An Interview with Sara Cockerill, author of Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen

Publisher: Amberley, September 8, 2014, Kindle available. Hardcover available, September 19, 2014. 
Genre: Non-fiction, British History, Eleanor of Castile, Edward I, Henry III. 
Pages: 448, with 40 illustrations.

Sara Cockerill joins me today in sharing about her life, and her new book: Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen

1. In reading the preface of the book, I am more than intrigued at Eleanor's personality, abilities and talents, and contributions to culture and society. During the course of the writing project of Eleanor: What do you feel is her greatest attribute?
The truth is that I find myself so impressed by the range of Eleanor’s interests that this is rather hard to answer!  Ultimately I think what I admire most is her overarching passion for and commitment to her interests – her determination to lead a full and rich life.  After all, it would have been very easy for Eleanor to say that a simple consort’s role was quite enough to cope with, and to let her interests sit on the back burner and get forgotten (think Mrs Elton in “Emma”).  Eleanor  managed to find time to do the essentials of the consort’s job (giving birth to and supervising those hordes of children and observing the ceremonial requirements), and also to do a difficult job in property acquisition and management and maintain her own interests in books, horses, gardens, design and domestic luxury.  All of these things simply cannot be done without a verve, a zest for living, and a determination to live her life in her own way.  And even with that, achieving all this cannot have been easy.  Simply thinking about the mechanics of all she managed to combine has frequently left me feeling rather light headed.

2. How long did the writing project last? What was the first step in the process? For example, reading other books on Eleanor.
I probably started work on the book something over ten years ago, but I did take a couple of years out to write a legal text book in the middle!  The first step was a question, which came to me when reading Michael Prestwich’s writings on Edward I.  There had been in my mind a slight puzzlement that the dynamic, fiery Edward should have been so very devoted to a queen who I had always understood to be very sweet and submissive.  Michael Prestwich pointed out that the character of Edward’s reign does change somewhat after her death, and that got me wondering whether there was a link, and whether anyone had written anything serious on Eleanor.  I started with the books on Edward (because we had all of those already), and finding nothing further, apart from odd hints about acquisitiveness, I searched for books on Eleanor, and discovered John Carmi Parsons’ work.  From there it was a question of understanding his work fully and edging out from ground he had covered into more speculative territory, or ground where I felt there might be new questions to ask, such as linking the itinerary to Eleanor’s property business.

3. You are a barrister, because of your knowledge and experience in law, was there anything in the research of Eleanor that stood out to you pertaining to law, or commerce?
Funnily enough, there were a number of things.  Another puzzle I had always had in my mind was how Edward, the son of one of England’s least legally minded kings, became “the English Justinian”.  As soon as I started researching Eleanor’s family background I was hit between the eyes by the fact that her family were passionate about law and lawmaking.  They regarded it as a fundamental part of the covenant between King, God and people – and they wrote and discussed laws endlessly. And ultimately one can find in Edward’s approach very close echoes of the way the Castilians looked at things. It has therefore seemed to me that Eleanor, perhaps together with her didactically minded brother Alfonso X, should be looked to as influencing Edward in his interest in law and lawmaking.    Another legal aspect was the different treatment of dower in Castile; one can see through Eleanor’s grandmother Berengaria how Castilian princesses would take control of their dower properties on marriage and actively manage them (in Berengaria’s case, even holding them against her own husband).  This meant that Eleanor was raised with the expectation that on marriage she would personally manage a serious property portfolio, and makes the fact that she adopted a property business a natural and obvious fit, and not the anomaly that it at first appears.  I also found echoes of Castilian approaches in Edward’s legislation regarding the Jewish population, and in the settlement of Wales.  And I haven’t finished looking!  I actually think the Castilian influence on Edward’s legal programme is a subject worthy of in depth study.
Writing muse, Tia. 

4.  There is a polar difference between Edward I and Edward II. Do you have an opinion on this?
Indeed I do! I find this very interesting.  Even in the modern context it is not uncommon to find the children of very driven, successful people rejecting the paradigm which their parents demonstrate to them.  As the son of a very successful friend of mine said to his father: “If I do all the stuff you say I should, what’s the result?  I get your stressful, busy life.  No thanks”.  I see much of that attitude in Edward II.  His parents always full of business, their family pushed to the margins of their life, their young children abandoned for three years, his mother working herself into an early grave.  It would hardly be surprising if, seeing it from the outside, he did not embrace that model with enthusiasm.
The problem is (as Kathryn Warner perceptively observes in her forthcoming “Edward II, the Unconventional King”, which I have been lucky enough to read in proof) that Edward II didn't have the option to do something else – he was born to do a job which was not at all to his taste.
I cannot help wondering to what extent Eleanor’s death was key in this alienation from his appointed role, not just emotionally, but practically. Certainly on the emotional side we see quite a lot of evidence that Edward had a sentimental attachment to the mother he never knew – his affinity to things Castilian was often demonstrated, and he maintained close ties with a number of her family.  But in practical terms it was Eleanor who would have superintended his upbringing – and with more consistent discipline and focus than Edward I (himself the product of an indulgent household) would be likely to bestow.  She, at least, knew the theory of training a King.  However, having said that, it is fair to say that the beautifully trained Castilian princes of Eleanor’s family show that training is not all.  Alfonso X himself was plainly more engaged with scholarship than kingship, and the others were not a very disciplined bunch….

5.  Do you have another favorite period in British history you love to read? Why?
My first love in history terms was the Tudor era.  In fact, my first attempt at a biography was one of Elizabeth I, which I tried to get published when I was fifteen. I used to keep fairly well up to date with the writing on the Tudors until I got properly sunk into research on Eleanor, at which point keeping the details of each era, and the diverting ideas about who from one era was related to who from another just got too much for me.  Of recent years therefore, I have taken my historical breaks from the thirteenth century mainly in reading about the World Wars. But I still can’t resist occasional visits to Tudor times.  I pride myself on reading Alison Weir’s new books as soon as they come out, and I have been totally unable to resist Tracy Borman’s Thomas Cromwell, which I am currently enjoying.

6.  What are you most thankful for?
That’s a killer question!  I have been way, way, luckier in all sorts of ways than I deserve.  In general terms I’m most thankful for the amazing family and friends who are part of my life. In connection with the book, I guess it would have to be having an amazing job, which still gives me the flexibility to run off to the British Library and pursue other interests, when cases settle, or I’m waiting for documents to come in, or for answers on queries.  If I had a job with more rigid hours Eleanor would never have got past the planning stage.  And my husband won’t like me mentioning him, but I am very thankful he has never said that he is bored witless of the small doings of Eleanor, which I have found so entrancing!

7.  Do you have another writing project?
Well, I have a fairly substantial list of things which I am thinking of doing.  I am not planning to commit to anything as substantial as Eleanor in the near future – it is too big a commitment of time, and since I can’t work at it full time, I need to be sure that any major project is one I can love for a decade or so.  However while I was researching I was struck by a number of stories and themes from the world of knighthood – and I’m now looking to see if they can be pulled together into an interesting, rather shorter, book.  The idea is that it will showcase some truly remarkable people and their stories alongside relevant – and sometimes disparate - aspects of knightly culture.  I think one gets hints of this through the book – I can’t get away from my enthusiasm for those giants of social mobility, William Marshal and Jean de Brienne; and Eleanor’s own contact with the institution showcases a number of aspects – the Arthurian and literary links, the changing nature and role of tournaments, the administrative undertow which the institution acquired, and so forth.   But certainly one day I would like to do another substantial biography of a medieval queen…
Sara's work space for writing.
Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen is available @

Sara's website: Sarah Cockerill. 
Facebook page for the book. 

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