When Eleanor of Provence came to England in 1236 to marry King Henry III, she was just over 12 years old. For friendship and guidance, she had Henry’s sister Eleanor, who was then a 20 year-old widow.
Certainly the queen was in on her husband’s decision, in 1238, to allow his sister to marry Simon de Montfort, despite the storm it was sure to cause. That was because Eleanor was a princess and Simon a French parvenu with a weak claim to the earldom of Leicester.
How the two of them met is unclear, although Henry was under the impression they were sleeping together and so it was better to avoid a crossbow wedding.
The husbands feud
Both Eleanors became mothers for the first time within months of each other, but the happiness was ruined when Henry got fed up with Simon taking advantage of his goodwill, especially when it came to money.
Things were patched up, but the relations between the two men went south again when Simon and Eleanor de Montfort literally went south, he to serve as Henry’s governor of Gascony. His rule became so harsh that the king was forced to put him on trial for it. Simon was vindicated but seethed with revenge.
Reconciling their husbands
What reconciliation there was between Henry and Simon was thanks to their two Eleanors. By that point they were the mothers of four children each, and in 1252 Eleanor de Montfort gave birth to her fifth son after a protracted labour. The queen sent her nurse to care for her and later a gift of jewellery to mark her purification.
The following year the king went to Gascony to fix Simon’s misdoings and named his wife regent in his absence. Queen Eleanor was pregnant before he left and gave birth to a girl, all the while taking care of matters of state, even becoming the first woman to summon parliament.
It was the beginning of reforms in 1258 that put the friendship of the Eleanors under strain. Simon used the ascendancy of the council not just to pay Henry back for all his perceived humiliations, but also to obtain a fair amount of money for him and his wife.
It went back to Eleanor’s first widowhood and the lack of a proper dower for her. In the twenty-five years since that time, the Montforts figured they were owed roughly £25,000. In terms of purchasing power, it’s about £18,000,000 in today’s money. Everyone thought they had to be dreaming. Nobody had that kind of money.
But Simon had negotiated the forthcoming peace treaty with France. He knew the French were going to give Henry that much money and more for his lost territories. Simon made sure to condition the treaty on the renunciation of land claims by all of King John’s children, including his youngest daughter Eleanor de Montfort.
When that time came, however, she refused. She told them not to count on her cooperation until her fiscal claims were met.
Henry was furious, and it wasn’t only he who thought his sister and brother-in-law were extorting him. Queen Eleanor saw the peace treaty in terms of friendship between England and France and here her sister-in-law was trying to scuttle it for her own personal gain.
Eleanor de Montfort eventually gave way, but the damage was done. After the treaty was ratified at a ceremony in Paris, she left early for Normandy without saying goodbye.
Simon went to England, also without saying goodbye. He was intent on stirring up trouble, culminating over the next four years in the captive monarchy. It’s unlikely the two Eleanors had any contact with each other in that time.
Darren Baker took his degree in modern and classical languages at the University of Connecticut. He lives today with his wife and children in in the Czech Republic, where he writes and translates. The Two Eleanors of Henry III is his latest book, and will be published by Pen and Sword on 30 October 2019.