Most of England’s medieval royal women were mothers. After all, babies were an important part of the unwritten job description. Only a small number of those medieval royal mothers, however, achieved the next step. Active and engaged grandmothers were few and far between!
Once having achieved “grand” motherhood, a queen could chart her own course, free of expectations. In contrast, the role of a royal mother was fairly well defined.
Child-rearing practices among the medieval aristocracy have drawn criticism from some historians. The unspoken qualities deemed essential for maternal excellence seem to include hands-on, domestic and domesticated, and ever-present. Our English queens and, indeed, working women of any class or century, often do not fit easily into that particular box!
The medieval world itself viewed matters in a very different light. As Barbara J. Harris explains in English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550, there were two components to medieval “good mothering,” the practical and the emotional.
Practical good mothering was best accomplished by hiring experienced caretakers, who would see to the child’s physical needs. Mother would see to the duties that only she could fulfill – overseeing her various staff and households as she and her husband moved from one property to another and (if royal) serving as the first lady of the court with all of the associated social, political and diplomatic implications.
Aristocratic women expressed their emotional connection to their children by seeing to their spiritual well being, and by working to provide them with every advantage needed for adulthood. This included not only education, training, and placement with high-ranking mentors, but also the arrangement of advantageous marriages and the forging of useful alliances. It was far more important to work towards a child’s bright future than to spend large amounts of time with that child when it was small.
Mother and grandmother were two distinct roles. Nevertheless, a woman’s success as a mother often determined the extent to which she was involved in the lives of her children’s children. The other necessary virtue was, of course, longevity.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
As a mother, according to the standards of her time, Eleanor of Aquitaine excelled. She was also among the fortunate few medieval royal women who did “live long and prosper.”
Given the easy acceptance – and even approval – of separate nurseries and households for aristocratic children, it becomes significant that Eleanor made regular, difficult trips across the Channel accompanied by various numbers of small children. Occasionally, she was surrounded by a bevy of four or five. At other times, one or two were chosen for a particular journey.
Eleanor did place her two youngest children in a “nursery.” Joanna and John lived, between 1169 and 1173, at the wealthy and well-staffed convent at Fontevrault. During that time, Eleanor was taking a much more active role in the governance of her hereditary lands. Fontevrault may have been chosen for the royal fledglings because it was easily reached from both Aquitaine and Normandy.
Eleanor’s closeness to her children paid dividends in her later years.
All good royal parents planned highly prestigious marriages for their sons and daughters. The marriages that Henry II and Eleanor arranged were that, and more. They included crucial political and dynastic alliances with France (young Henry), Brittany (Geoffrey), Germany (Matilda), Spain (Leanor) and Sicily (Joanna). Given the geographic spread, it is doubtful that Eleanor expected to have relationships with any of her grandchildren, apart from those born in England. (As it happened, only youngest son John produced those and that was after Eleanor’s death.)
Eventually, however, Eleanor did have the chance to interact with two sets of “foreign” grandchildren.
Eleanor’s opportunity to meet at least some of her daughter Matilda’s children came at a low point for both women. Matilda’s husband, Henry “the Lion,” duke of Saxony, had been tossed out of his duchy by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. He and Matilda, with three children under the age of 10, took refuge with Matilda’s father Henry II.
Eleanor, meanwhile, in the aftermath of her sons’ unsuccessful rebellion against Henry II in 1173, had been kept in close custody in England. When Matilda and her family sailed to England in early 1184, Eleanor’s semi-imprisonment was lightened. The royal family assembled in London in November of that year and Eleanor was invited to join them. She was reunited Matilda, whom she had waved off to Germany sixteen years earlier, and introduced to Matilda’s children: 12-year-old Richenza, 9-year-old Henry, 2-year-old Otto, and William, who had been born at Winchester just months earlier. The visit was not long, but they did celebrate Christmas together at Windsor, where Eleanor, Matilda, and the children lingered through January.
Eleanor of Aquitaine & Blanche of Castile
Eleanor’s interaction with two of her Spanish grandchildren, fifteen years later, was more active.
By then, Henry II had died and been succeeded by his son, Richard. After almost ten years on the throne, Richard had died in 1199. He left no children.
Richard’s younger brother John, Eleanor’s youngest, firmly intended to inherit all Richard’s lands. He had, however, a rival. John’s older brother Geoffrey, deceased, had left a son. Arthur of Brittany was now a feisty teenager. This grandson of Eleanor (whom she had never met) put his claim for the throne up against that of Eleanor’s son, John.
To forestall this threat, John agreed to a treaty with King Philip Augustus. The French would recognize John as king of England, while John in turn would accept Philip Augustus as his overlord for his lands in France.
The treaty was to be sealed by a marriage between Philip Augustus’ heir, Louis, and a princess of impeccable lineage, closely related to the English king. John still being childless, he looked to the daughters of his older sister Leonor.
Leonor had been sent to Spain to marry Alphonso of Castile in 1170. She was 8 years old, he was 15. By the time the marriage was consummated, Leonor knew both her husband and the country they would rule together. Now, in 1199, Leonor and Alphonso had two unmarried eligible daughters, Urraca and Blanche.
Which Spanish princess would be chosen to marry the heir of France?
This was not a trivial decision. The fate of nations could rest on a queen’s acceptance by her new country, and on harmony between a husband and wife. At that very moment, France was under a papal interdict caused by Philip Augustus’s intense personal dislike and repudiation of his bride, Ingeborg of Denmark.
John put this important decision in the hands of his mother. By now in her late 70s, Eleanor was still vigorous, still politically savvy, and still very much involved in the governance of her land of Aquitaine and the politics of England. Eleanor accepted the challenge.
The Church did not allow marriages in Lent. Eleanor knew, therefore, that she had until late spring 1200 to travel to Spain and then return to France with the chosen princess. If she left at once, in late 1199, even though it meant travelling over the Pyrenees in early winter, she would have time to make a considered choice. She could also settle in for a reunion with her daughter Leonor, whom she had last seen some thirty years earlier.
Eleanor was able to stay in Spain for two months. Then, with chosen granddaughter Blanche in tow, she crossed back over the Pyrenees. What insights and guidance Eleanor may have given her granddaughter about the French royal family and the possibilities inherent in the role of a queen, we will never know. Whether it was her grandmother’s tutelage or her own capable and respected mother’s example, Blanche proved a blessing for France. After her husband’s early death, she served as a strong regent for her young son, the future king and saint Louis IX.
Eleanor accompanied Blanche only part of the way. Then, her age finally showing, she entrusted Blanche to the Archbishop of Bordeaux for the final leg of the journey, and returned to Fontevrault.
The peace brought about by Blanche’s marriage did not last long. Arthur of Brittany again agitated for England’s throne and, this time, he had the support of Philip Augustus. Eleanor held her lands of Poitou and Aquitaine firmly for John.
When a belligerent Arthur besieged his grandmother in her castle of Mirabeau, Eleanor sent an urgent SOS to John. He, in the most dramatic and successful gesture of his unedifying life, responded with an uncharacteristic and totally unexpected lightning strike on her behalf. Eleanor was rescued. Arthur was captured. It is nowhere recorded that Eleanor requested an introduction to her disrespectful grandson.
With John now, seemingly, firmly in control, Eleanor was able to retire for the last time to Fontevrault. She died there in 1204, in her early 80s.
Eleanor’s next three successors were less fortunate. John’s wife, Isabella of Angouleme, was left a widow with young children. She promptly left them, and England, for the Continent; there was little contact thereafter. Eleanor of Provence, wife of Eleanor’s grandson Henry III, retired to Amesbury Convent after his death and was not a force in her grandchildren’s lives. Margaret of France, second wife of Eleanor’s great-grandson, Edward I, died when her oldest was only 18 years old.
Isabella of France
England’s second royal “grand” mother was, surprisingly, Isabella of France. The widow (by choice) of Eleanor’s great-great grandson Edward II, her relationship with her son, Edward III, was highly unusual. She seems, however, to have forged loving bonds with Edward’s children.
Isabella had been the prime factor in the deposition and death of her husband Edward II. She (and her lover) then seized power and held it, in the name of the Isabella and Edward II’s son, the young Edward III. Edward, although crowned in 1327 at age 14, only became king in reality after he had forced his mother and her lover, at sword’s point, to relinquish their power.
The lover, of course, was executed. Isabella was kept isolated and harmless for a short while, but then “rehabilitated.” She and her son gradually created a cautious but cordial relationship. Edward’s first daughter, born at Woodstock Palace in 1332, was named for her grandmother.
Isabella, who kept a separate establishment, would have seen her grandchildren when she was invited to court. Occasionally, they would accompany their father when he visited her at her main residence at Castle Rising in Norfolk.
Isabella seems to have become close to her older grandchildren when they reached adulthood. She spent Christmas of 1354 with her oldest grandson, Edward the “Black Prince,” a 24-year-old bachelor, at his palace of Berkhamsted, and visited him there again the following year.
As Isabella aged, and travelled less, her grandchildren began to make solo visits to Castle Rising. The Black Prince visited with his father in October 1357 but then returned by himself, twice, in April 1358. His younger brothers, Lionel and John of Gaunt, also had dinner with their grandmother at Castle Rising on separate occasions in 1358, as did Isabella’s namesake granddaughter. Isabella died at Castle Rising in August 1358, at age 66.
Then followed generations without a single royal “grand” mother. Isabella’s daughter-in-law, Philippa of Hainault, died when her youngest son was only 14. She did have grandchildren by that time, but her health and energy had been fading for several years. Neither Richard II’s queens, nor any of the Lancastrian queens who followed during the War of the Roses, lived to see grandchildren.
We do, however, finally find a decidedly regal grandmother in the House of York. She herself was not crowned, but her children and grandchildren were.
Cecily Neville was a “grande dame” before she became a “grand” mother. Her husband, Richard, Duke of York, regarded himself as the rightful king of England. Cecily seconded both his intense pride in his lineage and his ambitions to gain the throne. Richard died in an unsuccessful attempt to reach that goal. Two of Richard and Cecily’s sons, however, were crowned in turn.
A Yorkist badge, with the white rose and royal arms. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.
Cecily’s oldest son took the throne as Edward IV in 1461. When Edward revealed that he had secretly married an English widow, Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily was infuriated. She probably regarded the uneven match as an insult to the sacrifices that she and his father had made to advance their dynasty and, therefore, their sons.
Cecily did agree to serve as godmother to Edward and Elizabeth’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, born in 1466, and their youngest, Brigid, born in 1480. She may have been godmother to her namesake, Cecily, born in 1469. She undoubtedly rejoiced when, among Edward’s bevy of princesses, two sons were born.
The ambitions that Cecily had fostered in her sons, however, came back to haunt her. Her second son, George, rebelled against his brother Edward. Cecily was torn. She attended George’s wedding to Isabel Neville, even though the marriage had been forbidden by Edward IV. She also worked, continuously yet ultimately unsuccessfully, to reconcile the two brothers. In 1478, George was executed for treason on the orders of his older brother, Edward IV.
After this ultimate fracturing of her family, Cecily spent less and less time at court.
There is no way of knowing what was in Cecily’s heart when, after Edward IV died, her youngest son Richard declared Edward’s marriage invalid and his two young sons illegitimate. He ruled, as Richard III, between 1483 and 1485. Some two months before he lost his life to Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard visited his mother. Their conversation was not recorded.
After Richard’s death, Cecily’s granddaughter Elizabeth of York made a political marriage to Richard’s successor, who ruled as Henry VII. The descendants of Cecily Neville and Richard, Duke of York, would indeed sit on England’s throne, even if it had not been achieved according to plan.
Between 1485, when Henry Tudor took the throne, and her death in 1495, Cecily lived (seemingly by choice) a highly regulated and austere life. Her contact with her individual grandchildren was probably limited.
Cecily, aged almost 80, wrote her will in 1495. It offers a glimpse into the mind of a highly political grandmother.
Cecily wanted the provisions of her will honored, particularly those that endowed numerous chantries and convents to pray for her soul. She knew, therefore, that she had to tread carefully around her grandson-in-law, the king.
Cecily’s first personal bequest, therefore, was to the king himself. He received money. Her second was to the Queen, Henry’s wife and her own granddaughter, who was given a small diamond cross, a psalter covered in green cloth of gold with silver clasps and a small box containing a relic of St. Christopher. Her third bequest, a missal with gold clasps, was left to Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. She gave Henry and Elizabeth’s two young sons tapestries. She left nothing to their daughter.
Elizabeth of York’s sisters, daughters of King Edward IV and also Cecily’s granddaughters were each given individual bequests. Cecily received a missal covered in purple velvet, Anne received brocade bedding, Katherine received blue satin bedding, and Brigid (a 14-year-old nun) received three books of saints.
Moving outside of her most royal descendants, Cecily then began to pick and choose.
Totally missing were the two children of Cecily’s executed son, George. As carriers of that oh-so-dangerous York lineage, it was perhaps simply a kindness not to call them to King Henry’s attention. George’s daughter Margaret had already been married off to a cousin of Henry VII. George’s young son Edward, Earl of Warwick, potentially even more dangerous, had been incarcerated in the Tower of London since Henry’s accession.
She remembered four children of her daughter Elizabeth de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk. The oldest, Edmund, received a cloth of estate and three cushions in purple damask cloth of gold, rather a dangerous gift for a young man of high Yorkist lineage! William received valuable bedding, but of luxurious white fabric. Humphrey, in holy orders, received two altar cloths and a vestment. Anne, the prioress of Syon Abbey, received religious books.
Elizabeth de la Pole’s younger children were not named. Also totally missing from the will was her 19-year-old granddaughter Anne St. Leger, whose mother had died some twenty years earlier.
The last “grand” mother of the era was the woman that Cecily named as “my lady the king’s mother.” Margaret Beaufort had no opportunity to be a hands-on mother. Her only son, Henry Tudor, was a potential rival to the Yorkist monarchs. He was taken from Margaret as a young boy and placed under the guardianship of a supporter of Edward IV. After the War of the Roses flared into active conflict, the teenage Henry was forced to flee to the Continent. When he returned to England and took the throne in 1485, he had not seen his mother in some fourteen years.
During the long separation, however, Margaret worked ceaselessly to end her son’s exile. When Edward IV died and the Yorkist camp splintered, Margaret saw an opportunity to not only bring her son home, but to bring him to the throne. Margaret and Elizabeth Woodville together arranged the marriage between Margaret’s son and Elizabeth’s oldest daughter.
After Henry’s return, he used his mother’s considerable abilities to their full extent. There was also an emotional closeness. Unlike Cecily Neville, Margaret was able to be a warm presence in her grandchildren’s’ lives. Her care was genuine and heartfelt. As she wrote to the Earl of Ormond in 1497, “Blessed be god, the king, the queen, and all our sweet children be in good health.”
She rejoiced as each of Henry’s children was born, recording the dates of their births in her personal Book of Hours. She served as godmother, in 1489, to Henry and Elizabeth of York’s daughter, Princess Margaret, and maintained a loving interest in her throughout her life.
When her oldest grandson, Prince Arthur, married Katherine of Aragon in 1501, Margaret hosted an elaborate reception for the young couple at her manor house at Coldharbor.
Later, as arrangements were made for the marriage of her namesake and goddaughter, Margaret Beaufort joined with her daughter-in-law in insisting that the young princess not be sent to join the household of her affianced husband, James IV of Scotland, at too early an age. They feared that James would not allow her “growing time” before consummating the marriage. Such experiences were not approved, or common, but Margaret Beaufort herself had suffered in this way and was sensitive to the possibility. The Princess did remain with her family until June 1503, when she was nearing 13 years old. (It should be noted that, although James had quite a reputation with the ladies, he preferred his partners mature and willing; Margaret’s first child was born when she was 17.)
On her way to Scotland, Princess Margaret and her entourage stopped at her grandmother’s manor at Collyweston for three weeks of celebration. Margaret welcomed the royal court and provided a stunning setting for the Princess’ send-off party.
When Margaret’s grandson Henry began to participate in summer tournaments in 1507, Margaret bought his saddle and harness. Additional small gifts were forthcoming to celebrate his successes.
Margaret Beaufort outlived her beloved son Henry VII, his queen Elizabeth of York, and her oldest grandson Arthur. In her will, written in 1509, she made bequests to her three surviving grandchildren. Each gift was tailored to their personal tastes. To the newly crowned King Henry VIII, who fancied himself a scholar and a paragon of chivalry, she gave several valuable illuminated books, including an English translation of the courtly romance “The Siege of Troy.” He also received five of her “best cups of gold with their covers.”
To her granddaughter Margaret, “The Queen of Scots,” she gave a girdle of gold containing 29 links, with a great pomander on one end, totaling 28 ¾ ounces. To her younger granddaughter, Princess Mary, she gave a covered cup of gold, garnished with white hearts, pearls and stones, totaling 31 ounces, and a covered standing salt of beryl, garnished with gold and stones, totaling 15 ounces.
Margaret’s reputation for fierce piety and unremitting severity is belied by her bequests. Her will is far different from the (necessarily) cool document composed by Cecily Neville. The memory she gave her grandchildren was of a woman who knew them and loved them enough to indulge their passion for frivolous display. It may be that, in them, she finally found joy.