The role of Eleanor of Castile as queen consort – and her influence over Edward I
There is a fiction common in Victorian writing, that Edward I referred to Eleanor of Castile as “chère reine” and that it was thus that the Charing Cross derived its name. In fact both elements of this fiction are wrong. As is now moderately well known, the place of Charing (named for the bend in the river which it then fronted) existed well before Edward and Eleanor’s day, as a small settlement which grew larger under the influence first of the priory of St Mary Rounceval, and secondly of the location there of the Royal Mews.
As for Edward’s references to Eleanor, there is no sign of any reference to her as “chère reine” in the records. His own preferred designation appears to have been “karissima consors”, or “dearest consort”. Although this phrase is not unique, appearing in records pertaining to other queens on occasion, it certainly appears to have been used more extensively, and with more intended meaning by Edward than was usual. For example, he continues to refer to Eleanor in that mode, even after her death: “at that time our dearest consort”.
But what did that phrase reflect? In one sense, the term consort is used in contradistinction to a regnant monarch – as, indeed, it was pointedly used in relation to Prince Albert. “Consort” in that sense implies a lack of power or active role. This was a distinction which was made clear in the different ceremony which applied to coronation of medieval English monarchs, with the queen receiving rather less anointing, and a crown of golden lilies. The consort’s role, formally, was to appear ceremonially alongside the king and to bear and raise his children. And certainly Eleanor, on public duties to within days of her death and mother to at least sixteen children, cannot be faulted on her performance in this regard. But Eleanor’s interpretation of the role was much more true to the word’s derivation than the formal role. In particular, a consort might fulfil all of her duties while spending considerable period apart from her king. This was the mode of earlier Queens of England: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre, Isabella of Angoulême and Eleanor of Provence all spent considerable periods apart from the king whose consort they were.
Eleanor however was literal. She went about with Edward constantly. The fact of her accompanying him on crusade is well known. Less so is the fact that throughout his reign it is very difficult, apart from active duties in the Welsh War, to find a night when the two were apart. As a result it appears that the diary imperatives of each were factored into each other’s lives and the court of Edward can be seen to move with four drivers: Parliament, war, childbirth and Eleanor’s property business. It perhaps reflects this extreme habit of consorting together that Eleanor tends to refer to herself in relation to Edward as his “companion”.
Does this habit of physical proximity, this “companion” status, reflect any real influence on Eleanor’s part? Conventionally the answer has been given in the negative, with historians repeatedly asserting that it is clear that Eleanor had no political influence over her husband. This is not an answer which I accept. While it is true that there is no incontrovertible evidence of Eleanor exercising influence over Edward, the conclusion to which I came was that her influence can indeed be seen, albeit discreetly; and that the lack of any overt evidence of it can probably be put down to the political astuteness of the pair, who had learned from Eleanor of Provence’s negative example. Eleanor of Provence, of course, had managed to render herself so unpopular through her overt political role that the citizens of Londone made a semi serious attempt to lynch her.
There is no single smoking gun on this. Readers will find the clues scattered throughout the course of the thirty nine year marriage. But there are a number of significant points. The first follows seamlessly from the question of proximity. How likely is it that one half of a happily married couple spending quite so much time together would not influence the other half? In my view it is next door to unthinkable. It might be possible if, say, one spouse was uninterested in the other’s work or was simply not mentally equipped to understand and contribute. But Eleanor was actually educated to be interested in the subjects integral to royal governance, and her extensive and often scholarly reading indicates that she was most emphatically bright enough to be a very valuable sounding board. One should therefore almost expect to find her fingerprints somewhere.
And again and again one does. Even early in their marriage Edward’s political manoeuvrings are secured by dealings in Eleanor’s dower lands – something highly unlikely to be done without her approval. Later one finds echoes of Castilian approaches in legislation concerning the Jewish population and in Welsh resettlement. At the same time Eleanor can be seen proximate to both these subjects – dealing closely with a number of Jewish businessmen and spending her own money in facets of town building in Wales. Or, again, her own highly and extensively literary tastes are echoed in Arthurian themed courtly entertainments – much more sophisticated and politically pointed affairs than Henry III’s “spare no expense” extravaganzas. These interests can even be found in aspects of Welsh castle building – in particular at Caernarfon where the design of the walls and the Eagle tower is most convincingly seen as referencing local myths of a type in which Eleanor demonstrably interested herself.
But surely there is a small smoking gun: The “de Re Militarii” of Vegetius. This work – the classic Roman manual of things military – was not popular with the Plantagenets before Edward; and his early military ventures show signs of not having read it. The book was, however, very popular indeed in Castile, where it was extensively plagiarised by Alfonso X for the military sections of his great work, the Siete Partidas. In 1270 Eleanor arranged for her personal clerk, Mr Richard, to translate Vegetius from Latin to Anglo-Norman French, as a present for Edward. It is helpfully illustrated with a picture showing Edward being taught by Vegetius – a subtle wifely hint, if ever there was one! And following its receipt, Edward’s military campaigns in Wales have repeated markers of Vegetian technique, from matters as diverse as attention to provisioning, to some of the great set pieces in the campaigns.
And perhaps another hint can be seen in the surviving depictions of Eleanor. Reflecting the lesser nature of consort power, queens traditionally were depicted in consort mode on their seals. So the queens prior to Eleanor all adopted a seal showing them with a floriated sceptre and a dove. Eleanor, by contrast, appears on her seal as a queen regnant, with a traditional sceptre, and surrounded by the badges of her royal house. It is, too, in this more assertive pose that Edward had her depicted on her tomb. These depictions suggest an influential figure exercising real power.
In my view Eleanor can be seen to have been a companion and consort to Edward in the truest sense – and to have influenced his reign in a variety of interesting and significant ways. It is time for the conventional view of her to be discarded.