was allowed visits by her daughter, Matilda, who had been exiled with her husband, Henry of Saxony, from their German lands. Matilda was instrumental in getting the restrictions eased even further and, although she was still in the custody of guards, Eleanor was allowed to reside with Matilda at various locations in England, including Windsor and Berkhamsted. However, fifteen years of imprisonment in England, far away from her homeland and court in Aquitaine, cannot have been easy for a queen used to riding freely across the vast domains she and her husband possessed.

The queen was only released after Henry’s death in 1189; indeed, ordering his mother’s release was one of the first acts of her son, Richard I. And the queen was there to welcome him for his ceremonial entry into Winchester in August 1189. Now in her mid-sixties, Eleanor was given a new lease of life, and lived it
with the same energy and vigour she had in the years before her imprisonment. Almost immediately, Eleanor was trusted with the oversight of the government of England. In 1190 she travelled to Navarre, to collect Richard’s bride, Berengaria, and deliver the princess to her son, then en route to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade. After a winter journey over the Alps, the queen, now almost seventy, escorted Berenagria to a rendezvous with Richard at Messina in Sicily in March 1191. Having fulfilled her mission, Eleanor set off home, almost immediately; although not before what must have been an emotional reunion with her youngest daughter, Joanna, who was Queen of Sicily and had been widowed in November 1189, but held prisoner by her husband’s successor, Tancred. Richard affected her release and his sister was now to be a companion for his bride; Joanna accompanied Richard and Berenagria to the Holy Land.

Richard I

Eleanor was later instrumental in securing her son’s release from captivity in Germany. Richard had been captured by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, on his return journey from the Holy Land, in December 1192. He was handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich VI, in March 1193. During Richard’s captivity, Eleanor was inexhaustible in her attempts to raise the ransom, some 150,000 marks and to keep her son, John, in check. John took the opportunity created by Richard’s absence to make a play for power; he and Philip II Augustus, King of France, went so far as to offer Heinrich 80,000 marks to keep Richard incarcerated. John was still in open opposition to his brother when Eleanor finally secured Richard’s release, on 4 February 1194. Eleanor travelled to Germany to personally hand over the ransom payment and escort Richard home. As news of Richard’s release reached England, John fled to France.

Richard’s death in April 1199, must have come as a horrific blow for Eleanor; the loss of her favourite son, at just forty-one years of age, caused immense grief. Richard’s death was soon followed by that of Joanna, Eleanor’s youngest daughter, who, heavily pregnant and hurt, had sought refuge with her mother at Rouen. Eleanor was by her daughter’s side as she gave birth to a son, Richard, who lived only long enough to be baptised. Joanna died within moments of her son, in September 1199, and mother and baby were buried together at the Abbey of Fontevrault.

Having lost four of her children in quick succession – her two daughters with Louis, Alix and Marie, also died in 1197 and 1198, respectively – and with her youngest son, John, now on the English throne, Eleanor undertook one final, diplomatic mission. Nearing her eightieth year, Queen Eleanor journeyed across the Pyrenees to Castile, in search of a bride for Louis, the dauphin of France and grandson of her first husband, Louis VII. England’s Dowager Queen was received at the court of Alfonso VIII and her own daughter, Eleanor, Queen of Castile, with all the pomp and pageantry the Castilians could muster. She stayed there for more than two months, taking the opportunity to spend some time with her daughter and getting to know her granddaughters. Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have decided that twelve-year-old Blanca would make a more suitable bride for Louis than her sister, Uracca. Eleanor then brought Blanca back to France and delivered her to her bridegroom, Louis; the couple were married in Normandy, as France was under papal interdict at the time, owing to the marital indiscretions of Louis’ father, King Philip II Augustus.

King John

Following her delivery of Blanca to her new husband, Eleanor retired to the Abbey at Fontevrault. She did not take the veil as a nun, but lived in her own house within the abbey’s precincts. However, the eighty-year-old queen had one final adventure in 1202, when she was besieged by her fifteen-year-old grandson, Arthur, Duke of Brittany, at Mirebeau. Arthur had rebelled against his uncle, King John, and made an attempt on the English throne. In a remarkable forced march, John quickly came to his mother’s rescue, capturing Arthur and his sister, Eleanor, and raising the siege. Arthur disappeared into King John’s dungeons at Rouen and probably died there during Easter, 1203. His sister, Eleanor, was sent to England, to a perpetual, if comfortable, imprisonment.

The event was Eleanor’s last major adventure; increasingly frail, she retreated to Fontevrault, where she died on 31 March 1204, aged around eighty-two. She had outlived all but two of her children, with only Eleanor in Castile, and John in England, still living. She was buried in the abbey church alongside her second husband, Henry II, and her son, Richard, and daughter, Joanna. Eleanor of Aquitaine had survived the Second Crusade, several kidnap attempts, fifteen years of imprisonment and giving birth to ten children. She was the most remarkable woman of the medieval age, the ultimate survivor and a heroine to the core.

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Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

.Jane Martindale, Eleanor, suo jure Duchess of Aquitaine (c.1122–1204) (article), Oxforddnb.com; Douglas Boyd, Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine; The Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Thomas Abridge, The greatest Knight; Mary Anne Everett Green, Lives of the Princesses of England from the Norman Conquest; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Alison Weir Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the Wrath of God, Queen of England; britannica.com; geni.com; royalwomenblogspot.co.uk; medievalqueens.com; Brewer’s Royalty by David Williamson

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The Lancaster Sisters

Although they had the same start in life, the two daughters of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster led very different lives as adults. While Philippa would become the mother of the Illustrious Generation of Portuguese princes, Elizabeth would have to overcome scandal and the taint of treason before finding love in the last of her three marriages.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

Philippa of Lancaster was born at Leicester on 31st March 1360. She was the eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and 4th son of Edward III, and his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, great-great-granddaughter of Henry III. Philippa’s father was one of the richest men in the country – and one of the most powerful. Her life as a child would have been one of luxury and privilege, with a glorious dynastic marriage awaiting her in the future. Philippa was raised alongside her younger sister, Elizabeth, who was born in 1363/4, and her baby brother, Henry of Bolingbroke, born in 1367.

The children lost their mother when Blanche died at Tutbury on 12th September 1368, from the complications following the birth a daughter, Isabella, who did not survive. The children’s father was with Blanche when she died but departed on campaign to France soon after; although it is doubtful the children’s care was interrupted.

Philippa and her sister were raised together in one household, with Blanche Swynford, the daughter of their mother’s lady-in-waiting, Katherine Swynford. John of Gaunt provided his daughters with an annual allowance of £200. The Lancaster household was well-organised and run by Katherine, now the girls’ governess. She became mistress to their father, John of Gaunt, in early 1371. Despite his relationship with Katherine, in September 1371 the Lancaster children gained a stepmother in their father’s new bride, Constance of Castile. Constance was the daughter and heir of Pedro the Cruel, the deceased King of Castile who had been murdered by his half-brother, Henry of Trastámara, in March 1369. A new sister arrived when Constance gave birth to Catherine (Catalina) of Lancaster, in 1372/3.

Despite several dynastic marriage propositions, by 1385 and at 25 years old Philippa was still unmarried. However, in the following year her father took all three of his daughters on his military expedition to Spain, hoping to claim the kingdom of Castile in right of his second wife, Constance. Philippa’s marriage to John – or Joao – I of Portugal was agreed as part of an alliance made with her father at Ponte do Mouro in November 1386. Philippa was married to King John at Oporto on 2nd February 1387, before they had even received the required papal dispensation. Philippa was 26 – about 10 years older than the average age for a princess to marry. John of Portugal was three years her senior and had been king for just short of two years.

Philippa of Lancaster, Queen of Portugal

Almost immediately after the wedding John returned to the war. In July 1387 Philippa miscarried their first child while visiting John at Curval, where he lay seriously ill. However, after what appears to have been a bumpy start, the couple seem to have been well-matched. John had had two illegitimate children before his marriage, but was demonstrably faithful to Philippa after the wedding. In fact, when court gossip reached the queen with rumours that he had been unfaithful, John went to great lengths to convince Philippa of his innocence. He even went so far as to commemorate the event by having a room in the royal apartments at Sintra decorated with chattering magpies as reference to the court gossips.

Philippa became known as ‘Dona Fillipa’ in Portugal and would be one of the country’s best-loved queens. Her natural disposition to austerity and piety was endearing to the Portuguese people. Philippa reformed the court and encouraged courtly games among her ladies. French poet Eustace Deschamps characterised her as the chief patron of the order of The Flower of England, casting her at the centre of the court and the May Day celebrations.

Instrumental in fostering links between England and Portugal, Philippa had been made a Lady of the Garter in 1378. She was on good terms with both Richard II and his successor – her brother, Henry IV. In 1399 she wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, asking him to intervene with Henry on behalf of her friend, Bishop Henry Despenser of Norwich, who had angered the new king by defending Richard II at the time of Henry’s invasion of England and seizure of the throne. Philippa also had a hand in persuading Henry to arrange the marriage of her stepdaughter, Beatriz (John’s illegitimate daughter) to the earl of Arundel in 1405.

Philippa and John were to have a large family, which they brought up with great care. Of their 9 children, five sons and a daughter survived infancy and would later be known in Portugal as ‘the Illustrious Generation’ (a Ínclita Geração).

Their eldest surviving son, Edward, was born in 1391 and would succeed his father as King of Portugal in 1433. Peter, Duke of Coimbra, was born in 1392 and would act as regent for his nephew, Afonso V, following Edward’s death in 1438. Their most famous son was Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’, Duke of Viseu, who was renowned for financing and researching great explorations. Another son was John, Duke of Beja and Constable of Portugal, who married Isabella, the daughter of Alfonso I, Duke of Braganza. And the baby of the family was Ferdinand, Grand Master of Aviz. He was born in 1402 and was later known as ‘the Saint Prince’ following his death as a prisoner of the Moors. John and Philippa’s one daughter, Isabella, was born in 1397 and would go on to marry Philip III the Good, Duke of Burgundy; she was the mother of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.

Tomb of John and Philippa, Batalha Abbey

By 1415 Philippa’s oldest sons were itching to prove their martial prowess. Scorning their father’s offer to hold a magnificent tournament for them, they persuaded him to mount an attack on the port of Ceuta in North Africa. It was as they were about to set sail that Philippa fell ill with the plague. She died at Odivelas, near Lisbon, on 18/19th July 1415, aged 55. On her deathbed she gave her three eldest sons a jewel encrusted sword, each, in anticipation of their impending knighthoods. She also gave them a piece of the true cross and her blessing for the forthcoming military expedition, exhorting “them to preserve their faith and to fulfil the duties of their rank”.

Described as pious, charitable, affable and obedient to her husband, Queen Philippa was held up as a model queen. She was buried in the Dominican Priory at Batalha Abbey, which had been founded by King John, who would be laid beside her after his death in August 1433. Their sons, Ferdinand, John, Henry and Peter, were laid to rest along the south side of the same chapel.

Philippa’s sister, Elizabeth, was not to have such a glittering international marriage. She was also made a Lady of the Garter in 1378 and, in 1380, when she was seventeen years old, her future appeared to be decided when she married John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, at Kenilworth Castle. However, the young Earl was only about seven years old at the time, being Elizabeth’s junior by ten years, and the princess soon tired of waiting for her bridegroom to grow up. The unconsummated marriage was eventually dissolved around the same time that it was discovered that Elizabeth was pregnant by Sir John Holland, half-brother of Elizabeth’s cousin, King Richard II. John already had a bit of a reputation and was rumoured to have been having an affair with Elizabeth’s aunt, Isabella of Castile, wife of Edmund, Duke of York, and there was a possibility that he was the father of Isabella’s youngest son, Richard of Conisbrough.

Arms of John Holland, Duke of Exeter, Elizabeth’s second husband

Whether Elizabeth was seduced by John Holland, or whether they fell in love, we cannot be certain. However, once the affair was discovered, Elizabeth and Holland were hurriedly married, near Plymouth, on 24 June 1386. Within two weeks, the couple were aboard ship with John of Gaunt, his wife Constance, and daughters, Philippa and Catherine; ninety ships and thousands of men were taking part in an expedition aimed at winning the throne of Castile for Constance and John. Elizabeth gave birth to her daughter Constance, in early 1387. She would have been nursing the infant throughout the disastrous campaign in Castile, which saw the army decimated by a combination of sickness, the unfriendly climate and dwindling supplies. By May 1387, John of Gaunt and his ally, John I of Portugal, the husband of Elizabeth’s older sister Philippa since February, had agreed peace terms with Castile.

At the end of May 1387, Elizabeth, her husband and their baby girl left the army and returned to English soil, after receiving a safe-conduct to travel through Castile. On 2 June 1388 John was created Earl of Huntingdon by his half-brother, the king; he would be elevated to Duke of Exeter on 29 September 1397.

The marriage produced at least four children, three sons and a daughter. Constance, the oldest, married Thomas Mowbray, 4th Earl of Norfolk. Of the sons John, Richard and Edward, John eventually succeeded to his father’s title of Duke of Exeter. The late 1390s proved turbulent times for Elizabeth. Her brother Henry of Bolingbroke was banished from England by their cousin, Richard II, in 1398; the sentence was extended to life following the death of their father, John of Gaunt, on 3 February 1399. When Henry retaliated by invading England and taking the king prisoner, it must have been a difficult time for Elizabeth. Her brother was now King Henry IV, but she was married to the former king’s half-brother.

Coat of arms of Sir John Cornwall, 1st Baron Fanhope and Milbroke, Elizabeth’s third husband

Her youngest son, Edward was not yet a year old when John Holland joined the conspiracy to restore his brother to the throne, the Epiphany Rising. Holland and his fellow conspirators, the earls of Salisbury, Kent and others, planned to kill the usurping king and his sons at the New Year jousts. However, Henry IV learned of the plot and the conspirators were arrested. John Holland was executed at Pleshey Castle on 9 January 1400, his head placed on London Bridge and his body buried in the Collegiate Church at Pleshey. He was attainted by parliament, his honours and lands forfeit to the crown. However, Elizabeth, as sister of the king, would not suffer for her husband’s treason, and was granted 1,000 marks a year for her maintenance. John and Elizabeth’s eldest surviving son, John, would eventually become Duke of Exeter, in a new creation, in 1444.

Within months of John Holland’s execution, it seems that Elizabeth, now in her late thirties, had an experience that few medieval women were ever privileged to. She fell head over heels in love with Sir John Cornwall, after watching him defeat a French knight in a joust at York. Cornwall was a career soldier who had fought in Scotland and Brittany, and would soon be fighting to defeat Owain Glyn Dwr’s revolt in Wales. Although considerably younger than Elizabeth, he also fell for the Lancastrian princess and within months the couple were secretly married. When he discovered the marriage, the king had Cornwall arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. However, Cornwall’s considerable charm, and most likely the pleas from his sister, soon persuaded the king to release the knight and restore him to favour. A widely respected soldier and one of the great chivalric heroes of his day, Cornwall was accepted into the Order of the Garter in 1409 and was one of Henry V’s most formidable captains during the Agincourt campaign of 1415.

Tomb of Elizabeth of Lancaster, St Mary’s Church, Burford

The couple were to have two children – a daughter, Constance and a son, John, who was born before 15 February 1405, when King Henry IV stood as his godfather. Young John would come to a tragic end in 1421, when the teenager was killed at the Siege of Meaux, his father a devastated witness to the tragedy. Elizabeth died at her husband’s estate of Burford, in Shropshire, on 24 November 1425. She was buried in Burford Parish Church, where her magnificent effigy, showing a tall, slender princess in colourful robes, can still be seen today. Sir John Cornwall was created Baron Fanhope in 1432 and Baron Milbroke around 1441; he died at his great estate of Ampthill in Bedfordshire on 11 December 1443 and was buried in a chapel he had founded, in the cemetery of the Friars Preacher near Ludgate in London. His two children having died before him, Cornwall bequeathed 800 marks to be divided between two illegitimate sons, and his estate at Ampthill was sold to his friend Ralph, Lord Cromwell.

While Philippa and Elizabeth led contrasting lives, the former as a queen on the international stage and the latter a noblewoman on the national stage, they both found contentment in their marriages. Elizabeth of Lancaster had led an eventful life, following her father to war, with an infant daughter on her hip and married for love at least once. Philippa is best remembered for her piety, her patronage and the Illustrious Generation of children that she raised in Portugal, the model image of a model queen.

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An earlier version of this article first appeared on the blog hosted by Kyra Kramer.

Sources: The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson;  englishmonarchs.co.uk; oxforddnb.com; annvictoriaroberts.co.uk.

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.

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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: A Night of Flames by Matthew Harffy

In the wild lands of Norway, Hunlaf must quell a vicious slave uprising in Matthew Harffy’s new historical adventure.

A wild land. A lethal fanatic. A violent revolt.

Northumbria, AD 794. Those who rule the seas, rule the land. None know the truth of this more than the Vikings. To compete with the seafaring raiders, the king of Northumbria orders the construction of his own longships under the command of oath-sworn Norseman, Runolf.

When the Vikings attack again, the king sends cleric turned warrior, Hunlaf, on a mission to persuade the king of Rogaland into an alliance. But Hunlaf and Runolf have other plans; kin to seek out, old scores to settle, and a heretical tome to find in the wild lands of the Norse.

Their voyage takes them into the centre of a violent uprising. A slave has broken free of his captors and, with religious fervour, is leading his fanatical followers on a rampage – burning all in his path. Hunlaf must brave the Norse wilderness, and overcome deadly foes, to stop this madman. Can he prevent a night of flames and slaughter?

News of a new Matthew Harffy novel has become one of the highlights of my year. Luckily, Harffy is quite a prolific writer, so I never have to wait too long for such news. A Night of Flames is Matthew Harffy’s 11th book in 6 years – that’s quite an achievement!

Especially as his storytelling keeps getting better and better.

The sequel to A Time for Swords, the story begins where the last book left off, with Hunlaf of Ubbanford having forsaken the monk’s cowl for the sword and determined to go in search of his cousin, Aelfwyn, carried off during the raid on Lindisfarne that heralded the Viking era in England. The erstwhile monk comes up with a plan to rescue his cousin and retrieve the highly influential and heretical book, The Treasure of Life, which will lead himself and his friends into the heart of Norway and a heretical band of marauders, made up of former slaves, fanatical warriors and women and children who are killing and spreading devastation wherever they go.

The story has all the ingredients for an exciting adventure. And I have to say, I loved the references to Matthew Harffy’s other series, The Bernicia Chronicles, and the story of Beobrand, with mention of a ballad to Beobrand and his love, Sunniva, or the fact that young Hunlaf was raised in Beobrand’s settlement of Ubbanford, thus interlinking the two very different series with a shared origin.

“I do not wish to slay you,” I hissed at him. “Drop your weapon. End this.”

“There is only one way to end this now,” he yelled. His face was pallid, his eyes glimmering in the bright early morning sun.

Unless he turned away from this course, he was right. I could not defend against him indefinitely. If I waited too long, his brawn and rage would overcome me at last. He was unarmoured, so I had not donned my byrnie. One strike from Wistan could easily prove fatal.

Springing at me again, he attempted a feint, but he signalled his intention with his eyes and his footwork, so my shield was there to parry the attack. This time, I flicked out my sword and opened up a gash on his side, beneath his shield. I skipped away, seeing the pain reach his eyes.

Behind him, Runolf met my gaze. The huge Norseman was grinning, clearly enjoying the excitement of a duel, or hólmgang, as he called it. He had paced out and marked the fighting area with hazel stakes, smiling wolfishly all the while at the prospect of a fight. Beside Runolf, the shorter Gwawrddur was sombre. At my look, he shook his head. I saw the disappointment on the Welshman’s features. There was no honour in defeating a foe who is not able to defend himself. The night before, Gwawrddur had told me to do all in my power to dissuade Wistan from fighting.

“I cannot flee, if he wants to fight,” I had said.

“No, you cannot,” he’d replied. His eyes were sad as he sipped his ale. “But when you laid with his girl, you surely knew this could happen.”

I nodded. I had been flattered by Cwenswith’s attentions, and of course I had enjoyed our fumbling, panting trysts in the store hut, but I had never thought our actions could lead to someone’s death, and certainly not at my hand.

“What if he refuses to step aside?”

“Then you must answer for your actions, just as Wistan must answer for his.”

Wistan now stood breathless before me. He looked down and seemed shocked to see the blood soaking through his kirtle. I had not cut him deeply, hoping the stinging pain would bring him to his senses.

At the sight of blood, someone in the crowd gasped.

Cwenswith screamed, “Finish him!”

Wistan’s eyes narrowed at the shrill sound of her voice. His shoulders tensed and I knew he was preparing to attack once more.

“Don’t,” I said, but too late.

He ran at me, and I retreated. He beat his sword against my shield over and over until the hide covering was tatters and the linden wood splintered.

With a growl, I pushed him back. There was nothing for it. I could not dissuade him, and if I waited any longer, I would be the one to lose my life that day. I sprang forward, holding his blows away from me on my splintering shield and lunging beneath his guard. I felt my sword blade make contact. Wistan grunted and staggered. The morning air was filled with the sudden screaming of women. The men quickly added their voices to the din. I recognised Runolf’s booming voice over the clamour of the crowd, but I could not make out his words.

A Night of Flames is another fabulous rip-roaring adventure from Matthew Harffy, where not everything goes as planned for the heroes and the fight comes close to disaster. It is edge-of-the-seat drama that will keep the reader engrossed late into the night. The battles are vicious, the losses devastating and the outcome uncertain – this is Matthew Harffy at his best.

As has come to be expected with a Matthew Harffy book, the historical research is impeccable; the author’s knowledge of weapons, battle tactics and even sailing the whaleroad is woven into the story so that it is impossible to know where facts end and the author’s imagination begins. The extent of Matthew Harffy’s knowledge and research helps to draw the reader in and makes for a thoroughly engaging book.

The best bit, however – as always with Matthew Harffy – is the story! A Night of Flames is a fascinating, thrilling adventure.

If you like to lose yourself in a book, A Night of Flames by Matthew Harffy is perfect for you!

About the author

Matthew Harffy grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him. He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

Pre-order links

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/3sOTmAe

Follow Matthew

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Website: www.matthewharffy.com

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Twitter: @AriesFiction

Facebook: Aries Fiction

Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.

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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly