The Medieval Book Reviews 3: Eleanor de Montfort, A Rebel Countess in Medieval England by Louise J. Wilkinson

Eleanor de Montfort, daughter of King John, sister of King Henry III, aunt of King Edward I “Longshanks” and wife of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, was one of the most influential women in thirteenth century England. In the 1260s, she was at the centre of an explosive conflict between her weak willed brother and her charismatic husband, who rebelled against the monarch’s arbitrary rule and called the first directed elected parliament in European history.

Although Eleanor enjoyed a warm relationship with her brother in childhood, she identified herself completely with Simon’s cause, negotiating with a broad network of allies and housing his hostages. Simon’s defeat and death fighting the future King Edward I at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 shattered Eleanor’s family fortunes, leaving the Countess to attempt to negotiate a settlement that would preserve a small portion of her former wealth and influence for her surviving children.

Historical novelists have long recognized the drama of Eleanor’s involvement in the Montfort rebellion. The Countess is a prominent character in the second novel of Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Trilogy, Falls the Shadow, attempting to act as mediator between Simon de Montfort and Henry III then actively supporting her husband’s rebellion. Nevertheless, Eleanor has not been the subject of a biography since her inclusion in Mary Anne Everett Green’s Lives of the Princesses of England, from the Norman Conquest, one hundred and fifty years ago. Louise Wilkinson’s Eleanor de Montfort restores the Countess of Leicester to her rightful place in medieval historiography.

Wilkinson is a senior lecturer in medieval history at Canterbury Christ Church University and has written two previous books about women and queenship in medieval England, Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire and The Rituals and Rhetoric of Queenship: Medieval to Early Modern. Her expertise provides valuable context for the pivotal moments of Eleanor’s life. Everett Green attributed the Countess’s decision take a vow of perpetual chastity after the death of her first husband, William Marshall, to her piety alone but Wilkinson interprets this act as part of her ongoing negotiations with his heirs for her widow’s portion of the estate.

Eleanor’s second marriage to Simon de Montfort was certainly considered scandalous because she broke her vow of chastity but the groom’s comparatively low social standing was not necessarily an impediment. Wilkinson identifies other cases of medieval English Countesses and Duchesses choosing comparatively minor members of the nobility as their second husbands.

Wilkinson draws upon unique and fascinating historical documents to reconstruct Eleanor’s life and historical significance. The Countess’s household roll from 1265, the year of the Battle of Evesham, contains the oldest surviving household records of an English noble estate. Previous historians, such as Margaret Labarge, author of Mistress Maids And Men, have used this document to illuminate the role of noblewomen inside their castles, managing large numbers of servants, supervising meals, and entertaining guests.

Wilkinson expands upon this research to identify evidence of Eleanor’s political role in her household records. The amount of food and drink ordered for the kitchens varied according to the number of Montfort’s hostages resident in Kenilworth Castle and rolls contain evidence of extensive correspondence with an extensive network of allies.

Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England is a fascinating biography of a woman closely involved in one of the most significant rebellions in medieval English history. The Countess’s experiences reveal the opportunities for thirteenth century noblewomen to wield political influence and advance the interests of their families. Wilkinson ends by observing that Eleanor lived long enough to witness the proxy marriage between her daughter and namesake, and Prince Llywelyn the Last of Wales. The fortunes of the Countess of Leicester’s surviving children would make an interesting subject for a subsequent book about the Montfort family and their role in European history.

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