Arts & Books Books

A humanising tale of a king’s five daughters

Edward I and his daughters: a rich subject for romantic novelists

This royal biography reveals a fascinating slice of medieval history, says Allan Massie

Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
By Kelsey Wilson-Lee,
Picador, 346pp, £20/$25

To forget something you have to know it first. So, even for those of us with an interest in the Middle Ages and the Plantagenets, describing Edward I’s daughters as “forgotten children” is stretching it. Wilson-Lee’s book is not an exercise in recovered memory; I would guess that it breaks new ground for most readers. It does so very well – the author has worked diligently in the archives and read widely beyond them. We can probably take it that whatever there is to be known about the daughters who survived to adulthood is to be found here. The book will also serve as a rich quarry for romantic novelists.

The five daughters were Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth. Their father naturally regarded them as pieces in the game of political chess. Chess was a favourite game in the family – the girls’ mother, Eleanor of Castile, “borrowed a treatise on tactics so that it could be copied by her scribes” – yet the girls were more than pawns. The choice of a husband was a political act, but the girl’s consent was required.

Eleanora was long betrothed to the king of Aragon, but political difficulties, consanguinity and the consequent need for a papal dispensation led to long delays. Then her “proxy husband” died and she had to be content with marriage to the Count of Bar, Edward’s ally against the king of France. They saw little of each other, for he was taken prisoner by the French, and soon after Eleanora died, in 1298. Husbands were found for Margaret and Elizabeth in the strategically significant Low Countries – Jan of Brabant for Margaret, Johan of Holland for Elizabeth, who would be married to the baron Humphrey de Bohun after her first husband’s early death.

Joanna, the second oldest of the girls, remained in England, married to the great Marcher lord, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, a man of her father’s generation. He was frequently at odds with the king and, though Joanna acted to some extent as an intermediary, she was quite prepared to support her husband and defy her father. Gilbert’s death in 1295 left her a rich and powerful widow, and she demonstrated her independence of mind by marrying a poor but handsome knight without telling the king of her intentions.

That she got away with this testifies to her strength of character and also to the surprising indulgence Edward showed to his daughters. This was in contrast to the severity with which he treated his heir, Edward of Carnarvon (later the unfortunate Edward II), and it says something for Joanna’s strength of character that she intervened on her brother’s behalf. Joanna is the one to be recommended to a novelist in search of a medieval heroine.

Only Mary remained unmarried. Indeed, it was early on decided that she should be a nun, and she grew up in the convent at Amesbury to which her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, had retired. She does not seem to have had any deep vocation. She proved a useful maiden aunt, always ready to look after her nephews and nieces, spent a lot of money on clothes and liked gambling. Her father was often called upon to make good her losses at dice.

Wilson-Lee gives us a picture of a close-knit family, with its members visiting each other regularly, and travelling in great style. Certainly this generation of Plantagenets seems to have been very different from Henry II’s rebellious and vicious “Devil’s Brood” . They were all fond of field sports and Elizabeth had a white greyhound “of such beauty” that her brother, Prince Edward, wrote to his “beautiful sister” asking if he might borrow it to mate with his own grey bitch.

There are many other such humanising touches recorded by the author, who provides fascinating detail on clothes, tapestries and jewels.

The text is unavoidably bespattered with “may haves”, “might haves” and “must haves” – unavoidably so because there are no surviving memoirs. All that is known is from archives and monastic chronicles that were not always well informed. When we are told that this princess or that must have been delighted to visit her mother or meet her nephews and nieces, one can only say, “perhaps” or “if you say so”. Norman-French was still the language of the court, and we don’t know how much English any of Edward’s children spoke or even understood. It may have been quite a lot, or it may not.

As I say, speculation is unavoidable. Nevertheless it’s pleasing to learn that much more is known about these “forgotten children” than I at least had thought likely. So this is an informative book, also a very enjoyable one. That said, it’s a pity that Wilson-Lee identifies herself with her Plantagenets so far as to call William Wallace a “rebel”. Moreover, she is wrong in suggesting that the Scottish army at Bannockburn enjoyed a superiority in numbers to the English one. Still, these are small and venial faults.