In this final masterclass session, we move further across Europe from Germany to Poland to examine the 14th-century female ruler King Jadwiga, as well as the art, architecture, archaeology and texts associated with her. We will then return to England to consider the extraordinary life of Margery Kempe – an English woman born in the 14th century who dictated one of the earliest known autobiographies.
Who was King Jadwiga?
Janina Ramirez introduces the 14th-century female ruler King Jadwiga
Today many think of Poland as “eastern Europe”, the edge of the western world. But in the late medieval period it was the very centre of the continent and the heart of power. Towards the end of the 14th century, a mega-state had emerged which spread from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean and was governed by Louis I of Hungary. He was linked to the Capetian monarchy, so familial ties with the rulers of France, England, Germany and Italy were tightly woven.
This was a world bound at the level of nobility by courtly love and chivalry, yet torn apart internally by warfare and political power play. The empire that Louis had built stood on shifting sands. His position was all the more fragile since he had three daughters to succeed him and no male heirs.
While they were still toddlers he had the girls tied in marriage agreements to the most important rulers of Europe and signed a treaty known as the Privilege of Koszyce, which would ensure his daughters were recognised as kings, not queens, of Poland and Hungary after his death.
His youngest child, Jadwiga, was sent to the court of Austria at just five years old and bound in front of the European elite in a “provisional marriage” to eight-year-old prince William. She stayed in Austria where she was immersed in culture, received the finest education and mastered a range of languages. She was getting ready to rule.
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Jadwiga’s time came all too soon. First her oldest sister died, followed by her father in 1382. Her mother pulled many of the strings, having her sister Mary declared King of Hungary, with their joint power base in Buda. But this left the issue of who would rule Poland. The political governance of the country lay in the hands of the nobility, and they would only recognise an individual as “king” if they resided in the country and married a partner of their choosing.
So, at 10 years old, Jadwiga was removed from her family and placed in the hands of powerful men in Kraków. While Jadwiga was effectively married to William of Austria, the nobles saw an opportunity to break away from Hungary and tie Poland to the powerful ally to their east: Lithuania.
Making of a Polish hero
The only issue was that it was ruled by a pagan warrior king who was already in his thirties. Jagiello ruled the last part of Europe not to have converted to Christianity and, in return for marrying Jadwiga, he had to be baptised and spread the new religion through his uber kingdom.
What follows next would make Jadwiga a Polish hero. William raced to Kraków to rescue his young love and Jadwiga tried to chop down the door to her chamber with an axe – but ultimately she saw her mission was bigger than her love. She must sacrifice her own concerns to those of her religion and her nation and marry Jagiello. This fantastical story is based on primary sources, but centuries of Poles have elaborated on it.
Jadwiga was a suffering saint, eulogised to the point of perfection and declared a rallying point for Polish independence. Yet a different side to the story unfolds when she is considered alongside the objects she owned. Jadwiga was incredibly complex. The alms purse, Italian crucifix and ivory box she is connected to all reveal a worldly woman with one foot in the chivalric tradition and another in the cut and thrust of international warfare and politics.
The Florian Psalter (above) is perhaps the closest we can get to this woman who changed the course of history. Thought to have been made for Jadwiga, the manuscript contains the Psalms written in three different languages and is decorated with scientific symbols and astrological references. There are even images of figures resembling Gandalf and Yoda. Fun and intellectually stimulating, when we look at this book we peer over Jadwiga’s shoulder. She was pious and saintly, but also a player on a world stage.
She led armies in defence of her sister, conducted diplomatic negotiations with the powerful Teutonic Knights and tried to maintain a degree of peaceful interaction with her often hostile neighbours. Jadwiga also founded the first university in Poland, but died aged 25, shortly after giving birth to a daughter. So her foundation is still named after her husband – Jagiellonian University – despite the fact he had little to do with it.
Like so many women in the Middle Ages, Jadwiga has been overwritten and misrepresented. It is time to return to the evidence and look again at how history has been written for us. Let’s put the women back in. Together we can look at history with fresh eyes, find new stories and look to the past for ways to move towards a more equal and inclusive future.
Janina Ramirez is a cultural historian, broadcaster and author based at the University of Oxford. Her latest book is Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It (WH Allen, 2022)
This text first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine