Monday, March 8, 2010

{11} John Plantagenet (1266-1271), Firstborn Son of Edward I

Edward I/Eleanor of Castile impalement
[Image from a window in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace]
For Lord Edward and his wife Eleanor of Castile, the Barons' War of 1264 to 1265 was the greatest dynastic challenge they would ever face. Edward was a hostage of Simon de Montfort, the leader of the baronial opposition, for an entire year, from the battle of Lewes in May 1264, until he managed to make his escape at Hereford in May 1265. Eleanor had been ordered to go to Westminster with the couple's only child, a two-year-old daughter Katherine, who died there in September 1264. Eleanor then gave birth in January 1265 (so conceived at Windsor Castle shortly before the Battle of Lewes) to another daughter, Joan, who lived only a short while. If Edward had died before the couple was reunited, Eleanor would have been a childless widow, with no landed income and her fate in the hands of the crippled Plantagenet dynasty, reduced to puppets of Montfort and the barons.

The battle of Evesham was a decisive victory for Lord Edward, but it wasn't the final one. Resistance to royal administrative and military authority continued throughout the kingdom. The prince and his wife were reunited in September 1265, likely at Winchester, where a parliament had been summoned to deal with the lands and widows of the rebel barons who had been killed and captured at Evesham. In October, the English queen, Edward's mother Eleanor of Provence, made a triumphant return to England in the company of the papal legate, and Dover Castle surrendered to Edward. By Christmas of that year, Eleanor of Castile would be certain she was carrying another child. Lord Edward spent that holiday in the fens and marshes of north Lincolnshire, where the slain Simon de Montfort's son, Simon de Montfort the younger, was holding out with a baronial force on the Isle of Axholme. They came to terms on Christmas Day [*1].
Kenilworth Castle in the 13th-century
[Artist: Ivan Lapper, created for English Heritage guidebook]
In the spring, Eleanor retreated to Windsor Castle to await her lying in, while Edward dealt successfully with baronial resistance in Kent and Hampshire. By far the strongest strategic point that was refusing to surrender to royal authority was Montfort's chief administrative seat, Kenilworth Castle. Forces led by Edward's younger brother Lord Edmund, had laid siege to the castle for months, in the largest such operation to have occurred so far on English soil. But the rebel garrison, secure in the castle's strength, continued to hold out. In May 1266, Lord Edward joined his brother at Kenilworth to oversee the siege [*2].
St John the Baptist Feast Day
[Image from early-13th-century psalter, Arundel 157]

The Church had long ago combined pagan celebrations marking the beginning of summer with the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24th. It was one of the most important festivals of the medieval calendar, during which no one, from nobleman to serf, was allowed to work. Huge bonfires were lit on the eve of St. John, for the greater the light of the fire, the greater the harvest. Burning wheels were guided down hills by industrious lads, and if they extinguished in a body of water, rather than burning out beforehand, it was another blessing for the harvest. Dancing and singing accompanied the bonfires, and leaping over one as it burned low was thought to bring good luck. No less than three masses were celebrated on the feast day - it was regarded as a time for cleansing one's soul. Though secluded far from the public eye in a private chamber at Windsor for her lying in and unable to participate in the celebration, Eleanor must still have observed the fires from a distance and overheard the merriment. Another resident of Windsor unable to celebrate personally was Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby. He had refused to submit to royal authority after Evesham, was captured just a few weeks previous by a royal force led by Edward's first cousin Henry of Almain, and had been taken as a prisoner to Windsor Castle [*3]. Lord Edward and the soldiers surrounding Kenilworth Castle would have kept the festival more guardedly, but still have celebrated. Shortly afterwards, King Henry III himself joined the siege of Kenilworth and the process of negotiation with the rebel garrison inside began again in earnest.
Norman Gate of Windsor Castle
A few weeks later at Windsor, during the night between the 13th and 14th of July 1266, Eleanor gave birth to a healthy son. He was christened John in honor of St. John the Baptist [*4], though the name also served to symbolically underscore the victory of the Plantagenets over the barons by harking back to King John, and reinforcing the fact that his direct bloodline still was blessed and in charge. News of little John's birth was greeted ecstatically throughout the kingdom. Henry III rewarded the messenger who brought "the delightful news" with an annual income of £20 [*5], while Walter Giffard, Bishop of Bath and Wells, whose parents had raised Lord Edward, would reward the messenger (Eleanor of Castile's clerk, William, rector of Gattington) who brought him the news with forty shillings a year [*6]. But the biggest celebration of John's birth was held in London. The Londoners had much to make up for to the Plantagenets. They had strongly supported Simon de Montfort, had pelted the barge of Queen Eleanor of Provence, and had opposed the King and Lord Edward at the battle of Lewes. After Evesham, Henry III arrested the delegation of forty Londoners led by the mayor that came to him at Windsor, and the mayor and four others were given over to Edward as hostages. A large number of forfeited London properties was made over to Lord Edward's knights and close adherents. It wasn't until January 1266 that a formal royal pardon was issued to Londoners, in return for a fine of the staggering sum of 20,000 marks [*7].

To honor the birth of the newest Plantagenet, the Londoners called a holiday and held a procession, terminating at the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, where offerings were made. Henry III also insured that Eleanor of Castile's churching ceremony, held thirty to forty days after John's birth, took place at the shrine of his patron saint [*8]. The Plantagenets were again a blessed dynasty, further demonstrated when the rebel garrison at Kenilworth, which was beset by hunger and cold as much as by the royal forces surrounding the castle, finally surrendered in mid-December 1266. The stench in the castle was so great, that the royalist besiegers were almost overcome when they finally entered it [*9].

Wallingford Castle remains
As the only child of his parents and a future king of England, John was set up in his own household at Windsor Castle, just as his father Lord Edward had been soon after his own birth. He was joined there by a younger brother Henry in 1268, and a younger sister Eleanor in 1269. It was Windsor where John spent the majority of his short life. In August 1270, a month after his fourth birthday, the young prince saw his parents for the final time, just prior to their departure from England for a Crusade to the Holy Land. By that point King Henry III was in such poor health that Lord Edward entrusted the care of his children to his uncle, Richard of Cornwall, instead, with the provision that if anything happened to Richard, the children would be put under the care of his son and heir, Edward's trusted cousin Henry of Almain. Richard of Cornwall moved the children from Windsor to his favorite residence and chief administrative seat, Wallingford Castle. Here young John would spend his final months. His fifth birthday on July 13th was no doubt a subdued affair, for Richard of Cornwall would still be in mourning over the murder on the continent, four months previous on March 13th, of his son Henry of Almain by two of the surviving sons of Simon de Montfort.

The five-year-old prince, whose birth had been so celebrated, died at Wallingford Castle three weeks later, on the night of the Invention of St. Stephen (3rd of August) 1271 [*10]. The outpouring of grief over the death of the handsome child was as widespread as the outpouring of joy had been at his birth [*11]. Richard of Cornwall oversaw the funeral arrangements, and five days later, on the 8th of August 1271, young John was buried in Westminster Abbey on the north side of the rebuilt shrine of St. Edward the Confessor [*12], the completion of which had been celebrated by Henry III in a grand ceremony on the saint's feast day three years previous, 13 October 1269.

News of their eldest child's death didn't reach Lord Edward and Eleanor until the autumn of 1272, after they had completed their Crusade, and were wintering at the court of Edward's uncle Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, at Trapani. In November, the couple received the news of the death of Edward's father King Henry III. A story, which historian John Carmi Parsons, deduces is apocryphal, sprang up about the surprise of King Charles to find Edward extremely upset by the death of his father and unconcerned at the death of his son John, with Edward explaining that it was easy to beget sons but a father was irreplaceable [*13]. It may well have a grain of truth to it, however. One's father symbolizes the past, and one's son the future. The loss of both in such a close timeframe is a reminder of the importance of the present. Edward was now King of England. The past could not be undone, but the future, with the potential for further children, was in the hands of himself, those of his wife, and those, as always in medieval theology, of God.
Westminster Abbey Tomb thought to contain
the remains of the young Plantagenets,
children of Henry III & Edward I

A beautiful little tomb in Westminster Abbey, inlaid with Italian mosaic tiles, that lies between the chapels of St. Edmund and St. Benedict, is thought to have been made for John by his father Edward I. It is without inscription and is said to now contain the bones of all the children of Henry III and Edward I (nine in total) that were buried in the Abbey [*14].

[*1] Michael Prestwich, Edward I (Yale English Monarchs Series, 1988), pp. 54-55.
[*2] Ibid, p. 56.
[*3] John R. Maddicott, "Ferrers, Robert de, sixth earl of Derby (c.1239–1279)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). His career will be looked at more fully when I get to Henry Ferrers, 3rd Lord Ferrers of Groby.
[*4] Liber de Antiquis Legibus: Cronica Maiorum et Vicecomitum Londoniarum, edited by Thomas Stapleton, Camden Society Volume 34 (1846), p. 87. The full entry reads, “Eodem anno, ij idus Julii, de nocte, uxor Domini Edwardi peperit filium suum primogenitum apud Windleshores; quibus rumoribus auditus Cives Londoniarum fecerunt proclamare in Civitate, quod in crastino /tota communa solempnizassent nullum opus servile faciendo pre gaudio nativitatis dicti pueri. Unde factum est, quod illa die, omnibus seldis et schopis clausis, omnes viri et mulieres, tam clerici quam laici, pede et equo perrexerunt apud Westmonasterium, gratias agentes Deo pro nativitate pueri et orantes pro salute sua. Et per vicos Civitatis tripudium ducentes et cantilenas facientes pre gaudio, sicut solet fieri annuatim in festo Sancti Johannis Baptiste; cui vero puero impositum est nomen Johannes.”
[*5] Calendar of Patent Rolls 1258-1266 (1910), p. 617. The full entry, dated at Kenilworth 21 July 1266, reads, “Grant to John Ferre, for the delightful news which he brought to the king of the birth of John son of Edward the king’s son, that the king will assign to him 20l. yearly of land out of the first escheats, as soon as an opportunity offer.”
[*6] The Register of Walter Giffard, Lord Archbishop of York 1266-1279, edited by William Brown, Surtees Society Volume 109 (1904), p. 101.
[*7] Prestwich, Edward I, p. 54.
[*8] John Carmi Parsons, Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England (1995), pp. 25, 264 n. 51.
[*9] Prestwich, Edward I, p. 57.
John Carmi Parsons, “The Year of Eleanor of Castile’s Birth and Her Children by Edward I”, Mediaeval Studies, Volume 46 (1984), pp. 258-259.
[*11] Prestwich, Edward I, p. 126.
[*12] Liber de Antiquis Legibus, p. 141. The full entry reads, "Hoc anno obiit Johannes, primogenitus Domini Edwardi, puer etate quinque annorum et non plene quatuor septimanarum. Cujus corpus in Ecclesia Westmonasterii, ex opposito basilice Sancti Edwardi in parte aquilonali datum est sepulture viij die mensis Augusti.”
[*13] Parsons, Eleanor of Castile.
[*14] Barbara Hervey, Westminster Abbey and its Estates in the Middle Ages (1977), pp. 374-375. She cites "Tombs of Royal Babies in Westminster Abbey" a 1953 article by J.D. Tanner in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association as her source.


  1. Great post, Brad - I love to see Eleanor's domestic situations put into the context of what was happening in the kingdom at the time. I sometimes ponder how different history would be if one of Edward II's elder brothers had lived to become king!

    I really wish that more remained of Wallingford Castle, given that it later belonged to my great hero ;) Piers Gaveston - wasn't it Oliver Cromwell who slighted it? Talking of Piers, I saw in another comment here that you're writing something called Blacklow Hill, Brad?

  2. Lol, Edward's life sure wasn't boring. Captivity, escapes, battles, sieges, crusades, and a few parties in between ... :)

    How did he escape from Hereford?

  3. Thank you, Kathryn. I like to look at the overall picture - Edward of Caernarvon was meant to become king. At least that's how he and his father would've seen it. I think that true reform in administration wouldn't have occurred if Edward had been a strong military and chivalric leader like his father and his son were, as those reigns masked the horrific factional politics the feudal system created, which were played out in the open in Edward II's reign.

    I had a nice few hours wandering around Wallingford on a summer day in 2004. I walked the full perimeter of the castle ruins. In its heyday, it was huge and imposing - a true fortress! Yes, Cromwell basically had it shelled to rubble. He couldn't allow Royalists to use it against him.

    Blacklow Hill is a screenplay I wrote some years back about Edward, Gaveston, Elizabeth and Bohun, that I hope to turn into a novel.

    Gabriele, Edward I had a full life for sure. He's usually viewed now as a tyrant thanks to Braveheart (though no doubt the Scots saw him as such in his own time), but he was much more cultured than his image today, and I get the impression he didn't much like England. I think he preferred Aquitaine and the continent, being raised as he was by his mother's highly cultured relatives.

    He escaped from captivity at Hereford, by going out riding with a small band of knights, and suddenly taking off with a couple esquires and out-riding his pursuers. One of the knights was Thomas de Clare, younger brother of the earl of Gloucester, who had suddenly switched sides against Montfort a month beforehand, so its thought that Gloucester helped Edward plan his escape.

  4. Oh, that's some dashing escape. :)

    Reminds me of the German Emperor Otto II who after the lost battle of Cape Colonna in southern Italy escaped from Byzantine captivity by jumping off their ship and swimming ashore.

    And Heinrich IV escaped from the besieged Harzburg Castle through the well and some mines in the mountain (the Harzburg is one of those German hilltop castles).

  5. A novel about Edward and Piers?? *Faints with joy*.

  6. This was a great post Brad. So sad. I wonder if the parents ever 'got used' to losing their children. Some writers have pointed out that because of the higher infant mortality rates throughout history, parents didn't feel the same way as we would today at the death of a child. I think that is a load of rubbish, as a death of a child would be devastating at any time. The fact that these royal babies were buried near the tomb of the confessor surely shows the love of their parents who wished them to be placed near a saint. And the handmade mosaic sounds like a beautiful tribute.

    I too shall look forward to your novel about Edward and Piers! Kathryn wishes it was finished already! YAY!