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The queen that never was

In 1269, Eleanor of Castile gave birth to a little girl, named after her mother. At the time, Eleanor was some years shy of thirty years, had been married to Edward of England for fifteen years and had, so far, been brought to bed of six children that we know of. Three of those were already dead, the latest arrival (prior to Eleanor), a little boy named Henry, was sickly, and so it was a great relief to conclude that baby Eleanor was a healthy babe.

Eleanor of Castile was destined to give birth ten more times—we have no idea how many miscarriages she suffered in between. Of all those children, only six would survive, with today’s protagonist, baby Eleanor, being the eldest. Obviously, by the time she was the eldest she was no longer a baby…

Medieval monarchs desired at least one male heir to whom they could pass their precious crown. But little princesses were also precious, valuable pawns in cementing alliances with other kingdoms. Eleanor was therefore destined for a well-connected marriage from the moment she drew breath, but as a small child, she probably wasn’t all that worried about her future—or her parents, this despite them being off on a crusade. Edward and his wife spent four years away from home, years in which little Eleanor’s world rotated round her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, who’d been entrusted with her care. (And yes: there are a lot of Eleanors around….) With our Eleanor was her brother Henry while her older brother, the precious heir John, had been entrusted to Edward’s uncle, Richard.

By the time she was five, Eleanor had already experienced loss: brother Henry died in 1274, and her other brother, John, had died a year or so before. Her parents must have been devastated by all these dead children, but fortunately there was a new baby boy to welcome to their family, and little Alphonso was reassuringly healthy.

Edward—King Edward since some years back—was a busy man. Like most medieval kings, he was constantly travelling through his kingdom. With him went his wife: Eleanor of Castile preferred the company of her husband to that of her children—or so we may think, because from a modern perspective she doesn’t come across as much of a doting mother, more of a devoted and borderline besotted wife. While the queen accompanied the king, their children were raised by others, but this does not mean that Edward and Eleanor didn’t care about them. They invested a lot of time on ensuring good guardians, good education and good companions—a stable environment that was probably better for a growing child than a constant ambulation round the country.

With our Eleanor having happily survived her early childhood, her parents started scouting the world for a potential groom. The list of candidates would have been pretty long—Edward was a king many wanted an alliance with—but soon enough they’d decided on one Alfonso. Those of you who read my blog regularly will know I have a tendency to sigh loudly whenever an Alfonso comes trotting across the page, this because Castilian history is riddled with gents thus named. But this Alfonso was not from Castile. No, Eleanor’s prospective groom was the heir to Aragon, the kingdom that sprawled across most of present day northern Spain, over the Pyrenees and into present day southern France.

Aragon and Castile had a history of antagonism. Both kingdoms wanted to be top dog on the Iberian peninsula, and usually a bout of hostility was followed by a peace accord and a wedding between the royal families. While I imagine Eleanor of Castile would have preferred an alliance with her homeland, none of the Castilian princes were eligible as a potential husband to her daughter—they were too closely related, seeing as Eleanor of Castile was King Alfonso X’s sister. (See what I mean? Yet another Alfonso!)

Our Eleanor was betrothed to Alfonso. “You’re going to be a queen!” she was told. “Queen of Aragon!”
Did Eleanor say “Yippee!” ? No idea.
Now, under normal circumstances, a young future bride was often sent off to be raised by her in-laws. This allowed the bride to acquaint herself with her future husband, her new home, a new language, new customs. In this particular case, Eleanor was not sent off to Aragon. Why? Because while Edward was OK with entering into a contract with King Pedro of Aragon for a future marriage, he had no intention of turning over his daughter to the Aragonese until one very, very sticky issue was sorted.


You see, King Pedro was presently embroiled in a bitter feud with the pope. Pedro was claiming the Kingdom of Sicily on behalf of his wife (whose father, Manfred, had been king of Sicily) while the pope was having none of that, as the present King of Sicily, Charles of Anjou, had made it a papal fief. This Charles of Anjou does not come across as the most devout of men—he spearheaded the so-called crusade against Manfred with eager support from the pope who had personal grievances against Manfred. Once he’d defeated Manfred, Charles rounded up Manfred’s very young sons, blinded them and locked them up until they died. Not, exactly, the behaviour of a compassionate man. Obviously, Charles of Anjou made Sicily a papal fief precisely to have papal support against Aragon.

Pedro was to re-conquer Sicily and have himself and his wife crowned king and queen of Sicily. This led to the pope throwing something of a fit, after which he excommunicated Pedro. Excommunication meant Pedro could not receive the sacraments, could not confess, could not enter a church. If he died excommunicated, he’d end up directly in hell—or so the Church said. In an age defined by faith, being excommunicated was a very bad thing, and even if I suspect Pedro was well-educated enough to recognise this for a politically motivated gesture, it probably still affected him. Yes, he had the moral support of various of his own bishops—a support that did not extend to offering him the sacraments—but an excommunicated king lived dangerously, as anyone rebelling against him could claim he was doing God’s work. Some tried to take advantage of the situation, but Pedro was good at handling insurrections and the like, being a more than capable military leader.

Still, all this mess made Edward hesitant to send his daughter to Aragon. Pedro sent repeated requests, and as late as 1282 Edward responded that he and his wife felt their thirteen-year-old daughter was still too young. Seeing as Eleanor of Castile had not been quite thirteen when she married Edward, this sounds sort of hollow.

The pope decided to up the ante and proclaimed a crusade against Aragon. Pedro was no longer the rightful king, the pope insisted, and instead chose Charles of Valois, Philippe III of France’s younger son as new king. Philippe happily assembled a host to conquer Aragon. Did not work out so well for Philippe. Pedro defended his kingdom and routed the French. Philippe died of dysentery.

We are now in 1285. At sixteen, Eleanor was definitely marriageable, and her future groom was all of twenty, probably eager to wed and procreate. But Pedro was still excommunicated, and Edward held off—even after Pedro died, swearing allegiance to the pope on his deathbed.

Years passed. Eleanor was a grown woman, and maybe she was beginning to fret. Life was passing her by, she may have moaned, and besides, what she’d heard of Alfonso made her eager to meet him. He was supposedly tall and fair, a skilled fighter and already a king!

Alfonso himself must have been irritated. He had other things to occupy his time with, but he needed a wife, and I’ve always wondered why he just didn’t go back to Edward and tell him that either he sent down his daughter or he’d go elsewhere for a wife. After all, Edward’s influence on the Iberian peninsula was non-existent.

In 1290, Edward finally relented. Preparations for Eleanor’s voyage to Aragon started. But in 1291, Alfonso suddenly died, and our twenty-two-year-old princess was no longer a potential queen. Never would she enjoy the warmth of a Mediterranean climate, or pick an orange from the tree. Never would she get to lie in the arms of her husband and king, see her own son grow up to be the next king. Instead, she was a potentially too-long-in-the-tooth unwed maiden… Okay, okay: twenty-three is young, and was considered young even back then—but most high-born women of that age already had both husband and children.


At the time, Edward had other matters to handle—his beloved wife, Eleanor, died late in 1290 and he was grief-struck. Add to this a brewing conflict in France, the growing instability in Scotland after King Alexander III’s death, and a sequence of issues in the recently conquered Wales, and the king had plenty on his plate. Likely, finding Eleanor a husband was not top on his to-do list, which is why it took a couple of years before Eleanor was finally wed. Not to a king, this time. No, Eleanor’s husband was Henri, ten years her senior and Count of Bar, a rather small duchy straddling the border of present-day France and England.

If Eleanor was happy with her husband, we don’t know. She had two children that we know of, one son, one daughter, and was only twenty-nine when she died after five years of marriage. A short life, a life to a large extent spent waiting for life to begin. A life in which she for years saw herself as a future queen only to end up as the countess of a very, very small duchy instead.

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