Eleanor of Brittany

Circa 1184 - 1241

Eleanor of Brittany, known as the Fair Maid of Brittany, was born circa 1184, the first born child of Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, (fourth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine) and his wife Constance of Brittany (daughter and heiress of Conan IV of Brittany and Margaret of Huntingdon). Two siblings, Matilda (born in 1185, died in infancy) and Arthur (1187 - 1203) followed.

Eleanor of BrittanyEleanor of Brittany

Eleanor's father Geoffrey was killed in a tournament in Paris on 19 August 1186, at the age of just twenty-seven and she became the ward of her uncle Richard I the Lionheart. Henry II arranged a second marriage for her mother Constance of Brittany in 1188, to Ranulph de Meschines, 4th Earl of Chester, but it proved to be highly unsatisfactory, Ranulph imprisoned his wife in 1196, after she rebelled against her husband and plotted with her brother-in-law Richard I, her imprisonment led to an uprising in her favour in Brittany. She was released in 1198 and the marriage was annulled. Constance was married for a third time to Guy of Thouars, the marriage produced twin daughters, Alix (circa 1201-1221) and Katherine of Thouars (circa 1201-1240).

Arthur Duke of Brittany and Philip II of FranceArthur, Duke of Brittany

As her younger brother Arthur was the heir presumptive to England and Brittany, Eleanor was one of the most marriagable princesses in Europe. In 1190, when during the Third Crusade, Richard failed to marry his younger sister Joan to Al-Adil I, brother of Saladin, he proposed that Eleanor should be the bride instead, but the negotiation was also failed.

In 1193, at the age of around 9, Eleanor was engaged to Frederick, the son of Leopold V, Duke of Austria, as part of the conditions to release Richard, who had been captured by Emperor Henry VI on his return from his crusade. However, the following year, as she travelled to Austria with Baldwin of Bethune, the duke died and his son showed no inclination for the marriage. Eleanor returned to England, accompanied by her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine. A further marriage was suggested between Eleanor and Louis son of Philip II of France in summer 1195, but negotiations foundered.

When King Richard I died at the Siege of Chaluz in 1199 the throne was seized by John, the youngest of Henry II's and Eleanor of Aquitaine's large brood of sons. Constance of Brittany died in 1201 at Nantes of unknown causes but believed to be either complications resulting from childbirth or leprosy. She was buried at Villeneuve Abbey in Nantes

On 31st July 1202, Arthur besieged his octogenarian grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau Castle. Eleanor resorted to delaying tactics while sending an urgent message to her son John to come to her aid, he covered the eighty miles from Le Mans in 48 hours, Arthur, taken surprise by the uncharacteristic speed of John's advance, was captured by his uncle along with his allies and imprisoned at Falaise Castle, in Normandy.

John was advised by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to make peace with Arthur. At a later meeting at Rouen Castle with his fiery-tempered uncle, who was none the better for the drink, Arthur had adopted a haughty and defiant attitude, at which John became enraged, and killed his nephew with his own hands, later depositing the body, weighed down with stones, in the River Seine. The legend goes on to state that Arthur's body was later buried at the priory of Bec called Notre Dame des Pres.

Corfe CastleAElfhryth, wife of King Edgar

Later that same year, John fled from Normandy taking Eleanor with him she was believed to have been imprisoned at Bristol. In the spring of 1204, Philip II of France demanded that Eleanor be released to marry his younger son. During this year she was confined at Corfe Castle in the Isle of Purbeck on the Dorset coast, guarded by Stephen de Turnham. Eleanor was housed in Corfe's Gloriet Tower, took her meals in the Long Hall and was allowed to walk abroad along the walls. She was allowed three maids and was provided fabric for clothes and bedding, and spending money. She received a gift of a saddle from King John which had gilded reins and scarlet ornaments. John also sent her figs and almonds.

In 1208, the bishops of Nantes, Vannes and Cornouaille made a vain attempt to negotiate Eleanor's freedom. Eleanor was forced to entrust Brittany and her duchy of Richmond to John, who referred to her as his "dearest niece" in communicating with Bretons. Although Eleanor's confinement has been described as 'honourable', her superior right to the English throne meant she would never be released, or allowed to marry and have children. John granted her the title of Countess of Richmond on 27th May 1208. As the eldest daughter of Constance, Eleanor should have been recognized as Duchess of Brittany after the death of her brother Arthur but the Breton barons, fearing King John would rule Brittany through her, made her younger half-sister Alix duchess instead. John conducted negotiations with the Breton nobles with a view to her release. He had Eleanor write to the Breton barons and churchmen, describing her life in captivity, expressing her hope of being liberated, and asking them to arrive in England to negotiate with her release. This letter is the only document written by Eleanor to survive.

In 1209, the daughters of William the Lion I of Scotland, Margaret and Isobel, were sent to John as hostages to keep the peace between Scotland and England, and they were also imprisoned at Corfe Castle along with Eleanor. In June 1213, John sent green robes, lambskin-trimmed cloaks, and summer slippers to the captive princesses. They were sometimes allowed to ride out under the strictest guard. Eleanor was given robes of dark green with capes of cambric and hats trimmed with miniver.

In 1214 Eleanor accompanied John to Aquitaine and Poitou, he intended to put forward her claims to Brittany in opposition to those of her younger half-sister Alix and her husband Peter of Dreux. Although he had some initial successes at Nantes and Angers the campaign, in the end, proved unsuccessful.

John died on the wild stormy night of 18th October 1216, leaving England in a state of anarchy and civil war. He was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Henry III. As her claim to England and Aquitaine was still better than that of his son Henry, before his death John stated that Eleanor should never be released and the now 32-year-old princess remained in captivity. In 1219, she ceased to be styled Countess of Richmond. Henry III styled Eleanor as "king's kinswoman", or "our cousin". From June 13, 1222, she was transferred between Gloucester (July 31, 1222 to July 20, 1223), Marlborough (August 20 to October 9, 1223, and January 1224) and Bristol (before Michaelmas 1224). She was finally settled at Bristol from June 1224 for a time where she was visited by Henry III. Though Henry III established a law that could prevent Eleanor from legal succession to the crown, from 1223 he and his government took serious actions to keep Eleanor captive. They appointed and monitored her keepers, and frequently changed them. Among her later guards were: Engelard de Cigogné, Walter de St. Audoen, Richard de Landa, Gilbert de Greinville, Ralph Musard, Robert Lovel and Matthew de Wallop.

It is recorded that Eleanor received generous gifts from the royal family such as game, fruit, nuts and wine. She also had proper but unshowy clothes. From 1225, she got an allowance. Henry III once sent her 50 yards of linen cloth, three wimples, 50 pounds of almonds and raisins respectively and a basket of figs, he offered her another saddle, proof that she could still go horse-riding. The governor exhibited her to the public annually, in case of rumours that the royal captive had been injured.

Amesbury AbbeyEleanor of Brittany

Eleanor, having taken the veil, died as a nun in 1241 at the age of 57 or 59. She was at first buried at St James' Priory, Bristol, but her body was later reburied at Amesbury Abbey, according to her wishes, as announced by Henry III. Considering the association between Amesbury and the Plantagenet family, Eleanor's final choice of burial place may have been a sign of loyalty to her dynasty, but it may also be viewed as her last protest about the fate of herself and her brother Arthur, as the abbey was dedicated to Virgin Mary and St Melor, a young Breton prince murdered by his wicked uncle who usurped his throne. Neither burial place has a memorial for her remains.

The Chronicle of Lanercost claims that a remorseful Henry III had given a gold crown to Eleanor shortly before her death, and only three days later the crown was donated to his son Edward (the future Edward I) as a gift. Another version says that she only wore the crown for one day before returning it. The Chronicle described Eleanor as being a most beautiful, determined and tactful woman; the limited sources about her character are consistent with this assessment and suggest that she was never resigned to her fate as even decades of confinement could not force her to relinquish her rights although depended on little hope. In 1246, Henry III endowed a chaplain to say masses daily for her soul and in 1268, he granted the manor of Melksham, Wiltshire, a place that Eleanor had been fond of, to Amesbury for the souls of Eleanor and her brother Arthur.