Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Very Human Princess: Louise J. Wilkinson's Eleanor de Montfort

My first entrée to the adult section of the public library where I grew up was Queen Elizabeth I. I don't remember how I first encountered Good Queen Bess – doubtless it was some reference in another book, probably a novel. But when I grew frustrated with the books available in the children's section (a brightly lit annex attached to the main building full of primary colors), most of which featured cartoon illustrations of the Spanish Armada, the kindly library suggested (somewhat doubtfully) that I should check the grown-up books. I still remember climbing the staircase that connected the children's annex with the main library – I had to climb the carpeted steps, past the posters for Laura Bush's literacy campaign, to get to the marble and wood chamber of treasures. The big-people librarian wouldn't give me an adult card (I was ten or eleven, and the circulation desk came up to my nose) but my mother arranged for me to have access on my children's card. It was a small library – to get to the non-fiction and history you went up a circular staircase to a balcony with carved wood railings that circled the entire room. I still remember where the Elizabeth books were – right across from the entrance, on a top shelf that I needed a footstool to reach. And there I plopped my small self to read about Elizabeth, her tragic mother Anne Boleyn, her insane sister Mary and the treacheries of her cousin, Jane Gray.

Eventually I burned out on the Tudors, and somehow – probably at the suggestion of the librarians, bless their souls – I moved on to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth I is an easy hero for a young girl. After all, she was a Queen in her own right! Eleanor of Aquitaine was slightly more complicated. She also exercised power in her own right, but often had to use the sort of 'soft power' available to women in the medieval period. I still love both Elizabeth and Eleanor, but I have learned in the intervening twenty years how unusual they both were. Most women in the pre-Modern period didn't wield great international influence, or even much autonomous domestic influence. But that doesn't mean that they were not important and influential in both international and domestic spheres. As Louise J. Wilkinson demonstrates in Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England (2012) powerful women abound. But unlike Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it takes dedication to learn about these influential, flawed, and fascinating women  of the Middle Ages. This is certainly the case for Eleanor de Montfort, granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and an absolutely spectacular character in her own right.

Author Louise J. Wilkinson.
Photo via @MedievalCant
Wilkinson's biography of Countess Eleanor de Montfort is the first dedicated biography of this fascinating character in 150 years. One of the primary reasons for this gap is that, unlike Elizabeth and Eleanor of Aquitaine, very few primary sources remain: no letters that can be verified as written in Countess Eleanor's own hand, only very limited records of her household finances (one of the primary resources available for scholars of  women), and only intermittent references to her by her contemporaries (all of them men). Wilkinson's book is a triumph of scholarship, and demonstrates a dedication to research and remarkable focus. She has mined the depths of the contemporary references that are available, and she uses the records available about the men in Countess Eleanor's life brilliantly – for example, she seamlessly extrapolates from the household records of King Henry his closeness with his baby sister Eleanor.

This is a work of serious scholarship, but it is also a fabulous and gripping story. Countess Eleanor was the youngest daughter of King John of England (Robin Hood, anyone?) and Isabella of Angouleme; her eldest brother became the King of England, her sister Joan became Queen of Scots, and her sister Isabella became the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Unlike her siblings, Countess Eleanor did not gain a crown; her marriage was arranged to cement domestic loyalties and crown finances rather than to serve international interests. Her first husband, to whom she was promised at the age of seven or eight (she was probably about 14 at consummation) and widowed at the age of sixteen, was one of the richest magnates in England. (Wilkinson's discussion of child-marriage in medieval England is particularly fascinating). William Marshal junior and Eleanor had no children, and upon his death his estate devolved onto his brother – as a result Countess Eleanor had to fight to claim the estates and incomes that were her due as a widow. The battle for those lands and monies would influence her entire life, and perhaps most importantly, her relationship with her brother the King.

Following the death of William Marshal junior, Eleanor's future was in flux; she was ostensibly the sole lord of a significant property and income but was fighting tooth and nail to get control of what had been promised her, and she was the unattached sister of the King whose children could theoretically stand in close proximity to the throne. In 1234, when Eleanor was not yet twenty, she made a solemn vow to remain celibate and unmarried for the duration of her life. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her vow. She was a notably pious woman (albeit with a taste for luxury that some criticized), and her vows were witnessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund of  Abington. Nevertheless, five years later she married Simon of Montfort in a clandestine ceremony in the chapel of her brother King Henry, a marriage that the newlywed Montforts, with the complicity of the king, kept a secret for some time. Simon left quickly for Rome to obtain papal dispensation for Eleanor to withdraw from her vow – without his now-pregnant bride. Wilkinson makes a strong case that there is no evidence that Eleanor and Simon had sexual relations prior to their marriage… but that fact did not stop the rumors, nor did it stop King Henry himself from using the possibility as ammunition when his frustration with the Montforts overflowed.

Dover Castle, where Countess Eleanor and her surviving family
fled England in 1265
Eleanor and Simon's union was a very fertile one: they had six children (five sons and a daughter) who survived infancy. But their life was dramatic. Simon was of French origin – his claim to lands in England was always contested and, as a close adviser to his brother-in-law the king, he was under constant suspicion as an alien influence. Between the two of them they had fabulous connections and a remarkable bloodline, but they lived in constant debt, and Wilkinson's research demonstrates that Eleanor was constantly working to stabilize their economic and political position for the sake of their offspring. The Montforts come off as a close-knit family unit, but… they weren't the most responsible. They traded on their influence at the court, they engaged in political machinations which would eventually result in the death of Simon and their eldest son Henry and the exile of the remaining members of the family. Their most profitable relationship was undoubtedly their relationship to the King, who they constantly asked for money and pressed for favors until he lost all patience with them. In later years Eleanor was so concerned with protecting the future of her family that she refused to cede certain lands in France, almost single-handedly delaying the signing of the Treaty of Paris by years!

The portrait that Wilkinson provides is of a remarkable, but also remarkably human, woman. Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine are larger than life figures, women who changed the world in ways that we can identify and point at – they accomplished military and diplomatic victories, patronized the arts, and changed the laws of their lands. The Countess Eleanor is in many ways far more human. Wilkinson paints a picture of a woman of great intelligence, passion, and strength, but who made some very bad decisions (perhaps directly influenced by certain of her passions and loyalties.) She was intelligent and committed to her goals, but she may also have been, at least sometimes, incredibly narcissistic or short-sighted. There were points when I couldn't help think that Eleanor and Simon were completely crazy, and while sometimes it felt like watching a medieval version of a horror film ("Don't ask the King for money again!"), or even a Kardashian-style reality show, by the end of the book I found myself thinking of Eleanor with a great deal of sympathy. In some ways, perhaps, she is a role model – she certainly navigated the circumstances of her life with a great deal more success than most of us living today could imagine having in similar circumstances. But more than that, she is utterly human.

And her humanity makes her a truly important addition to the community of medieval woman that we can learn from today. As long as we only know about the almost preternaturally great women, the Elizabeths and Eleanors of Aquitaine, all other women remain in the shadows; these great women become examples of what women could do, but we're left thinking that only a few women exercised such agency or affected the politics of their times. What we learn from Wilkinson's stunning biography is that the agency of women is not always a 'front-page' story – sometimes it is quieter and almost invisible, and sometimes it even fails. Women, even medieval women, are not simply role models or cautionary tales: we are people.

Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval Europe is published by Bloomsbury Academic and is available on Amazon and in major bookstores (I snagged my copy in Hatchards on Picadilly in London, which has been in business since 1797). It is not only an important book – it is a great read. 

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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