Continuing our ongoing series celebrating the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament, this week’s guest blogpost looks at the role of a woman who helped to shape the politics of her time. Louise Wilkinson, Professor of Medieval History at Canterbury Christ Church University, explains the key role of Eleanor de Montfort…
In the thirteenth century, Eleanor de Montfort was one of the most important women in England. She was a key political player and a major protagonist in events. Yet her life has long been overshadowed by the career of her second husband, Simon, earl of Leicester, who headed a movement to reform the government of Eleanor’s brother, King Henry III. During the period of baronial rebellion in England from 1258, Eleanor worked tirelessly to support her husband’s cause until the fateful outcome of the battle of Evesham in 1265.
Eleanor was born around 1215, the daughter of King John. Her first marriage, to William Marshal junior, earl of Pembroke, when she was just nine years old, was a political one. However, due to Eleanor’s youth the couple lived apart for most of their short union, which ended with Pembroke’s death in 1231 (Eleanor was around 16). Under the influence of her governess, Cecily of Sandford , the grieving young widow took a vow of chastity, promising to devote her life to Christ, a decision that Eleanor later came to regret. In 1238 she secretly married Simon de Montfort, the ambitious younger son of a French count who had come to England intent on pursuing a claim to the earldom of Leicester. This union was possibly a love match and had Henry III’s blessing but when news of it leaked out, it caused a national outcry. Later Henry III himself very publicly claimed that Simon had seduced Eleanor, something that might or might not be true.
Simon and Eleanor’s marriage was a highly successful union in personal terms, if somewhat tempestuous. Eleanor bore Simon six children who survived the illnesses of medieval childhood. She became her husband’s close confidante and accompanied him as far as Italy when he went on crusade in the early 1240s. She then often resided with him in Gascony in modern day France when Simon served as the king’s lieutenant there. Eleanor and Simon shared the same spiritual interests and formed a close circle of friends that included the Franciscan friar, Adam Marsh. Marsh famously rebuked Eleanor in his letters for her forthright behaviour, for being quick to anger and for her love of ostentatious dress and finery.
In 1258, Eleanor and her husband’s lives changed for ever when they became involved in a baronial movement to reform English government. Eleanor played a significant part in this campaign. Most notably, she deliberately obstructed Anglo-French peace negotiations by personally refusing to renounce her claims to the Angevin lands in France between 1258 and 1259. She did so in the hope of forcing Henry III to agree to a long-awaited financial settlement with her and her husband. Yet it was in 1264 that Simon and Eleanor’s fortunes in England were completely transformed, when Simon and his supporters defeated and captured Henry III at the battle of Lewes on 14 May, effectively wresting control of government from him. From her base in the south of England, at the castles of Wallingford and Odiham, Eleanor played a leading role as a political hostess, entertaining and sending food and wine to her husband’s allies. The sheer strength of the countess’s relationship with her husband and her personal importance to him was clearly illustrated when Earl Simon set out to join Eleanor at Odiham immediately after the great Hilary Parliament of 1265 dispersed, arriving there on 19 March for a family conference. But Earl Simon and Countess Eleanor’s political ascendancy was not to last. The true fragility of the Montforts’ position was exposed when their nephew, the Lord Edward (Henry III’s eldest son and heir) escaped from their custody at Hereford on 28 May 1265. As soon as news reached him of Edward’s escape, Simon dispatched messengers to his wife, worried about her security in the face of a renewed royalist threat. She hurriedly packed up her household and made a hasty retreat to safer territory, travelling by night to Portchester Castle on borrowed horses and covering more than 40 miles in a day. After gathering further supplies and supporters, Eleanor then headed for the greater protection offered by Dover Castle, which she reached on 15 June.
Rather than waiting passively for the gathering storm, Eleanor turned her flight into an exercise in public relations for her husband’s regime. She regularly entertained local sympathizers to the Montfort cause, attempting to buttress her family’s hold on the region, until her fortunes were shattered at the battle of Evesham on 4 August, 1265. On that day, Prince Edward was victorious, Henry III was restored to power and the rebels were trounced. Both Simon de Montfort and his eldest son were killed. In the weeks that followed, the widowed Eleanor overcame her grief and rose to her role as the matriarch of her family, sending two of her sons, Richard and Amaury, into exile in France, along with the family treasure. Once they were safe, Eleanor negotiated with Prince Edward the surrender of Dover and her own departure from England. The last ten years of her life were spent in exile in France, where she entered a Dominican convent. Even so, she still continued to fight for her English lands and rights.
Louise J. Wilkinson is Professor of Medieval History at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is the author of Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England (Continuum, 2013). She is currently working on a new edition of the household rolls of Eleanor de Montfort and Eleanor of Provence for the Pipe Roll Society, and is a co-investigator of the AHRC-funded Magna Carta Project, led by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia.
You can read all the posts so far in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. The series is in preparation for our, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.
UK Parliament are also coordinating a series of events to celebrate the anniversary: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition at Westminster Hall; the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’ and they invite you all to take part in ‘LiberTeas’ on June 14.