(Amberley, 2015) 414 pp. £14.99
Medieval queens consort are typically presented, even in medieval chronicles as supporting figures in the greater narratives focusing on their husbands, sons, and fathers. Eleanor of Castile, the queen consort of Edward I of England, is often understood as just such a figure, standing by Edward and working feverishly to fulfill her singular goal: the genesis of an heir to the throne. When historians have sought to understand Eleanor in her own right, the picture is typically one of a harsh and greedy woman who ruthlessly bought up properties and extracted every penny she could from them. In Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen, Sara Cockerill seeks to present a more comprehensive and sympathetic biography of this powerful medieval woman.
Cockerill traces the life and context of Eleanor of Castile as fully as possible beginning with the marriages of her ancestors and her upbringing at the court of Castile. She then moves to Eleanor’s marriage to Henry III’s heir, her journeys across the medieval world, her tragic experiences of the birth and death of many children, and her voracious acquisition of properties in England and France. Finally, the book examines both her death, and the legacy of her character. On this final point, Cockerill examines not only Eleanor’s immediate postmortem legacy in the form of Edward’s Eleanor Crosses but also the way she was remembered across the centuries in literature and on the stage. As the narrative of Eleanor’s life unfolds, Cockerill offers erudite examinations of a number of related issues and topics. For example, in order to demonstrate Eleanor’s influence at court in England and to allow her reader to more fully understand her character and agency, Cockerill examines the layout and ambiance of medieval Castilian gardens. Drawing on Islamic traditions, these gardens made clever use of fruit trees and hydroengineering in order to evoke thoughts of an Edenic paradise even as they demonstrated man’s ability to control aspects of nature. Cockerill notes that such gardening techniques began to appear in England only after Eleanor became queen. The author’s mastery of such unique details easily carries the reader’s attention from Eleanor of Castile herself to the places and things surrounding her. Her description of the city of London, for example, does an excellent job of carrying her reader to the city even as we leave Eleanor herself behind for a bit. Though such meticulous asides sometimes slow down the pace of Eleanor’s story, they provide a comprehensive view of Eleanor’s surroundings and the context in which she operated.
This approach often serves the book well, allowing the reader to glimpse not only Eleanor’s influence at the English court, but also the way in which elite medieval women served as cultural conduits, bringing the norms and traditions of one royal court to another. There are moments where this approach is perhaps a bit overplayed. For example, it is surely true that Eleanor, having been raised at the Castilian court, would have been familiar with some of the principles of the Siete Partidas; however, we cannot therefore claim that Eleanor was responsible for the transmission of such principles from Castile to England. (271-2) Indeed, there are moments when the wider milieu of medieval Europe is moved to the background in the work in favor of focusing on Eleanor’s agency. Still, Cockerill has done an impressive job of emphasizing just how influential Eleanor was once she moved from the Castilian to the English court.
One danger of a biography is the tendency of the historian to be too generous to her subject. Sara Cockerill approaches this fine line without ever crossing it. Certainly the work seeks to sympathize with a woman whom more recent history has judged harshly. On the question of Eleanor’s land acquisitions, for example, Cockerill acknowledges that Eleanor was indeed enthusiastic in gathering properties in England. As Cockerill notes, though, Eleanor conducted her affairs in order to achieve the financial and political goals that she and her husband shared. In order for Eleanor’s household and, indeed, for the royal household to function independently, the queen and king were in constant need of funds. As for Eleanor’s reputation as an unforgivingly harsh businesswoman, Cockerill acknowledges that the queen could be persistent in collecting what was due to her even as she notes that many of the complaints against Eleanor later in the 13th and even the 14th centuries were unfounded. The reader should be aware that Cockerill is portraying a more sympathetic image of the queen, but should also bear in mind that this is balanced by the existing and unflattering narrative of Eleanor’s life and affairs.
The book fits well with existing historiography on 13th century England and its leading individuals. Though it is unlikely to be effective as a classroom text for undergraduates, it is nonetheless a valuable addition to the field. Whereas undergraduates may not be an appropriate audience, graduate students will find plenty of value in the book. Women’s historians will find it particularly useful, as well as historians of 13th century England who wish to view the topic from a new and exciting angle. Perhaps just as importantly, Cockerill’s volume is a useful bridge between academic and “popular” history. The book could be read and appreciated by an amateur historian without losing an academic engagement with Eleanor and her history. And we ought to note that this sort of flexibility is a real treasure. The ability to conduct serious historical research and to present the findings of that research effectively to a non-expert public is something we ought to admire.
Sara Cockerill has exhaustively examined the available evidence to discover Eleanor and has produced a compelling account of the queen’s life. And yet the subtitle of the work rings true. Eleanor of Castile remains a queen lurking in the shadows of history, with precious little direct evidence of her historical role but Sara Cockerill’s work allows us to illuminate those shadows and catch a glimpse of this remarkable woman.
Samuel A. Claussen
California Lutheran University