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Eleanor, Fair Maid of Brittany

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Eleanor of Brittany was the daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke of Brittany and Constance of Brittany. She was the eldest of Geoffrey and Constance's children and a sister to Arthur of Brittany, who was the rightful heir to the Angevin Empire on the death of Richard I. On Arthur's death in 1203, she was the rightful heir to that vast empire.

Born in around 1184, Eleanor's father, Geoffrey died when she was just two, and she became Ward to her uncle, Richard and grew up with Richard and Alienor of Aquitaine. As a result of this, she was very much viewed as Angevin and was never really considered as the heir to the Duchy of Brittany by anyone, which made pressing her claim as an adult much harder. When she reached marriageable age, in the middle of Richard I's reign (1190's) she was one of the most eligible brides in Europe as sister to the Heir Presumptive and niece to the Great Richard I. The potential suitor was Al-Adil, brother to Saladin, after Richard's sister Joanna had refused to marry him, and bring a political end to the Third Crusade. This didn't work. Next up was Friedrich, son of Leopald VI, Duke of Austria as part of the negotiations for the freedom of Richard after his capture on the way back from the Third Crusade. This plan ended when Duke Leopald died and Friedrich decided that he didn't want the marriage (so married Eudokia Laskarina, a Byzantine Princess). Another plan was made to marry Eleanor to Prince Louis, son of Philip Augustus, and heir to the Kingdom of France, but this failed, so the next plan was for marriage to Odo, Duke of Burgandy (when Philip found out, he promptly forbade any marriage between a relative of Richard and Odo).

When Richard died in 1199, Eleanor's fortunes plummeted. Although Richard had named John his successor on his deathbed, Arthur was the rightful King, and being his sister put Eleanor in a bad position. She was higher in line to the throne than John was, according to law which meant that John could never allow her to marry or have children, for fear of revolts and that any sons she had would be a centre of unrest. Arthur rebelled early in John's reign, and was captured at Mirebeau (while trying to capture his own Grandmother, Alienor of Aquitaine). Eleanor was captured soon after or at the same time, although when isn't recorded. This was the beginning of her years as a prisoner. She was eighteen.

After Arthur's death in around 1203 (probably at Easter), Eleanor was the heir to the throne (as mentioned) and neither John nor Henry III ever forgot this. She was kept under close guard when she was under imprisonment, and seemed to have been held at varying points at Corfe, Marlborough, Gloucester and Bristol Castle t, although it is difficult to pinpoint where she was at different times. In the early days of her confinement, John would send local barons to visit Eleanor to prove that she was being treated well (a luxury her brother was not allowed in his detainment in an Angevin dungeon). She was given clothes, alms to distribute, linen and two ladies in waiting during this time, but not her freedom. In 1208, she was given the title, Countess of Richmond, and did spend some time at Court in the 1210's although she was said to have remained defiant (understandable really, given that she had been in custody for over ten years by that point).

The only piece of hope that she was ever given of freedom was in 1214, when John planned to set her up as a puppet Duchess of Brittany instead of her younger half-sister Alix, who was Duchess at the time, but nothing happened. It was fear that Eleanor would be a puppet of an Angvien monarch that was one of the original reasons for Breton Barons not wanting her as their Duchess. I doubt that Eleanor would have enjoyed the arrangement either if it had come to pass, although it would have been significantly better than captivity. In 1219, Henry III took away her title as Countess of Richmond, and in 1221, she was moved away from the coastal Castle of Corfe for fear of a plot by sea to help her escape. She endured thirty-nine years of imprisonment and died in 1241.