March is the month of the birth of Eleanor of Castile and Edward I’s two longest lived daughters. 15 March, half way through the month, and also the reputed birthdate of one of them, is a good date to meditate a little on their fates – and those of their less fortunate sisters.
Margaret, born allegedly today in 1275 (but more probably at the start of the month) was to be the longest lived of the daughters, being recorded alive in March 1333 (making her 58 years old). Running her a fairly close second was Mary, probably born in March 1279 and who died in the early part of 1332, aged 52/3. What the two women share, in contrast to their shorter lived sisters, is a limited exposure to childbearing.
Margaret was engaged at a very early age to John, the heir to Duke John I of Brabant. Young John was brought to spend a few years before the wedding in England, where he seems to have avoided the chance to learn much, but done himself rather well in the way of hunting and gaming. The marriage in 1290 was a very splendid affair, with lavish processions, illuminations, music and other entertainment, as well as multiple outfit changes for the central participants. Duke John I was a well known playboy (perhaps unsurprising in the darling of the tournament world) and while his son appears to have behaved himself while living with his in laws, a lengthy list of illegitimate children shows that he took after his father in this respect – doubtless a cause of considerable upset to Margaret, whose own father was never to be found far from his wife’s bed. Whether Margaret barred John from her bed after producing an heir in 1300, or a difficult labour made further childbearing inadvisable/impossible, she never had another child. After the death of John II in 1312, Margaret remained in Brabant, from whence she corresponded with her brother Edward II.
Mary "of Woodstock" avoided the perils of childbirth altogether. She was entered as a child nun at Amesbury Abbey in 1285, to keep her grandmother Eleanor of Provence company on her enclosure in 1286. She was accompanied in this commitment by her scholarly cousin Eleanor of Brittany and a number of other aristocratic girls. However despite early habituation and plenty of company, contemplative life did not appeal to her. Unlike Eleanor of Brittany, who went on to become a formidable Abbess of Fontevrault, Mary seems to have taken every opportunity to live a bit outside the walls of the Abbey. She attended the weddings of her sisters, and seems to have spent a good deal of time gambling unsuccessfully, and persuading her father to pay her gambling debts. Her allowance of wine was lavish. She also seems to have travelled with a retinue of horses, and sometimes accompanied by other nuns from the abbey. Her peregrinations, in defiance of the rule of the order, resulted in Eleanor of Brittany suspending her from her position as vicegerent and visitatrix of Amesbury, an order which Royal and papal pressure was required to revoke. Most scandalous of all, in later years it was to be alleged that she had had an affair with John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. While it is quite possible that this allegation was made by him mischievously in seeking to rid himself of Mary’s niece, to whom he was unhappily married, the fact that such an allegation could be made speaks volumes about Mary’s reputation. Mary, we can safely conclude, was known to enjoy life.
What of the other daughters who loved long enough to marry? Eleanora, married to the Duke of Bar in 1293, died giving birth to her second child in 1297 aged 28. Joan of Acre, having outlived her first husband, died aged 35 in 1307, probably in the course of giving her second husband a fourth child (to add to the four she had borne her first husband). Meanwhile the youngest daughter, Elizabeth, died aged 34 in childbirth – her tenth in the course of a very happy fourteen year marriage to her distant cousin Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. The moral? In the C13-C14 avoiding childbirth was a good plan, if you had any desire to live to anything approaching a ripe old age …