The Two Eleanors of Henry III, Darren Baker

The Two Eleanors of Henry III, Darren Baker

The two Eleanors of the title are Henry III’s wide Eleanor of Provence and his sister Eleanor de Montfort, wife of his chief rival Simon de Montfort. Both women appear to have been heavily involved in the politics of the time, and their stories certainly help illustrate the increasingly controversial events of Henry’s reign, which after a fairly peaceful start became increasingly turbulent, until civil war broke out and for a brief time it looked like Henry might permanently lose all real power. 

This is an interesting approach to this period. By following the life of the two Eleanors the author has been able to bring out several key themes of the period. For Eleanor de Montfort this was the fallout from her first marriage, to William Marshal earl of Pembroke. His early death led to a massive dispute over his widow’s dowry, which was initially ended when Eleanor took a vow of chastity. However a few years later she broke that vow to marry Simon de Montfort, who then had to go to Rome for ask for retrospective permission for the marriage! Eleanor’s attempts to claim her dowry led to some of the main political disputes of the period.

For Eleanor of Provence the problem was that Henry wanted to give her family positions in England. These ‘Savoyards’ became advisors and bishops and also very unpopular, largely with the existing Norman aristocracy who felt they were taking jobs and rewards that rightfully belonged to them (it is rather ironic that Simon de Montford, the eventual leader of this faction, was also a newly arrived foreigner!). This dispute even dragged in Henry and Eleanor’s son Edward (the future Edward I), was at one point allied with de Montford against the ‘newcomers’.

One interesting point raised by Baker is that the war between Henry and Simon de Montfort changed the nature of English political life. In the two centuries since the Normal Conquest it was very rare for an aristocratic rebel to be killed in battle or executed afterwards. Even the infamous Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign was actually fairly tame by the standards of later wars, with captured leaders almost invariable exchanged. However the Second Baron’s War changed that – Simon de Montfort and his oldest son Henry were both killed in battle, almost certainly deliberately, setting a precident that would be followed in the various civil wars of the Fourteenth Century and in particular in the Wars of the Roses.

This is an excellent approach to this period, looking at fairly familiar events from a fresh perspective. We get to realise how the tensions that led to the eventual crisis and civil war developed over time, interspersed with periods when Simon de Montfort was one of Henry’s key supporters and military leaders. It is also made clear just how important Medieval aristocratic women could be in their own right, rather than just as a supporter of their husbands. 

1 – No Greater Treasure 1215-1235
2 – An Elegant Sort of Beauty 1236-1237
3 – Too Much Goodwill 1238-1241
4 – Flowers Among Women 1242-1246
5 – Seriously Aroused Displeasure 1247-1252
6 – Historic Undertakings 1253-1255
7 – An Ardous and Difficult Matter 1256-1258
8 – Great Indignation and Fury 1259-1261
9 – Rapacious Turbulence 1262-1264
10 – Triumph, Grief and Sorrow 1265-1291

Author: Darren Baker
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 240
Publisher: Pen & Sword History
Year: 2019

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