The Middle Ages. They weren’t what you thought they were. Welcome to Medieval Monday, in which I employ my two History degrees and irritation about the misconceptions of Days of Yore to bring you topics about an era you only think you know. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet….
In one of the most breathtaking scenes from a movie that I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, Cate Blanchet as Elizabeth I makes the transformation from desperate young monarch to ass-kicking icon of leadership and invincibility. If any given person knows anything about History at all they usually know that England’s Elizabeth I was one of the most powerful and long-ruling monarchs ever. But Elizabeth I was just one in a long line of women who ruled and, unfortunately, have been neglected by the men who wrote the History books.
Long before Elizabeth I massive amounts of Medieval butt-kicking was done by one of my favorite women in History, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Born in around 1122, Eleanor dominated twelfth century Europe. She was married to both the king of France and the king of England (um, though not at the same time, of course). She was the mother of two kings and two queens as well as several counts and countesses. But in her own right Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine, a title she inherited at age 15. This made her so powerful that the king of France came knocking on her door to get her to marry his son Louis in an effort to make the French throne more powerful. But Eleanor retained Aquitaine for herself as part of this marriage, meaning her property did not automatically become her husband’s property upon marriage like you might have expected. And when she and Louis later divorced in a mutual agreement of mutual disgust and loathing she kept her title and her lands.
Eleanor then married Henry II of England. Henry II was a rock star in his own era. And Eleanor was the perfect rock star’s wife. Their relationship was loud, passionate, and ended with Henry locking her in a tower. Okay, well, not exactly. But she was imprisoned in various locations around England for the last decade or so of Henry II’s life. Why? Because she had encouraged her two favorite sons, Richard and Geoffrey, to join the fight against their father. This was a woman who dove deep into politics. When Henry died, Richard ascended the throne of England. But in complete contradiction of the Robin Hood legend Richard didn’t speak English and couldn’t be bothered to actually go to England for more than a few months. So who should take over and rule as regent in his place? Eleanor, of course.
Eleanor wasn’t the only woman who ran things on the home front while the male ruler was off fighting some Crusade or another, getting themselves killed or captured. In fact, in the Middle Ages women quite frequently wielded political power and took up arms themselves when their male relatives were busy arguing about succession.
Constance, Queen of Sicily ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1191-1198. Unlike many other women of her era, she didn’t marry until she was 30. Why should she? She was the daughter of the King of Sicily and beloved aunt to the various young men who succeeded him. She was supposed to ascend to the throne herself upon her nephew’s death, but another male relative swooped in and usurped the throne. So what did she do? She grabbed her sword and marched out with her new husband, the future Emperor Henry VI to take it back. She joined the campaign herself, slowed down only by the birth of her son, the future Emperor Frederick II. Constance was 40 when Frederick was born. She knew that because of her age people would question whether he was truly her son. Her solution? She had the baby in a tent pitched in the middle of the marketplace with as many of the matrons of the town present as possible to witness the birth. Damn. And she returned to the market to nurse the baby in public to continue to prove she was his mother. When Henry in 1197, Constance saw to it that her three year old son was crowned king of Sicily. It’s just a shame that she died a year later in 1198. Who knows what she would have been able to accomplish if she had lived longer.
Another contemporary of Eleanor and Constance who wielded far more power than you might think was Melesande of Jerusalem. When the Franks captured Jerusalem in 1099 after the First Crusade Melesande’s father was elected king. Melesande was raised as a crown princess, her father’s chosen successor. Because the territories around the Holy Land in this era were in a constant state of warfare, Frankish women were frequently named successors because they had a higher life expectancy. Melesande was no exception. Her father, Baldwin II, deliberately sought someone to marry her who could protect her and maintain her right to succeed the throne. He chose a little too well. Fulk V, was more than happy to marry Melesande … and to seize the reins of power when Baldwin died. But Melesande didn’t lay down and surrender and weep in a tower with a pointy hat as some people think princesses do. Oh no. She gathered her supporters and went Medieval on Fulk’s ass. Not only did she regain her power and her kingdom, but it was said that Fulk wouldn’t even make the slightest decision without her say. Melesande continued to rule until her son was 24 and she retired with a failing memory, eventually dying of a stroke. She ruled one of the most contentious pieces of the Medieval world for 30 years.
And though she comes much, much later, I can’t talk about women who wielded power in the Medieval world without mentioning Catherine of Aragon. True, it was technically the Renaissance when she came on the scene, but she was amazing. Catherine was married to two Tudors, Arthur, the heir apparent, and after his death to Henry VIII. Known nowadays mostly for being on the wrong end of Henry VIII’s “Great Matter”, Catherine was far more awesome than most people give her credit for. She was educated and beautiful. She was also Spain’s ambassador to England, the first female ambassador in history. She loved Henry, and for a while the feeling was mutual. Henry even left her in charge of England as regent for six months while he was in France. She was influential in matters of state and in life. During her time in power it became fashionable for women to receive an education. Yes, women. Fashionable. In the early 1500s. It’s a terrible tragedy of history that she was unable to give Henry a male heir. But the people of England continued to love her, and despise Anne Boleyn, long after Henry divorced her, and she was widely mourned at her death in 1533.
There are so, so many more women who held power in the Middle Ages that there just isn’t time to list them all. These four are but a tiny glimpse into a world where women stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the loftiest men in the realm. True, women did not hold an exactly equal position in this time period. These women were exceptional. Many of those who recorded the history of this time period assigned a lower status to women. But history is written by the victors. The fact that women like Eleanor, Constance, Melesande, and Catherine were able to achieve such great heights indicates that it wasn’t completely unheard of. I tend to think that the subjective truth of history is buried forever behind the closed doors of the home. Just because they were medieval kings, lords, or knights doesn’t mean men of the era didn’t love their wives and trust their judgment or ask them for advice when curled up in bed together after a long day of international politics. Historians don’t record those things, just as the History books will never be able to report on the late-night chats Barak and Michelle must have. And as we will see in future Medieval Mondays, a woman didn’t have to be married to a king, count, or prince to play a pivotal role in her society.