This article was written by Carol.
Eleanor was born around 1184, the daughter of Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry II of England’s fourth son and Constance, the Duchess of Brittany. Eleanor is an example of why it was not always a good thing to be an heiress in the middle ages.
As was common, she initially became a prize for the male members of her family to use in forming political alliances. Her uncle Richard, who became King of England in 1189, first tried to marry her to the Sultan Saladin’s brother and make them King and Queen of Jerusalem. This proposal went nowhere as the brother was not interested in converting to Christianity. When Richard was imprisoned by Leopold of Austria, he offered his niece to Leopold’s son, in return for his release. When Leopold died, that proposal did as well. Eleanor’s last potential husband was the King of France’s son, Louis. However, when Richard selected his brother John as his successor in England, rather than Eleanor’s younger brother Arthur, Louis lost interest.
King Richard died in 1199. It was at this point that Eleanor’s troubles really began. Eleanor and her brother Arthur were the children of Henry II’s fourth son, while John was Henry’s fifth son. To many, the rightful claimant to the English throne would be Arthur, followed by Eleanor. Only after them, would the throne come to John. Arthur, although only 14 years old, decided to fight for his inheritance. For this, he had the support of his Breton nobles, as well as many Frankish nobles, who John had managed to annoy by taking for his wife the fiancée of one of their own. At Mirebeau, in 1202, Arthur and many of his knights were captured by John. Shortly thereafter, Arthur was killed, either at John’s order or even by his own hand.
Eleanor was also under John’s control at this time, and she was soon sent to Corfe Castle in Dorset. Corfe Castle was set high on a hill surrounded by water and thus virtually impregnable. Eleanor was treated well for a prisoner, but she was never again allowed her freedom. She lived in the Gloriet Tower and would eat her meals in the Long Hall. She would walk the ramparts, looking out over the hills of Dorset. She was apparently allowed to ride as records survive showing that John sent her a gilded saddle. She also had some companions as Alexander II of Scotland’s two sisters were also held there as hostages. The Magna Carta in 1215 ordered their release, but Eleanor was excluded from that provision.
Initially, Eleanor must have hoped that she would be released. Brittany had a tradition of female rulers, and on Arthur’s death, Eleanor should have at least become Duchess of Brittany, (if not, Queen of England). John used her as a pawn and negotiated with the Bretons for her release. However, Brittany was afraid that John would control her and quickly appointed her half-sister Alix as the Duchess. However, for years they inserted wording in all charters that rendered them void if Duchess Eleanor returned. One letter from Eleanor survives in which she asks the Bretons to come to England to help her. As rescue plans were discovered, she would be moved around from castle to castle. Later, the French King married Alix to his relative Peter and John tried to bribe Peter by giving him some of Eleanor’s lands and titles in England.
In 1216, King John died. Perhaps Eleanor hoped that her freedom would now come. But on his deathbed, John urged his son Henry never to release her. Henry became Henry III and had the same issue John had. Eleanor had a better claim to the throne than he did. Although he too sent her a fancy saddle and gave her an allowance, he never gave her her release. At some point, it is believed that she was moved to Bristol Castle and she died there in 1241 after 39 years of imprisonment.
Henry endowed a chaplain to say masses for her soul and gave a manor to her favourite abbey for the souls of Arthur and Eleanor.