Book Review: “Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen” by Sara Cockerill

Eleanor Cockerill book cover

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.

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.

Book Review: “Edward the Elder 899-924” edited by N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill

Edward the Elder cover

There is a real dearth of primary sources for historians to work with regarding the reign of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Elder, first son of King Alfred the Great. This is a real shame because Edward did much to build the English state during his twenty-four year reign. He led many successful campaigns against the Vikings and had control over much of southern and middle of England. His influence also touched Wales and the north. He had three wives, a large family and prickly relations with the church. This book is an attempt to shed some light on the reign of this important and critical ruler.

This volume was published in 2001 and is a compendium of papers which were presented at a conference at the University of Manchester, organized by the Manchester Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies in 1999 in recognition of the eleventh centenary of Edward the Elders accession to the throne of Wessex upon his father’s death. A variety of scholars have written individual chapters using such diverse sources as coins and textiles, literature and archaeology. If the reader is familiar with Anglo-Saxon studies, some of these names will be very recognizable.

While some of the papers contained in this volume are well written and readable, some of them are not. A number of the subjects are interesting and some are esoteric and pedantic. It would depend on the reader’s preference and purpose in reading the book as to whether the chapters are useful or not. Regardless, the book brings awareness to many aspects of Edward’s reign. Personally, I enjoyed the introduction by Nick Higham on Edward’s reputation and the papers on Edward’s relationship with the church. Barbara Yorke’s chapter on Edward as Atheling was most interesting. She went into how his father worked to make him the candidate to succeed him and to protect Edward’s position. Simon Keynes has a great chapter which serves as a survey of Edward’s reign. There are specialty chapters on the coinage of Edward, how the Irish viewed West Saxon dynastic practices, the Danelaw, the shiring of Mercia, York, and an interesting chapter on the embroideries from the tomb of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. It is believed that Edward’s second wife Aelflaed commissioned these embroideries.

There are other interesting chapters here on Edward’s large family, his own marriages and how he married his daughters to men on the continent and a whole chapter on his niece Aelfwynn. Aelfwynn was the daughter of Edward’s elder sister Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia. When Aethelflaed died, Edward exiled Aelfwynn and basically took over the kingdom of Mercia. I found these chapters on the family relations the most interesting and in sync with my own personal research. Whether the reader of this volume is an advanced historian, undergraduate or a general reader, there is something of interest for everyone. This book will serve as the closest to a biography as we can expect until someone writes a definitive work on Edward.