In the spring of 1264, a long simmering feud between King Henry III and his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort erupted in open warfare. Simon’s eventual victory at the battle of Lewes allowed him to install the first ever constitutional monarchy in England.
He would run the country with a council and parliament while the king remained in the background, a convenient figurehead. The king’s sister Eleanor, who was Simon’s wife, would attend Henry’s needs and those of the rest of the royal family, who were kept in honourable confinement.
The other Eleanor
They did not include Queen Eleanor. Simon’s first bid for power had unleashed a wave of anti-foreigner hysteria throughout the realm.
The queen being from Provence, she was targeted with abuse and physically attacked at London Bridge. She wisely went abroad during these troubles and was at the court of her sister Margaret, the queen of France, when she learned of her husband’s defeat. Her first priority was to find out where Edward was.
All eyes on Wallingford
Edward was Queen Eleanor’s firstborn child, a problematic youth for much of these tense years. Now 25, he was being held at Wallingford with the rest of the royal men.
The queen got word about his location to the loyalist garrison at Bristol and encouraged them to make a rescue attempt. A free Edward could unite the other pockets of resistance and overthrow Simon. But the guards at Wallingford were tipped off and thwarted the attack in time.
Eleanor de Montfort was more or less the warden at Wallingford. Once the insurgents were put to flight, it was decided to move the prisoners to the more secure environs of Kenilworth, which Henry had given her during the sunnier days of their relationship.
The situation wasn’t easy for her. The prisoners included her other brother Richard of Cornwall and his two sons. Richard was then the titular king of Germany and was used to a high standard of comfort. Eleanor went to great lengths to make sure he and the others were groomed, clothed and fed at the level they enjoyed, before the disaster struck.
Eleanor knew her sister-in-law the queen well enough to know she wasn’t going to give up without a fight – these two had been close once.
After the failed rescue attempt at Wallingford in mid-summer of 1264, the queen put an invasion force together in Flanders.
Simon countered with an army of peasants to ready to defend England against ‘bloodthirsty aliens’. He skilfully dragged out the negotiations going back and forth across the Channel until she could no longer afford her troops and they drifted away.
Low on money and options, Queen Eleanor went to Gascony to rule as the duchess. Eleanor de Montfort went to Kenilworth for a splendid Christmas with her family, friends and supporters.
Sudden fall from grace
In the winter of 1265, while Simon lorded over his famous parliament, his wife did the entertaining side of their political life and made sure their children were well placed to reap the benefits.
And like that it was over. From her base abroad, Queen Eleanor used her contacts in Poitou and Ireland to launch a mini-invasion of Wales while disaffected loyalists successfully sprung Edward. Within a month, Edward had Simon on the run, and in August 1265 cornered and killed him at Evesham.
Eleanor de Montfort was then at Dover, which she had secured for either bringing in troops or making her escape. Simon’s death meant the latter.
She refused to go quickly, which was a problem because Queen Eleanor wanted to come home and Dover was the official point of disembarkation. It would not do for the two Eleanors to have to exchange furtive glances, one leaving the boat while the other got on.
As it was, Eleanor de Montfort departed with her daughter in late October and the next day Eleanor of Provence arrived with her other son.
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.