Eleanor, daughter of a king, Countess of Pembroke

King John with his children Henry, Richard, Joan, Isabella and Eleanor

There was one daughter of King John for whom the legacy of Magna Carta and the struggle for political reform held particular significance. The life of Eleanor of England, and her husband Simon de Montfort, stands as the epilogue of the Magna Carta story. Although democratic government was still many centuries in the future, Magna Carta was the first step. The political movement led by Simon de Montfort was the second step …

However, had fate not stepped in, Eleanor may never have married Simon. From an early age, she had been the wife of another, until tragedy struck.

Eleanor of England was the youngest child of John and Isabelle d’Angoulême; she is said to have inherited her mother’s beauty and feisty temperament.1 Eleanor was thought to have been born at the height of her father’s troubles, in the midst of the Magna Carta crisis in 1215. However, historians are now inclined to the theory that she was born posthumously, sometime after the death of King John, either in late 1216 or early in 1217. She was named for her famous grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. As a baby, little Eleanor was placed in the household of the bishop of Winchester, where her eldest brother, Henry, had been living since 1212.2 Eleanor’s father had died whilst the country was riven by war, on the night of 18/19 October 1216 at Newark. He was succeeded by Eleanor’s eldest brother Henry – now King Henry III. Eleanor’s mother, frozen out from any role in her son’s regency or life, returned to her native Angoulême and in 1220 married Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche.

In 1224 Eleanor’s future was decided when she was married to William (II) Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. The younger Marshal was the son of the first earl of Pembroke who had been regent in the early years of Henry III’s reign, and who had driven the French out of England following his victory at the Battle of Lincoln in May 1217. The first earl had a reputation for integrity and loyalty, having remained unwavering in his loyalty to King John during the Magna Carta crisis. The second earl, Eleanor’s husband, had been a hostage of the king between 1207 and 1213, as a guarantee of his father’s good behaviour. He later joined the baronial rebellion and was appointed marshal of the forces of the invader, Prince Louis. However, he returned to the Royalist cause when Louis refused him possession of Marlborough Castle, which had previously belonged to the younger Marshal’s grandfather.3

William (II) Marshal fought alongside his father at the Battle of Lincoln. On his father’s death in 1219, Marshal had succeeded him as earl of Pembroke and marshal of England; when his mother died in 1220, he succeeded to her lordships of Leinster and Netherwent. His younger brother, Richard Marshal, succeeded to the Clare lands in Ireland. In 1214 Marshal married Alice, the daughter of Baldwin de Béthune, Count of Aumâle, to whom he had been betrothed in 1203. The marriage was short-lived, however, as poor Alice died in 1216.

On 23 April 1224, William (II) Marshal was married to Eleanor; born in the 1190s, he was some twenty-or-so years older than his bride, who was no more than 9 years old on her wedding day, and may have been as young as 7.4

Eleanor of England, Countess of Pembroke

The marriage was agreed at the behest of the justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, and the papal legate, Pandulf, as a way of guaranteeing Marshal remained firmly in the justiciar’s camp, and to prevent the marshal making a foreign marriage. The match put an end to three years of indecision, as to whether Eleanor should marry a foreign prince or an English magnate. The king settled ten manors, confiscated from a French nobleman and already administered by Marshal, on his sister as her marriage portion.5

For the first five years of her marriage Eleanor continued to live at court, under the guardianship of Cecily of Sandford.6 In 1229, when she was 13 or 14, she went to live with her husband, and would spend her time travelling with him in England, France and Ireland. In May 1230, Marshal had taken twenty knights with him on Henry III’s expedition to Poitou. He also took his wife, probably at the behest of the king. Eleanor became seasick during the voyage to France and Henry had his ship drop anchor at the nearest landfall to give her time to recover, ordering the fleet to continue without them.7

Henry was probably hoping that Eleanor’s presence would help to secure the support of his mother and her second husband, Hugh de Lusignan, to his expedition against the French. Mother and daughter had not seen each other since Eleanor was a baby. Isabelle’s maternal affection for the children of her first husband, however, was practically non-existent, or deeply hidden, and Eleanor’s presence failed to persuade her mother and stepfather to remain loyal to Henry III. As we have seen in a previous article, Isabelle d’Angoulême‘s priorities as a French countess often clashed with those of her English family.

Marshal and Eleanor returned from France in the spring of 1231, with William handing over command of the English forces to Ranulf, Earl of Chester. Shortly after their return, the couple attended the wedding of Marshal’s widowed sister, Isabel, to the king’s brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Family happiness turned to grief, however, when William (II) Marshal died suddenly in London a week later, on 6 April. He was buried beside his father at the Temple Church on 15 April 1231.

At the still very tender age of between 14 and 16, Eleanor was a now childless widow.

The arms of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke

The earldom of Pembroke passed to William’s younger brother, Richard, and Eleanor would spend many years fighting unsuccessfully to get the entirety of her dowry from the Marshal family, which amounted to one third of the Marshal estates, according to the guarantees established by Magna Carta. The Great Charter stipulated a widow should receive the allocation of a dower within forty days of her husband’s death.

A year after William’s death Richard Marshal offered Eleanor £400 a year as her settlement. Henry III persuaded his sister to take it, wanting to be done with the business and probably well aware that it was as much as Eleanor was likely to get, despite the Marshal holdings amounting to an income of £3,000 a year.8 Henry stood as guarantor for the settlement but the payments would always be sporadic and unreliable, not helped by the fact that the earldom passed through four successive Marshal brothers between 1231 and 1245, each with differing priorities and more Marshal widows to assign their dowers.

In the midst of her grief, and influenced by her former governess, Eleanor took a vow of chastity in the presence of Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1234. Although she did not become a nun, the archbishop put a ring on her finger, to signify that she was a bride of Christ; she was, therefore, expected to remain chaste and virtuous for the rest of her life. As a result, the king seized her estates and Richard Marshal, as her husband’s heir, took many of her valuable chattels.

Knowing how teenagers see lost love as the end of the world, even today, one can understand Eleanor’s decision to take a vow of chastity, even if we cannot comprehend anyone giving such advice to a grieving 16-year-old. Eleanor may also have seen taking such a vow as a way of staving off her brother, the king, forcing her to remarry in the interests of the crown. Moreover, it put Eleanor’s life in her own hands and also served to appease the Marshal family, who would have seen their own lands, which made up Eleanor’s dower, controlled by another magnate or foreign prince had she remarried.

Eleanor’s seal as Countess of Leicester

The widowed Eleanor retired to the castle of Inkberrow in Worcestershire. King Henry III continued to watch over his sister throughout the 1230s; he sent her gifts of venison and timber for her manors. Throughout her life, Eleanor was known for her extravagant spending, which led to substantial debts; Henry lent her money and made sporadic payments to reduce the debts. And in 1237 her brother granted her Odiham Castle in Hampshire, which would become her principal residence.9

Although Eleanor spent the 7 years after William Marshal’s death as a young widow sworn to chastity, most people may have predicted that such a life would not last. And at some point after the mid-1230s, possibly at the wedding of Henry and Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor met Simon de Montfort, the man who would dominate English politics in the mid-thirteenth century.

The couple fell in love.

But that story is for another time…

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Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Footnotes:

1. Carol, ‘Eleanor of Leicester: A Broken Vow of Chastity’, historyofroyalwomen.com, 28 February 2017; 2. Elizabeth Norton, She Wolves; 3. R.F. Walker, ‘William Marshal, fifth earl of Pembroke (c. 1190–1231)’, oxforddnb.com; 4. Ibid; 5. Darren Baker, With All For All; 6. Elizabeth Hallam, ‘Eleanor, Countess of Pembroke and Leicester (1215?–1275)’, Oxforddnb.com; 7. Darren Baker, With All For All; 8. Ibid; Elizabeth Hallam, ‘Eleanor, Countess of Pembroke’.

Sources:

Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.

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