Book Corner: The Two Eleanors of Henry III by Darren Baker

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!

To buy the Book:

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is now available from Amazon UK and is available for pre-order from Amazon US and direct from Pen & Sword.

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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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Little Princess Gwenllian

Gwenllian was the only child of Llywelyn ab Gruffuddd, also known as Llywelyn the Last, Prince of Wales. Her mother was Eleanor de Montfort, who was the daughter of Eleanor of England, sister of Henry III, and Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Llywelyn and Eleanor had married in Worcester Cathedral in October 1278, in a lavish ceremony attended by Edward I, King of England, and Alexander III, King of Scots.

Memorial to Gwenllian, Sempringham, Lincolnshire

Gwenllian, a descendant of both Welsh and English royalty, was born in June 1282 at the palace of Garth Celyn, Abergwyngregyn, near Bangor; her mother died giving birth to her. Shortly after her birth, Edward I concluded his conquest of Wales. Gwenllian’s father, Llywelyn, was killed in an ambush on 11 December 1282 – and just six months after her birth, Gwenllian was an orphan. Her uncle Dafydd, Llywelyn’s younger brother, became the little princess’s legal guardian. After his brother’s death, Dafydd continued the fight for Welsh independence but was betrayed to the English, in June 1283.

Dafydd, his wife, children and little Gwenllian were captured at Bera Mountain in Snowdonia, where they had been in hiding. At just one year old, Gwenllian was taken, by sea, probably to thwart any attempt at rescue, from Wales, the land of her birth. She would never see her homeland again. The baby girl was placed behind the high walls of the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham, in Lincolnshire, just south of the great city of Lincoln. Her female cousins, the seven daughters of Dafydd, were also placed in various nunneries, so it is possible some of her cousins were with her. Dafydd’s legitimate daughter, Gwladus, who was a similar age to Gwenllian, was placed in Sixhills, another Gilbertine priory, in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Statue of Gwenllian’s father, Llywelyn the Last at Cardiff City Hall

Dafydd’s two sons, Llywelyn and Owain, were imprisoned in Bristol Castle; the eldest, Llywelyn, died there in 1287, just four years after his capture. Owain was still living in 1325, every night securely incarcerated in a specially constructed timber cage within Bristol Castle. Dafydd himself suffered the horrendous ‘traitor’s death’; he was hung, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury.

The Gilbertines were the only wholly-English monastic community. Their founder, St Gilbert, had some form of physical deformity, which prevented him from pursuing a career as a knight. He trained as a clerk in France, studying under Master Anselm at Laon. He eventually entered the household of the Bishop of Lincoln and, in 1129, was appointed Vicar of Sempringham and West Torrington. He established the first priory there in 1131, with seven local women vowing to live a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. Sempringham Priory was a double-house, housing both men and women in segregated quarters.

At its height, the priory housed 200 nuns and forty canons. The order followed strict rules, based on those of the Augustinian and Premonstratensian monasteries. By the time of Gilbert’s death in 1189 there were thirteen priories in England; this number had risen to twenty-five at the time of the Reformation. [1]

Gwenllian was a prisoner at the Gilbertine Priory of St Mary, at Sempringham, for the rest of her life. A prisoner of three English kings, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, she was a rallying figure for the subjugated Welsh and too valuable to ever be freed. Edward I wrote to the Prior and Prioress of Sempringham of his decision to place Gwenllian in their custody, on 11 November 1283: ‘… Having the Lord before our eyes, pitying also her sex and her age, that the innocent may not seem to atone for the iniquity and ill-doing of the wicked and contemplating especially the life in your Order’. [2]

Memorial plaque to Gwenllian on the memorial at Sempringham

Although Edward wanted Gwenllian to be forgotten, he could not afford to forget about her himself, and four years after she was placed in the convent, Edward ordered Thomas Normanvill to ‘go to the places where the daughters of Llewellyn and of David his brother, who have taken the veil in the Order of Sempringham, are dwelling, and to report upon their state and custody by next Parliament’. [3] The extent of Gwenllian’s knowledge of her own history and homeland is far from certain. Having been taken from Wales at six months old, she is said not to have spoken a word of Welsh and may not have even known how to spell her name; she is referred to as ‘Wencillian’, in a document sent to Edward III at the time of her death, although spelling was far from uniform in the 14th century.

Gwenllian was probably well-cared for. Edward III endowed her with a pension of £20 a year, which was paid to the priory for her food and clothing. Whether Gwenllian was treated according to her rank at the priory is unknown; however, she was aware of her importance and her family connections; as David Pilling points 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. She is said to have received gifts from her cousin the king, and may have spent time in Edward III’s company, when he visited the priory at Easter-time in 1328; the young king issued a charter from Sempringham on 2 April of that year. [4]

St Andrew’s Church, Sempringham stands close to the site of the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham

Gwenllian may also have spent time in the company of Joan Mortimer, the daughter of Roger Mortimer, supposed lover of Isabelle of France, Edward III’s mother, and ruler of England after the deposition of her huusband, Edward II. Joan was held at Sempringham following her father’s downfall in 1330. She was only eighteen at the time, however, so may have had little in common, beyond their joint status as prisoners of the crown, with Gwenllian, who was a woman now in her late forties who had spent her entire life in conventual seclusion. The profound difference between Joan and Gwenllian, of course, is that Joan was released after a short time.

Gwenllian only found release in death. The on 7 June 1337, the same month as her fifty-fifth birthday. She was buried at the priory where she had spent all but eighteen months of her life. Her grave was lost at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, in the 16th century. However, a memorial plaque was placed near St Andrew’s Church in Sempringham in 1993, stating:

In memory of Gwenllian, daughter of the last Prince of Wales. Born at Abergwyngregyn 12.06.1282. Died at Sempringham 7.6.1337. Having been held prisoner for 54 years. [5]

Although she left very few physical marks on the world, a child whose very future was stolen by Edward I, Gwenllian’s remarkable story has not been forgotten. In 2009 a mountain in Snowdonia in Wales, formerly known as Carnedd Uchaf, was renamed Carnedd Gwenllian in the lost princess’s honour.

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Footnotes: [1] David Ross, editor, Sempringham Priory, Church and Holy Well, britainexpress.com; [2] englishmonarchs.co.uk; [3] ibid; [4] Calendar of the Charter Rolls. 1-14, Edward III; [5] The Princess Gwenllian Society, Princessgwenllian.co.uk

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; britainexpress.com; englishmonarchs.co.uk; princessgwenllian.co.uk; Calendar of the Charter Rolls; David Pilling.

Images: Photos of Sempringham Church and memorial copyright Sharon Bennett Connolly. Llywelyn the Last courtesy of Wikipedia.

My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from 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.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly