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15.10.36, Cockerill, Eleanor of Castile

15.10.36, Cockerill, Eleanor of Castile

In Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen, Sara Cockerill presents a nuanced portrait of a remarkable woman whose character and actions have been the subject of considerable revision over the past seven centuries. Scholars who attempt to write medieval biographies face considerable obstacles in the lack of surviving source material and in separating reputation or ascribed characteristics from personality. Historian Kenneth B. McFarlane apparently concluded that it is not possible since information about their character from people who knew them well and about their thoughts and motivations is scarce. [1] Yet as Majorie Chibnall and Janet Nelson each contend, reflecting on their own experiences, a biographer who has a deep understanding of the sources can mould flesh around the bare bones of her subject. Informed speculation based on available evidence can lead to reasonable conclusions about a subject's family life, values, sense of humor, likes and dislikes. [2]

The historian who has contributed most in the last forty years toward an understanding of the sources for the life of Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, the formidable thirteenth-century king of England, is John Carmi Parsons. He first published an edition of London, British Library Add. MS 35294, the Liber Garderobe, covering Eleanor's last year of life (1289-90), invaluable for its glimpse into the queen's affairs and operation of her household, as well as into her personal interests at that stage of her life. Articles and chapters on aspects of her business affairs and family connections followed, culminating in his 1995 book, Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth Century England. He refrains from labeling his work a biography, probably because he felt that even the most detailed account "does not provide the spark of self-revelation which would bring this picture completely to life." [3] Sara Cockerill uncovered that spark of self-revelation in Eleanor's account books and itineraries, in how she spent her money, where and when she travelled, and whom she trusted.

The thesis and chief conclusions of Cockerill's argument are clearly stated in the book's preface and reinforced throughout by careful analysis of the evidence. Although a loyal, fruitful, and well-beloved wife, Eleanor was also a vibrant and complex person who contributed significantly to Edward's administrative goals, and influenced his royal court. She took an active role in the acquisition and management of property whose income supported her household, provided her dower, and replenished the crown's wealth. During her lifetime she was respected for her intelligence and wisdom as well as feared for her hard-headed business acumen.

Sara Cockerill first paints a detailed picture of Eleanor's heritage and pulls together from a variety of primary sources her early experiences, education, and expectations as a Castilian princess. The daughter of Reconquista crusader Ferdinand III, Eleanor was raised partly in temporary quarters on the edge of the battlefield in a society that was organized for war, but was introduced to society in the sophisticated and cultured Castilian court. Accustomed to the concept that the royal family accompany the king in his military and governing roles in recently conquered territory, the Eleanor that emerges from these chapters was prepared to accompany her young husband on his adventures.

Chapter 4 traces the politics of the marriage, generated out of a necessity for King Henry III to secure Gascony for the English crown against Castile's designs. Nevertheless, Eleanor, twelve at the time of her marriage, developed a harmonious and happy marriage with the fifteen-year-old Edward of England. Cockerill both challenges and confirms the traditional role Eleanor fulfilled as queen, unravelling the myths that have distorted her memory to serve, like so much of history, political goals of later periods. Ironically, she, who was the most memorialized queen in European history, is nearly forgotten today by England. Cherished and valued by her husband, she accompanied him on most of his travels across England, Europe, and to the Holy Land. She always supported Edward's political and military ventures, following his instructions during the Baron's War and accompanying him to Wales to give birth to his heir in what was little more than a construction site. She did her duty as a royal wife and bore at least sixteen children to Edward as she travelled across England, Europe, and to the Holy Land. Edward recognized her abilities, and so did his most esteemed administrators, such as Robert Burrell. Eleanor's letters and financial accounts make clear that she participated in policy discussions and directed her property transactions. Always strapped for funds before and after his ascension to the throne, Edward could not easily replace her frequently disappearing dower that had been promised by his father, and it was her property empire, as Cockerill calls it, that supported her household and which was to provide for her future. The author makes a strong case that the royal couple's rather idiosyncratic itineraries throughout their English kingdom had as much to do with her property interests as they had with Edward.

Eleanor's acquisitions of real estate did not go unnoticed in the thirteenth century and Walter of Guisborough records the couplet, "The king would like to get our gold / The queen our manors fair to hold" (197-198). Parsons had already established that Edward approved and encouraged her business activities for the benefit of the crown, and Cockerill emphasizes Eleanor's personal participation in each transaction and the maintenance of her estates. [4] Both authors articulate her willingness to participate in Edward's expressed plans to regain as much property as possible that had been lost to the crown during the reign of his father Henry III. The archbishop of Canterbury admonished Eleanor for sharp business practices in obtaining Jewish debt and for not persuading the king to mercy and generosity by an example of wifely virtue and womanly pity. But ignored by the archbishop were Eleanor's generous alms for the poor and her unprecedented endowment of Dominican establishments. Cockerill argues that instead of relying on Pecham or other prominent bishops for spiritual guidance, she built close relationships with the Dominican order, whose members had supervised her early education in Castile. Intellectually astute and unusual in her love of scholarship, she rather "made her own study of theology and formed her own views" (244).

Eleanor was unique among queens in her bookish tendencies and pursuit of learning. This is not, perhaps, such a surprise considering that her half-brother Alfonso X, king of Castile, fostered his reputation as "the Learned." Directing and funding her own scriptorium, "the only one documented for any royal court in Northern Europe in this period," she ordered the copying of books of history and theology, and commissioned the creation of illuminated manuscripts (237). There is little evidence to show that King Edward I shared her intellectual enthusiasm, but there is no doubt that he supported hers. Cockerill documents their shared joy in hunting, riding, and quality horses. They pursued it avidly together, travelling to prime hunting fields across England at every opportunity. Cockerill creates the impression of a strong-minded woman who willingly used her abilities in the support of a great enterprise in partnership with her husband whom she loved and supported. Edward in turn authorized the construction of gardens and new living quarters in castles according to her tastes throughout Britain during her lifetime. At her death he lavishly built in her memory the twelve "Eleanor crosses" immediately after her death, covered with her likenesses and marking each place her bier rested overnight on the journey to Westminster.

"The Shadow Queen" is an appropriate subtitle for a biography of the wife of Edward I, not because she lived unnoticed by her contemporaries, but rather because the historical Eleanor, like so many medieval women, disappears into the shadow of her husband, particularly after her death. Cockerill includes the historiography related to Eleanor's image as well as the popular use made of her in subsequent centuries until she fades from the public memory. Most of the crosses were destroyed during the civil war and people forgot to whom they were dedicated. Sixteenth-century scurrilous stories created as propaganda against the possibility of a Spanish queen defamed her virtue and her character. The romantic fantasy that became popular during the later seventeenth century describing how Eleanor sucked the poison out of Edward's wound from an assassination attempt was incorporated into English histories. Modern writers have viewed her in such extremes as Agnes Strickland's Victorian "milk-and-water heroine" or, worse, as a "grasping harpy" (372). Cockerill dispels both myths and restores the historical Eleanor to the notice of the twenty-first century.

Sara Cockerill spent over a decade in researching and writing this biography of Eleanor of Castile, and her command of the sources is evident. The book includes family trees and maps, quite useful for readers in making sense of the intricate family relationships and geography, and an appendix discussing the attribution of an important primary source. Most important is the extensive bibliography, because the text's endnotes are rather disappointing. A single note with multiple references do not to suffice for a whole page--or two--of information on a range of topics. Cockerill's arguments in the text, however, specify the nature of her evidence and lead to the suspicion that the unhelpful style of the endnotes was the decision of her publisher. This book may be in danger of being disregarded or overlooked by the scholarly community since the author is a professional lawyer, not a historian, and it is published by a press that specializes in books of popular history, but that ought not to happen. Her particular contributions to the scholarship are the insights provided by her analysis and use of the Castilian sources including Alfonso X's Siete Partidas, and her intense investigation into Eleanor and Edward's itineraries. This biography produces an Eleanor more firmly fleshed and definitive than she appears in Parson's careful study of the different aspects of her life. Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen is a thoughtful biography of an influential and dynamic medieval queen well worth reading that avoids overreaching its conclusions or sensationalizing its subject.



1. K. B. McFarlane, The Nobility of Later Medieval England: The Ford Lectures for 1953 and Related Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), ix.

2. David Bates, Julia Crick, and Sarah Hamilton (eds.), Writing Medieval Biography, 750-1250: Essays in Honour of Professor Frank Barlow (Woodbridge, Boydell & Brewer, 2006), 15-28, 185-194.

3. John Carmi Parsons, Court and Household of Eleanor of Castile (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 17.

4. John Parsons, Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth Century England (New York: St Martin's Press, 1995), 153-155.