The title of this book is really fitting because there isn’t much in the way of historical records about this medieval English queen. Eleanor of Castile’s life was due for a new look as previous biographies were written years ago. Sarah Cockerill, an English lawyer, spent the last ten years doing in depth research on Eleanor and it really shows. She should be given much credit for this as she gives us all the facts known about Eleanor along with some fascinating insight into her personality. Eleanor’s marriage to King Edward I was obviously a love match, a real anomaly in English royal history. Cockerill gives us many tidbits on their relationship which is fascinating stuff.
That being said, this book is not an easy read. It’s badly in need of an editor. There are errors and omissions, as well as spelling and grammatical errors which are annoying. The narrative is not in chronological or any other sensible order. Due to the lack of sources on Eleanor, a large portion of the book deals with the history of the men surrounding her and the reader can easily get bogged down. For me, it wasn’t until about two hundred pages in that it got more focused on Eleanor and Cockerill’s insight began to become apparent. This isn’t a curl up with the cat and a cup of tea book but if you are looking for a good reference on Eleanor of Castile and thirteenth century English history, this book will fit the bill.
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.