Eleanor of Castile (1241 – November 2, 1290). Infanta Eleanor was born in Burgos, daughter of Fernando III of Castile and Joan, Countess of Ponthieu. Her Castilian name, Leonor, became Alienor or Alianor in England, and Eleanor in modern English. She was named after her paternal great-grandmother, Eleanor of England, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England.
The young couple were married at the monastery of Las Huelgas, Burgos, on November 1, 1254. Edward and Eleanor were second cousins once removed, as Edward’s grandfather King John of England and Eleanor’s great-grandmother Eleanor of England were the son and daughter of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Following the marriage they spent nearly a year in Gascony, with Edward ruling as lord of Aquitaine. During this time Eleanor, aged thirteen and a half, almost certainly gave birth to her first child, a short-lived daughter.
Edward and Eleanor had at least fourteen children, perhaps as many as sixteen. Of these, five daughters survived into adulthood, but only one son outlived his father, becoming King Edward II (1307–1327). He was reportedly concerned with his son’s failure to live up to the expectations of an heir to the crown, and at one point decided to exile the prince’s favourite Piers Gaveston.
Eleanor was presumably a healthy woman for most of her life; that she survived at least sixteen pregnancies suggests that she was not frail. Shortly after the birth of her last child, however, financial accounts from Edward’s household and her own begin to record frequent payments for medicines to the queen’s use.
The nature of the medicines is not specified, so it is impossible to know what ailments were troubling her until, later in 1287 while she was in Gascony with Edward, a letter to England from a member of the royal entourage states that the queen had a double quartan fever.
This fever pattern suggests that she was suffering from a strain of malaria. The disease is not fatal of itself, but leaves its victims weak and vulnerable to opportunistic infections. Among other complications, the liver and spleen become enlarged, brittle, and highly susceptible to injury which may cause death from internal bleeding. There is also a possibility that she had inherited the Castilian royal family’s theorised tendency to cardiac problems.
From the time of the return from Gascony there are signs that Eleanor was aware that her death was not far off. Arrangements were made for the marriage of two of her daughters, Margaret and Joan, and negotiations for the marriage of young Edward of Caernarfon to Margaret, the Maid of Norway, heiress of Scotland, were hurried on.
In the summer 1290, a tour north through Eleanor’s properties was commenced, but proceeded at a much slower pace than usual, and the autumn Parliament was convened in Clipstone, rather than in London. Eleanor’s children were summoned to visit her in Clipstone, despite warnings that travel might endanger their health. Following the conclusion of the parliament Eleanor and Edward set out the short distance from Clipstone to Lincoln. By this stage Eleanor was travelling fewer than eight miles a day.
Her final stop was at the village of Harby, Nottinghamshire, less than 7 miles (11 km) from Lincoln. The journey was abandoned, and the queen was lodged in the house of Richard de Weston, the foundations of which can still be seen near Harby’s parish church.
After piously receiving the Church’s last rites, she died there on the evening of November 28, 1290, aged 49 and after 36 years of marriage. Edward was at her bedside to hear her final requests. For three days afterward, the machinery of government came to a halt and no writs were sealed.
Eleanor’s embalmed body was borne in great state from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey, through the heartland of Eleanor’s properties and accompanied for most of the way by Edward, and a substantial cortege of mourners.
Edward gave orders that memorial crosses be erected at the site of each overnight stop between Lincoln and Westminster. Based on crosses in France marking Louis IX’s funeral procession, these artistically significant monuments enhanced the image of Edward’s kingship as well as witnessing his grief.
The “Eleanor crosses” stood at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone near Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Westcheap, and Charing – only three survive, none in its entirety. The best preserved is that at Geddington. All three have lost the crosses “of immense height” that originally surmounted them; only the lower stages remain.