The king’s sister – the life of a medieval princess
In a previous post I have discussed the challenges facing Eleanor of Castile – specifically that of presenting her husband, Edward I, with a male heir. It took some time for that eagerly awaited heir to make his appearance. Not until 1284, after almost thirty years of marriage, did the boy who would one day inherit the throne after his father see the light of the day. Little Edward was a much-desired child, but at the time they already had an heir, Prince Alphonso, and so the new baby was mostly perceived as a good-to-have spare. Things changed when Alphonso died some months after Baby Edward’s birth. Yet another loss, yet more months of grief, of crushed hopes, reinforcing just how fragile life was.
I dare say the fact that they had five thriving daughters was little comfort: a medieval king needed a son to which entrust his kingdom, as God alone knew what would happen with a weak female in charge. (I hasten to add that this opinion was not necessarily shared by Eleanor, who, after all, had some pretty impressive kick-ass female rulers up her family tree. Like Urraca.)
In line with the parenting models of the day, the baby prince did not see all that much of his parents. Edward and Eleanor were joined at the hip, so where Edward I went, there went his wife, and all that travelling was not considered good for a child, which was why Edward grew up in his own household—and with his youngest sisters.
One of those sisters is today’s protagonist (Ha! Fooled you there, didn’t I? You were thinking it would be Edward II) Question is, which sister? Mary of Woodstock or Elizabeth of Ruddlan? Well, Mary is an interesting character in her own right, who spent most of her time with her grandmother. At her grandmother’s behest, Mary was placed in a nunnery at the tender age of seven, was veiled at the age of twelve, went on to become a rather wordly nun in that she travelled a lot, accumulated gambling debts, visited the court as often as she could, and was even dragged into a rather sordid legal case when John de Warenne claimed to have had carnal knowledge of her, thereby making his marriage to his despised wife null and void. All in all, an interesting lady, although I must hasten to add that John’s accusations were made after Mary was dead and therefore incapable of defending herself.
But despite all that potential juiciness, I’m skipping Mary in favour of Elizabeth. Born in 1282 in Wales, Elizabeth seems to have been something of a daddy’s girl—at least to judge from how Edward indulged her. She was also very close to her brother, something that must have caused her considerable anguish later on in her life. More of that later.
Now, Eleanor of Castile was a very well-educated lady. She’d grown up in a court that lived and breathed culture, where clerks toiled day and night to translate the literary treasures discovered in the libraries of the Moor kingdoms re-conquered by Eleanor’s father, the very impressive Fernando. Where it is doubtful if Edward I could write with ease, Eleanor most definitely could—in various languages. One would assume such a learned lady would ensure her children were equally well-educated, but we don’t really know just how much of mama’s learning was passed on to her offspring. Maybe the English didn’t put quite as high a value on education as the Castilians did. Maybe Edward considered it sufficient if his children could read—after all, scribing was something one could have clerks do for you.
I still think we should assume Elizabeth was a relatively well-educated girl, if nothing else because she would have benefited from being in the proximity of her brother and his Dominican tutor. She was also a girl that saw little of her parents—Edward and Eleanor spent several years on the Continent during Elizabeth’s early childhood. So when Eleanor died in 1290, I suspect Elizabeth was stricken but that the actual void her mother left behind was relatively shallow.
Elizabeth’s father, however, was devastated by the death of his wife. Maybe this is when a special closeness began to develop between him and his youngest daughter. Children are good at offering undemanding solace, small warm presences that offer shy cuddles.
No matter how grief-struck, Edward was back to running his country three days after the death of his wife. Among the things he had to handle were marriages for his daughters—and for himself (He needed that spare heir, you know). When it came to his daughters, things were mostly sorted, two of them already wed, one betrothed, one promised to the Church, and one with ongoing negotiations now that her intended groom had died.
Elizabeth had been betrothed already in 1285 to John, Count of Holland. Of an age with his bride, the boy was raised in England, so Elizabeth had ample opportunity to get to know her future husband. Whether she liked him all that much is a tad doubtful: the marriage was celebrated in 1297 when Elizabeth was not quite fifteen, and the idea was for the young couple to take ship for Holland. Elizabeth refused to go with him, and somehow wheedled Edward into allowing her to stay in England, with him.
Of course, over time Elizabeth had no choice: as a married woman, her duty lay with her husband. To make things easier (and because it coincided with other matters he had to handle) Edward accompanied her to the Low Countries and even stayed with her for some months before going on to sort out his infected relationship with Philippe IV of France. The outcome of all this sorting was that Edward married Philippe’s much younger sister, which did little to resolve the infected relationship between France and England in the long term, but which had the upside of Marguerite, this rather enchanting young woman whom Edward soon grew to love and cherish. Lucky man: two marriages, both of them notably happy. I guess he did something right 😊
Elizabeth’s marriage to John never got the opportunity to develop into something long-lasting. The young man died of dysentery in 1299, and Elizabeth was sent back home to England. There, in 1302, she married Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. A good marriage as per dear Papa, having the benefit of tying one of England’s most powerful magnates to the English king. As part of the contract, Humphrey was obliged to relinquish his titles and lands to his king, who then graciously restored them to Humphrey and his wife, together. What Humphrey thought of all this is unknown, but to judge from the number of children Elizabeth gave him, the happily married couple was, if nothing else, compatible in bed.
Humphrey was some six years older than Elizabeth, and now that Prince Edward was well on his way to becoming an adult, Humphrey was probably one of the prince’s closer companions. When Edward was knighted, Humphrey had the honour of buckling on his spurs, and in general they seemed to get along quite well with each other.
In 1307, Edward I died and Edward II ascended the throne. By then, Elizabeth had already given birth four times to five children of which two remained alive: one little son and one little daughter. As the sister of the new king, Elizabeth would probably have been a frequent guest at court together with her husband—and the new king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston.
Initially, it seems Humphrey de Bohun and Piers got on well. Humphrey witnessed the grant of the earldom of Cornwall to Piers, something that would not have gone down well with Elizabeth, as her step-mother (to whom she was very close) had expected this honour to come to her eldest son—as intended by Edward I.
Edward II waved away the angry protests of Queen Marguerite and went on showering Piers with gifts and offices. To be fair to Piers, he doesn’t seem to have been as avaricious as Edward was generous, but for the remaining barons, he soon became a burr up their backsides. Who did he think he was, this Gascon parvenu who had the king’s ear in all matters? By 1308, Humphrey had joined the baronial opposition, something which must have put Elizabeth in a difficult position. After all, she was close to her brother—and to her husband.
For some years, thing sort of trundled along anyway. Elizabeth gave birth to one more son, Piers rose to more and more prominence, and Humphrey ground his teeth. In 1310-11, he refused to join the king’s Scottish campaign because of his dislike of Piers. Did not go down well, one could say, and in retribution, Edward II stripped Humphrey of the constableship. A lot of hot air, a distraught Elizabeth caught in the middle, one more baby to take care of, but by the end of 1311 things calmed down, with Humphrey being restored to his hereditary office and Piers forced into exile.
Early in 1312, Piers returned to England. The king was delighted, but his barons had had enough. War broke out, Piers was captured and in June of 1312, Piers Gaveston was summarily executed on the orders of the earls of Warwick and Lancaster. Humphrey was present at the deliberations that resulted in the decision to have Piers killed—murdered might be a better term for what happened, with Gaveston run through by the swords of two Welsh men-at-arms before they beheaded him.
What Elizabeth thought of all this is unknown. She was yet again with child (twins this time)—as was Edward II’s young wife, Queen Isabella. But having grown up with Edward, she probably knew him well enough to realise that no matter how easy-going and affable he could appear to the world, some things he never forgot or forgave. The murder of Piers was one of those things.
In 1313, Edward formally forgave Humphrey. But he didn’t really, which was why when the English army marched north in 1314 to defeat the Scots once and for all, he gave command to his very young nephew, Gilbert de Clare, bypassing Humphrey, who, as Constable of England, should have been in charge. Humphrey was not happy. He and Gilbert had words and supposedly this heated argument indirectly caused some of the confusion that led to the English being trounced. Whatever the case, Gilbert ended up very dead, Humphrey was taken prisoner, and Edward escaped by the skin of his teeth, having to ride so fast he and his men did not even dare to stop to pass water in case the pursuing Scots should catch them.
Elizabeth was distraught. Her husband a prisoner of those barbaric Scots, and here she was, recently delivered of child number ten. I imagine Edward was not exactly inclined to bend over backwards to ransom Humphrey, but de Bohun was an English magnate, family, even. Elizabeth probably agreed. She wanted her husband home, and so Humphrey was exchanged for Robert Bruce’s wife and daughter.
There seems to have been some sort of rapprochement between Humphrey and Edward after this. A potential happily ever after hovered in the air. In 1315 Elizabeth yet again became pregnant. I’m not entirely sure she was delighted by the news – essentially she’d been with child for seven years of the last 13 years. All those births had so far resulted in seven living children, and in difference to her mother Elizabeth had more than delivered when it came to male heirs, with five of her brood being boys. She and Humphrey didn’t need more children, but they must have enjoyed making them…
Having so many children comes with risks. In May of 1316, Elizabeth went into labour. Neither she nor her daughter survived and were buried together at Waltham Abbey. She was thirty-four years old – a very short life as per us. But like any life it contained glimmers of absolute joy, moments when the sheer joy of being alive had her blood singing. Well, at least I hope it did. The alternative would have been very depressing.
As to Humphrey, the loss of his countess sank him into a deep depression. Without his wife’s moderating influence, his relationship with the king was destined to deteriorate to the point where Humphrey joined Lancaster and Mortimer in rebellion. In March of 1322, Humphrey met his death at the Battle of Boroughbridge, reputedly having been impaled on a pike. A painful and gory death, leaving his many orphaned children at the mercy of their uncle, the king.