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A slow march into permanent night – of a queen’s death

I have previously written about Eleanor of Castile, but in that post I focussed on the children she birthed. And lost. She lost most of them, unfortunate woman that she was. This post is about her last few years—mainly because that’s where I’ve been spending time with her, as my latest novel is set 1287-1290, and Eleanor died in late 1290.

Eleanor was born as an infanta of Castile. Her father was Fernando III, an impressive warrior who advanced the Reconquista significantly. Her mother was Fernando’s second wife, Jeanne, Countess of Ponthieu. When Eleanor was about thirteen, she was wed to Edward of England, recently knighted by Eleanor’s brother Alfonso. He was fifteen. These two teenagers hit it off, and there are indications Eleanor was delivered of a baby girl who died (or was stillborn) about a year later.

Having babies and losing them was to be the recurring theme of Eleanor’s life, and by the time she was delivered of her last—and only surviving son—in  April of 1284 she’d have been in her early forties, her body reasonably exhausted by all her pregnancies. We know of sixteen pregnancies that were carried to full term. We have no idea how many times she may have miscarried. We do know that only six children survived to adulthood.

Edward

Not only had Eleanor been more pregnant for many, many years, but she had also spent most of her life riding about from one place to the other, accompanying her husband wherever he went, be it the Holy Land or Doncaster. They were close, those two, even if Edward kept a firm hand on the ruling—he may have asked his wife for advice on occasion, but he was the one in charge.

In 1284, Eleanor birthed one boy but lost another. In August of 1284, Prince Alphonso, at the time around ten, died. Eleanor was devastated. The heir, the son they had such high hopes for—dead! This seems to be something of a crucible moment for Eleanor, because it is in the years after that her hitherto so robust health starts failing her.

In my book, His Castilian Hawk, I speculate that Eleanor may have seen the death of her precious Alphonso as God’s punishment for Edward’s treatment of the two young Welsh princes, Owain and Llewellyn, whom he locked up in Bristol Castle, never to emerge again. I’m not entirely sure Eleanor would have been overly worried about the fates of these two youngsters—she had been raised in a family that understood the importance of political strategy and military accomplishments to remain in power. Those two Welsh boys were no more than pawns in a complicated power game. More importantly, they could become future threats to the stability of Edward’s kingdom.

But at the same time, Eleanor was very devout, and wreaking vengeance on the innocent was not exactly a truly Christian behaviour. There must have been times when she wondered why she’d lost so many children, and given that we’re talking thirteenth century, she was likelier to assume the fault lay with her than with her husband.

After a long progress through conquered Wales in 1284, it was the intention of the king to go to Gascony ASAP. But due to the queen’s failing health, the departure to Gascony was delayed, and it was not until 1286 that King Edward and Queen Eleanor made it to their French dominions. The queen was still not well: after years and years of no recorded expenditures on tinctures, potions, physicians and whatnot, suddenly there’s a major surge in costs related to keeping the queen healthy. At times, she was too ill to accompany her husband—and I imagine it would take a lot more than a case of sniffles for Eleanor not to ride with her beloved Edward—and we have records of more purchases of medicine. The king was obviously worried, and at one point while they were apart he ensured to have preserved ginger delivered to his wife—they soothed her, apparently. Queen Eleanor also sent of her knight, Richard de Bures, to visit Santiago de Compostela on her behalf. Was he sent to pray for her health? Or was she asking for Divine support for her husband in his negotiations? We don’t know, but to me, it sounds as she was beginning to become very concerned about her health.

When in Her Castilian Heart my female protagonist, Noor, meets the queen in 1287—three years since she saw her last—she is shocked. The queen she meets in Pau, Gascony, is a shadow of her former self, afflicted by recurring fevers. But Eleanor of Castile is no quitter. She clings on to life with determination, refusing to admit she is ailing.
“A mere trifle,” she says, staring her ladies-in-waiting into silence.
And when the king requests her presence—or comes by to visit her—the queen blossoms, expending what little energy she has on a performance designed to convince her husband—and herself—that there is nothing seriously wrong with her.

In 1289, the royal couple returned to England, where Edward was soon fully occupied with regaining control over his realm. Not an entirely easy task, because he’d managed to really irritate his barons with his attempt to reclaim all land and titles they couldn’t produce written warrants for—a tad difficult, if you got the land in the aftermath of the Conquest. Plus, he had incurred huge debts in Gascony during his recent peace-making efforts, and he wanted to levy a tax to help finance his repayment. “Pah!” Parliament said. “What do we care about peace on the Continent? What’s in it for us?”  (Turns out there was something in it for them: in return for being allowed to levy this tax, Edward expelled all Jews from England—all 3 000 or so.)

Eleanor, meanwhile, submerged herself in the management of her various estates—this was a shrewd working woman who contributed significantly to the household economy—but she also visited a shrine dedicated to healing, organised the upcoming weddings of two of her daughters, was an eager supporter of seeing her young son, Edward, contracted in marriage to Margaret, the Maid of Norway, thereby ensuring her precious son would one day also be king of Scotland. In between all this, she travelled. As always, the royal household ambulated all over, but the stays tended to be longer than previously, and maybe this was to allow Eleanor the opportunity to recuperate. The fact that there is a notation in her young son’s accounts for expenses related to medicinal waters for his lady mother indicates her family was by now very aware of her failing health.

John Collier: The Sleeping Beauty

In the autumn of 1290, there was no longer any doubt: the queen was seriously ill—so seriously ill her husband ordered their youngest children to be brought north to see their mother in October. In mid-November, the queen and king set out for Lincoln. She was not to make it there alive, and spent her last few days in Harby before expiring on November 29, 1290, some days after her forty-ninth birthday.

Throughout her last illness, her husband stayed by her side, offering what little comfort he could. And once she’d passed, the king was devastated. For the first time during his reign, all activity ceased. For three days, he secluded himself, emerging (I imagine) a harsher and sadder man. That he loved his wife is evident not only in this, but also in the magnificent procession carrying Eleanor back to London. And at every place where the funeral procession stayed the night, Edward ordered a cross erected in memory of his beloved and loyal wife. *sniff*

So what, exactly, killed Eleanor? Truth is, we don’t know. What we do know is that for the last four years or so of her life, her accounts indicate a steady stream of expenses related to her health—a stark comparison versus previous years, where such entries were extremely few.  Some people speculate she may have suffered from malaria contracted during the long stay in Gascony, and that this in turn left her so weakened that it was a random infection that actually killed her. In her excellent biography of Eleanor, Sara Cockerill expresses some doubts as to this hypotheses. She is equally sceptical of those suggesting the queen suffered from tuberculosis. Such an illness was not uncommon, and had she suffered from such symptoms, reasonably they’d have been recorded somewhere. Ms Cockerill finds another explanation more plausible, namely that Eleanor suffered from a heart condition, something that had afflicted other members of her family.  At the distance of close to eight centuries, we will never know, but my personal opinion is that all those pregnancies, all those childbirths, destroyed her health.

 

Eleanor’s effigy in Lincoln. Photo by Richard Croft

Eleanor’s life was short—at least it seems very short to us. But it was a rich life, one in which she saw most of the known world, all the way from the pillars of Hercules to the Holy Land. Yes, she experienced hardship and more than her share of grief with all those lost babies, but some of the children did survive, and while I suspect Eleanor would have preferred leaving her husband with two male heirs, she did at least give him one son—and five daughters. She was an active businesswoman (too active, some thought), she was well-educated and devout. Most of all, Eleanor of Castile was a woman who loved—and was loved in return—by the man she married when she was thirteen. From the day she said “I do”, she was to spend most of her days at his side, whether it be travelling on a crusade or relaxing in Gascony. He wanted it that way—and so did she!

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