Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Eleanor of Provence

ELEANOR of Provence (d. 1291), queen of England and wife of Henry III, was the daughter of Raymond Berenger IV, count of Provence, and his wife Beatrix, sister of Amadeus III of Savoy. Both her father and her mother figure among the Provençal poets, and Eleanor herself is reported to have composed an heroic poem while yet a child, in her native language. This poem, which is said to be still extant, she despatched to her future brother-in-law, Richard, earl of Cornwall. Her learning and accomplishments were doubtless largely due to the fact that she had for her instructors that Romeo whom seventy years later Dante celebrated for his merit and his misfortunes (Parad, vi.; Fauriel ap. Strickland, Lives of the Queens of England),

Towards the middle of June 1235 the negotiations for her marriage commenced, and by October proctors had been appointed to receive the lady's dower. As, however, this was not forthcoming, Eleanor was despatched to her husband apparently without any portion. The marriage was celebrated by Edmund Rich, archbishop of Canterbury, in his cathedral city, 14 Jan. 1236, and the coronation ceremony was performed at Westminster on the following Sunday, 20 Jan. (Rymer, i. 341, 344-6; Gervase of Cant. ii. 130; Matt. Paris, iii. 334; Ann, of Tewkesbury and of Waverly, pp. 99, 316). The unpopularity from which the young queen seems to have suffered during the whole of her life in England perhaps had its beginning in the fact that she was accompanied by her uncle William, bishop elect of Valence. This prelate at once acquired an immense influence with the king, and there went round a rumour that, under his advice, Henry was meditating a change in the constitution of his kingdom (Matt. Paris, iii. 234; Stubbs, ii.53). Though this uncle had to leave England very soon (c. February 1237), he returned before long, after having carried off an immense treasure to his native land. The king, it was currently said, was becoming uxorious, and suffering his own realm to be ruined by strangers from Poitou, Provence, or elsewhere. Early in 1245 Eleanor procured the appointment of another uncle, Boniface of Savoy, as the successor to the saintly patriot, Edmund Rich, at Canterbury. Nor was her unpopularity lessened when it was discovered (1246) that the large annual payments made to her mother for the last live years were being diverted to the profit of her alien brother-m-law, Charles of Anjou. Against these causes of discontent should, however, be set certain other points which tell in her favour, such as the appointment of her physician and confessor, the learned Nicholas of Farnham, to the see of Durham (9 June 1241); and her successful effort in the same year to reconcile her husband with the earl marshal, the restoration of whose office and earldom she also procured 27 Oct. (Matt. Paris, iii. 387, 388, iv. 86, 158, 259, 505).

In 1242 Eleanor accompanied her husband to Gascony (20 May); and it was his extravagance and delay on her account, about the time of her confinement at Bordeaux (June 25), that led to the failure of this expedition and the return home of the discontented nobles. Towards the end of the next year she went home in time to be present at the marriage of Eleanor's sister, Sancia, with Henry's brother, Richard, earl of Cornwall. About the same time she persuaded the king to transfer Gascony and Chester from his brother to her son Edward; but, notwithstanding this, when the king crossed over to Bordeaux next year (6 Aug. 1253) he left his wife and brother as joint-governors of the kingdom. Early in 1254 she was engaged in raising money for the king's necessities, and it was in her name that the remarkable council of Westminster (25 April) was summoned. Shortly afterwards, despite the king's prohibition, she left England (May 29) for Bordeaux. After a family meeting at Chartres, she made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Edmund at Pontigny, was splendidly entertained by Louis IX at the old Temple in Paris, and disembarked at Dover on 27 Dec. (Matt. Paris, v. 42, &c.; Lib. de Ant. Leg, p. 23).

Meanwhile the popular discontent does not seem to have diminished. In 1250 she was accused of exacting a vast sum of money from Aaron the Jew; in 1255 not only the queen, but also the king and the Archbishop of Canterbury, her uncle, were impoverishing themselves to support the ambition of their uncle or brother Thomas of Savoy in North Italy. Three years later, at the time when Henry had no means for his own war against the Welsh, he could still supply funds for the queen's kinsman (June 1258). Nor was Eleanor viewed with greater favour by the king's Poitevin kinsmen, who perhaps grudged her the control of money they thought might be better spent among themselves, and certainly attributed all their misfortunes to her misconduct when they were banished from the realm (18 July 1258). Next year (11 Nov.) she was present when Henry did homage to his brother-in-law for Aquitaine.

Eleanor at first appears to have approved of the provisions of Oxford; but on finding that they could be turned to the hurt of her own kinsmen she is credited with influencing her husband and her eldest son against them (Ann. of Wav. p. 355). After various journeys to and from France she took refuge in the Tower of London (May 26); and it was while attempting to go from this place to Westminster by water (July 13) that she met with that ill-treatment at the hands of the Londoners for which her son Edward took so disastrous a revenge at the battle of Lewes. Three months later she had an interview with Louis IX at Boulogne (4 Oct.), and remained abroad after her husband's return (7 Oct. 1263). During the course of the next year she was vainly attempting to get aid for her husband in the 'barons' war' that had now broken out. After the battle of Lewes she had gathered a great host of mercenary troops at Sluys, and the king, who was now a prisoner, had to issue orders for the protection of the coast against the descent of his own partisans. When her funds were exhausted her army melted away. On 29 Oct. 1265 she landed in England with the papal legate. The rest of her life presents little of interest. She was so heavily weighted with debt that the twenty thousand marks with which the Londoners atoned for their insults had to be sent abroad for her creditors' satisfaction. On 3 July 1276 she took the veil at Amesbury, where she died, 25 June 1291, and was buried with great ceremony, in the presence of her son, Edward I, and nearly all the prelates and nobles of England, 9 Sept. Her heart was interred in the church of the Franciscans in London (9-10 Dec.) The monastic chroniclers of the time reproach her for not having resigned her possessions on becoming a nun. But it is probable that she was unable to do this owing to her immense debts. These her son Edward ordered to be paid after her death.

The extreme unpopularity of Queen Eleanor is reflected in nearly all the contemporary annalists. Nor were these unfortunate relations confined to her subjects alone. In 1252 her arrogant conduct provoked her patient husband into an exclamation against feminine pride. Despite the affection which her eldest son, Edward, seems to have constantly shown for her, she is said by one chronicler to have been the cause of the quarrel between him and his father in 1260. Even her affection for her kinsmen is no justification for her waste of English treasure on their behalf. On the other hand, her character presents not a few good points. Though apparently somewhat of an invalid (cf. Ann. Dunst. p. 203), she acted with vigour in the great crisis of 1264, and seriously angered the barons of the Cinque ports by hanging some of their partisans about the same time. The influence she exercised over her husband was perhaps, to some extent, continued over her son Edward I, if it be true, as one chronicler asserts, that it was at her prompting that he expelled the Jews from England.

Eleanor's children were: Edward (I of England) [q. v.] ; Edmund, afterwards Earl of Lancaster (b. 16 Jan. 1245); Margaret (b. 29 Sept. 1240), married Alexander III of Scotland; Beatrice, married John de Dreux, duke of Brittany; Katherine (b.25 Nov. 1253).

[See authorities quoted in the text.]

T. A. A.