Berman, Constance H.

title.none: Parsons, Eleanor of Castile

identifier.other: baj9928.9506.005 95.06.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Berman, Constance H., University of Iowa

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Parsons, John Carmi. Eleanor of Castile. Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England. New York: St. Martin's, 1995. Pp. xix + 364. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-08649-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.06.05

Parsons, John Carmi. Eleanor of Castile. Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England. New York: St. Martin's, 1995. Pp. xix + 364. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-08649-0.

Reviewed by:

Berman, Constance H.
University of Iowa

Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290), daughter of Ferdinand III of Castile and Leon, grandniece of Blanche of Castile, great, great grand-daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, potential heiress to the county of Ponthieu in France through her mother Jeanne, countess of Ponthieu (herself a descendant of Aalis, daughter of Louis VII by his second wife Constance), wife of Edward I of England and hence queen from 1272 until her death in 1290 is the subject of this important biography.

That this Eleanor should become Queen of England is somewhat a surprise for she was not a wealthy heiress; in Castile she contended (unsuccessfully) for property with a number of half-brothers from her father's first marriage. She was so caught in a web of international blood ties, that only a dispensation would allow her marriage to any of the possible candidates. Given that she may well have had no dowry, it is a wonder that she eventually married Prince Edward, son of King Henry III of England and Queen Eleanor of Provence. But despite the fact that she did not outlive her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Provence, the younger Eleanor of Castile did make a lasting mark on the world--not least in the much discussed Eleanor crosses, at Geddington and elsewhere marking the route of her funeral procession--and commemorative sculpture elsewhere. Living through the events of rebellion up to the battle of Evesham as a princess in England, accompanying Edward on Crusade, producing many children--indeed wearing herself out in pregnancies--Eleanor of Castile would herself die in 1290 a year before her mother-in-law. This younger queen consort thus shared the limelight throughout her reign with the elder queen, Eleanor of Provence.

Despite fairly extensive information on Eleanor of Castile scattered through the various record collections including some which were published in the nineteenth century, little of the documentary evidence for this queen has been drawn together by historians until recently. And the documents so assiduously collected by John Carmi Parsons to write her life, are far from easily interpreted. While Parsons points to the 1945 article by V. H. Galbraith on "Good Kings, Bad Kings," as a starting point for his own consideration of Eleanor of Castile and medieval queenship, it seems as well that Parsons has been influenced by the notion of "good cop, bad cop," in seeing Eleanor as sometimes representing the bad face of Edward I. But the model could also apply to the two queens--and such a division of the labor and prestige of queenship must inevitably have happened between Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law Eleanor of Castile, just as it inevitably did only slightly earlier between Louis IX's wife Marguerite of Provence and his mother, Blanche of Castile. In the English case, unpopular administrative activities seem to have been focused in the activities of the younger queen, while the elder queen may have acted more often the role of queen as intercessor, distributor of alms, and founder of religious houses. In some senses, then, Eleanor of Castile was cast as the bad queen both as a foil to her husband, Edward I, and in contrast to Eleanor of Provence as well. There is no necessary contradiction between this role which Eleanor of Castile played when the royal family came into contact with the outside world, and the affectionate treatment of her in Edward I's commemorative monuments for her after her death.

Although our picture of Eleanor of Castile inevitably is colored by this anomalous situation of the constant existence of two queens during Eleanor of Castile's entire reign, and that the younger Eleanor was never widow nor regent, however, does not mean that her life is not a most interesting one to study. Indeed, the peculiar financial situation in which she found herself seemed to have forced her into a role as a managerial woman, and for those managerial activities of Eleanor as princess and then as queen we have considerable evidence--much more than we might have for most married women undertaking the same kinds of property acquisition and consolidation. Eleanor thus provides a model of other noblewomen's activities, and Parson's treatment a model of the presentation of such evidence.

The unusual circumstances in which the dower lands promised to Eleanor of Castile were for her whole lifetime tied up in the dowager queen, Eleanor of Provence, when added to the fact that Henry III and Edward I felt themselves too impoverished to grant comparable lands to the younger Eleanor elsewhere (added to the fact that she seems to have come to her marriage without dowry although Ponthieu would eventually come to her) meant that Eleanor of Castile had to give her attention to amassing some property other than dowry or dower both to provide for her personal needs as queen consort and to guarantee her own support if she should suddenly become a widow. And indeed, if she was seen as not especially generous to monastic and other religious foundations, it may well have been not only because her mother-in-law was there to beseech, but because at an early age Eleanor of Castile had not the wherewithal to make great bequests. In any case, the consequence of her virtual pennilessness was that Eleanor of Castile began entering the land market to amass and consolidate considerable properties for herself as queen and in the event of a widowhood. Using her prerogatives as queen, and her access to the King and to the specialized knowledge of his clerks, she soon began the lengthy, but successful process of consolidating an estate for herself. By her death that estate would have become substantial; it would eventually be added to the royal estates.

But to consolidate that estate for herself Eleanor seems to have often profited from the financial crisis in which the lower nobility of the thirteenth century across Europe so often found itself, and to do that in England was often to do so by foreclosing on land which had been given as surety for loans--often for loans to the Jews. Eleanor's association with certain Jewish lenders, her accumulation of property through foreclosure on debts seized from Jews, and the implacability of some of her agents in their search for lands to add to her estate--most of those activities totally unknown at the time; there are but a handful of vague references by contemporaries which may refer to those activities, has brought her a bad press among some modern historians. This is a confused and confusing issue, not made easier by the fact that recently it has become de rigueur to include some attention to Jewish matters in medieval social history, often as a nod to multiculturalism. Parsons has demonstrated what should have been obvious to anyone with a little common-sense: that Eleanor, despite coming from Spain where Jews were possibly more familiar than in thirteenth-century England, had no friends among the Jews or Lombards, although she may have had some business dealings with them in the course of her land acquisitions. Moreover, with one possible exception, she was not employing Jews in her land acquisition, but Jewish debts which had fallen into royal hands; it was not Jews who were so assiduously pursuing her rights, but household clerks.

Certainly Eleanor did not hesitate to use her abilities to acquire land by way of foreclosing on sureties which had been given for Jewish loans. But is it no admission of some sense of guilt about her dealings with Jews in particular that Eleanor, on her deathbed, made the very common deathbed request that an inquest be undertaken to assure that she had incurred no sin in her lifetime's financial transactions. And surely the fact that anti-semitism was on the rise in England during this period and that a permanent expulsion of the Jews was about to happen was only coincidental to Eleanor's activities. Such foreclosures on loans, if they had not been undertaken on her behalf, would have been undertaken by someone else. What is surely more objectionable is that Eleanor often chose to pursue those indebted lands which would neatly round out her own, which were held by lower nobles lacking the power to resist her efforts. Her occasional miscalculations in this regard, in seeking to acquire land from someone who turned out to have a powerful backer at court, were what led to the negative comments mentioned.

Although Parsons does a terrific job, both of describing the process of land acquisition in which Eleanor of Castile indulged and in attempting to balance it against other activities, it is hard not to overstress the acquisitive side of her nature. Yet perhaps this aspect of Eleanor is overstated merely because land acquisition is something for which documents survive in greater numbers than for virtually anything else. Moreover, that such managerial prowess as Eleanor of Castile displayed was deployed only to her own personal enrichment leaves a negative impression--not least to modern academic historians who have their own set of ideals about personal wealth-building. Certainly such activities would have been considered more legitimate by her contemporaries (and ours) if their ultimate aim had been were the foundation or endowment of a religious community, as they were when Blanche of Castile undertook similar activities for the foundation of the abbey for Cistercian nuns at Maubuisson, c. 1240. Similarly, the sharp practices of his agents seem somewhat more acceptable in a Louis IX amassing the resources for a massive Crusade in 1248, than in Eleanor of Castile amassing an estate for her private use. By not legitimizing her property acquisition in religious patronage or holy warfare, Eleanor of Castile seems a somewhat unusual medieval figure. Our models are much more of profligacy in largesse, but they are of course derived from literary models written by impecunious poets seeking patronage!

Parsons' approach to the study of Eleanor of Castile in this book has been to query the diametrically opposed pictures of her which historians have presented to us. His entire last chapter is devoted to later treatments of this queen--and he has unearthed some interesting material. But Parson worries perhaps unnecessarily about how his Eleanor will stand up against other medieval queens because she did not play the active roles of widows and regents. Eleanor of Castile's prerogatives as queen may be a very small part of the story, and she may have been less of a traditional queen figure as the reflection of the queen of heaven than her mother in law Eleanor of Provence, but this is only to be expected. For why would people turn to the younger Eleanor if there was the elder one were there? But as a portrait of a noble woman in managerial roles, however, this is an excellent study, and there is no need to justify a biography of Eleanor of Castile. Enigmatic as her career may at times have been, what emerges from Parsons' exemplary treatment of her life is a fascinating picture not so much of a "Medieval queen" as of a managerial woman of the second half of the thirteenth century. Parsons' treatment will thus serve not only to resolve certain questions about Eleanor of Castile herself and to clarify just those points at which resolution is impossible, but as a model for the study of administrative women across the spectrum of medieval life; noble ladies at a variety of phases in their careers as well as royal consorts, widow dowagers, and regents, heads of religious houses and their secular sisters.

Overall, this is a wonderful book; I would not say the same for its illustrations which should have been printed on different paper, nor for its genealogical tables, which are crowded and hard to follow, nor for an editor who seems to have excised all use of complex past tenses. But its subject matter and historical insight are wonderful. This volume reflects not only years of careful work, but the excellent training in how to give various weight to different documents which the author received from the late Father Michael Sheehan, to whom the volume is dedicated. That such an exemplary study should be carried out so well by such a relatively young scholar says much for the guidance of such a mentor as Sheehan, but also for the skill of Parsons himself.

On a more general note, I think too often we social historians look down our noses at biography as something easily done; not so. Whereas a social history study may be successfully carried out by taking a slice of archival materials and describing what is found in them, the good biographer must look everywhere possible for every trace of possible evidence on a particular individual. Moreover, he or she must weigh and measure a diversity of sources and a diversity of earlier opinions in the balance provided by considerable archival experience. Thus, Parsons' treatment of Eleanor of Castile written relatively early in his career, is remarkable in achieving the same type of depth which after many years of research and publication on a variety of topics, Marjorie Chibnall has brought to her most accomplished and wonderful biography of the twelfth- century Matilda, Empress. Both are model works, but I have found that many such biographical studies are disappointing because their authors lack the scholarly maturity necessary in order not to have to rush into publication. Parsons' study thus reminds those of us who direct graduate students that we may be placing unnecessarily difficult barriers in front of our students if we assign biographical projects for dissertations, unless we can ourselves provide those students with the extremely firm grasp of a wide- range of source materials--and particularly for women often deriving from a variety of national archival traditions--which must necessarily be weighed and balanced if such endeavors should not end up just repeating the standard chronicles. That Parsons has lifted Eleanor of Castile out of the standard treatments so well, is a remarkable and applaudable feat.