Book Review: “Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England” by John Carmi Parsons

eleanor of castile parsons book cover

Eleanor of Castile is one of the few medieval queens I know very little about. Apparently there is a reason for this. Very little of historical record exists about this lady. What we do know of her is she was the wife of King Edward I of England, she went with him on Crusade, she had many children, she was a prolific collector of properties and Edward built crosses in her memory. Interestingly, there are a few books about her and John Carmi Parsons wrote one of them.

This work can be considered a quasi-scholarly effort. That being said I enjoyed this book. Parsons has separate sections. The first is a section on theme and context. Specifically he tells us how little in the way of historical records there are and gives us a biographical sketch of what we know about her. He talks a little about Eleanor’s reputation through the ages: how she is considered a grasping queen at one point and a gentle and benign queen at other times in history. He talks about her many pregnancies and births and her unexpected death at the age of forty-nine. This gives us a fairly complete biographical history of her.

The next section is about Eleanor’s prerogatives, resources and administration. Parsons goes into detail about Eleanor’s sources of revenue, her household and staff, wardrobe, exchequer and treasury, and local administration. All of this is pretty fascinating stuff because it doesn’t just relate to Eleanor alone but also other thirteenth century queens. It gives us an idea of how these women lived. Chapter three is an interesting glimpse into Eleanor’s reputation as a queen. The name of this section is “Outcry and Gossip, Rumor and Scandal”. Apparently Eleanor was well known for her acquisition of properties, most likely with Edward’s overt encouragement and her methods could sometimes be dubious judging from the evidence. Eleanor’s income apparently was inadequate and she used any means necessary to increase it.

Parson’s includes a long appendix which chronicles all of Eleanor’s procurement of property where records exist. This section is forty pages long! Even if you don’t read the whole chapter, it gives you an idea of how Eleanor spent her time and increased her income. The last chapter gives an explanation of the legend and the reality of Eleanor’s reputation. Evidently, Eleanor was concerned about her reputation and how she was perceived. On her death bed, she directed an audit of her proceedings in her property acquisitions and ordered any irregularities be made whole. This book is enlightening and I would highly recommend it. If you are unfamiliar with medieval terms such as “advowson” and “corrodies” I would suggest you keep a dictionary close by. It’s a great introduction to this elusive queen and tells us quite a bit about how medieval queens operated.

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