Eleanor of Provence
Queen of England, 1236-1272
"Beautiful, resourceful, clever—and unpopular"
Eleanor of Provence, the queen of Henry III of England, was his loyal marriage-partner for thirty-six years. Strong-willed, ambitious and practical, she played a major role in ruling the kingdom during the volatile thirteenth century. So why is she so little remembered in the roster of medieval queens? Probably because Henry filled his reign with so many miscalculations and disasters that not even a strong helpmeet could avert them. If Eleanor had been a reigning queen instead of a queen-consort, things might have been different.
As daughter of Count Raymond of Provence, Eleanor grew up steeped in the sunny, pleasure-loving culture of Southern France. She was acquainted with the nobility of the Mediterranean world. When she married Henry she brought from her birthplace her taste for the good life and her familiarity with many influential players on the European stage. Eleanor also brought her relatives to install in important offices in England. This didn't endear her to Henry's barons or to the English people, who mistrusted foreigners.
What Henry, an ambitious but ineffective king, lacked in willpower Eleanor more than made up for. Like her two predecessors on the English throne, Isabella of Angouleme and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Provence was fiercely ambitious for her children and supremely self-confident in exercising her power.
She was intimately involved in Henry's battles. These included excursions to France to fight for the Continental lands the French and English had been squabbling about for decades. At home, Henry and Eleanor had rebellious barons to contend with. When Henry was captured by his own barons and forced to agree to their terms for reforms, Eleanor went to France and raised a formidable army to free her husband. But her invasion fleet was wrecked before it reached England. Her son Edward (later Edward I), as combative as his mother, fought off the rebels and rescued his father.
After Henry died in 1272 Eleanor became Queen Dowager, but she never gave up her active role in promoting the royal family's interests. Only after fourteen years did she take off her crown and don the veil at the nunnery of Amesbury. There she lived a quiet, pious life until her death in 1291.
Queen Eleanor of Provence was beautiful, resourceful, clever-and unpopular. Her foreign airs and entanglements, her influence on her husband and her imperious manner could not endear her to the English. The chronicler summed up her contradictory qualities after her death: "the generous and devout virago."
Learn more about Queen Eleanor of Provence:
Eleanor of Provence, by Margaret Howell. Blackwell Publishers, London, 1998.
"The Indomitable Belle: Eleanor of Provence, Queen of England," by Martha Biles. In Seven Studies in Medieval English History and Other Historical Essays Presented to Harold S. Snellgrove. Jackson, Michigan, 1983.
Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest, by Agnes Strickland. Vol. 1. London, 1851.