Who is the queen? The king’s wife? Or something more than that? In the period between the Norman Conquest and the accession of Mary Tudor in the sixteenth century, no woman ruled England as Queen in her own right. The role and status of the king was constantly in the process of redefinition, an ongoing negotiation between royal, ecclesiastical and aristocratic power, but it remained throughout essentially constitutional, its authority enshrined in and upheld by law. No equivalent constitutional role existed for the king’s consort. Yet between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, English queenship evolved an identity of its own, an identity predicated on, but not encompassed by marriage to the king. The story of England’s medieval queens is composed of two entwined narrative strands; the first the development of queenly tradition and practice, the second the diverse lives of the very individual women who controlled, enlarged and manipulated this customary heritage. It is this combination of the abstract and the intimate, this synthesis of statecraft and the self which makes the exploration of English queenship so exciting and so necessary. The political, religious, administrative and cultural history of the emergent English nation cannot be fully considered without reference to the role of the queen, yet queens are also exceptional amongst women of the medieval period in that we can know them more throroughly as people than almost any of their contemporaries.
The story of English queenship begins with a French princess. In the centuries after the collapse of Roman imperialism, Europe experienced a perpetually-fluctuating regathering of territorial power. Put simply, such power was achieved by violence, but the role of kings was increasingly delineated and formalized by religious liturgy. Whilst the role had yet to become institutional, much less constitutional, a similar process began to emerge in the case of queens. As early as 751, evidence exists of the blessing of queens, whilst two ninth-century texts, “De Ordine palatii’ and “Liber de Rectoribus Christianis’ contributed the the understanding of the queen’s duties. The queen orders the king’s household and maintains his royal regalia, she distributes provisions and presides in his hall, dispensing rewards to his warriors and gifts to foreign emissaries. There is also an emphasis on the queen as a model of virtue and a prudent counsellor to her husband. Here already is a sense in which the office of queen is invested with authority; the “rectrix’ of “De Rectoribus’ “governs” and “rules”. The first ceremony through which such authority was formally bestowed is the consecration of Judith, daughter of the French king Charles the Bald on her marriage in 856 to Aethelwulf, the king of the West Saxons. The twelve-year-old bride was married to her middle-aged husband at Verberie-sur-Oise “and after Bishop Hincmar of Rheims had consecrated her and placed a diadem on her head he (Aethelwulf) formally conferred on her the title of queen, which was something not customary before then to him or his people”.
Consecration, coronation. These are the processes which set the queen apart from other women in a mystery which she shared only with her husband. The concept of “God’s anointed” seems antiquated, if not irrelevant, in an age when royalty for many has become something of a tragicomic soap opera, but it is still possessed of tremendous potency even today. When millions watched the televised coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the cameras turned reverently away at the actual moment of anointing, but one witness described the Act of Dedication as “the most wonderful thing I ever saw…when she lifted the Sword and laid it on the altar.. She was putting her whole heart and soul to the service of her people”. Though the ceremony broadcast that day from Westminster Abbey had developed in many ways, it was not in essence so different from the ninth century rite celebrated in a field in northern France. Very few people may nowadays believe that royalty is semi-divine, but queenmaking connects us, even at this end of this century, with our most atavistic selves. The Christian appropriation of ancient beliefs about women’s sacred fertility explicitly articulated the connection between queenship and earlier birth-cults; consecration was thus apotheosis. The transformative power of coronation was noted in the eleventh century by Godfrey of Reims in reference to William the Conqueror’s daughter Adela of Blois, who unlike her older siblings, born while their parents were a mere duke and duchess, is credited with “fully royal blood’. An unruly twinge of reverence for such beliefs might now be dismissed as a sentimental embarrassment, but there existed no such sense of irrational conflict for the period in question. Just as the Church was omnipresent for every individual, from peasant to magnate, so the sense of difference, of selection by God, coloured the understanding of the medieval monarch. Though there is ample, touching, funny evidence for the humanity of medieval queens, it is essential to remember that they were isolated as well as elevated by consecration. They were unique, they were sacred, they were magical.
Marriage, however, was a much more prosaic matter. “Marriages were matters of allies, claims, lands, treasure and prestige… They were affairs between families rather than individuals, an instrument of policy rather than passion”. Royal brides were essential diplomatic tools, and personal feelings an irrelevance. Henry III set out the official line : “friendship between princes can be obtained in no more fitting manner than by the link of conjugal troth”. Yet noble and particularly royal women have too often been reduced to the status of “animated title deeds’, relevant only to the transmission of property. At first glance, the characteristic hostility shown towards women exercising any form of power seems to support this, but if queens were instruments, they were also instrumental. All politics was dynastic politics, that is family politics. The centre of power was the king and no-one, in theory at least, was physically closer to the king than the queen. The absolute passivity demanded of royal women in accepting their mates should not blind us to either the degree of wealth, power or dynastic validation carried in the queen’s body, nor to the practical powers which individual women could exercise at every level of cultural and political life. More than anything else, it was birth, marriage and death which affected medieval power structures, so as mothers and wives, queens were the focus and the source of political stability.
These elements converged in the coronation ordo, which outlined two essential dynamics of queenship at the moment of consecration. Intercession and maternity were channelled through Christian emphasis on women’s special dignity. In the twelfth century, Abelard wrote of women’s extraordinary status as delineated by Christ, their loyalty during the Passion and their capacity for prophecy in ‘a demonstration of female authority, precedence and exclusivity in religious life… unsurpassed in the Middle Ages”. The cult of the Virgin Mary, Marianism, was a device sanctified childbirth- so much so that the opening blessing of the coronation ceremony has been called a “fertility charm”, allying the new queen’s childbearing with the women of the elect Davidic line, including the Virgin Herself. Maternity was in turn closely associated with intercession , the second dynamic upon which the ordo ultimately dwelled. Intercession was in some senses a transgressive act, a means by which ‘masculine’ authority was diverted by the power of “feminine” mercy. The Old Testament queen Esther, re-cast by the Church fathers as a type of the Virgin, was a particularly important symbol of female intercession. A petition to Anne of Bohemia, in the fourteenth century, sums up the particular role of the queen; “ let the queen soften royal severity that the king may be forbearing to his people. A woman mellows a man with love; for this God gave her, for this, o blessed woman, may your sweet love aspire”. The queen’s merciful love moved her husband, showing his human side in what was effectively a skilful division of psychological labour- the queen could soften the king’s heart without making him appear “weak or indecisive”. Formal intercession became a ritual of queenmaking even as its real power to effect change declined,.The progress (admittedly detrimental to queenly power) from the queen as counsellor or advisor to the queen as often merely symbolic intercessor, as in the case of the famous plea of Philippa of Hainualt for the burghers of Calais, can be clearly charted over five hundred years of medieval queenship.
How could a queen best make use of her sacred capital? What practical, as well as symbolic differences separated her from other women? Common law recognised three states of female existence, each of which was defined in terms of masculine authority- maiden, wife and widow. Only as widows could women be officially released from male guardianship to order their own affairs. Queens, however, enjoyed the status of “femmes soles’ even while their husbands were living, and were therefore more independent before the law than any other married woman. They could sue and be sued, acquire property, grant land and witness its granting, preside over legal cases, hear oaths, appoint ecclesiastics and make wills. They could, and did, raise armies. This unique legal status could be employed to manage and expand their finances, create and control their childrens’ inheritances and in some cases, to fight wars. From the regencies of Matilda of Flanders and Matilda of Boulogne to the much-vilified money-grubbing of Eleanor of Castile, from the successful revolution of Isabella of France to Marguerite of Anjou’s desperate fight for her son’s crown, English queens used their position according to both temperament and the exigencies of circumstance. Salic law, whereby claimants descended from the female line could not inherit a throne , enshrined in France from the early fourteenth century and widely adopted across Europe, was never applied in England, making English queens exceptional even amongst their counterparts. Stephen, Henry II, Edward IV and Henry VII owed some or all of their claim to their female ancestors, whilst the claims of Edward III and Henry VI, at the beginning and end of the Hundred Years’ War, were derived from their mothers.
Direct claims in the maternal line were the most obvious manifestation of the centrality of queens to royal power, but the skein of kinship which connected the intermarried royal families of Europe wrapped generations of women in its influence. Recent scholarly work on the importance of the maternal family of Eleanor of Provence and the granddaughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine permit of a fresh perspective on trans-Continental networks of authority and patronage. The fostering of kinship, through marriage alliances, religious foundations, gift-giving and embassies, bore practical fruit when queens could call in their claims to broker treaties or raise funds and troops. Given the importance of marriage in cementing such relationships, royal mothers had a particularly crucial role in negociating advantageous matches for their children. Queen mothers could be exceptionally influential when their husbands were absent or deceased, and the necessity of mothers having literally to fight for their children was confronted by Matilda of Boulogne, Marguerite of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville.
Yet medieval royal motherhood is a contentious issue. Many English queens had to adjust to marriage in their teens, and consequently exceptional numbers of pregnancies. Childbirth on progress or campaign was an occupational hazard, and queens had to compromise their personal maternal inclinations with the huge demands of their public role. Then as now, “working’ women have been criticized for neglecting or damaging their children, and much retrospective psychologising has been devoted to castigating queens such as Eleanor of Aquitaine for their lack of involvement with their offspring. Such theorizing fits neatly with a conception of medieval childhood which dismisses affective bonds between parents and children and claims grandly that “ the family at the time was unable to nourish a profound existential attitude between parents and children… (parents) cared about them less for themselves… than for the contribution those children could make to the common task”. Increasingly, evidence about medieval royal childhood contradicts this view, demonstrating that whilst royal women were little involved in the practical aspects of raising their children, entirely in accordance with their culture, they were extremely attentive to their education and upbringing. “It is the natural bent of all human beings”, wrote Bernard of Anjou in 994, “ to believe that in this lies the largest part of their happiness”. Love of, and delight in children is manifest even in from the pragmatic details of account books, whilst evidence of maternal grief at the frequent loss of children is moving and poignant. Not all queens were perfect mothers, but nor were they all the cold, distant figures of a historiography which denies the sentimental reality of childhood. Tiny, intimate portraits such as Matilda of Scotland playing with her little boy in the grounds of Merton Priory, or Marguerite of France carefully choosing buttons for her sons’ best coats, allow us an emotional glimpse of royal motherhood, beyond its symbolic and political role.
Such examples also demonstrate that a queen’s private life was not necessarily loveless. Modern, Western hostility to arranged marriages recoils at the notion that they might produce satisfactory relationships, but such evidence as there is suggests that several English queens did enjoy loving partnerships with their husbands . Love was certainly not necessary in a dynastic marriage, but it could and did grow, between Matilda of Flanders and William the Conqueror, Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. King Stephen was so eccentrically affectionate as to remain faithful to his wife. But a beloved queen was also a vulnerable one. Her sexual intimacy with the king was an exclusive power, but it also played into that deeply- rooted fear of the Christian conscience, the corrupting woman, which in turn connected with anxieties about foreignness, about the possibility of a spy in the royal bed. In the four hundred years before the Conquest, only two English queens, Judith and Emma of Normandy, were foreign, in comparison with sixteen out of the twenty women between 1066 and 1503. International marriages were crucial to the kingdom’s stability and prestige, but outsiders also represented a threat. Queens were often forced to choose between their natal families and their marital kin, and excessive patronage of foreign connections led to frequent criticism or even, in the case of Eleanor of Provence, to revolt. Fear of the whispering, cajoling woman also influenced the efficacy of the queen’s role as counselor or advisor. The efficacy of “intimate persuasions” was noted by several writers, and Eleanor of Provence was not shy of advertising her influence over her husband in bed, but queens were confronted with a culture which promoted silence and submissiveness in women. Sages from Aristotle to St Peter acclaimed the virtues of silence, the Virgin herself was associated with dumb fortitude and civic statutes such as Hertfords’s 1486 Ordinance on Scolds laid small town strife at the door of gossiping women. Ritual intercession was glorified, but the confidence and trust which developed in a successful union could arouse profound suspicion.
The physical aspects of a royal marriage were thus a focus for both celebration and fear. Since the future of the realm was explicity dependent on a queen’s body, on her fertility, her marriage might also call the king’s limitations into question. What might be termed the folk-memory of primitive fertility beliefs, in which fruitfulness was an assurance of virility and therefore of prosperity, was translated through the Christian sacrament of marriage into a reflection on the limitations of the sovereign himself. A barren marriage showed that God was displeased, and boded ill for the nation, conversely a too-passionate relationship called the king’s masculinity into doubt: “the nature of the king’s marriage, or rather the extent to which the king’s use of this sacrament was pleasing to God, was supposed to impinge on the welfare of the realm in a very material sense”. The reputations of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabelle of Angouleme were blackened by interpretations of such anxieties, whilst Henry VI’s manifest intellectual shortcomings were transposed into questions about his inadequate sexual bond with his wife Marguerite of Anjou.
And what of love outside marriage? Infidelity was practically expected of kings, though the troops of bastard children produced by Henry I and John had diminished somewhat by the end of the period. The very presence of the queen and her ladies in the otherwise male-dominated precincts of the royal palace correlated with her unique symbolic status, but it also created a public ritual out of every moment of her life. Private acts such as prayer, eating and sleeping were ritualized into constant affirmations of power. Sexual pleasure, even within marriage, was viewed dubiously by the Church, and in the case of a queen, for whom adultery was treason, solitude was deeply threatening. Writer after writer warned against the sins of illicit love:
“A great hunger, insatiate to find A dulcet ill, an evil sweetness blind, A right wonderful, sweet sugared error” (Christine de Pisan noted that love was particularly dangerous for women and recommended wholesome activities such as sewing and weaving as distractions for dangerously idle minds.)
Much attention has been given to the position of queens in relation to the dominant literary genre of the period, troubadour poetry, or the school of “courtly love”. Until quite recently, such poems were interpreted as a sort of manifesto for the aspiring adulterer ( medieval people, apparently, didn’t do jokes), but courtly love is best understood as an extremely elegant and complex parlour game, very much a literary movement rather than an ideology. Evidence from ecclesiastical court cases and popular literature shows that adultery was consistently popular in the general population, but troubadour literature, like Hollywood films today, tells us about peoples’ dreams, not their lives, and the period was certainly sophisticated enough to tell the difference: “While literary texts offer fantasies of personal choice of spouse… they largely reinforce a lay position that marriage is a family affair”. Yet still, Isabelle of France defied the Pope himself to pursue her affair with Roger Mortimer. She is the only English queen to have lived openly with her lover- though perhaps a successful affair, like a successful murder, is the one that no-one discovers. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabelle of Angouleme and Marguerite of Anjou were accused of adultery, whilst the romantic adventures of Katherine de Valois in widowhood had extraordinary consequences for the succession. Perhaps the most exceptional relationship of all was that of the relatively low-born Englishwoman Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV. The handsome prince really did come for Elizabeth, but the outrage surrounding their love match proved that passion was best left to poets.
Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage scandalized the nation, and her critics were quick to find proof of her unsuitability as a royal bride in her conduct. The pride and haughtiness which would have been expected in a better-born woman were swiftly translated in her case into evidence of a parvenu arrogance. Similarly, criticism of Henry I’s daughter the Empress Matilda centred around the aggressive “masculinity” of her demeanor. The Empress’s contemporary and opponent, Queen Matilda of Boulogne did very similar things- she governed over men, raised armies and fought for the crown, but she managed to do so whilst attracting praise. Both examples point to the centrality of correct behaviour and manners to effective queenship. In all aspects of their self-presentation, queens had to contend with the contradictory expectations contained in their anomalous political position, to tread extremely carefully between seemliness and excess. Beauty, for example, was seen as the objective correlative of nobility, so much so that it is very difficult to ascertain what royal women really looked like, so prodigally are compliments strewn about in the chronicles. (It does seem worth considering that beauty may well have been more closely confined to the aristocracy, with their access to better nutrition and hygiene. Given the appearance of much of the population, details like cleanliness or acceptable teeth could go a long way.) The queen’s appearance was part of the king’s magnificence, a manifestation of his power, yet praise of a queen’s beauty also diminished her, by making apparent her status as a commodity- potential brides were routinely subjected to immodest physical inspections. Excessive good looks could play into the fear of the over-influential seductress. Since visible splendour was an essential political tool, gorgeous clothes and precious jewels were “an attribute of royal state, part of the drama of royal power”, and as such a positive obligation for royal women, yet the queen had also to be mindful of accusations of extravagance or rapacity.
As aristocratic elites across Europe began to forge a strong cultural identity, “courtly” behaviour became a prop to the social order. Violence still governed the world, but it needed to be contained and controlled in order to be effectively deployed. Hence manners and courtesy, codified and romanticized in chivalric literature, were an essential means of manipulating behaviour. The minutiae of social conduct- how to sit, stand, enter a room, eat, wash, dance, became crucial signifiers of rank and prestige. The distinguished French historian Georges Duby described this process of coalescence as “the fusion of the aristocracy”, and it was one in which women, particularly queens, had a central role. Walter Map describes the sorry state of Henry II’s court after the departure of Eleanor of Aquitaine for Poitiers, a squalid, filthy place where the food was uneatable and the wine so tainted that the wincing courtiers had to filter it through their teeth. Eleanor of Castile took a low view of the discomforts of royal accommodation and quickly installed glass windows and gardens and promoted the consumption of fruit. Such “women’s touches” were not entirely superficial. The queen’s presence demanded, in theory at least, a higher standard of manners and behaviour, and as the exemplar for the court, the queen was also in a position to fulfil her role as cultural ambassador. From the impressive promotion of vernacular literature of the Anglo-Norman queens at the beginning of the period to Elizabeth of York’s familial involvement with the printer William Caxton at its end, English queens were particularly connected with literary innovation, but they were also influential in the way the court lived, dressed, ate and entertained. Matilda of Boulogne and Marguerite of Anjou proved that when it came to necessity, a queen could be no mean general, but military success was increasingly balanced by the status accorded to the civility of a court, in which art, music, poetry and deportment gave the measure of royal power.
From Saxon times, women had been especially connected with the memorialisation of the dead (as the Sachsenspiel laws under which Anne of Bohemia was raised makes explicit), so queens were able to continue the tradition of glorifying and sanctifying their ancestry by participating as foundresses and patrons of the most prestigious of all manifestations of power, the establishment of religious houses. That the Church was the backbone of Western civilization is no longer an especially fashionable view, but tension between royal and ecclesiastical powers was a source of tremendous energy, as well as dissent. In the founding of monasteries and the promotion of new orders such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans, as well as presenting their own candidates to ecclesiastical sees, queens found themselves at the heart of the intellectual debates of their times. They corresponded, and sometimes dared to quarrel, with popes and archbishops and promoted their own candidates to ecclesiastical sees. Their gifts to the church not only promoted the arts but affirmed their own status as patronesses and provided a means of entering into the political world even as the expansion of administrative courts reduced their direct opportunities to act as counsellors.
The briefest assessment of English queens consort demonstrates that they cannot be reduced to mere corollaries of their husbands. Nor are they easily categorized. As this book hopes to show, it is possible to establish a consistent picture of the development of queenship itself, but such a picture is constantly straining against individual womens’ responses to their position. What they were not is passive or powerless. What they were, by the nature of that position, is remarkable, in many senses aberrant. Here they are, an exceptional confederacy, magnificent, courageous, foolish, impetuous- splendid in their royal array.