By Sara Cockerill
Amberley Publishing, 2015
Eleanor of Castile, the remarkable woman behind England’s greatest medieval king, Edward I, has been effectively airbrushed from history; yet she had one of the most fascinating lives of any of England’s queens. Her childhood was spent in the centre of the Spanish reconquest and was dominated by her military hero of a father (St Ferdinand) and her prodigiously clever brother (King Alfonso X the Learned). Married at the age of twelve and a mother at thirteen, she gave birth to at least sixteen children, most of whom died young. She was a prisoner for a year amid a civil war in which her husband’s life was in acute danger. Devoted to Edward, she accompanied him everywhere, including on Crusade to the Holy Land. All in all, she was to live for extended periods in five different countries. Eleanor was a highly dynamic, forceful personality who acted as part of Edward’s innermost circle of advisers, and successfully accumulated a vast property empire for the English Crown. In cultural terms her influence in architecture and design – and even gardening – can be discerned to this day, while her idealised image still speaks to us from Edward’s beautiful memorials to her, the Eleanor crosses. This book reveals her untold story.
Read an Excerpt from Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen:
If you know anything at all about Eleanor of Castile, you may count yourself in the elite minority. By far the most common question I have been asked during the course of writing this book has been (with a puzzled frown) ‘Who was she, exactly?’ Perhaps one in ten of those asking has made the connection that Eleanor was the wife of England’s greatest medieval monarch, Edward I. And they are hardly alone. In a recent bestselling popular history a full-time historian and his editors managed to assign Philippa of Hainault to the first Edward, rather than the third; numerous other historians have also ‘lost’ Eleanor of Castile.
The second most common question has been why I decided to write this book at all. The real answer is that I was labouring under a misapprehension. I thought that the record on Eleanor needed to be put straight and the perception that everyone had of her corrected. But it seems in fact that ‘everyone’ did not have a perception of her at all. Few knew that for centuries Eleanor has been wrongly lauded as the epitome of quiet retiring queens, with Botfield and Turner, upon whose work that of Agnes Strickland was substantially based, describing her thus: ‘No equivocal reputation is associated with Eleanor of Castile. She never swerved from the position which fortune assigned to her, or failed to perform the gentle and peaceful duties which belonged to it. The memory of her unobtrusive virtues and worth passed away with those who witnessed, or were the objects of her care and solicitude.’
So why does Eleanor of Castile deserve to be rescued from the scrapheap of history? One very good reason is because she was far from unobtrusive; she was a remarkable woman for any era. Eleanor was a highly dynamic, forceful personality whose interest in the arts, politics and religion were highly influential in her day – and whose temper had even bishops quaking in their shoes. Highly intelligent and studious, she was incomparably better educated, and almost certainly brighter, than her husband. She was a scholar and an avid bookworm, running her own scriptorium (almost unique in European royal courts) and promoting the production of illustrated manuscripts, as well as works of romance and history. Equally unusually she could herself write and she considered it a sufficiently important accomplishment that her own children were made to acquire the skill.
She also introduced numerous domestic refinements to English court life: forks, for example, first make their appearance in England in her household and carpets became sought after in noble circles in imitation of her interior design style. She was a pioneer of domestic luxury: she introduced the first purpose-built tiled bathroom and England’s first ‘fairy tale’ castle – both at her own castle of Leeds, in Kent. She revolutionised garden design in England, introducing innovations – including fountains and water features – familiar to her from Castile.
Perhaps most interestingly she was also in many ways the obverse of the traditional mid-late medieval queen, who was expected to be humble and intercessory. She emphatically rejected the paradigm of submissive queenship, insisted on having a real job to do and was devoted to that work. As well as acting as part of Edward’s innermost circle of advisers, she also took on her own shoulders a whole department charged with accumulating properties for the Crown and acquired, through her own efforts, a major landed estate. In modern terms one might well see in Eleanor a parallel with Hillary Clinton – a real dynamic power behind the throne.