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The Women around an Emperor: Eleanor of Portugal

The Women around an Emperor: Eleanor of Portugal

By Natalie Anderson

Eleanor of Portugal, by Hans Burgkmair the Elder, c. 1468

So far in this series, in my quest to uncover a bit more about the women I encountered while researching that central figure of my PhD, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, I’ve written about his two wives and his daughter; the natural place to turn next is to his mother, Eleanor of Portugal.

Like the daughter-in-law she would never meet, Bianca Maria Sforza, Eleanor came to the Habsburg court from a far more lavish one, and she never felt at home in her strange, cold new environment. Eleanor was born in 1434 to King Duarte of Portugal and Eleanor of Aragon. The Portuguese court in which she grew up was a prosperous and stimulating one. King Duarte was a grandson of John of Gaunt and thus closely connected to English nobility; he was made a Knight of the Garter. His brother was the famous explorer Henry the Navigator, and the fifteenth century was a time when Portugal was establishing itself at the forefront of naval exploration. Duarte was even an author, writing a famous treatise on horsemanship and jousting.

Yet her father died when Eleanor was just three, leaving her mother to become regent for Eleanor’s brother, Afonso. Unfortunately, Eleanor of Aragon was unpopular with the Portuguese nobility, and in 1440 she was forced to go into exile, leaving behind her oldest daughter. A good marriage was now the best option open to young Eleanor, and she was certainly a desirable match for many powerful European rulers; potential suitors included the dauphin of France. In the end, though, it was agreed that she would marry German king and future Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III (1415-1493).

Frederick III and Eleanor of Portugal in Rome, by Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi

The couple met for the first time in Siena in 1452. From there, they travelled together to Rome, where, just weeks later, they were simultaneously married and crowned emperor and empress by the pope (Frederick would be the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned in Rome, ending a tradition begun with Charlemagne). It was a grand celebration, yet it was hardly a preview of Eleanor’s life to come. Back in Frederick’s court in Vienna, the two did not enjoy marital bliss. Frederick was taciturn, reserved, and notoriously miserly.

The ‘Old White King’ (Weisskunig) and his wife, Eleanor of Portugal (Weisskunig, Vienna, 1775)

The couple had two children who survived to adulthood, Maximilian and his sister, Kunigunde. By all accounts, Maximilian loved his mother greatly as a child, receiving from her a warmth he never did from his father. Eleanor died in 1467, aged just 32, and was buried in the Cistercian monastery in Wiener Neustadt, just outside Vienna. Her memory lived on with her son, however. In Weisskunig, a highly allegorical autobiography commissioned by Maximilian late in his life, Eleanor features prominently. The work begins with the story of the old Weisskunig, or ‘White King’ (i.e. Frederick III) and his marriage to the beautiful Eleanor or Portugal. Here, Frederick’s court is displayed as far more wealthy and lavish than it was in reality, and, in this way at least, Eleanor got to live once more in the manner to which she was accustomed.


Recommended further reading: Of the three women I’ve written about thus far, there seems to be the least out there on Eleanor. Of course, she plays a secondary role in scholarly works on Maximilian or Frederick, but she has not been the focus of much original scholarship. However, I’ve just discovered the existence of a recently published book by popular history author Sigrid-Maria Grossing entitled Kaiser Maximilian I. und die Frauen (‘Emperor Maximilian I and the Women’) (Vienna: Amalthea, 2016). Amazingly, this short work seems to be doing exactly what I’ve tried to do with this series of features; each chapter is dedicated to one of the women whose life informed Maximilian’s in some way – and the very first one is ‘The Portuguese Mother: Eleanor’. This has now definitely found a place on my reading list.

Click here for more from Natalie

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