Scott Waugh

title.none: Howell and Parsons and Queenship in the 13th Century (Waugh)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.019 98.09.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Scott Waugh, University of California, Los Angeles,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Parsons, John Carmi. Eleanor of Castile. Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. Pp. xix, 364. $17.95 (PB). ISBN: 0-312-17297-4. Howell, Margaret. Eleanor of Provence. Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1998. Pp. xxiii, 349. $59.95 (HB). ISBN: 0-631-17286-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.19

Parsons, John Carmi. Eleanor of Castile. Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. Pp. xix, 364. $17.95 (PB). ISBN: 0-312-17297-4.

Howell, Margaret. Eleanor of Provence. Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1998. Pp. xxiii, 349. $59.95 (HB). ISBN: 0-631-17286-6.

Reviewed by:

Scott Waugh
University of California, Los Angeles

Re cently there has been a surge of interest in queens and queenship in medieval Britain. This contrasts with a long period of historical neglect in which only a few biographies of queens were written and there was almost no effort to site queens in the broader context of political, social, or cultural developments. There were a few exceptions, notably Amy Kelly's biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but by and large, studies of queens reflected the nineteenth-century anecdotsl approach of Agnes Strikland or Mary Green. Even as late as the third edition, the Handbook of British Chronology did not provide the dates of the death of most queens or the simplest information about their heritage. Of course, historians' neglect has not been accidental. Medieval writers tended to focus on kings and kingship, except when gossip about queens seized the attention of chroniclers or when queens projected themselves onto the political stage. Much of the information about queens has lain buried in household and estate accounts, material ined by T. F. Tout and Hilda Johnstone to demonstrate the administrative importance of queens' households and estate administrations, notable exceptions to most historical practice.

The reconsideration of the role of queens has been stimulated by two trends in historiography. The first has been women's history and gender studies, whose emphasis on trying to recapture the authentic experionce of women in the past has inevitably led historians to look again at prominent women and to reevaluate their place in society and politics. The second has been a renewed interest in political history, especially in the flow of patronage from king to courtiers, the connections binding men and women to the court and to one another, and the role of family ties in initiating or cementing political interest. Although at first glance, women's history and political history might appear to be the most unlikely of bedmates, they are in fact complementary, as the overlapping biographies of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor of Castile clearly demonstrate. What each reveals in great yet highly readable detail is how a queen could woro within the confines of the king's familia, draw on family bonds, and build coalitions by dispensing patronage and arrangkng marriages. At the same time these women forged crucial linkages between the court and general population, pragmatically by acting as an intermediary between supplicants and the king and symbolically through the association of the queen's intercession with the role of the Virgin Mary in the celestial court.

The two Eleanors' marriages were dynastically motivated and created a network of relationships that united several families. Royal marriages in medieval England were largely exogamous. That is, kings married foreign brides, partly in hopes of not raising an indigenous family above the shoulders of their peers but also in hopes of increasing dynastic advantages, whether through potential inheritances or familial relationships. The purpose of a royal marriage was thus twofold: to gain a partner who could continue to propagate the royal dynasty and to secure certain dynastic, diplomatic, or political advantages. In the latter sense, Henry III's marriage in 1236 to the twelve-year old Eleanor of Provence had far greater repercussions than his son Edward's marriage in 1254 to Eleanor of Castile who was then only thirteen.

Margaret Howell skillfully paints the rolitical background to the first arrangement, tracing the marriages and blood lines that made Eleanor a plausible match for Henry and that wove, by 1254 when she and Henry visited her sister Margaret and her husband Louis IX, an international family. Those personal relations were to have profound political implications during the Barons' Wars. In contrast, the i}pact of Edward's marriage to Eleanor of Castile was more focussed. Parsons demonstrates that, as Henry intended, the marriage neutralized Castillian influence in Gascony but did not significantly deepen relations between Castile and England. For the time being, Spain remained on the margin of England's dynastic and diplomatic interests.

The real work of chiodbearing began after marriage. Insofar as medieval thinking gave women the responsibility for conceiving male heirs, both queens were 'successful,' though Eleanor of Castile bore many more children than her mother-in-law. Perhaps because Eleanor and Henry's union proved to be less fecund than Eleanor and Edward's, Henry greeted the births of their children with elaborate celebrations. On the other hand, Eleanor and Edward lost all but the last of their male children, so that Henry's ceremonies can also be explained by the intensity of Henry's religiosity in contrast to his son's attitudes.

Beside{ an obligation, family also represented the first basis of the queen's power within the royal household. In creating a family she also created a coterie of allies and the means of forging links to other families. The intertwining of family and power was especially important to Eleanor of Provence, for early on she and her Savoyard relations understood and exploited the political potential of heirship and succession. As her son's guardian, she became the public embodiment of his political interests, and fought hard to guarantee that Gascony would be his rather than going to his uncle, Richard of Cornwall. As she established this familial prerogative, she knit a tight network of relations within the household, involving her own servants and officials as well as members of her Savoyard family, such as Peter and Boniface of Savoy. Indeed, Eleanor seems to have had an acute understanding of the power of blood and marital relations, for she was instrumental in arranging a series of marriages between children of her relations and the wards of English noble families. She capitalized on her proximity to the king to acquire rights of wardship and marriage, not for the profits they might realize but for the political capital they represented. Besides using these pragmatic devices, Eleanor was also masterful at manipulating courtly values to enhance her power. Ceremonies and state occasions became opportunities to publicize her splendor, while court poetry, gifts of jewels and rings, and the cultivation of friends and religious men all exalted her image of regality.

Howell portrays Eleanor as an astute politician, ambitious and effective. The danger in her construction of alliances, ineeed in court politics generally, was that it could lead to factionalization. Henry's favoritism toward his Poitevin relations paralleled Eleanor's patronage of her Savoyard clients and produced an intense rivalry for influence, power, and favor that was one of the direct causes of the political upheaval that rent English society in the middle of the century. The bulk of Howell's biography is a circumstantial narrative of that turmoil from the Queen's perspective. As such it is particularly valuable, for while the conflict between the Savoyards and Poitevins has been recognized as a contributing factor in the period of reform and rebellion, her account makes it more comprehensible by showing how Eleanor herself was instrumental in the maneuvering that went on at court.

Parson's study of Eleanor of Castile has a much different emphasis. Like her mother-in-law, Eleanor built a network of alliances at the royal court, using in part her Castillian relatives. hYet, the Castillian influence never became as pervasive as the Savoyard connections under Eleanor of Provence and the younger Eleanor did not use to the same degree the wardships and marriages that she acquired to find marriage partners for her cousins. She tended to find matches for her servants and friends within the community at court, rather than reach outside it for marriageable wards. As a result, Eleanor of Castile never attracted the same degree of criticism that her mother-in-law did and did not become the focal point of factional struggle at court. Edward's energies were largely directed toward war so that the conflicts that arose were centered less on the court and more on issues of finance and policy than during his father's reign.

Thus, there is much less for Parsons to narrate. He focuses instead on Eleanor's development of the queen's estate. He makes the valuable point that during the thirteenth century, when queens were no longer endowed with their dower lands during the king's lifetime, the queen had to construct her own patrimony. Eleanor proved to be a clever estate builder. Parons demonstrates that there was a thoughtful policy behind her acquisitions from the 1260s onward. She and her agents aimed at creating compact units within her estate by consolidating holdings around particular properties, often close to manors that would eventually come to her as part of her dower, and leasing dispersed holdings. Wardships were used either to augment property in a given neighborhood or sold to raise cash. An essential feature of this policy was the use of Jewish debts, assigned to Eleanor by the king or bought up on her own, to consolidate her territorial holdings by buying out the Christian debtors. The enlargement and rationalization of Eleanor's estate was accomplished in close connection with royal policy and through royal officials. Like her mother-in- law, Eleanor took advantage of her position close to the royal government to gain information about property and to use royal officials to gain the upper hand in transactions. Edward would certainly have supported this policy for the lands she so acquired would eventually flow back into the royal family. Parsons sees these dealings as controversial. He accordingly titles his third chapter "Outcry and Gossip, Rumor and Scandal," yet it is in fact a close study of Eleanor's methods of land acquisition and her role in the land market. There was hardly any outcry about her activities comparable to the complaints levied against Eleanor of Provence, and Parsons has only a very few piece{ of evidence about how she was generally regarded. Certainly there was a perception that she was greedy, and she and her friends were conscious of that impression. Yet, Parson's speculation that the nobility may have distrusted her because of her property dealings and because of the corruption of her estate officials seems a bit misplaced. It should be remembered that the Hundred Inquests revealed just as much misconduct by officials of the nobility as the inquests into the Queen's administration in 1290 - 91. They may have seen her in part as a rival, but never as a threat.

A comparison of the lives and careers of the two Eleanors is instructive because despite different temperaments, opportunities, and political circumstances the two women exercised similar power. Both can be seen as having acted with a degree of independence, if not autonomy, within the social, legal, and ideological constraints imposed on women in the Middle Ages. Both developed distinctive 'policies' that marked their queenships. They employed similar methods. They built networks of support by calling on blood relations, dispensing patronage, arranging marriages, and developing a corps of loyal officials and friends. In other words, they acted as good lords; creating affinities that would help them carry out their policies and provide them with service and support. What was peculiar was that these affinities were nested within and intertwined with the royal affinity; a familia within a familia.

An essential aspect of the queen's lordship was her ability to intercede with the king on behalf of her followers and petitioners. In his book on Eleanor of Castile as well as in several articles, Parsons has explored at length the issue of queenly intercession and the way in which it resonated with Christian symbolism. Beginning with the story of Esther and continuing through the changing image of Mary in the thirteenth century as an intermediary between humanity and Christ, medieval culture was replete with exemplars of good, queenly behavior. The association of the queen with Mary certainly served to enhance the image of queenship. These two biographies, as well as other studies of queens, show that queenly intercession took two forms, public and private. Public intercession involved groups petitioning the queen or demonstrating before the queen to intercede with the king on their behalf. Parsons, for example, relates an incident in 1275 when the townsfolk of St. Albans gathered around Eleanor of Castile's carriage and asked for her aid. In contrast, people assumed that the queen was capable of interceding with the king in private to change his mind or heart. Howell, for example, explains that when Eleanor of Provence claimed authority over the hospital of St. Katherine, her council threatened her opponent by saying that if he did not agree to a settlement, she would use her influence with the king to excite his anger against them. Medieval writers assumed that the queens had access to the king and would use it for their own purposes. Parsons argues that the nobility was deeply ambivalent about queenly/wifely/womanly intercession with a king/husband because of the potential it created for perverting policy. Yet the queen's influence within what Parsons calls the 'intimate arena' was only one species of a broader genus of mediation at the royal court. Such intercession was an accepted function of lordship, and petitioners looked to various individuals to exercise influence with the king on their behalf. People frequently wrote to chancellor Burnell, for example, to intercede with Edward I, knowing that he was one of the king's friends. The nobles may have worried that the queen could exercise undue influence, but they were equally alert to the influence that any courtier might exercise and were deeply sensitive to any perceived favoritism the king might show. Gender, in this case, only served to sharpen awareness of the issue; it did not create it. Seeing the queen's intercession within this pragmatic context of lordship and clientage helps to conceptualize queenly authority.

Modern ideas about the distinction between public and private spheres or formal and informal power do not pertain in the medieval state. Networking or affinity formation, on which queens built their power, was certainly not public or formal in a modern sense of following a prescribed or legally defined pattern of behavior. Neither, however, was it 'private' or 'informal' because it adhered to and reflected powerful social norms and merged with the exercise of public authority. King and queen relied on the same officials. Their administrations were imbricated. Furthermore, Howell's analysis of Eleanor of Provence's place in politics shows that the power of the king depended heavily on the queen's support. Her connections at the French court through her sister Margaret and her ability raise money and foreign troops were crucial to the survival of Henry's regime. The presence of those knights, who were more than mercenaries, deeply affronted her opponents. Her methods were informal in the sense that they depended on family connections rather than bureaucratic functions, yet their formal importance was profound. Indeed at various times throughout the Middle Ages, a queen's ability to raise resources and armed force could be politically decisive, as queen Isabella and Philippa later demonstrated.

Queens exercised much of their power out of sight, behind the 'closed doors' of the court or royal chamber. Instead of describing their influence as 'private' as opposed to public, it would be better to call it 'confidential.' Medieval writers took it for granted that some of the king's business would be 'secret' or not conducted publicly. Even parliament in the fourteenth century conceded that it was better for Edward III to conduct his some of his diplomacy in secret ratheruthan be made too public. Even seemingly 'private' arenas could be public, as in the case of the king's chamber and king's bed. The two spheres of public and private familiar to analysts of modern societies did not have quite the same meaning in the Middle Ages. In a patrimonial form of government, dependent as it was on networks of affiliation and favor, the public and private cannot be strictly delineated. Instead, contemporary worries focussed on the openness of dealings. It was assumed that confidentiality was crucial to the performance of public authority but that it could also be perverted to particular interests.

The constitutional position of queens changed somewhat over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. During the twelfth century, queens acted as regents when the king left the kingdom, witnessed royal charters, and had control of their dower lands while the king was still alive. In the thirteenth century, this authority eroded somewhat, and queens seldom exercised the visible, public authority. Parsons has argued that as the royal government became more bureaucratic, two things happened. One was that the public authority of queens diminished, since they had no regularized place within the royal administration. At the same time, the bureaucratization of government meant that individuals had greater need of assistance in dealing with the royal administration than they did in the twelfth century. They sought an intercessor who could speak on their behulf, and that need provided the basis of a renewed prominence for queens. Howell would modify this view somewhat, arguing that there was no abrupt decline in the queen's authority. Instead, the form of the queen's authority changed, focussing more than in the past on her ability to manipulate patronage and influence at court. In her view, queenship was an essential element in the body politic of England, and the activities of the two Eleanors in devising and executing their personal policies through their family and familia bear out her claim.

These two splendid biographies thus open up important questions about the nature of public authority in medieval England while providing an intimate and detailed view of two very different women. They make a significant contribution to the study of queens on the one hand to the politics and government of thirteenth-century England on the other. In that sense, they are indispensable.