Sunday, 12 September 2021

Longest-Serving English Consorts (1066-1547)

This blog post will explore the longest-serving English consorts in the period 1066-1547, a period that commences with the Norman Conquest of England and ends with the death of Henry VIII.

1) Philippa of Hainault (c. 1314-1369), wife of Edward III
Tenure as consort: 24 January 1328 - 15 August 1369 (41 years, 7 months)

Philippa of Hainault was the longest-serving English queen consort in the period 1066-1547. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, she married Edward III, who had succeeded his father as king of England the previous year. Their marriage took place in controversial circumstances: Edward's mother, Isabella, had made the decision to separate from her husband Edward II on the grounds that his favourite (and possibly lover) Hugh Despenser the Younger had usurped her in the king's affections. When the king refused to separate from Despenser, the queen determined to invade England and depose her husband, replacing him with her son, the teenaged Edward, Prince of Wales. However, Isabella required the assistance of Count William of Hainault in order to succeed in her aims. In return for the count's assistance, Edward would be betrothed to Philippa, the third surviving daughter of Count William. A papal dispensation was secured (the two being second cousins) and they were married by proxy in October 1327. Philippa journeyed to England in December and, the following month, she married Edward III at York Minster. Their marriage lasted four decades and, to all intents and purposes, was one of the most successful royal marriages of the Middle Ages. Philippa acquired a reputation as an intercessor and mediator, although recent research has suggested that she was not as an active an intercessor as traditionally believed (in comparison with her predecessors Margaret of France and Isabella of France). Perhaps most famously, she interceded for the burghers of Calais in 1347. Philippa seems to have been popular with her contemporaries and was praised for being 'gentle' and 'courteous'. However, her coronation was delayed until 1330 because her mother-in-law refused to relinquish her status. Philippa fulfilled the most important role of a medieval queen consort: motherhood. She and Edward had thirteen children together, a number of whom died in childhood. Their eldest son, Edward ('the Black Prince') died in 1376, a year before Edward III's death, and so the king was succeeded by his grandson, Edward's son Richard. Philippa died in August 1369 at the age of about fifty-five and was buried the following January at Westminster Abbey. Despite her success as queen consort, Philippa is arguably one of the lesser-known medieval queens consort, perhaps because of the lack of scandal she attracted.

2) Eleanor of Provence (c. 1223-1291), wife of Henry III
Tenure as consort: 14 January 1236 - 16 November 1272 (36 years, 10 months)

Like Philippa of Hainault, Eleanor of Provence became queen consort of England as a teenager when she married Henry III on 14 January 1236, having been born in 1223 (making it possible that she had not yet reached her thirteenth birthday). Her husband, who was born in October 1207, was twenty-eight at the time of their marriage at Canterbury Cathedral. The daughter of Ramon Berenguer IV, count of Provence, Eleanor was reported to be both beautiful and well-read. As with several foreign-born medieval queens consort, however, Eleanor attracted criticism because of 'the Savoyards' who served in her retinue; their presence at court was perceived to be detrimental to English interests. Her unpopularity was further evidenced in 1263 when a hostile London mob attacked her barge, which was then sailing down the Thames. Despite her unpopularity, Eleanor was appointed regent in 1253 when her husband left for Gascony, thus demonstrating both her political influence and the king's trust in her abilities. She supported the king during his dispute with Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester. Like Philippa, Eleanor fulfilled the consort's most important duty by giving birth to five children, including a son, Edward, who succeeded his father as king of England in 1272. During her son's reign, Eleanor exercised influence as queen dowager and raised a number of her grandchildren, including Henry and Eleanor, children of King Edward, and John, son of her daughter Beatrice. Eleanor died in 1291 at the age of 68. 

3) Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204), wife of Henry II
Tenure as consort: 19 December 1154 - 6 July 1389 (34 years, 7 months)

Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the most famous English queens consort. She firstly married Louis VII of France, but their marriage was annulled after fifteen years on the grounds of consanguinity (in actuality, the French king was determined to produce a male heir, which his marriage to Eleanor had failed to accomplish). Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Eleanor subsequently married Henry, duke of Normandy in May 1152 at the age of about 30; he became king of England two years later. The queen gave birth to a number of children, but the royal couple's union was a tumultuous one. In 1167, they formally separated. The king had a number of mistresses, including Rosamund Clifford, whom, notoriously, Eleanor allegedly poisoned (the story is unlikely to be true). A number of legends about Eleanor exist, including that she presided over the 'Court of Love' in Poitiers between 1168 and 1173, but scholars remain divided about the court. The queen did not invent the tradition of courtly love but her court may have acted as a catalyst for the increasing popularity of courtly love literature in the mid-twelfth-century. Meanwhile, when her sons arose in rebellion against their father during the 1170s, the queen supported their activities. Roger of Hoveden claimed that Eleanor sent her younger sons to France 'to join with him [the eldest son, Henry] against their father the king'. Eleanor was arrested in the spring of 1173 and remained under house arrest until her husband's death sixteen years later; she was separated from her children. Henry II died on 6 July 1189 and was succeeded not by his son Henry, who had died in 1183 of dysentery in Martel, France, but by his son Richard (the 'Lionheart'), who was then aged 31. The king was absent from England during the 1190s, being then on Crusade, and Eleanor exercised influence despite not holding formal office. She witnessed the accession of her son John in 1199 following Richard's death (he had not produced a male heir of his own to succeed him as king). Eleanor died on 1 April 1204 at the age of about 82. 

4) Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536), wife of Henry VIII
Tenure as consort: 11 June 1509 - 23 May 1533 (23 years, 11 months)

The first wife of Henry VIII, Katherine became queen consort of England in June 1509, at the age of 23, almost eight years after she had arrived in England to marry Henry VIII's elder brother, Arthur, who was then heir to the throne. The youngest daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Katherine was pious, beautiful and learned, but her marriage to Arthur ended tragically when he died, perhaps of the sweating sickness or tuberculosis. Whether the pair consummated their union became a subject of political and dynastic controversy during the 1520s when Henry VIII attempted to annul his marriage to Katherine due to their lack of surviving male heirs (only one daughter, Mary, had survived childhood). Katherine exercised considerable influence as queen consort; she was made regent of England in 1513 when her husband left for France seeking military glory there, and she supervised arrangements for war with Scotland in the king's absence. The Scottish forces were soundly defeated at Flodden in September 1513, and James IV of Scotland was among those slain on the battlefield. Like her predecessors, Katherine acted as an intercessor on a number of occasions, including for the lives of rebels involved in Evil May Day in 1517 (a riot in London provoked by hostility to foreigners living there). Despite refusing to accept Henry's desire for an annulment, Katherine's queenship formally ended in May 1533 when Archbishop Cranmer declared her marriage null and void; Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, then probably in her mid-to-late twenties, was crowned queen of England at Westminster Abbey the following June. Katherine and her supporters refused to accept the annulment and she continued to be referred to by her household staff and friends as queen of England. She died in January 1536 and was buried at Peterborough Abbey (now Cathedral); her daughter Mary became England's first queen regnant in July 1553.

5) Isabella of France (c. 1295-1358), wife of Edward II
Tenure as consort: 25 January 1308 - 25 January 1327 (19 years)

One of the most controversial English queens consort, Isabella of France married Edward II on 25 January 1308 at the age of about 12. Her marriage to Edward was arranged in order to secure peace between the warring realms of England and France, but it occurred at a time of increasing conflict between the English king and his barons, mostly because of the influence wielded by Edward's favourite (and perhaps lover) Piers Gaveston. Contrary to popular belief, Edward and Isabella's marriage was a successful one for the first seventeen years: they spent much time together and the queen exercised influence as an intercessor during her husband's troubled reign. Isabella also fulfilled her most important duty as consort by giving birth to children, including a son, Edward, who became king of England in 1327. However, Edward's reign experienced a number of setbacks, including defeat to the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314, the devastation caused by the Great Famine of 1315-17 and the king's conflict with Thomas, earl of Lancaster. By 1321, Hugh Despenser the Younger had emerged as the king's favourite (Gaveston having been murdered by his enemies in 1312), and he and Edward together presided over an increasingly harsh regime. By 1324, Isabella herself was regarded by Despenser as an enemy and her lands were confiscated by the government. The following year, she travelled to France to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty with her brother, the French king, between England and France. While there, however, she publicly stated her intention of not returning to England until Edward removed Despenser from court. Together with Roger Mortimer, earl of March - who may or may not have become her lover - Isabella gathered an invasion force and returned to England in the company of her son, who had travelled to France with her. Despenser and his father were gruesomely executed and Edward II was pressured into abdicating in favour of his son, who succeeded as Edward III. Traditionally, the deposed king is said to have been murdered at Berkeley Castle in September 1327, but historians have recently suggested that he actually escaped abroad and lived into the 1340s on the Continent. Isabella and Mortimer presided over an increasingly corrupt and unpopular regime until 1330, when Edward III seized power and Mortimer was executed. Isabella herself was not charged with any offences but was instead publicly portrayed as an innocent bystander. Thereafter, Isabella's role as dowager queen was entirely conventional; she continued to visit court and also entertained family and friends at her residences, including Castle Rising in Norfolk. She also participated in a number of religious activities (including pilgrimage). Isabella died on 22 August 1358, aged about 63, and was buried at the Grey Friars' Church in Newgate.

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