Eleanor of Leicester – A broken vow of chastity

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This article was written by Carol.

Eleanor was the youngest daughter of King John of England and Isabella of Angouleme. She was born in 1215. She inherited her mother’s beauty and a feisty temperament.

In 1224 she was married to the son of William Marshall (also called William), who was regent for her brother Henry III. Her husband William died when she was only 16, and under the influence of her governess, she took a vow of chastity.

(public domain)

In 1238 she met the Anglo-French nobleman, Simon de Montfort. Simon was a younger son and had convinced his brother to grant him the family’s English lands, which consisted of the Earldom of Leicester. Eleanor was King Henry’s favourite sister, and when she and Simon fell in love, the King gave his permission to their marriage. The marriage was conducted in secret, however, due to Eleanor’s vow of chastity and because the Barons would not take kindly to an English princess marrying a man of insufficient importance- and a foreigner to boot!

Sure enough, when word leaked out, there was a revolt. It was agreed that Simon would go to Rome and ask the Pope to release Eleanor from her vow. And as long as Henry supported them all was well. Simon was named godfather when Henry’s first son Edward was born in 1239.

However, when Simon and Eleanor arrived in London a few months later, they were met by a very angry Henry. Simon had borrowed a great deal of money for his trip to Rome from the Queen’s uncle Thomas of Savoy. Apparently, Simon had listed Henry as surety without the King’s knowledge. Thomas was now demanding payment. Henry was furious and in his anger, lashed out that he had been forced to agree to the marriage because Simon had “seduced his sister.” This comment made in anger was to hang over Simon and Eleanor forever after and was most likely not forgiven by Simon. Simon and Eleanor were forced to flee London, escaping down the Thames and making their way to France.

After a few months, Henry calmed down, and Simon and Eleanor were able to return to England. They had five sons and two daughters. They lived a lavish lifestyle at Kenilworth Castle and were at the centre of court life. Eleanor tended to live above her means and a consistent theme throughout her life was her effort to obtain money which she felt was due her. She litigated with the Marshall family for years over their failure to turn over her widow’s portion when her first husband died. She delayed a peace treaty with France for two years by being the only member of her family who refused to give up their rights to many of their possessions in France. Eventually, Henry agreed to give her an annual pension and the treaty was signed.

In the meantime, Simon earned a reputation as an admirable soldier and administrator. The French even offered him the regency after Blanche of Castille died, but he turned it down, saying he was an Englishman. His relations with his brother in law were often tense, and as the Barons rose up in revolt, he became their leader. After efforts to control the King had failed, a full-blown war broke out, and in 1264 Simon defeated the King at the Battle of Lewes. For the next year, Simon and Eleanor were at the height of their power and ruled England from Kenilworth Castle. He and Eleanor had always been partners and no doubt they discussed his plans for creating a parliament in which commoners were invited.

While the King was under Simon’s control, his son Edward was also under guard, at first with Eleanor and later with her son Henry. In 1265 Edward was able to escape, mount an offence, and at the Battle of Evesham Simon and his son were killed.

As soon as Eleanor heard the news she travelled to Dover Castle where she attempted to literally hold the fort. She eventually struck a deal with Henry and Edward. She was banished from England and allowed to go to France with her remaining children. There she lived at Montargis Abbey where her sister-in-law was abbess. She continued her legal fight with the Marshall family. She died in 1275 with one son and one daughter by her side. She had only 600 pounds to divide among her children.1

  1. Sources: Gies, Women in the Middle Ages

    Costain, The Magnificent Century

About Moniek Bloks 2744 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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