Women of Geddington: Eleanor of Castile

We know her name, we may know a little of her history; her presence in the form of the Eleanor Cross is a constant reminder of her life and her links to Geddington but what do we know of her as a woman, a mother, an intellectual, a wife and a queen?

For most of the population outside Northamptonshire she is a forgotten Queen. She lived in a period of history where records are less accessible and through the lapse of time accurate reports of Eleanor have been blurred by a gloss of romanticism, not least because of the existence of her Crosses.

This story of Eleanor draws extensively on the research by Sara Cockerill in her book ‘The Shadow Queen’. It is an attempt to pull back the veneer of history and consider the realities of her life. Eleanor was no ‘shadow’ but a vibrant, innovative, cultured and brave individual who deserves our full and renewed attention.

Sara Cockerill describes Eleanor in vivid terms; she was dynamic, with a forceful personality whose influence in the world of arts, politics and religion is still with us today. This personality was forged in the court of Castile where Eleanor absorbed the active kingship of her father, the chivalry and the glory of the Crusaders and the intellectual debates around nobility and about promoting the security of a realm and its dynasty.

Eleanor’s coat of arms

Eleanor was highly educated and was surrounded in her early years by those who encouraged her learning. She could read and write and insisted that her own children learnt too. She admired the illustrated manuscripts of the day and sponsored the more widespread production of them through her own ‘scriptorium’, a medieval equivalent of a publishing house with illustrators, calligraphers and bookbinders. It was the only scriptorium in Northern Europe at the time. Thanks to Eleanor, domestic life in royal residences gained the refinements of table forks at mealtimes, carpets on the floors and tiles in the bathrooms. She revolutionised the notion of the ‘garden’, introducing different planting schemes, new types of fruits and the water fountains that were so common to her native Castile. Eleanor also reputedly introduced the hollyhock to England. Its old name of ‘Spanish rose’ tends to confirm this notion. She appreciated good style in dress too when the occasion demanded it, but was not in any way flamboyant, rather the opposite. Practicality of dress was her preference for her working days.

However much Eleanor liked her luxuries she was also a woman on a mission. Married at around 12 years old and understanding the political nature of the union, she rejected the idea of being a Queen in name only and insisted on sharing the responsibilities of Edward. She was a member of his inner circle of advisors and had responsibility for the acquisition of properties for the Crown. Her early years in England were difficult; she was young; she was in a new country with no obvious personal allies and both her parents-in-law were lukewarm in their support. Indeed Eleanor of Provence, her mother in law, was quite jealous of the new arrival. It is to the credit of our Eleanor that she won that battle and guided Edward to a more independent outlook, better financial standing and the acquisition of the skills he would need to be a great king.

Her bravery was never more obvious than when the Baron’s Revolt took place not long after her arrival in England. Unlike many of the court ladies, including the Queen herself, Eleanor stayed, oversaw the defence of Windsor Castle on behalf of her husband and when forced to yield was herself imprisoned and was left destitute, in fear of her own life and Edward’s.

Yet she came to the throne with Edward, bore him numerous children, traveled widely around this country and as far away as the Holy Land, with Edward. She continued her property development ‘portfolio’ and was very much a hands on manager of estates and buildings in counties as far apart as Essex and Derbyshire. Geddington would have been very familiar to her. She visited Geddington at least three times to allow her to visit Crown estates and properties in the area. In 1274/5 she already owned or had an interest in property at Great Bowden, Market Harborough and Kingsthorpe and was interested in acquiring property at Apethorpe and Rockingham. The hunting lodge at Geddington, with its kennels for the royal greyhounds, was one of the first places the royal couple visited on their return from the Crusade, and Fotheringhay was also a place the court stayed on these journeys to scope out possible property purchases.

Leeds Castle in Kent | The Loveliest Castle in the World
Leeds Castle acquired by Eleanor in 1278.
Eleanor established the legal precedent of women holding property in their own right.

Eleanor was also a great matchmaker and, like Victoria in later years, she successfully negotiated with many of the noble and royal houses of Europe for suitable marriage alliances for her children and her family members. The subtlety with which she achieved this marks her out as a woman with considerable diplomatic skills!

As a mother she was often absent but she seems to have always maintained good relationships with her children and to have ensured they were ready to take their place in the world. For all that it was reported that she had a fiery temper she is also remembered for her sense of fun, her excellent horsemanship, her love of hunting and horse breeding as well as her love of languages, poetry and music. She also played chess rather well!

Like most of our ‘Women of Geddington’, Eleanor had a role model in her life, her grandmother. Berengaria of Castile was regarded as the epitome of what a Castilian princess should be: intelligent, capable, astute, regardless of self in relation to her duty and fiercely loyal to her family;

‘A wise lady and a great expert and sharp in political affairs who understood the risks of government’ (Primera Cronica General)

Eleanor matched and perhaps even exceeded her grandmother’s achievements because, despite dying relatively young, she had established such firm foundations in so many aspects of English life that her legacy lives on today. She would not have recognised the terms ‘feminist’ or ‘property developer’ but she was certainly a woman who was determined to shape her own destiny and a woman who had sufficient vision and courage to shape the destiny of others too, for the better.

She was, according to Sara Cockerill ‘ awesome’ . I can only agree.

She deserves her place in our history.

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Leeds Castle in Kent was one of Eleanor’s favourite places. She owned it independently from 1278 -1290 and Edward inherited it on her death. The defences of the castle reflect her understanding of warfare and by contrast a small building on one of the islands became known as The Gloriette. Its name comes from a Spanish term meaning a pavillion at a crossing point of paths in a garden.

The Leeds Castle website is worth a visit and on it you will find an excellent podcast looking at Eleanor’s life, her acquisition of Leeds Castle and the changes she made. Sara Cockerill is one of the contributors.

    1 Comment

    1. Sandra

      Fri 22nd May 2020 at 10:34 am

      Such an interesting and educational read, thank you.

      Reply

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