The Two Eleanors of Henry III

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 07 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

As other reviewers have mentioned, this is a difficult subject to tackle with any depth, as the bulk of the information about the period is focused on the men - so while I admire the attempt to pull the Eleanors to the fore, it doesn't quite work and we end up with a general history of Henry III that checks in on them occasionally. It's a little dry to read, and I felt more could have been done to differentiate the numerous people with the same names - perhaps having sections organised by theme rather than straightforward chronology might have assuaged this difficulty a little. I would have liked to get more of a sense of the personalities of each Eleanor, but I ended up struggling to engage.
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4.5

Biographies of medieval people, particularly of women, are going to be the equivalent of the long-focus lens: all the machinery can at least bring the target into view, but necessarily a bit flattened.

Baker works hard to tease out from behind their men the two Eleanors (one the sister, and one the wife, of Henry III--the seldom-mentioned, long-reigned son of the infamous King John), but as there is scarce material about women of the time, it's a monumental task of detective work, perhaps prompting the author to make somewhat novelistic-sounding guesses as to thoughts and actions. I actually liked these--they were fairly well labeled as such (unlike too many biographers of Jane Austen, who can't seem to resist telling us what was in her head via her fiction), and they helped to bring the lives of these people better into focus.

I appreciated Baker's efforts to convey a sense of the time: this was the generation after the Magna Carta. Henry had to negotiate his way between traditional views of kingship and what his father had agreed to with the barons, who came together for those first Parliaments.

This was still the time of crusades, and Baker gives a little attention to the thinking behind these (disastrous) ventures that had some complex motivations, and cultural outcomes. He also conveys an idea of medieval kingship as well as thinking, through details such as Henry's and Eleanor's habit of feeding hundreds of poor people a day--thousands, after some big event, in order to assure that these people's prayers would have extra impact on temporal events. Such actions helped shape the evolving idea of what kings were, and what they could do.

But the fact remains that there is scant primary evidence about these interesting women. We know that both Eleanors had spouses who remained faithful their entire lives. We catch sight of them in snatches through pregnancies and deliveries and children through the festivals, rituals, and some letters. We can see that they were friends until friendship was impossible when Simon de Montfort turned against Henry and embarked on disastrous and bloody civil war.

Baker does a good job of winnowing truth from contemporary chroniclers, who made no bones about their agendas: when men wrote about women, even queens, it was always to instruct, and the lesson was invariably that good queens are submissive, faithful, and fruitful, and bad queens are bad wives and try to encroach on male prerogatives.

Excellent notes provide intriguing nuggets of information for the history detectives among us, along with a very strong bibliography. 

I read this in snips over months; it was easy to put down, but always a pleasure to pick up again. I'd recommend it for readers curious about a seldom-visited period.
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I so badly wanted to finish this book.  Having read many Tudor books I felt at home reading this but kept getting confused with all the characters due to same names.  I find as I’m getting older that I have to reread chapters so it may not be the book so much as the aging reader.
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***I was granted an ARC of this via Netgalley from the publisher.***

Not many people could name important women from the medieval period in Europe. Most of the period is dominated by what men in power are doing though a few women do make a big enough mark to be mentioned. In the book, The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort by Darren Baker, we are given a look at the lives of two women: the queen of England, Eleanor of Provence and the king’s sister, Eleanor de Montfort. Both of these women would play a big part in the events surrounding the court of Henry III. Baker presents to us a queen who can rule in her own right when her husband was away, even overseeing a historic parliament that for the first time had elected members. He also gives us a look at the queen’s sister, who spends much of her life fighting for what she’s owed as a widow and wife of a peer of the king. The author does the best he can to give us a full picture of two women who are subverting the expectations that others set for them. However, at times this book can feel more like a history of Henry III’s court than the two subjects. This could be because there isn’t much source material for the two subjects of the book but at times it doesn’t feel like their story. I would recommend this book to people who like biographies and English/French history.

Rating: 3.5 stars. Would recommend to a friend.
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Both of these women named Eleanor were interesting in their own right, as well as in their marriages. As the author says, it is difficult to separate the women from their husbands. I think this is especially true during their lifetimes, as not much was written or recorded about women at that time. The two Eleanor’s lives are intertwined over several decades.
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I voluntarily read this for an honest review - all thoughts and opinions are mine

I love history and this is a great example - well written and researched - I felt I learned a great deal 

This was accessible to the reader, thanks to the writing style and I was drawn in from the beginning

A great read
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This book was interesting, as it could hardly help being - the two Eleanors were living, after all, in interesting times. Other reviewers have noted that our Eleanors seemed a bit shadowy in comparison to their husbands and this is true, but probably couldn’t be helped, as they lived in a time where women were almost wholly defined by their relationships with men. What bothered me more was what I can only assume was  the author’s attempt to enliven the narrative by using a novelistic style, speaking in the present tense about things the subjects ‘like’ or ‘think.’  I found this jarring, as it is not possible to cite with any authority what anyone in those days really liked or thought. Also — and again, I assume this was an attempt to avoid too scholarly a tone — the author usually chose to first-name his subjects, which wouldn’t have been a problem had they not shared the same first name. I often had to back up and reread passages to be sure which Eleanor I was reading about. In the end, I did enjoy the book, but I’m not sure I could really recommend it.
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I will begin with a quote: " ... it is impossible to separate these women from the men whose relationships and conflicts with each other helped shape their lives ...". And to be honest, this could apply to many women of their time, before their time and after their time. With so little primary source documentation available, it is sometimes difficult for even the most ardent researcher to come up with the goods all the time. I fully understand how hard it can be to write about any historical figure when there is a distinct lack of material available - I know this from my own research. And so, we are often left with dissembling information from those who surround these women.

And this was more of the case here I think. Henry III and Simon de Montfort are two strong characters that many - not just their wives - are often overshadowed. This isn't a typical stand-alone biography of either women, but more, I think, they are used as a conduit for the telling of the story of the inter-relationship between Henry and Simon and the intricacies of the political scene during Henry's reign.

For better or worse, women were often defined by their roles in life: daughter, wife, mother. And with a lack of sources available or detailed even recorded contemporaneously, it is often how they are then written about. This, however, shouldn't negate towards an author's attempts to introduce an historical figure to a new audience - not just an academic one. Baker's book does this - it brings to the fore two women at one of the most important periods in English history.

What the average reader will find in this is a decent story - it is not pretentious or dry - and not filled with useless information that should be relegated to the appendices. There is a decent chronology and plenty of notes because if you are reading this, you will be wanting to go off and read more. For me, I especially liked the wrap of of Simon's family after his death at Evesham.

One for the shelves - next to my copy of Baker's "Simon de Montfort" (previously released as "With All For All").
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This is a dual biography of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort. I did not really feel like I truly understood the two Eleanors because it seemed to focus mostly on their husbands. Indeed, Eleanor of Provence’s life before she married Henry III is skipped and is not discussed. Thus, I did not get a good portrait of the two royal women. If you want an excellent biography of Eleanor of Provence and get a true understanding of whom she may have been, read Nancy Goldstone’s Four Queens, which is a splendid biography of Eleanor of Provence and her sisters. Mrs. Goldstones shows Eleanor’s ambition and accomplishments. Full review to come!
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This is why I enjoy history so. Well written and documented story of Henry III's wife and sister, both Eleanor's, both highly educated and well aware of their rights. Both were drug through the drama of a country struggling to define what their monarchy would look like. Both would be defined by the lengths they would go to get what they wanted, money, power, a dynasty. Both would" live long and prosper" in spite of the side of the conflict they were on.
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There have been three queens of England named Eleanor: the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, the less well known Eleanor of Castile who was immortalised in the “Eleanor crosses” erected after her death, and the one in between,  Eleanor of Provence. 
The wife of Henry III, this is one of the Eleanors in this book, the other is the sister of the King - Eleanor  Plantagenet, who through marriage became linked to two of most distinguished families of England. As sisters-in-law, the two Eleanors were in close contact yet ultimately on opposite sides of a rebellion from which they could never recover.

There are a lot of duplicate names (as is typical in this period) & there were a number of times that I had to re-read a section to work out which Henry/Margaret/etc were being referred to, but the chronological approach did help to make sense of it. 

Overall, an interesting read about two women (and their families/associates) that I didn’t previously know about.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, all opinions are my own.
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First, thank you to NetGalley and Pen and Sword for granting me the privilege of reading this book from my Wish List.

I enjoyed this book and have read well over 100 books on the  medieval era so I consider myself an amateur expert on the subject.  It is not easy to write a book on women during that time because not many records are kept, besides household accounts and birth records and to tackle two women was not an easy accomplishment but I feel the author did justice with the subject matter.

I found it very interesting to see the struggle that Henry had balancing the extreme love and admiration he had for his wife and the strong brotherly love he had for his sister as well as the dynamics between the two women themselves.

My only negative comment would be, as others have said, is that I sometimes got confused as to which Eleanor he was referring to.

An enjoyable and recommendable read to anyone who enjoys learning more about Henry III and the women in his life.
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WHO ARE THE REAL MAIN CHARACTERS? THE TWO ELEANORS OR HENRY AND SIMON?

While this book is supposed to be about two great Eleanors - Eleanor de Montfort, wife of Simon de Montfort and Queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III - it didn't really feel as if they were the actual subjects of this book. Still, it was enlightening and entertaining, though with a few flaws.

THE THINGS I LIKED

The unknown: With medieval history it is not unusual at encounter things we just don't know and have no way of figuring out. While many authors try to gloss over this fact and present theories and ideas as reality (erroneously), Baker doesn't fall into this trap. He is not afraid to admit when there is something unknown or contested. Props for that.

The other women: Try looking up medieval female biographies . I guarantee you, 19/20 are going to be about queens. The explanation is straightforward enough - we simply do not have all that many sources about any other women. And, to be honest, the sources about the queens are pretty sparse as well. Therefore I applaud Baker for trying to illuminate the life of another woman, though still a royal one.

THE THINGS I DISLIKED

Which Eleanor?: Writing a dual biography about two women who share the same name cannot be easy. And, in honesty, sometimes it wasn't easy to read either. Honestly, sometimes I did not know which Eleanor Baker was referring to, since he wasn't always that consistent in using their epithets. That led to some confusion.

Biased: To me, while reading this book, I had a clear feeling that Baker was not Simon de Montfort's biggest fan. Now, I might be wrong about this. But even if I am, the fact that I even had the feeling is not good.

"[...] he [Simon] was a disgruntled sort who was after some glittering prize for himself and his wife"

Main characters?: I know that writing about medieval women can be a challenge - I did my masters' thesis on Medieval Queens, so I would know - but if you set out to write a biography about two prominent, medieval women, don't go making them into supportive characters in their own narrative. Give them the courtesy of being the heroes of their own stories.
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Henry III of England, son of King John (the same of Disney’s Robin Hood), had many Eleanors in his life, two of which were his wife (of Provence) and his sister (de Montfort, née Plantagenet). The Two Eleanors of Henry III, by Darren Baker, is the fourth time the author has ventured into this ennobled medieval English family, having previously published one book on Henry III and another two on his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort.

As I have a degree in medieval studies, I have a better grasp of this topic than most casual readers. The Two Eleanors of Henry III exists somewhere between a scholarly venture and a biography for the masses, with odd and misplaced moments of narrative flair added for good measure and to humanize the subjects (Simon and the king’s sister, the future Eleanor de Montfort, make eyes at each other at a banquet, for example). However, the author should have better contextualized all the tidbits of historical terms that he drops on his readers, and not just a few.

The author manages to find that sweet spot of being both too in-depth in his detail and also entirely too vague. He takes time to explain basics like the vastly different England that Henry III inhabited, such as the use of French by the noblemen and English by the commoners, or the laws governing a woman’s dowry, yet doesn’t take the time to explain other things that are mentioned frequently, like the Albigensian crusade or the true meaning and responsibilities of a medieval sheriff or reeve (and no, it wasn’t like in Disney’s Robin Hood).

It was not uncommon in this era for a few names to be popular among aristocratic circles, as this book makes far too clear. There are many more Eleanors in this book than just the two mentioned in the title. There is so much name repetition, even of couples (Henry III’s grandparents were also named Henry and Eleanor), that it becomes a confused mess, and the author should have made these more apparent.

The author fails to make what seems like simple connections between historical facts, which is the heart that this book is missing. For the New Year’s gift of 1254, Queen Eleanor gave £333 to her husband Henry. This is the same amount that was discussed as the same Eleanor’s income a few years earlier. Yet there is no mention of the connection of that peculiar, exact sum and the symbolism of the connection between Henry’s earlier and Eleanor’s later gifting of the amount. As I am not the one conducting the research, this may just be a happy coincidence, though it seems too precise for a mere accident. It is one thing to simply recount history, and another to analyze, which is necessary for a work presenting itself as a scholarly venture.

The author’s strength is quite obvious in his translation of letters, which provide a much-needed grounding and personalization to the narrative he builds throughout the work.

Besides my love of young and new adult novels, I have a soft spot for books both historical and fictitious about the lives of women. However, a better title for this book would have been “The Men Who Surrounded the Two Eleanors.” Baker has focused primarily on the lives of the men associated with the Eleanors of Provence and de Montfort, causing them to become minor players in their own narrative, a sad commentary on the medieval lives of women. It creates a disappointing read, one that is ultimately reft from the book’s exciting premise.

The Two Eleanors of Henry III will be released on October 30, 2019.
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It's always a pleasure to read about historical women and how they are described in modern times, especially historical women that has more eor less been forgotten even though they achieved a lot in terms of politics. 

My largest critique of Baker's book is that for a book supposed to be about the lives of two women (Eleanor of Provance, wife of Henry III of England and Eleanor of Montford)  in the 1200s, they are remarkably not that present in the material. Is this the case of female voices, even the voices of queens and countesses, were silenced (add 700 years of texts that might have disappeared). I do take into account that a lot of information about women comes from sources about the men in their lives, but I feel like Baker did not achieve what he sat out to do looking to his introduction. 

I found the appendices with the letters the most interesting part of the book and I think the text would benefit of incorporate more of this material (if it exists!). 

Lastly, a big thank you to Pen and Sword History for letting me read Bakers book. I want to find out more about these women - and that is something positive about the book as a whole.
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Eleanor of Provence was born in 1223 and came to England at the age of twelve to marry the king, Henry III who was 16 years older than his new queen. He’s sixteen years older, but was a boy when he ascended the throne. Henry hasnt had any intimate relationships and closesnt females he had in his life were his 3 sister's, the youngest of which was also named Eleanor. His sister Eleanor was only nine when her first marriage took place but she was only 20 and a widow when Eleanor or Provence arrived, she had also taken her vows and joined a convent. That was before she met and fell for Henry's new star at court, Simon de Monfort.

The story covers the relationship between the two Eleanors, and their relationship with Henry. The whole book is referenced throughout and provides fascinating detail in to the relationship of these two couples and how they went from very close to being on opposite sides of the war field. Both had successes and failures which ultimately led to Simon dying in battle and one of the Eleanors leaving England for voluntary exile.
 
I haven't looked into this era much before now but it was a wonderful insight. The lives of these two couples was truly incredible.

A wide variety of evidence including account books belonging to Eleanor de Monfort which survive today have been used to determine the costs of their livelihood, who they entertained and what was served to who. The costs are also converted into equivalent of today's money to give an idea how much these couples earned and spent and how extravagant they could be.

I would recommend this to anyone who has an interest in the two Eleanors,  the reign of Henry III and the beginning of his sons reign.
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