One of the things a medieval queen was expected to provide her husband with was a male heir. Plus, preferably, a spare. For a medieval king to have only female heirs caused a number of problems, primarily that of convincing the male barons to swear allegiance to a woman. Plus, from a purely dynastic perspective, whatever children the female ruler had would belong to their father’s house.
What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, several decades of civil war that ravaged the country. No future king wanted a repeat on that. Ever.
|Matilda - as per a 15th C chronicle|
By the time John’s grandson Edward was old enough to wed, the Plantagenet kings had established themselves firmly on the English throne, the crown passing safely from father to son. Edward was only fifteen when he married Eleanor of Castile in 1254, and as always when it came to royalty, this wedding had a political purpose at heart – in this case, to keep Alfonso X of Castile from invading Gascony.
|Edward & Eleanor - not the most flattering |
Eleanor not only had a saint for a father, but also had Plantagenet blood, in that her great-grandmother was Henry III’s aunt, Eleanor of England, who wed Alfonso VIII. (I know: it does get a bit complicated with all these Eleanors and Alfonsos). Plus – and this was a major point in her favour – she came from a notably fertile family. Her mother had given Fernando five children, four of whom were sons. Her paternal grandmother, Berenguela, had produced five children during seven years of marriage. And as to Eleanor of England, well she had presented her husband with twelve children – one every other year or so. However, very few of the sons survived – in fact, once the youngest was killed by a falling tile, the Castilian crown passed through Berenguela to Fernando. (Berenguela was wise enough to understand the Castilian nobles would not accept her as queen – but they readily accepted her son as king.)
Anyway, with all these fertile females up Eleanor of Castile's family tree, no one was particularly worried about the mandatory male heir. In the fullness of time, Edward’s new wife would surely present him with a healthy, squalling son.
The young couple seem to have taken an immediate liking to one another. This resulted in a stillborn (or dead shortly after its birth) baby in 1255, the first of sixteen (at least fourteen) children. At the time, Eleanor was not yet fourteen, so I imagine this was a traumatic experience. There was a gap of some years – years in which the affection and love between Edward and Eleanor grew, making them almost inseparable. Whether or not there were miscarriages, we don’t know. I hold it likely: Edward and Eleanor not only liked each other but also desperately needed to produce an heir. Besides, throughout their marriage, Eleanor did not seem to have a problem conceiving – it was more a matter of the viability of the children she gave birth to.
There was probably quite some rejoicing and relief when, in 1261, Edward and Eleanor welcomed a daughter, Katherine, into this world. Their joy was short-lived. Little Katherine died at three, and one year later, in 1265, Eleanor was delivered of yet another daughter, Joanna, who died some months later. I imagine that by now, Eleanor and Edward were beginning to become quite concerned. More than ten years married, and no living children – that did not bode well.
Fortunately, in 1266, little John arrived, and he was miraculously healthy. Prayers of gratitude rang in the royal solar, even more so when in 1268 yet another son, Henry, saw the light of the day. Two boys, albeit that little Henry was sickly. To round things off, a healthy daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1269.
In 1273, son number three, Alphonso, was born. A fine, lusty son, and Eleanor must have wept in relief. It was therefore with great happiness Edward and Eleanor celebrated their coronation in 1274. By then, they’d been married almost twenty years, and even if little Henry died some months later, they did have their lovely Alphonso – and two healthy little girls. Does not seem much, given that Eleanor had carried nine babies to full term. Nine. As she was only thirty-three, she could look forward to several more pregnancies. I wonder if there were times when this thought filled her with trepidation.
1275, 1276, 1277, 1279 – four pregnancies, four births, resulting in four little girls of whom two died. But at least Alphonso, this apple of his parents’ eyes, still thrived.
1281 – a little boy came and went like a shadow in the night. But still, they had Alphonso.
1282 – Elizabeth of Rhuddlan was born. A healthy child, and now there were five daughters – plus the precious Alphonso.
In April of 1284, a heavily pregnant Eleanor accompanied her husband to Wales. And there, in the building site that was Caernarvon Castle, Eleanor was delivered of a boy. A boy! Yes, a miracle baby, a strong little prince, and Eleanor smiled and wept as she presented her husband with the much-desired spare. And as to Alphonso, their sweet son was now old enough to wed, and a marriage had been arranged for him with Margaret, daughter of the Count of Holland. For a little while there, everything was perfect in the Eleanor-Edward household. Until Alphonso fell ill, dying in August of 1284.
Eleanor was not to have any more children. After sixteen births, I guess she was worn out, and besides, her health was failing. So all hopes for a surviving male heir now rested on baby Edward, and even if he was a robust child, there were concerns that he too would die young. On a daily basis, Eleanor did not see much of her youngest son. In fact, she rarely saw much of any of her children, seeing as she was always travelling from one place to the other.
Judging by moral standards, this behaviour does not make a good mother. After all, we expect mothers to spend time with their children. As per the standards of her time, Eleanor was a conscientious mother, ensuring her children were in good, competent hands and lived relatively stable lives while she accompanied her husband from one end of his kingdom to the other. Did she love her children? I’d say yes – as much as she dared to, given all those losses. But no matter that she loved them, she loved her husband much, much, more. It was with him she wanted to be, it was at his side she belonged, as his loyal and supporting spouse. And he, I believe, agreed.
|Edward I with Prince Edward|
In the event, these little spares would not be needed. In 1307, Eleanor’s lastborn, Edward of Caernarvon, became king after his father. I daresay she would have been mightily pleased. She had done her duty – she had birthed the next king.
Eleanor's life consisted of more than having babies - much more. In fact, this is an intriguing lady who surprisingly often surfs just under the radar, despite building up a considerable real estate fortune and being a proactive member of Edward's court. But that side of her will have to wait for another day, another post.
All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons
Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016.
The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.
More about Anna on her website or on her blog!