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Category: Women in History

  1. Unlucky Princesses: Eleanor Woodstock and Joan of the Tower

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    If you want to look at an unhappy Royal family in history, then you don’t have to look much further than King Edward II and Queen Isabella. A marriage that was supposed to seal peace between England and France eventually led to a rebellion against the King. While their son Edward III certainly had a happy marriage, the same cannot be said for his two sisters.

    Eleanor of Woodstock Eleanor-of-Woodstock

    The elder of the two princesses, Eleanor of Woodstock was born in June 1318. Eleanor’s childhood featured growing estrangement between her parents, followed by her mother leading a rebellion against her father. She was nine years old when her brother was formally crowned and became part of their mother’s puppet government, and she spent a number of years in the care of various noble families in England. 

    Eleanor’s future was the subject of a lot of negotiation as the years went by. The kingdoms of Castile and France were both interested in the possibility of her as a Royal bride. Negotiations with Castile floundered over the dowry negotiations, Prince Alfonso ended up making an unhappy marriage with a Portuguese princess. For the French an English princess would have been a suitable wife for the heir to the throne, Prince John. But Eleanor was pipped at the post by the kingdom of Bohemia, who offered a princess in return for a military alliance.

    Instead Eleanor had to settle for an older widower. Count Reinoud II of Guelders had been widowed in 1329, his wife Sophia had left him with four daughters but no sons. Eleanor’s marriage was arranged by her brother’s mother-in-law, who was helping expand English influence beyond the normal spheres. Eleanor was given a magnificent trousseau and was dispatched overseas. The marriage took place in May 1332 in the town of Nijmegen (part of modern Netherlands).

    Sadly for the young princess it was not a happy marriage. Eleanor gave birth to the required heir and spare; Reinoud was born in 1333, and Edward in 1336. But she was much younger than her husband, barely two years older than her eldest stepdaughter. Coming from an unstable family and unhappy childhood Eleanor reportedly clung to her husband, who eventually grew bored and dismissed her from court. He even tried to have the marriage annulled by declaring she had leprosy, but in a rare show of spirit Eleanor reportedly returned to court wearing nothing by a thin shift. With no signs of leprosy the annulment was never going to be successful.

    Reinoud died suddenly in 1343 after falling from his horse. His and Eleanor’s eldest son was only nine years old at the time. Eleanor made a bid to become Regent in her son’s name, but ultimately failed in 1344. After falling out with her son her lands were confiscated and she eventually died in poverty in a convent. She was only 36 years old.

    Joan of the Tower Joan-of-the-Tower

    Unlike her older sister, there was very little debate in Joan’s future marriage. Her name comes from her place of birth, political insecurities at the time meant that Isabella had to have her confinement in the secure walls of the Tower of London. Political considerations would dominate her life, her marriage was arranged as part of the Treaty of Northampton between England and Scotland in 1328. Joan was promptly sent north in the summer, on 17 July 1328 the seven year old princess married the four year old heir to the Scottish throne - Prince David. 

    The two children were raised together in the Scottish court. David’s early reign was marked by the passing of various regents, before he was forced to flee to France in 1334 after a rebellion led by Edward Balliol (with the assistance of Joan’s brother, Edward III of England). David was only eleven, Joan was nearly thirteen. They were offered a home in Chateau Gaillard (which had been built by King Richard I) but very little is known about their time in France.

    The Royal couple were allowed to return to Scotland in 1341. Joan was now twenty years old and reportedly a beautiful young woman. But David returned to Scotland with his mistress in tow, leaving Joan somewhat sidelined in her own court. They lasted in Scotland for five years until David was captured by the English at the Battle of Neville's Cross. He was taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London and Joan followed. But while her husband was a captive, albeit one held in a certain amount of luxury, Joan was an honoured guest. She resided with her mother, was given a pension by her brother, and received frequent visits from her sister-in-law Queen Philippa and her nieces and nephews.

    In many ways Joan's story ends better than most unlucky princesses. Her marriage was a sham, and David had consistently shown his disdain for her. After his release and return to Scotland in 1357 he quickly took up another mistress. Joan by this point had had enough and returned to her brother's court where she was once again a beloved member of the family. She accompanied Isabella on her final pilgrimage and nursed her during her last illness. She didn't live for too many more years, dying in 1362 aged 41. She was buried at London's Greyfriars Church near her mother.

    David remarried after becoming a widower. His second wife also failed to conceive any children, and on his death the Scottish throne went to the Stuart line.


     

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Maria Josepha of Bavaria.

    If you like the Unlucky Princess series you might like my eBook series - 30 Women in History.

  2. Unlucky Princesses: Maria Josepha of Bavaria

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    If you don't get along with your mother-in-law then spare a thought for poor Maria Josepha of Bavaria. Not only did she get an overbearing mother-in-law in the form of Empress Maria Theresa, but she also had a husband who spent most of their marriage showing his complete disdain for her.

    Maria Josepha was born on 20 March 1739 in Munich, the last of seven children, although only four had survived infancy. At the age of four she lost her older sister Theresa Benedicta, followed by her father Charles when she was just six years old. Her mother Maria Amalia was a first cousin to Maria Theresa, and it was on her behalf that Charles, who was Holy Roman Emperor, had claimed the Habsburg lands during the War of Austrian Succession. After Charles' death Maria Amalia persuaded her son to make peace with Maria Theresa, and it was Maria Theresa's husband Francis who was elected the new Holy Roman Emperor. Maria-Josepha-of-Bavaria

    Maria Josepha's mother lived in retirement after her husband's death, and she may have taken her youngest child with her for company. In 1756 Maria Amalia died, leaving her seventeen year old daughter an orphan. As her two surviving older sisters were married she most likely resided at the court of her brother, Maximilian III of Bavaria. Both sisters had married relatively late, in their early twenties, so it should not be too surprising that Maria Josepha was still unmarried at the age of twenty six, when a marriage was proposition arrived from the court of Empress Maria Theresa.

    The potential bridegroom was her eldest son Joseph. His first wife Isabella of Parma had died 1763 after contracting smallpox while pregnant. Joseph's only living child was a daughter, and the Empress was determined that he would have a male heir. A uniting of the two families might prevent war in the future, and Maria Josepha was the only unmarried daughter left from that side of the family. Her thoughts on the match are unknown, but Joseph was particularly reluctant. He had adored Isabella and continued to mourn her. He had no interest in remarrying, unless it was to her sister Maria Luisa (who declined the suggestion, not only was she already betrothed but she had no interest in taking her sister's place).

    However Maria Theresa was not an indulgent parent. She wanted an heir from Joseph, and so he needed a wife. After a proxy ceremony two weeks previously the couple were formally married in Vienna on 25 January 1765. Although Maria Josepha was, at first, very happy with her husband and fell in love with him quickly her feelings were not reciprocated. In one of his many letters Joseph complained that she had bad teeth, acne, and was too short. In another letter, this time to his former father-in-law, Joseph complained that he had nothing in common with his new wife and would never be able to love her.

    Maria Josepha herself was very aware that her husband didn't care for her, in many ways he did nothing to hide it. In fact Joseph managed to arrange his days so that he only saw his wife briefly in the morning when he woke up, at mealtimes when they shared a table, and in the evening when they went to bed. The rest of the court may have taken their cue from Joseph as his wife does not seem to have settled in well, she was mostly isolated and deeply unhappy. She was reportedly a very amiable young woman, but poorly educated (surprising given that of her two surviving sisters, one was a noted musician and the other a diplomat). Joseph wanted a mirror image of Isabella; beatiful, well educated and witty. Maria Josepha would never live up to the idealised portrait of the beloved first wife.

    Eight months after the wedding Maria Josepha became Holy Roman Empress when her husband's father died. However the reins of power were still very firmly in the hands of Maria Theresa, and she wasn't ready to relinquish anything to her son, let alone her daughter-in-law. Had Maria Josepha managed to produce the desired heir then things might have improved, but she and Joseph do not appear to have conceived a child during their few years together.

    In May 1767, just over two years after her wedding day, Maria Josepha contracted smallpox and died. Joseph stayed well away from his second wife and didn't even visit her on her deathbed, although Maria Theresa visited her (and caught smallpox as a result, however she survived).

    Maria Josepha's tomb can today be found in the Imperial crypt, as a Holy Roman Empress she was buried with the rest of the family who had cared so little for her in life.


    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Juana la Beltraneja.

    If you like the Unlucky Princess series you might like my eBook series - 30 Women in History.

  3. Unlucky Princesses: Juana la Beltraneja

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    Technically known to history as “Juana of Castile” (a name that would later be taken by one of her nieces), Juana la Beltraneja's more well-known name comes from the questions that surrounded her birth. Her mother Joan of Portugal was a Queen Consort of Castile as the second wife of King Enrique IV of Castile. Enrique had had his first marriage dissolved after thirteen years on the basis that it had never been consummated due to impotence (caused by a curse). Juana-la-Beltraneja

    Juana's birth on 21 February 1462 was something of a miracle, assuming her father's rumoured problem was true. Castilian nobles on the other hand attributed her not to God, but to court favourite Beltran de la Cueva. Much of what was written about Enrique came during the reign of his half-sister Isabella, who needed to legitimise her own actions. Juana's epithet thus comes from her potential father Beltran.

    Despite the apparent rumours Enrique was happy to recognise the baby as his own. When she was three months old he officially named her as the heir to the throne and gave her the title “Princess of Asturias” - the traditional title held by the heir. But various members of the Castilian nobility refused to recognise her as heir, favouring Enrique's younger half-brother Alfonso. In 1464 civil war broke out, and Enrique was forced to acknowledge Alfonso as his heir. The one compromise that was agreed to was that Alfonso would marry Juana when she came of age, uniting the two competing claims to the throne.

    Alfonso's death four years later should have given Enrique an opportunity to promote Juana again. Instead he agreed to support the claim of his half-sister Isabella. Juana was still excluded. Her claims weren't helped by the actions of her mother. Joan had been dismissed from court by Enrique and ended up moving to a castle belonging to the Bishop Fonesca. She fell in love with the Bishop's nephew and had two illegitimate children with him. Not only did this give Enrique an excuse to divorce her too, but it also added to the rumours about Juana. Clearly her mother was an adulteress at least once, why not twice?

    On Enrique's death in 1474 it looked as if Juana's cause was completely lost. Although her mother tried to support her from her exile, her death in 1475 put paid to any assistance she could have given her daughter. Juana herself had been raised by a succession of noble Castilian families, and her future marriage had been carefully considered by her father. French and Burgundian alliances were considered, but in the end she was betrothed to King Afonso of Portugal. Enrique's death led to the War of Castilian Succession. Isabella was supported by her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. In May 1475 Afonso of Portugal invaded Castile and promptly fulfilled his betrothal by marrying Juana.

    Afonso brought with him an army from Portugal, combined with the Castilians who supported Juana. It wasn't enough though, after the Battle of Toro Ferdinand declared an overwhelming victory.

    It wasn't quite true, but it was enough to convince the Castilians to side with Ferdinand and Isabella. Afonso tried and failed to secure support from France, and effectively gave up the fight. He abdicated the Portuguese throne in 1477 and retired to a monastery. Juana's marriage was annulled a year later, and Isabella gave her a choice – become a nun or wait for another decade to marry Isabella's infant son Juan, and again potentially unite the two claims. Juana chose the convent, and officially renounced her claim to the Castilian throne. However she spent the rest of her life signing letters as “Juana the Queen”. After a number of years in a convent she was allowed to move to Lisbon, where she resided in the Castle of Sao Jorge, supported by her mother's family.

    Juana outlived Isabella by twenty six years, dying in Lisbon in April 1530. Ironically it's reported that after Isabella's death her husband Ferdinand proposed to Juana, in a desperate attempt to keep control of Castile. Unsurprisingly Juana declined.


    The previous Unlucky Princess was Marie Louise d'Orleans.

    If you like the Unlucky Princess series you might like my eBook series - 30 Women in History.

  4. Unlucky Princesses: Marie Louise d'Orleans

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    Marie Louise d'Orleans really drew the short straw when it came to a Royal marriage. This poor French princess was sacrificed on the altar of political necessity, and married off to the last Habsburg king of Spain – King Carlos II.

    Born on 26 March 1662 Marie Louise was the daughter of Philippe, Duke of Orleans, and Henrietta Anne of England. Her father was the younger brother of King Louis XIV “the Sun King” while her mother was a younger sister of King Charles II of England and the future King James II. She grew up in the ostentatious luxury of the French court, travelling with her family between various palaces and staying with her grandmothers – the Dowgar Queen of France Anne of Austria, and Dowager Queen of England Henrietta Maria.

    Marie Louise d'Orleans

    When Marie was eight her mother died. Poison was suspected by some, but it was probably an infection from a perforated ulcer. Philippe remarried a year later to Elizabeth Charlotte “Liselotte” of the Palatinate, and again Marie Louise fell on her feet. Liselotte was not a stepmother out to cause trouble between her husband and his elder children, and she developed a close relationship with both Marie and her sister Anne.

    But when it came to marriage Marie Louise was less lucky. Although a marriage with her cousin the Dauphin was considered to be the best match a girl could want, it was France’s on-going battles with Spain that won out. Carlos had become king at the tender age of three on the death of his father King Philip IV. Such an inheritance at such a young age was difficult enough, but it was made worse by Carlos’ severe mental and physical disabilities. Generations of inbreeding between the two sides of the House of Habsburg meant that Carlos’ parents were uncle and niece. Philip IV’s parents had also been first cousins, in total eight of Carlos’ great-grandparents were descended from Philip Habsburg and Juana of Castile.

    Carlos’ health problems were well known around Europe. Unable to speak until he was four and unable to walk until he was eight, his deformed jaw and overly large tongue meant that he could barely chew his food. He had a minimal education, his doctors feared that mental exertion would lead to his early death. Marie Louise would not have been ignorant of these issues, and reportedly spent most of her time after the proxy marriage ceremony in floods of tears. Liselotte travelled with her for part of the journey to Spain, and kept up an active correspondence once she left France.

    Life in Spain was about as bad if not worse than Marie Louise may have imagined. Carlos was fascinated by his beautiful wife and fell in love with her, and she developed a good relationship with her mother-in-law Mariana. But in all other aspects it was a miserable existence. A young woman used to the beautiful opulence of the French court, Marie was now trapped in the austere residences of the Spanish court. She was expected to follow Spanish etiquette, highly formal and with strict rules about what Queens must not do. She wasn't even allowed to look out the window, lest a common citizen catch a glimpse of her. Spanish Catholicism was very different from French Catholicism, as Queen Marie was expected to witness the burning of heretics by the Inquisition. The courtiers and the Spanish people hated their French-born Queen and both Marie and her attendants from France were accused of plotting against the King.

    Marie Louise never fell pregnant, and this was also blamed squarely on her. Infertility was inevitably blamed on the woman, even when the husband was as clearly ill as Carlos was. Marie even confided to the French ambassador that she was sure she would never have a child, indicating that she was well aware it was Carlos' health problems that were the root cause.

    After a day out riding in February 1689 Marie Louise complained of a pain in her stomach. After two days of agonising stomach pains she was dead. Like her mother's untimely death, poison was suspected and her mother-in-law was accused of having her killed off so a more fertile woman could marry Carlos. Modern belief is that she died from appendicitis or food poisoning. She was only 26 years old, she had never seen France since leaving it for her wedding.


    If you like the Unlucky Princess series you might like my eBook series - 30 Women in History.

  5. On This Day: Death of Blanche of Castile

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    On 27 November 1252 the Regent of the French throne died. Not an uncle or brother or other male relative of King Louis IX but his mother, Blanche of Castile. With her son on Crusade she had proved to be an able regent, but this surprised no one. It wasn't the first time Blanche had been required to take care of France for her son, and she came from a line of highly capable women.

    Granddaughter of Eleanor of AquitaineBlanche of Castile, Queen of France

    Blanche was born in 1188, the daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Castile. Her mother was an illustrious princess, Eleanor of England, the daughter of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. She was the sixth of eleven children, although her three older brothers had all predeceased her.

    In her mother Blanche had an excellent example of a highly educated woman, able to wield the kind of control often denied to women at the time. The Queen had been gifted control of her dower, specific towns, ports and villages whose rents went towards the upkeep of her court. King Alfonso trusted his wife's judgement and named her in his will as Regent should his eventual heir, Prince Henry, be too young to rule in his own right. Queen Eleanor also supported several monastic houses in Castile and maintained a shrine to St Thomas Becket, providing Blanche with an example of the religious influence a Queen could wield.

    When Blanche was twelve the court of Castile received a visit from her grandmother, the dowager Queen of England – Eleanor of Aquitaine. Another strong woman, Eleanor had been sent to assist in the negotiations for the hand of a Castilian Princess for the heir to the French throne. In theory the honour was to go to Blanche's older sister Urraca, but Eleanor chose Blanche (Urraca had to settle for the King of Portugal instead). As spring came Eleanor and Blanche crossed back in to Gascony, where a sick Eleanor handed the custody of her granddaughter to the Archbishop of Bordeaux and then retired to the convent of Fontevrault.

    Queen in Waiting

    Blanche and the crown prince Louis were married in May 1200 in Port-Mort. Louis' father, King Philip II of France, had had his Kingdom placed under an interdict due to his treatment of Ingeborg of Denmark. The terms of an interdict meant that no religious services, including baptisms, marriages and burials, could be carried out. Port-Mort was owned by King John of England, Blanche's maternal uncle, and was therefore not under any religious interdict.

    Blanche had her first child, a daughter also named Blanche, in 1205. The baby didn't live long, but a boy followed in 1209. Blanche gave birth to a total of thirteen children, including four sons who all lived past infancy.

    There wasn't much scope for Blanche to wield any kind of influence. With King Philip firmly in charge there was little for the heir to the throne and his wife to do. King John's own problems with his barons in 1215 led to Louis being offered the English throne in right of his wife. Blanche was his only supporter in this endeavour, along with raising money from her father in law she also organised a fleet of ships to assist her husband. The French were eventually paid to leave England, Blanche's fleet had already been destroyed by the English off the coast at Sandwich, but it showed Louis that his wife could take charge when needed.

    Queen Regent Blanche of Castile coronation

    King Philip eventually died in 1223. After two decades of waiting Blanche was finally Queen of France alongside her husband, King Louis VIII. But it was to be a brief reign for the King. In 1226 Louis rode south to fight Count Raymond of Toulouse, leaving a pregnant Blanche behind. The King succeeded in taking Avignon, but on the journey home he contracted dysentery and died before he could reach home. France was suddenly left with a twelve year old King and his pregnant mother in charge. Almost immediately a group of French nobles began to consider a revolt, a pregnant woman was no match for them.

    The best thing the dead king could have done for his son was leave his mother as ruler of France in her own right until their son came of age. Despite her condition Blanche moved quickly to have Louis crowned at Rheims, which would show her who was loyal and who was not. Sure enough in the following years, those barons who avoided the coronation led several rebellions against the new King. But they were unsuccessful, and by the time he came of age Blanche was able to hand a secure kingdom on to her son.

    The unpleasant mother-in-law

    Strong, determined, and clever, Blanche was no match for any disobedient noble. But the qualities that made her a good regent didn't do quite so well in the personal sphere. She arranged for Louis to marry a young woman from the county of Provence, Marguerite the daughter of Count Raymond and his wife Beatrice of Savoy. But Marguerite's presence at court led to a reduction in interest in Blanche. Marguerite's beauty and gentle nature were praised, Blanche was sidelined. More importantly Louis quickly grew close to his wife, and this was a lapse in influence that Blanche could not allow to happen.

    Her treatment of Marguerite was reportedly couched in terms of concern. The new Queen failed to become pregnant quickly enough, so Blanche dispatched her on a public pilgrimage to a variety of shrines. She did everything possible to stop Marguerite and Louis meeting privately during the day, even assigning servants to watch the young woman. Louis was a King and Kings were busy ruling the kingdom, surely the new Queen could understand that she couldn't be bothering her husband during the day? Marguerite was reportedly deeply unhappy at her treatment at the hands of her mother-in-law, but Blanche was still too powerful at court for anyone to go against her, including Louis himself. He still needed her advice on matters of state, and was dependent on her for assistance. It was only when Marguerite gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Blanche in 1240, that the King's mother finally move to her own household and gave her son and daughter-in-law some peace. Albeit with Louis still needing her advice on matters of policy.

    The unwilling Regent Louis IX on crusade

    In 1244 Louis fell seriously ill, he had contracted dysentery two years before and this may have been a relapse. Blanche and Marguerite spent days praying at his sickbed, and at one point he was close to death. When he recovered Louis demanded he be given the cross, a sign that he would take up a Crusade in the name of God.

    Blanche spent months trying to persuade him to not go, even getting the Bishop of Paris to intervene. But Louis was determined, and Marguerite decided to go with him too. Blanche would be both Regent of France and the guardian of three infants (baby Blanche had died, as had a son named John, but by the time they were ready Isabella, Louis, and Philip were all in the French royal nursery). It was probably the first time that the King had openly defied his mother.

    Blanche was now sixty years old and dreading the responsibility her son was placing on her. After celebrating the start of his crusade with a Mass in Notre Dame the court travelled to Blanche's home in Corbeil. There the King said his farewells to his mother, who reportedly said to him “Alas, my fine son, I will never see you again in this mortal life.”

    During her second period as Regent, Blanche faced problems on multiple fronts. Raymond VII of Toulouse died just as the crusade left. As her son Alphonse was due to be the new Count of Toulouse (he had married Raymond's only child, a daughter), and was also on the Crusade, Blanche had to arrange for the smooth transition of power to the French crown. In Gascony English influence was leading to problems on the border. Blanche appealed to the Pope for aid, and got an extension on a truce already agreed with England, but English soldiers in Gascony could cause all manner of problems.

    Then Blanche received the worst news possible. The crusade had started well with the capture of Damietta. But after an attack on Egypt had gone badly wrong the French forces had been slaughtered, King Louis had been captured, and his brother Robert of Artois had been killed. Blanche suddenly found herself mourning the loss of a child and having to find an enormous sum of money for Louis' ransom. While trying to raise the money she wrote to Louis, begging him to return to France. Louis refused her request, sending back his two remaining brothers in his place. They both wanted to return and commanding them to go allowed Louis to save face. He wasn't being abandoned by his brothers, he was sending them to help their mother.

    The sum of money needed to free Louis was so large that Blanche refused to divulge the total, in case it led to a rebellion. After raising the money from the church and increasing the taxes on the towns she had it shipped to Acre. But it was all for nothing, the ship carrying the treasure sank in a storm and Blanche had to raise the money all over again. Louis was even writing to her asking her to raise a new load of troops for another crusade, but no one was willing to sign up.

    As she predicted Blanche never saw Louis again. In November 1252 she was taken ill while visiting Melun. After taking the veil and receiving the last rites from the Bishop of Paris, she died on 27 November 1252. She had requested to be buried in her crown, with her ermine robes, and her nun's veil over the top. Her two sons Charles and Alphonse carried her funeral bier back to Paris and had her interred in Maubuisson abbey, one of the Cistertian monasteries she had founded in 1236.

    Even his mother's death couldn't stop the King's desire to remain in the Holy Land. Louis finally arrived back in France in July 1254.


     

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