In history we tend to focus on the actions of the men in a family. Well, let’s face it, the life of Henry II and his sons is fascinating, full of love, honour, death and betrayal. Who wouldn’t be drawn into that world? But did you know that the women of the family had no less exciting and eventful lives?
With a mother like Eleanor of Aquitaine, you would not expect her daughters to be shrinking violets. And, indeed, they were not. And neither were the girls sent off into the world, never to see their parents again. In what may be a unique occurrence for royal princesses, each of the three daughters of Eleanor and Henry II would get to spend time with their mother later in their lives.
Matilda of England, the eldest daughter and third child of Henry and Eleanor, was born in London in June 1156. As her parents ruled an empire that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, travel was a constant part of Matilda’s childhood. She took her first sea-voyage across the English Channel at just 2 months old, accompanied her big brother, Henry, later to be known as The Young King. Throughout her childhood, Matilda is often seen accompanying her mother and siblings traveling through the vast Angevin domains. By the time she was 8-years-old, negotiations had begun for her marriage to Henry the Lion; her father planning an alliance with the German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. The marriage was part of her father’s policy to build up opposition to Louis VII of France and the Pope, Alexander III. And in July 1166 her mother accompanied 10-year-old Matilda to Dover, where she embarked on a German ship that would take her to her new life and future husband. Her wedding to Henry V ‘the Lion’, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, finally took place in the cathedral at Minden, Germany, on 1 February 1168.
Matilda’s dowry and send-off from England cost around £4,500 (about a quarter of England’s annual revenue). The young princess was given a trousseau worth £63, including saddles with gilt fittings, ‘two large silken cloths, and two tapestries and one cloth of samite and twelve sable skins’. Despite the fact Henry the Lion was 27 years Matilda’s senior, the marriage appears to have been a success and produced 10 children, including their eldest daughter, Richenza (her name was later changed to Matilda), born around 1172, and sons Henry, Otto and William. Otto was briefly considered as heir to the English throne by his uncle Richard I, before King John claimed the crown. He would briefly become Holy Roman Emperor as Otto IV in 1209 until his death in 1218.
Matilda’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1180 when, following a quarrel with Frederick Barbarossa, who held Henry responsible for the failure of a campaign in Italy, Henry the Lion was deprived of his fiefs and exiled from his lands for 7 years. Henry, Matilda and their children sought refuge with Matilda’s father and, in the Autumn of 1181, Henry II welcomed his daughter, giving her the palace of Argentin as a home for her family. Matilda and her family spent the next two years in the Angevin lands on the Continent; but in 1184 a pregnant Matilda accompanied her father to England, where she gave birth to her son, William, at Winchester. While at her father’s court Matilda petitioned the king to ease the restrictions on her mother’s imprisonment; following her involvement in the failed rebellion of her sons in 1173-4, Eleanor of Aquitaine had spent the last ten years incarcerated in England, at Old Sarum. Although still a prisoner, Eleanor was permitted to stay with Matilda while she was staying in England and when Eleanor was allowed to cross the Channel to take possession of the Vexin Castles, Matilda accompanied her.
Matilda and Henry were finally allowed to return to Germany in October 1185, although their children, Otto, William and Matilda remained at Henry’s court, to be raised by their grandfather. Matilda died at Brunswick on 28th June 1189 and was buried there, in the Cathedral of St Blasius, of which she was co-foundress. Her father Henry II died just 8 days later, probably before the news of his daughter’s death could reach him. Matilda’s husband would be buried alongside her, following his death on 6th August 1195.
Matilda’s next youngest sister, Eleanor, was born in October 1162 (1161 has also been suggested, but most sources agree on 1162) at Domfront Castle in Normandy. As with Matilda, Eleanor’s early childhood was quite nomadic. She travelled often with her parents, in her mother’s entourage. In February 1165 3-year-old Eleanor was betrothed to the infant son of Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick, as part of the same negotiations which saw Matilda married to Henry the Lion. However, Eleanor’s proposed marriage would eventually fall by the wayside. By 1170 Henry II was seeking to extend his influence across the Pyrenees and in order to prevent a French alliance with Castile, he betrothed Eleanor to 14-year-old Alfonso VIII, who had been king of Castile since he was just 2 years old. By September 1170, a month short of her 8th birthday, Eleanor was on her way to Castile, with an impressive escort 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. Described as modest, elegant and gracious, Eleanor is renowned for introducing her mother’s Poitevin culture into the Castilian court, blending it with the luxuries offered by neighbouring Moorish cultures. Eleanor also acted as a diplomatic conduit between her husband and brothers, Richard and John, in order to aid each other and keep the peace, although not always successfully.Seven of Eleanor and Alfonso’s children survived infancy. Their eldest daughter Berengaria would eventually act as regent in Castile for her younger brother, Henry I, before succeeding him as queen regnant. 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.
Alfonso and Eleanor also had 2 sons who would survive childhood. The eldest, Ferdinand, died of a fever in 1209 or 1211 while his younger brother, Henry, would succeed his father, but died in a freak accident when a loose roof tile fell on his head. He was 13 years old.
Of their two other daughters, 14-year-old Urraca was initially suggested as the bride of the future Louis VIII of France, son of Philip II Augustus. The girls’ grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was instrumental in arranging the marriage and the 77-year-old queen travelled to Castile, in 1200, in person and in the depths of winter, to collect the granddaughter who would be Louis’ bride. The reunion of mother and daughter would surely have been highly emotional, having not seen each other in 23 years. The elder Eleanor spent two months with her daughter and her family and in getting to know her granddaughters, Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have decided that the younger Blanca – rather than Urraca – would make a more suitable bride for Louis. The 12-year-old princess travelled back to Normandy with her grandmother where Blanca – or Blanche – and Louis were married.
The happy marriage of Eleanor and Alfonso 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. Eleanor was the last surviving daughter of the Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Only her younger brother, King John, remained of the Plantagenet siblings.
The youngest of the trio of Plantagenet sisters, Joanna, was born in October 1165. Ten years younger than her oldest brother, Henry the Young King, she was born at Angers Castle in Anjou, at a time when their parents’ relationship was breaking down; 1165 was the first ever Christmas Henry and Eleanor spent apart. With Henry still in England dealing with a Welsh revolt, he would not meet his new daughter for several months. Although Joanna spent much of her childhood at her mother’s court in Poitiers, she and her younger brother, John, were also educated at the magnificent Abbey of Fontevraud, where she learned the skills needed to run a large, aristocratic household.
Although Eleanor was imprisoned following the failed rebellion of 1173, three years later, she was allowed to travel to Winchester to say ‘goodbye’ to her youngest daughter, who had been betrothed to King William II of Sicily. Provided with an impressive trousseau, Joanna set out from Winchester at the end of August 1176, accompanied by her uncle Hamelin de Warenne Earl of Surrey. Once on the Continent, she was escorted from Barfleur by her brother Henry, the Young King to Poitiers, and from Poitiers, by another brother, Richard, who then escorted his little sister to Toulouse in a leisurely and elegant progress.
Having finally reached Sicily 12-year-old Joanna was married to 24-year-old William on 13th February 1177, in Palermo Cathedral. The marriage ceremony was followed by her coronation as Queen of Sicily. Joanna must have looked magnificent, her bejewelled dress cost £114 – not a small sum at the time. Joanna and William had no surviving children and when William died without an heir in November 1189, Joanna became a pawn in the race for the succession. William’s sister, Constance was the rightful heir, but she was married to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and many feared being absorbed into his empire. William II’s illegitimate nephew, Tancred of Lecce, seized the initiative. He claimed the throne and, in need of money, imprisoned Joanna and stole her dowry and the treasures left to her by her husband.
Luckily for Joanna her brother Richard I – the Lionheart – having gained the English throne in 1189, had wasted no time in organising the Third Crusade and arrived at Messina in Sicily in September 1190. Richard demanded Joanna’s release; and fearing the Crusader king’s anger Tancred capitulated and freed Joanna, also paying 40,000 ounces of gold towards the Crusade.
The beautiful and spirited Joanna was briefly reunited with her mother in Lent of 1191 when she arrived in Sicily with Richard’s bride, Berengaria of Navarre. Joanna and Berengaria were to become firm friends and travelled together to the Holy Land, ahead of Richard’s main force. However, during a storm, their ship was onto the shores of Cyprus by a storm and the two women were at risk of becoming hostages of the ruler of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus. Again, Richard came to the rescue, reduced Cyprus in three weeks and clamped Comnenus in chains (silver ones apparently). Lent being over, Richard and Berengaria were married, with great pomp and celebration, before the whole party continued their journey to the Holy Land, arriving at Acre in June 1191.
Joanna’s time in the Holy Land was mainly spent in Acre and Jaffa, accompanying her sister-in-law and following – at a safe distance – behind the Crusading army. In attempts to reach a political settlement with the Muslim leader, Saladin, Richard even offered Joanna as a bride for Saladin’s brother. His plans were scuppered, however, when Joanna refused outright to even consider marrying a Muslim. When a three-year truce was eventually agreed with Saladin, Joanna and Berengaria left the Holy Land ahead of the army, to await Richard in Rome. Richard, however, never made it; falling into the hands of Duke Leopold of Austria, he was handed over to his enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor. He was eventually freed in 1194, following payment of a huge ransom.
Joanna spent the next few years at the courts of her mother and brother. But at the age of 31 she was proposed as a bride for Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, with the aim of bringing the County of Toulouse into the Plantagenet fold, a long-time dream of Eleanor’s. Raymond had a colourful marital history. He had been excommunicated for marrying his third wife whilst still married to his second; and he now repudiated his third wife in order to marry Joanna, which he did in Rouen in October 1196, with Queen Berengaria in attendance. Although not a happy marriage the couple had two children; with a son Raymond born around 1197 and a daughter, possibly called Mary, in 1198.
Raymond VI, however, was not a popular Count and faced rebellion. Joanna herself had to confront some of her husband’s enemies. She laid siege to a rebel stronghold at Cassee; however, her own traitorous troops set fire to her camp and Joanna barely managed to escape. Injured and pregnant, Joanna was then trying to make her way to her brother Richard when she heard of his death; changing direction, she eventually reached her mother at Niort. With no allowance from her Joanna’s husband, Queen Eleanor managed to persuade John to give his sister an annual pension of 100 marks. Knowing she was dying, Joanna became desperate to be veiled as a nun at Fontevraud; a request normally denied to married women – especially when they were in the late stages of pregnancy. However, seeing how desperate her daughter was, Eleanor asked Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to intervene.
The Archbishop tried to dissuade Joanna, but was impressed by her fervour and convened a committee of nuns and clergy; who agreed that Joanna must be ‘inspired by heaven’. In Eleanor’s presence, the Archbishop admitted Joanna to the Order of Fontevraud. Joanna was too weak to stand and died shortly after the ceremony; her son, Richard, was born a few minutes later and lived only long enough to be baptised. She died in September 1199, a month short of her 34th birthday. Joanna and her baby son were interred together at Fontevraud, the funeral cortege having been escorted there by Eleanor of Aquitaine and King John.
There is no record that Matilda, Eleanor and Joanna ever met as adults, and the last time they were together as sisters was most likely shortly before Matilda’s marriage, when Joanna was only 2-years-old. However, although they led very different and adventurous lives, all three daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine had the unique opportunity, in the medieval era, of spending time with their mother as adults. Given the dangers of travel and the great distances involved, as well as the fickleness of life in general, they may have hoped for a reunion but surely would never have expected it to become a reality.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Henry the Young King Blog in 2017.
Courtesy of Wikipedia
The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd; Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir; oxforddnb.com; bestofsicily.com; britannica.com; geni.com; royalwomenblogspot.co.uk; medievalqueens.com.
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