Eleanor of Brittany was a grand daughter of King Henry II born in about 1184. She was the eldest child of Henry’s son Geoffrey and Constance, sure jure Countess of Brittany. Geoffrey, who was older than his brother John, was killed during a tournament in Paris in August 1186. His only son, Arthur, was a posthumous child. With the arrival of Arthur, Eleanor was no longer such a good catch as a bride because the duchy would pass to her brother. Her grandfather kept Eleanor in protective custody from the time she was two-years of age. King Philip II demanded that the girl should become his ward but Henry refused to consider the possibility.
With the death of Geoffrey, Richard became his niece’s guardian. The king offered her as a bride to Saladin’s brother when her aunt Joanna of Sicily refused. After Richard’s imprisonment on his way home from the 3rd Crusade by Duke Leopold of Austria she was betrothed to the duke’s son. The death of Leopold before she could be handed into his care meant that the betrothal was broken. There were other betrothal negotiations but none came to fruition. Then in 1199 Richard died unexpectedly. In 1201, Eleanor’s mother Constance, who had petitioned for her daughter’s return into her custody on several occasions, also died.
Arthur, Eleanor’s brother, had a good claim to the throne. He was, after all, the son of John’s elder brother but John was an adult who was not a pawn of the French in the way that Arthur became. In 1202 Arthur was captured after he laid siege to his grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine at Mirebeau. Arthur disappeared from the historical record during Easter 1203, believed to have been murdered by his uncle John in a drunken rage. Eleanor, who was in England, was a threat by association but bumping off his niece would be far too suspicious.
Technically as an unmarried female she was John’s ward and she would remain his dependent for the rest of his life. If she was freed, permitted to rule as the duchess of Brittany and married then her husband would have had a claim to the throne – although after the experience with the Empress Matilda no one was keen on the idea of a female monarch. By keeping her in custody the possibility of civil war was removed as was any possibility of her taking an active political role. Even so, the possibility of a marriage was considered. A woman with legitimate royal blood was a useful bargaining chip. In 1208, John created her Countess of Richmond and permitted her to come to court by then her younger half-sister was Brittany’s duchess. She may also have accompanied her uncle on campaign in 1214 when John sought to regain at least part of his father’s empire.
Throughout it all Eleanor was treated as a royal kinsman, she had ladies, good food and royal robes but she was not free to come and go as she wished either in John’s life time or during the reign of his son King Henry III. By 1225 she had a small household and an allowance for almsgiving, but it did not represent the income from the earldom of Richmond and even worse Henry removed the title from her in order to bestow it elsewhere. Over the years she was moved around the countryside. She stayed at Corfe in Dorset but travelled to Bowes and Burgh as well as Marlborough and Gloucester. It seems that her guards were changed regularly in order to prevent any escape plots being hatched.
She died at Bristol Castle in 1241 after 39 years as a prisoner having never plotted against a king of England.
Seabourne, Gwen, Imprisoning Medieval Women, (Ashgate Publishing, 2013)
Seabourne, Gwen, ‘Eleanor of Brittany and Her Treatment by King John and Henry III’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 51 (2007), 73–110