Mourning the First Wife

Mourning the First Wife
Mourning the First Wife

In September 1299 Edward I, King of England, married Marguerite, sister of Philip IV, King of France. It was his second marriage He had been a widower for 9 years, ever since his beloved first wife Eleanor of Castile, had died.

Edward and Eleanor had been married for 37 years and were apparently a close and loving couple, seldom apart. But their happiness was marred by the loss of so many of their 14 (or possibly 16 children) - babies who died in infancy or early childhood, and worst of all, the death in 1286 of their eleven-year-old son and heir, Alfonso. They had five healthy daughters but despite all their efforts, only one son survived, their youngest child, little Edward of Caernarfon.

Edward was devastated when Eleanor died. After Alfonso's death they spent three years visiting the English held duchy of Aquitaine and returned to England in the spring of 1290.

At the end of July the royal couple set out from Westminster on their journey north, travelling in a leisurely manner first to Northampton and then on to Nottingham and the royal hunting lodge at Clipstone in Sherwood Forest. By the end of September it was clear that all was not well. The Queen's winter illness, the quartan fever which had troubled her since their stay in Guyenne, had returned and her personal physician was summoned. Having examined his patient, he hurriedly sent to Lincoln for soothing syrups to relieve the suspected inflammation of the lungs. But Eleanor's health continued to worsen. The king decided to press on to Lincoln.

On the twentieth day of November, in the middle of a damp fog-ridden day when it was difficult to see one's hand in front of one's face, the royal party arrived at the home of Sir Richard de Weston at Harby, a little village just six miles short of the city of Lincoln. The Queen could go no further. She was too weak. The panic-stricken household did all they could. The local priest was brought to the house and later, when it was clear that the Queen's condition was worsening, a man was sent to Lincoln to summon the Bishop.

Within a month of the close of the October parliament that year, Eleanor was gone, struck down by what was probably a malarial fever contracted in the Aquitaine. Her death occurred in the evening of 28th November 1290 with her husband at her side. Three weeks later, Eleanor's embalmed body was laid to rest near the high altar in Westminster Abbey.

On a cold morning in early December, the funeral cortege set out on the 172 mile-long journey from Lincoln to Westminster. The hours of daylight were short and the roads treacherous at this time of year. Progress was painfully slow. They travelled through Grantham, Stamford and Geddington to Northhampton, then on to Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable Priory and St Albans. At Waltham Edward rode ahead to make preparations for the funeral and after two nights the cortege travelled on to West Cheap and thence to Charing and the great Abbey at Westminster. On December 17th the Bishop of Lincoln, Oliver Sutton, who had been at the Queen's bedside when she died, officiated at her funeral. Amidst great pomp and with all the English nobility present, her body was laid to rest in the chapel of Edward the Confessor near to that of Edward's father Henry.

Edward was heartbroken. He retreated to Ashridge, a religious house in Hertfordshire, and from there in January wrote to the abbot of Cluny, in France, referring to Eleanor as "she whom in life we dearly cherished and whom in death we cannot cease to love."

In an attempt to assuage his grief Edward commissioned three separate tombs - at Lincoln, Blackfriars and Westminster. On each, an effigy, created by the English sculptor William Torel, would be cast in brass and finished in gold. They would depict the queen with her hair unbound and her eyes open. As well, there would be twelve memorials of stone and marble topped with devotional crosses to mark each place where Eleanor's body had rested on its long journey south from Lincoln. No other queen of England had been so honoured in death. Three of the "Eleanor Crosses" survive to this day, at Hardingstone, Geddington and Waltham, as does her magnificent tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Unpublished excerpts from The Pearl of France by Caroline Newark
Sources: A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris