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Eleanor of England

Title social-status: 
Countess of Pembroke and Leicester Countess of Pembroke and Leicester
Biography: 

Eleanor was the youngest daughter of John Lackland, king of England, and Isabel of Angoulême, born probably in 1215.  Her father died the next year and her mother left for her lands in France in 1217, and in 1220 remarried and had a second family with  Hugh X of Lusignan, count of La Marche.   Eleanor and her siblings were brought up in separate households, but she was on good terms through much of her life with her brother, Henry III, who sent her many gifts of deer and wine and wood.  Eleanor was married at 9 to William Marshall, earl of Pembroke in 1224; she brought her royal connection but little of material wealth to the marriage, though her brother in 1229 granted ten manors to William and his heirs which were to remain with Eleanor for life if she were widowed.1  Her dower entitled her to a third of her husband’s estates, but her claims to them, which she continued to make through her life, were not honored by his heirs.  William died in 1231 and the childless Eleanor took a vow of chastity in 1234, perhaps in connection with negotiations over her dower (Wilkinson, 44).   She broke the vow to marry Simon de Montfort in January, 1238, in a secret ceremony in Henry’s chapel, which Matthew Paris called a “matrimonium clandestinum.”  There was opposition to the marriage and Simon had to go to Rome for papal dispensation after the fact, carrying letters of support from Henry and the emperor, Frederick II, who was married to Eleanor’s sister Isabel.  Simon was a counsellor to the English king, though a subject of the French king.  The couple’s financial needs put a strain on their relations with Henry, particularly when Simon named him as surety for debt without his permission.  When Henry reacted in anger, the couple fled to France in 1239.  Simon went on crusade in 1240, did well, and with the support of Henry’s mother-in-law, Beatrice of Savoy, the couple was reconciled with the king, debts were pardoned and a dowry bestowed.  Simon fought for Henry in Wales in 1245 and was appointed governor of Gascony in 1248; he carried on diplomatic negotiations for Henry with France and Scotland, and in 1253 was offered the position of seneschal of France, which he refused.  But he became involved in the baronial opposition to Henry’s unpopular policies in 1258 and eventually led an army of reformers against the royalists.  Though Simon’s forces prevailed for a time, capturing the king and his brother, Richard, he was killed in battle in 1265.  Eleanor and Simon had five sons and one daughter who survived:  Henry, Simon, Amaury, an ecclesiastic, Richard, and Eleanor.   Simon’s will named his wife his chief executor in 1259.  Of the children, Henry was killed with his father at Evesham in 1265; Simon and Guy were involved in the murder of Henry of Almain, perhaps in revenge for the death of their father, Simon; they lost estates and offices, but both ended up in the service of Charles of Anjou in Italy, and Richard served Theobald II of Navarre. The younger Eleanor married Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Wales. Eventually, after the death of Henry, countess Eleanor was reconciled with his son and successor Edward, her nephew, with the help of the French queen, Marguerite.2   She died at Montargis on April 13, 1275.

Eleanor’s seal had countess of Leicester on one side, and sister of the king of England on the other (Wilkinson, 83).  William had associated Eleanor with him in some charters (Wilkinson, 32).  Eleanor was involved in the governance of her estates and in disputes with other lords over customs and property; she held wardships in her English manors, procured royal pardons and grants for her men and women (Wilkinson, 52-54, 101).  She acted on her own at times, issuing charters in her name; Wilkinson mentions an unpublished charter granting property that was endorsed by her husband (87).  Henry gave her personal custody of Kenilworth for life in 1248 (87).  She fought not only for her English and Irish dower, but also raised claims to the French estates of her mother, demanding compensation for them, though Henry had renounced his claims and hers in favor of their mother’s Lusignan offspring.  She supported Simon in his rebellion by entertaining burgesses in various towns to keep them friendly (120), and staying  in contact with his political associates (114).  When her brothers, Henry and Richard of Cornwall were captured by Simon’s forces in 1264 and replaced by their sons as hostages, Simon put them in the custody of Eleanor at Wallingford, along with Richard.  After Simon and their eldest son Henry were killed  at Evesham in  August, 1265, Eleanor provided money for her sons to pay soldiers (124), managed to send two of her sons to France with 11,000 marks despite Henry’s attempts to prevent it (125), negotiated the surrender of Dover Castle, her own safe passage to France and the safety of the people she left behind (115).  The king of France, Louis IX, Henry’s brother-in-law, negotiated a settlement for her in which Henry agreed to arrange 500 pounds a year from her dower instead of land.   Eleanor entered the Dominican house of Montargis, a house associated with the Montforts, rather than Fontevrault, the choice of the English royal family, but she continued to press her claims on her mother’s estate, and did receive 44 pounds a year and 800 pounds in arrears.

We know from the one year of her household accounts that has been preserved, 1265, listing the cost of sending her letters, that Eleanor sent many in that year alone, but we do not have them, e.g.,   Pro litteris Comitissae deferendis Domino Eadwardo, die Mercurii post Festum Sancti Mathyae.4d; pro litteris ejusdem deferendis Domino W. de Wortham, Die Sabbati sequente, 4ds; ... (Manners and Household Expenses of England, Rotulus Hospitii Comitissae Leicestriae, AD 1265, London:  Nicol, 1841).  There are also indications of letters and charters sent to and from the countess in the Calendar of the Patent Rolls of Henry III, e.g., 2. 1232, membrane 9, p.45, Pro comitissa Penbrocie.  A comitissa Penbrocie habet literas directas militibus et liberis hominibus suis de Luton, Sutton, Kemesing et Braburn deprecatorias, de rationabili auxilio ad debita sua acquietanda (from the countess of Pembroke, interceding letters sent to her soldiers and free men of Luton ... about reasonable aid in discharging her debts);  3. 1238, Sept.2, King’s Clere, p.231, Simon de Monte Forti and A. countess of Pembroke, his wife, have letters of request directed to their tenants of a reasonable aid to be made to them for their expenses; by A. de Sancto Amando  4. 1248, Jan.9, Westminster, p.5, appointment of A. countess of Leicester, the king’s sister, to hold the manor of Odiham, during pleasure, so that while she hold it she shall be quit of the rent of 50 l. which has been wont to be paid for it; grant to her of the castle of Kenillewurth to keep for her life.  Green (2.104) mentions a letter to the bishop of Lincoln, recommending to his prayers Simon, herself, her children, and all belonging to her (Cotton MS, Viitellius, c.8, f.30b et seq.), frequent messengers to the countess from queen Eleanor after the birth of her daughter (105), and at other times; a letter from prince Edward, after the death of Simon, probably a mandate to surrender (146), to which she did not comply; many messengers from Eleanor to Kenilworth from France, between September and October, presumably to defend it (147).

Biographical notes: 

1 Louise J Wilkinson suggests that this may have occurred in recognition of the marriage being consummated, an event put off for some years because of the bride’s age (Eleanor de Montfort, A Rebel Countess in Medieval England, London:  Continuum, 2012, p.28).  This study provided the basic material for the biography here. 

2 To the very high and very noble prince, our very dear nephew, Edward, by the grace of God king of England, Marguerite, by that same grace queen of France, greetings and true love.  Dear nephew, the countess of Lleicester entreated us and asked that we entreat you to have pity on her and her will, and asked us also that we entreat for Amaury, her son the cleric, that you have pity on him and do right by him and render him your favor.  And since we promised her that we would do it, we entreat you for ... things, and we entreat you also that you would act and command that the need that involves the will of said lady ... and delivered as right, usage, and custom of the country might give.  And ... as to the cleric, that there be honor and good, so much that God, and I, may be grateful to you, and that you cannot be blamed.  And of these things, ... your will ..., if it please you, the Monday before the feast of St. Denis.  Translated from French original in Royal Letters, Tower Collection, #1125.