Eleanor of Provence, queen of Henry III, was castigated by contemporaries for her role in her husband's conflict with his barons and has been dismissed by more recent historians as unambitious and unassertive. Margaret Howell's fascinating biography defies both of these images to present an active and determined queen, passionate in her loyalties to individuals and monarchy, highly capable in financial matters, and a major player in the crises of Henry's reign.
Howell's is essentially a political biography, but Eleanor's approach to politics was primarily personal, dominated by loyalty to her family. The bond between Eleanor and her sister Margaret, wife of Louis IX, significantly contributed to peaceful relations between England and France during their queenship. The influence of Eleanor's Savoyard maternal uncles on the English polity was notoriously more destructive. Howell argues that they owed their powerful positions in the English court and church as much to their own ability as to Eleanor's support, and that it was their initial success that enabled her to be so influential. Eleanor was at her most authoritative during her period as regent in 1253-54, while Henry was abroad in Gascony. Surprisingly, Howell does not use this to develop the issue of contemporary attitudes to female power that much recent work on queenship has raised.
Throughout the book, Eleanor's motherhood is emphasised as the motive of much of her politics and as an avenue to authority. Howell presents Eleanor as an accomplished politician, building networks of patronage in England and abroad. Eleanor's management of her resources is described as a "fascinating success story", although the "ruthless exploitation" this involved raises questions about definitions of success.
Howell's reassessment of Eleanor's role in 13th-century politics and her approach to the study of queenship make this impressively researched work of import to scholars in both areas. Her readable and primarily narrative style should nonetheless appeal to a wider audience.
Joanna Chamberlayne is researching a DPhil at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York.
Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England
Author - Margaret Howell
ISBN - 0 631 17286 6
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £45.00
Pages - 349