From royal baby names to marrying for love, how five medieval English couples who influenced the lives of royal children today.
1) Edgar the Peaceable and Elfrida – a defined royal family in the public eye
The consorts and children of Roman Emperors were public figures but early Anglo-Saxon monarchs kept their families firmly in the background. An early biographer of King Alfred the Great stated that “the nation of the West-Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife” because of a previous consort’s “wicked” and “malevolent” behaviour. Among royal children, there was not always a clear heir to the throne as all the kings’ sons from his hand fast and Christian marriages were considered atheling or “throneworthy.”
The reign of Edgar the Peaceable (959-975) saw the emergence of a clearly defined royal family as his consort, Elfrida, was crowned with him at Bath Abbey in 973, a ceremony that established the coronation rite that continues to be in use to the present day. (Queen Elizabeth II visited Bath Abbey in 1973 to commemorate 1000 years of monarchy). Elfrida emphasized the status of her son Ethelred over Edgar’s children from previous marriages. After Edgar’s death, Elfrida gained a reputation as a wicked stepmother, suspected of ordering the murder of her stepson to place her own son – King Ethelred the Unready – on the throne. The lasting legacy of Elfrida’s career as queen then queen mother was the emergence of a clear defined royal family, which received public scrutiny. Popular interest in the personal lives of royal today continues to the present day, aided by the modern media.
2) Henry III and Eleanor of Provence – new names for royal children
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, the same names were chosen again and again by generations of royal parents for their children. William I, Henry I and Henry II all had sons named William. Richard and Henry also appeared frequently in the 11th and 12th centuries. For women, Matilda reigned supreme and became the most common name for Anglo-Norman noblewomen as well as the daughters of Kings of England.
In the thirteenth century, Henry III (r. 1216-1272) and his queen, Eleanor of Provence revived or introduced new royal baby names in England that remain in use to the present day.
Rather than naming his heir William, Richard or Henry, Henry III chose the Anglo-Saxon name “Edward” for his eldest son in honour of King Edward the Confessor. A second son, Edmund, also received an Anglo-Saxon kingly name. Eleanor named her two elder daughters after her sisters, Margaret (Queen of France) and Beatrice (Queen of Sicily). A third daughter was named Katherine. Most of these names remain popular royal baby names to the present day. In Queen Elizabeth II’s own family, her late sister was Princess Margaret, her youngest son is Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and one of her granddaughters is Princess Beatrice of York.
3) Edward I and Eleanor of Castile – women in the line of succession
By the reign of King Edward I (r. 1272-1307), female succession had a difficult history in England. The few Anglo-Saxon queens who reigned in their own right were unable to pass the throne to a female chosen successor. For example, when Alfred the Great’s daughter Queen Elthelflaed of Mercia left her throne to her daughter Elfwynn, the Anglo-Saxon chronicle records that Elfwynn was “deprived of all control in Mercia, and was led into Wessex three weeks before Christmas” by Ethelflaed brother, King Edward the Elder of Wessex. After the Norman Conquest, King Henry I’s daughter, Empress Matilda spent decades fighting her cousin, King Stephen for control of England during a time that became known as The Anarchy (1135-1153).
In these circumstances, female succession appeared unworkable but Edward I thought otherwise. Although Edward and his wife Eleanor had sixteen children, only six were still alive in 1285: five daughters and an infant son, the future Edward II. With only one surviving son at the time, Edward I decreed in 1290 that his eldest daughter would be his successor in the event that he died without sons. The first queens to succeed to the English throne in their own right were the daughters of King Henry VIII – Mary I (1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603). In 2015, succession reform came into force throughout the Commonwealth, legislating that the eldest child of a monarch, male or female, would become heir to the throne.
4) Edward III and Philippa of Hainault – lands, titles and incomes for his sons
Magna Carta, the Charter of Liberties imposed on King John in 1215, stated that “No ‘scutage’ or ‘aid’ may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter.” Edward III, however, had five surviving sons (and four surviving daughters) and was determined to provide for them. Edward revived the title of Prince of Wales (bestowed by Edward I on his infant son Edward II after his conquest of Wales) for his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince and was the first monarch to provide the Duchy of Cornwall for his heir. As Duke of Cornwall, British heirs to throne enjoy financial independence. Prince Charles is the current Duke of Cornwall and his son Prince William has studied agricultural management at Cambridge in preparation for his eventual role as Duke of Cornwall.
Edward III also ensured that his younger sons received titles and were well established in their adult lives. Edward’s 2nd son, Lionel became Duke of Clarence and married an Irish heiress, Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster. Edward’s 3rd son John of Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster and became Duke of Lancaster, acquiring lands and income that continue to be the personal property of the monarch. Edward’s two youngest sons, Edmund and Thomas, ultimate became Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester respectively. These dukedoms are held by members of the royal family today. Queen Elizabeth II’s second son, Prince Andrew is Duke of York while the Queen’s cousin, Richard is Duke of Gloucester (the same name and title once held by Richard III).
5) Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville – marriages of inclination
When Edward IV became king in 1461 amid the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, his advisors assumed that he would make a royal marriage. Marriage to a princess with a generous dowry would improve the financial prospects of the House of York, which faced continued threats from Queen Margaret of Anjou. Edward’s cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick began negotiations for a marriage between Edward and Bona of Savoy. Edward, however, made his own arrangements, marrying Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight on May 1, 1464. Although Elizabeth had some royal lineage through her mother, a descendent of the ruling house of Luxembourg, the Privy Council was critical of the marriage, stating, Edward “must know that she was no wife for a prince such as himself”. The marriage caused political problems for Edward and the House of York. Warwick defected to the House of Lancaster and the marriage was ultimately declared invalid after Edward’s death, leading the accession of Richard III.
Nevertheless, Edward and Elizabeth set a precedent for royal marriage based purely on personal feelings. In 1660, the future James II would marry Anne Hyde, the daughter of one of his brother Charles II’s advisors. In 2011, Prince William married Catherine “Kate” Middleton, the first “middle class” bride to a direct heir to the throne since Anne Hyde. William and Kate’s children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, will be able to make marriages based on their own inclinations rather than the politics and diplomacy that influenced royal marriages for hundreds of years.
Dr. Carolyn Harris teaches history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and is the author of three books: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada (Dundurn Press: 2015), Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan: 2015) and Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting (Dundurn Press: 2017)