Eleanor of Provence was born around 1223 as the second daughter of Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Provence and Beatrice of Savoy. She and her three other sisters would all become Queens. Her eldest sister Margaret became Queen of France as the wife of Louis IX, King of France. Her third sister Sanchia became Queen of the Romans as the wife of Richard, King of the Romans and her fourth sister Beatrice became Queen of Sicily as the wife of Charles I, King of Sicily. Eleanor herself became Queen of England as the wife of King Henry III.
Not much is known about her childhood, but her later relationship with her sisters suggest that it was happy. When Margaret became Queen of France in 1234, Eleanor’s chances of making a grand match also increased. Her future husband, King Henry III, was quite a bit older than her – 16 years to be exact – and had been looking for a bride for a decade. Plans to marry Joan, Countess of Ponthieu came to nothing, and she ended up marrying King Ferdinand III of Castile. Eleanor was probably selected because she was now the sister-in-law of the King of France.
They were betrothed on 23 November 1235 when Eleanor was still only 12, and Henry was 28. Eleanor, accompanied by her uncle William of Savoy, landed at Dover in January 1236. She travelled on to Canterbury where she married Henry in person on 14 January at Canterbury Cathedral. The couple set out for London where Eleanor was crowned Queen of England on 20 January. Despite the age difference, Eleanor and Henry became quite close. Eleanor came to England with a large entourage, and hundreds of Savoyards visited England after Eleanor’s wedding to Henry. This influx of foreigners made Eleanor quite unpopular with the people.
It did not take long for Eleanor to fall pregnant and their eldest child – a son named Edward – was born on 16 June 1239. Four more children followed: Margaret (born 29 September 1240), Beatrice (born 25 June 1242), Edmund (born 16 January 1245) and Katherine (born 25 November 1253). Katherine suffered from an unspecified illness, and Henry had her image placed on the shrine of Edward the Confessor, hoping that she would be healed. Tragically, she would die young.
Eleanor and Henry had a close family life, and when their daughter Margaret became Queen of Scots and was close to delivering her first child, she travelled home to Windsor, and her mother was by her side when she gave birth. Their second daughter Beatrice left her children with Eleanor when she and her husband went on crusade.
Eleanor also did not shy away from politics, and in 1253, she was made joint regent with her brother-in-law Richard when Henry was on campaign in Gascony. Although measures taken during her regency were effective, they were not popular with the Londoners. Her regency ended when Henry summoned her to Gascony in 1254. She and her eldest son travelled on to Castile for his marriage to Eleanor of Castile – the daughter of the aforementioned Joan, Countess of Ponthieu. Eleanor rejoined Henry after the wedding, and they visited the French court where they met with her sister Margaret, but also her other sisters and her mother. When they returned to England in December 1254, they faced increased hostility from the barons.
The barons would eventually force some provisions of Henry, including the exile of the King’s half-siblings – the Lusignans. Tensions turned into a full-on civil war in 1263 when Henry refused to renew his commitment to the provisions. Henry and Eleanor were forced to seek the protection of the Tower of London. Henry surrendered to Simon de Montfort – the leader of the barons – on 16 July 1263 and handed over the government to him. It was probably Eleanor who persuaded her brother-in-law the King of France to mediate in the matter. They all sailed to France, but Henry and their eldest son returned to England before the matter was settled. Eleanor and their younger son refused to return while civil war raged on. They were still in France when they received the news that Henry and Edward were defeated at the Battles of Lewes in May 1264 and that they had both been captured. Eleanor turned her attention to raising more money for their cause. By the summer, she had raised an army, but bad weather prevented them from sailing. On 4 August 1265, Edward defeated Simon de Montfort in battle – killing him – and restoring his father to power. Eleanor immediately began making preparations for her return, and she landed in England on 1 November 1265.
Eleanor returned to a different England that the one she had left, but she remained influential during the last years of her husband’s reign. When her husband died on 16 November 1272 while Edward was away on crusade, she made sure her eldest son was proclaimed King. She was present in August 1274 with her grandchildren to welcome back Edward and his wife Eleanor from the Holy Land. In 1275, she lost her two surviving daughters in quick succession, Margaret died on 26 February 1275, followed by Beatrice on 24 March 1275.
Eleanor retired from court after becoming a widow, but she kept in touch with her son. She also became increasingly religious as she grew older. She became attached to Amesbury Abbey and two of her granddaughters – Eleanor of Brittany and Mary of England – became nuns there. On 7 July 1286 Eleanor herself took the veil, though she never did entirely live the life of a nun. She even secured a papal dispensation to retain her dower. She would spend the rest of her life at the abbey and died there on 24 June 1291. Upon her request, her heart was buried at Grey Friars Church with her daughter Beatrice while the rest of her remains were buried at Amesbury Abbey.1