At the death of Henry III in 1272, Prince Edward became King Edward I, accompanied by his wife, Eleanor of Castile.
A noble lineage
Eleanor of Castile was not only the daughter of Ferdinand III and Joan, Countess of Ponthieu she was also the direct descendant of Henry II of England and his formidable wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. So being a force to be reckoned with, was in her blood.
Edward encouraged Eleanor to become financially independent, to acquire lands of her own. But how did she do it? How did a Castilian Princess suddenly come to own swathes of English land? A bit of a dodgy system – basically Eleanor was given the debts owed by landowners, which she then cancelled and in return received the lands pledged for the debts. It didn’t make her particularly popular.
The king desires to get our gold, the queen, our manors fair to hold
But, it meant that Eleanor, with business interests of her own, estates to manage and warring nobles to curtail, played her part in ruling England, in her own right.
That’s when she was even in England, of course. Eleanor travelled thousands of miles to accompany Edward I on military tours and campaigns, through Wales, Scotland, France, Genoa, Pisa, Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, North Africa and the Holy Land. So, it was no surprise that whilst she gave birth 16 times, some of these were in quite uncomfortable settings.
Eleanor was on a crusade in the city of Acre, when giving birth to a daughter Joan in 1271. And in 1284, as her husband fought to quell the Welsh rebellions, Eleanor gave birth to a son in the unfinished walls of Caernarfon Castle.
A medieval love story
Edward, beside his reputation as a great and terrible warrior, embodied the medieval ideal of kingship, as a soldier, an administrator and a man of faith. He was known as the ‘English Justinian’. A legal reformer who reorganized the law courts, clarified much of the law and dismissed corrupt judges.
With the constant support and advice of Eleanor, Edward sought to ensure that “what touches all should be approved by all”. This was, perhaps, our first attempt at representative democracy.
Edward and Eleanor were, by all accounts, truly in love. Historians have often sought to demonstrate the success of their 36 year marriage, by the fact that Edward, unlike other medieval kings, never had a mistress.
On one occasion, when Edward was stabbed with a poisoned dagger in an assassination attempt, it was said that Eleanor risked her life by sucking the poison from the wound. Of course, what probably happened was a chunk of pungent, festering flesh was cut out from the king’s body with all the mercies of 13th century medical equipment.
But still, it was a noble sentiment to sacrifice oneself for love, and it fitted in perfectly with the image which Edward and Eleanor sought to project: they modelled themselves upon King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere.
The legend of King Arthur
Arthur is a figure shrouded in myth, but it’s generally believed that he was a king who led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. There were several reasons why Edward and Eleanor sought to champion Arthur’s legacy.
Firstly, Arthur was said to led have ruled all of Britain – an ambition which Edward desperately sought, with his military campaigns in Wales and Scotland.
Secondly, like Edward and Eleanor, Arthur and Guinevere had impressive noble lineage. Arthur was said to trace his ancestry to Brutus, the man who settled in Britain after being exiled from the ancient city of Troy. Guinevere, through her mother, descended from one of the most noble Roman families.
Thirdly, Arthur was enormously tall, and physically similar to Edward with his Longshanks. In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury claimed to find the remains of the mythical king:
the bones of Arthur…were so huge that his shank-bone when placed against the tallest man in the place, reached a good three inches above his knee…the eye-socket was a good palm in width…there were ten wounds or more, all of which were scarred over, save one larger than the rest, which had made a great hole
Certainly there were enough similarities, but the main advantage to take on the mantle of Arthur was political control of Wales. One of the reasons why the Celtic fringes refused to Edward’s overlordship was that they believed King Arthur never truly died. They believed he was put in an enchanted sleep, ready to reawaken in the hour of need.
So in Wales, Arthur was a rival claimant to Edward’s rule. As long as the Welsh held out for Arthur, Edward’s power was compromised. What Edward did was a genius piece of PR. He got hold of the supposed bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, stamped their caskets with the royal seal and buried them in a tomb of Purbeck marble.
It was a demonstration that Arthur was well and truly dead in flesh and spirit. The matter was finally put to rest, and Edward and Eleanor symbolically aligned their reign with that of England’s most famous hero.
The Eleanor Crosses
When Eleanor of Castile suddenly perished of a fever near Lincoln in 1290, Edward wrote of his queen:
“whom in life we dearly cherished, and whom in death we cannot cease to love”
Eleanor’s body was taken back to Westminster Abbey, stopping for twelve nights at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St. Albans, Waltham, Cheapside, Charing.
It was such a momentous journey, that a chronicler recalled:
“In each of the towns and places where the body rested the lord King ordered the construction of a cross of wondrous height on which cross the Queen’s likeness was depicted, in praise of the crucified Lord and of the queen’s memory, so that her soul should be prayed for by those who passed by.”
It was a lavish gesture of his love, for his very own Guinevere.