Guest Post: Female Crusaders by Carol McGrath

It is a pleasure to welcome to History…the Interesting Bits, author Carol McGrath. Carol’s latest novel, The Damask Rose, is out this month and tells the story of Eleanor of Castile and her devoted husband, King Edward I. Eleanor of Castile led an adventurous life, to say the least, even accompanying her husband on Crusade to the Holy Land.

Carol McGrath tells us more…

Female Crusaders

Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290) is placed at the centre of my new publication The Damask Rose. She was married to Edward I at only twelve years old when he was fifteen and was his father Henry III’s heir. It is always thought that, throughout her life, Eleanor was devoted to Edward and him to her. They certainly supported each other throughout her life, almost always together. They even journeyed on Crusade together. She was not the first royal spouse to Crusade. Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marguerite of France had crusaded before her.

Sugar Storage Jar

In 1270 they set off on Crusade but they never reached Jerusalem. Acre was the royal couple’s home for more than a year. Edward was an able and courageous leader but the Crusade was militarily unsuccessful. They established their crusading court in Acre after the death of the original Crusade leader, the saintly Louis IX, at Carthage, and Edward became the eighth Crusade’s figure head. A legend says that Eleanor was so dutiful and committed to Edward, her only love, she saved his life in June 1272 when an assassin struck Edward down with a poisoned dagger. Edward apparently wrestled the knife from his assailant and killed him but not before he took injury to his arm.

The story relates that Eleanor sucked out the poison. This is not entirely true. Bartolemo Fiadoni known as the Ptolemy of Lucca is responsible for the popular tradition that Eleanor ‘showed great faithfulness; for with her tongue she licked his open wounds all the day, and sucked out the humour, and thus by her virtue drew out all the poisonous material.’ It is a story from the period’s High Romantic Tradition thus expressing Eleanor’s heroism. Read The Damask Rose to discover what most likely really did happen and how Edward survived the attack.

The story illustrates how the Crusades claimed both ecclesiastical and chivalric ideas linking Church and Court, how at the time, the Crusades became romanticised. Courtly literature was linked to women in Historical Romances, many of which were associated with crusading and the Holy Grail. In fact, many ordinary women went on Crusade as well as queens and noble women. These ordinary women were almost always described in sources in relation to men as daughters, wives, mothers, aunts, sisters and even more distant kin. However, sometimes we find widows or women, well past child bearing age and referred to as ‘in old age’, on Crusade.

Toilets in Acre

Individual female crusaders mentioned in sources were predominantly well to do. Even so, others exist such as the woman who followed a goose on Crusade because she believed it was filled with the Holy Spirit. Women generally were accompanied male relatives but some, like the goose lady, travelled without a guardian. A passenger list surviving from the Saint Viktor, a Crusade ship of 1250 records forty two of the 342 common people travelling to the Holy Land were women. Twenty-two of these women had no male chaperone. Securing a suitable male escort was apparently a huge problem. Large groups of widows might travel together as pilgrims. Pilgrims were not supposed to carry arms and even if women had travelled with pilgrim guards, they were still vulnerable. Women Crusaders were utterly courageous and determined. For example, in her mid-sixties, Ermeongarde, Countess of Brittany, who had taken the veil in Dijon in 1130, visited her half-brother, King Fulke of Jerusalem, and passed some years in the nunnery of St Anne in the Holy City. She safely return to Brittany in 1135 to tell her tale.

 The Dining Hall, Hospitaller Palace, Acre

Piety was the main reason for taking the cross. Women sometimes took the cross in public ceremonies alongside men. Jerusalem was naturally the goal. The two fold nature of armed pilgrimage to rescue the Holy Land by force and to pray at shrines gave women a ‘canonical loophole’ to participate. Also, Crusading affected women’s lives whether they stayed in Europe, took the cross or lived abroad in settler territories. Although women are recorded as present since the First Crusade, it was only during the thirteenth century that they were granted legal status as crucesignatae. Spiritual rewards such as the remittance of sins were indeed as attractive to women as men.

Women fulfilled practical functions during siege warfare on Crusade often undertaking jobs such as clearing rubble and filling ditches. They are recorded as bringing refreshments to the first Crusaders at the Battle of Dorylaeum. They are known to have transported materials to weave the panels in a siege engine in 1099 at the Siege of Jerusalem. This I found fascinating. They washed clothing and picked lice out of body linen. By the fourth Crusade, women were entitled to a share of the booty. They ground corn and maintained markets. They tended to the wounded and the sick.

A Parisian woman called Hosenda tended Louis IX when he was ill from dysentery in 1250. It was dangerous too. If a woman was captured her captivity held a sexual slur which devalued them regarding ransom. A woman was valued at a third the price of a man. Power in the settlements was, however, often transferred through widows and heiresses. Aristocratic marriages were extremely important to Crusader settler society. They cemented political alliances between Latins from the West, the Levant, Greeks, Armenians and Syrians. Some women even became feudal lords thus contributing to the defence of the Holy Land and women who stayed behind acted as regents and organised financing the Crusaders.

The Hospitaller Palace Acre

As for Eleanor of Castile, nothing quite so amazing. She was a child bearer during her Crusade experience, pregnant for most of the campaign. It is thought she suffered a still birth early on; her daughter, Joan of Acre, was born on Crusade; her son Alfonso was born on the long journey home. It is unlikely Eleanor actually saw much of Acre where prostitution was rife, a city called ‘a sinful city and one filled with all uncleanness’ by Oliver of Poderborn. It is likely that after the excitement of their arrival, Acre soon palled on her accompanying noble women and their ladies. At least, Eleanor, a true blue-stocking, could find escape in her beautiful books and the lovely gardens of the Citadel of the Knights Hospitaller, a substantial building complex of five thousand square miles, three times that of the Tower of London, her home for the duration. To discover more do read my new novel The Damask Rose.

Many thanks to Carol McGrath for her wonderful insight and research into female crusaders.

To buy The Damask Rose:

Look out for my review of The Damask Rose, which will go live in a few days…

Catch up on Carol’s blog tour so far – and follow the last few stops with the bloggers.

About the author:

Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs – and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in history, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.

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My books

Coming 31st May:

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 will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

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 from Pen & Sword,  Amazon 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 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, Book Depository.

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.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

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.


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.


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