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There’s no getting away from it: medieval queen-consorts had a fiendishly demanding role. They were expected to emulate the biblical Queen Esther, who was humble, self-effacing, passive, obedient and modest, yet gifted with inner strength. They were also required to be faithful, wise, just and compassionate. Above all, they were exhorted to mirror the virtues of the Virgin Mary and appear gracious, charitable and merciful. A queen who failed to meet these expectations might be branded a ‘Jezebel’, likening her to the most notorious queen in the Bible.

As the king’s bed was a symbol of majesty, so the queen’s was the basis of the influence she could exercise in private. Her bedchamber was not just her private domain, but also the seat of her power, the place where she had sex with the king and where heirs to the throne were born. It was because the queen was entrusted with reproducing the royal bloodline that she had to be above reproach sexually. Adultery was a particularly serious offence, since it jeopardised the succession.

Of course, not every woman met the onerous demands required of medieval queens. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124–1204) was beautiful and tempestuous, one of the towering female figures of the Middle Ages. Yet, by extension, that meant she was about as far away from the passive, dutiful wallflower of the queenly ideal as you could possibly get.

It was because the queen was entrusted with reproducing the royal bloodline that she had to be above reproach

At the age of 13, Eleanor was married to Louis VII of France. But she later complained that she had wed a monk, not a king. According to the 12th-century philosopher John of Salisbury, Louis loved Eleanor “almost beyond reason”, but his conjugal visits were infrequent and resulted in the birth of just two daughters in 15 years.

In 1147, Eleanor accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade, which was, for many reasons, a failure. What happened in Antioch would change the course of Eleanor’s life and make her one of the most controversial figures in western Europe – chiefly due to the attentions paid to her by her uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch. As John of Salisbury put it, Raymond’s “constant, indeed almost continuous conversation with her aroused the king’s suspicions”.

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Raymond and Eleanor may have been attracted to one another, but his primary ambition was to grow his territory. And when Louis refused to help Raymond expand Antioch, a furious Raymond resolved to deprive the king of his wife. According to the chronicler William of Tyre, Eleanor “readily assented, for she was a foolish woman. Contrary to the king’s dignity, she mocked the laws of marriage and did not respect the marriage bed.” It is not known how far matters actually went but the scandal wrought terrible damage to the queen’s reputation.

The troubadour Cercamon made a veiled reference to Eleanor when he deplored the conduct of a woman who lay with more than one man. “Better for her never to have been born than to have committed the fault that will be talked about from here to Poitou,” he sniped.

It was in Paris, in 1151, that the future Henry II of England first cast lustful eyes on Eleanor, who, at 27, was nine years his senior. As the writer and clergyman Walter Map later noted, she “cast her unchaste eyes” at him. But it was “secretly reputed that she had shared Louis’ bed with Geoffrey”, Count of Anjou, Henry’s father.

Walter Map wasn’t the only chronicler to claim that Eleanor had had sexual relations with the count. Giraldus Cambrensis asserted that Henry’s father “had carnally known Queen Eleanor. The count later confessed this to his son, forbidding him in any wise to touch her, because he had known her himself.”

But when weighing up the veracity or otherwise of such claims, it has to be remembered that Giraldus was hostile to Henry II and disapproved of Eleanor, so he may have been tempted to exaggeration or invention. (And if Eleanor had committed adultery with Geoffrey, would it not have been enough to secure Henry an annulment of his marriage with Eleanor, when he sought it in the 1170s? The fact that the annulment was not granted is surely significant.)

Blithely, Henry “presumed to sleep adulterously with the Queen of France”. But lust was only a part of the attraction fizzing between them. He was, writes Gervase of Canterbury “tempted by the quality of this woman’s blood, but even more by her lands”, for the acquisition of such a bride would make him the greatest prince in Europe. After Eleanor had obtained an annulment of her marriage to Louis, Henry married her. Like most aristocratic marriages of the period, it was primarily a business arrangement, with both partners committed to safeguarding their interests.

Eleanor now had no cause to complain of a lack of attention from her new husband. For the first 15 years of their marriage, Henry was a regular visitor to her bed – the births of eight children are evidence of that. Almost from the first, though, he was “an adulterer in secret”. He took his sexual pleasure wherever he found it, with noble ladies and, according to Walter Map, the “creatures of the night”, who regularly infiltrated his court. In fact, he was unfaithful to Eleanor almost immediately, fathering an illegitimate son just weeks after their marriage.

After 16 years, the couple separated. Then, in 1173, Eleanor violated every queenly ideal by supporting her sons in a rebellion against their father, for which she was imprisoned or kept under supervision until 1189. In fact, she only won her freedom when the ageing king died.

Infatuated king?

Henry II was succeeded to the throne by his eldest surviving son, the crusader-king Richard I. And, within two years, Richard had a wife and England a new queen, one who has long lived in the shadow of her famously formidable mother-in-law. Her name was Berengaria of Navarre.

According to the 13th-century Gesta Regis Ricardi, Richard “had desired her for a very long time” before they married in Cyprus in 1191, when Berengaria was about 26 and Richard was on his way to join the Third Crusade. Observers reported that the king was infatuated by his new wife, but the consummation of the marriage was probably deferred until they reached the Holy Land, for the crusaders had vowed that they would abstain from sex until they arrived there. After a year spent trailing Richard as he tried – and failed – to take Jerusalem, Berengaria returned ahead of him to France, where she learned, to her distress, that he had been captured on his way home.

Berengaria apparently received no word from Richard while he was in captivity, although he wrote often to his mother, Queen Eleanor. It was obvious which of the two queens held his heart and his trust. Richard made no attempt to see Berengaria after his liberation, and it became common knowledge that he had long neglected her.

As king, it was his duty to sire an heir, but it is recorded that he did not expect to have children with Berengaria. Richard’s later actions show that he regarded himself as the guilty party in their estrangement.

In 1190, Richard had publicly confessed “the foulness of his sins against nature”. According to Roger of Howden, five years later, a hermit admonished him: “Remember the destruction of Sodom; refrain from what is forbidden.” Since the 18th century, when it was first hinted that he was homosexual, scholars have wondered about the nature of the king’s sins – and, by the 12th century, ‘sodomy’ had become almost synonymous with homosexuality.

Does this explain Richard’s abandonment of Berengaria? That’s far from certain. The king was notorious for forcibly abducting “the wives, daughters and kinswomen of his freemen” (in the words of Giraldus Cambrensis), raping them, then passing them on to his knights “for whoring”, and he had at least one illegitimate child. His sexuality is therefore unclear.

After being censured by the hermit, Richard did penance and, according to Roger of Howden, “received his wife, whom he had not known for a long time, and, renouncing unlawful intercourse, was united with [her] and the two became one flesh”.

We know that Richard and Berengaria were living together at Poitiers later that year, yet there are few mentions of their being together thereafter. They never had any children. Given that, and the breakdown of the alliance with Navarre, Berengaria was no longer of any use to Richard and there is no further record of the couple being in each other’s company. Yet she was in deep sorrow when Richard succumbed to a wound sustained while on campaign in 1199. She would never remarry.

A headlong rush

By the time Richard died, his brother and successor, King John, had been married to Isabella of Gloucester for 10 years. But shortly after ascending the throne, John obtained an annulment on the grounds of consanguinity, and in 1200 he decided to marry another Isabella – the young heiress of Angoulême.

John had snatched Isabella of Angoulême from her betrothed, Hugh IX de Lusignan; some chroniclers assert that she was abducted screaming in terror. The 33-year-old prince took one look at his beautiful bride – who would be called the Helen of her age – and was “madly enamoured”. Contemporary chroniclers deplored his headlong rush into a marriage based, as they believed, on lust. Yet it had been a purely political arrangement.

When they married, Isabella was probably under 12 years old, the age at which the church permitted a bride to cohabit with her husband. Nevertheless, the king found “all kinds of delights in his queen”, who, wrote Roger of Wendover, was “a splendid animal rather than a stateswoman”.

The couple may have stopped short of intercourse. It was known that a girl in her early teens was more at risk of dying in childbirth, bearing a premature child or suffering complications in labour; her chances of giving birth to a healthy infant were also diminished. An early death in childbirth could jeopardise a valuable political alliance, so princes often put pragmatic considerations before physical ones.

It was said that John was so besotted with Isabella that he lost the duchy of Normandy under the quilts of the marriage bed. In fact, he had faced the near-impossible task of holding together an unwieldy empire in the face of unprecedented French aggression. His failure to engage with the French was the chief cause of his woes, though his lust for Isabella may have contributed.

A few years later, an unreliable contemporary claimed that Isabella had “often been found guilty of incest, sorcery and adultery, so that the king, her husband, has ordered those of her lovers who have been apprehended, to be strangled with a rope in her own bed”. But there is no evidence to support this, or modern theories that John kept Isabella a prisoner. It would have been hard to conceal an illicit pregnancy in a teeming royal household, still less the hanging of adulterous lovers. Isabella’s supposed immorality therefore rests on one isolated, unsubstantiated report from a dubious source.

Love and power

In contrast to Eleanor, Berengaria and Isabella, England’s next two queens were fortunate in that their arranged marriages turned into love matches. Henry III and Alienor of Provence (c1223–91) were married for 36 years and devoted to one another. Alienor, wrote the chronicler Matthew Paris, was “very fair to behold”, and Henry was instantly smitten with her. He was an uxorious husband, a family man in every sense; and Alienor, who had a strong sense of family loyalty, proved a loving and fiercely supportive wife through all the trials of his reign.

Henry adored Alienor. Even in the dry language of the official records, she is frequently referred to as his “dearest love” or “beloved love”. She exercised considerable influence over him, while he relied heavily on her advice. Because of this, she was able to wield more power than any queen-consort since Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Chroniclers attacked Henry III for being 'under the influence of his wife' – and letting her get away with it

As Matthew Paris put it: “The king thought he could never do enough to justify his love for the queen and her family.” He showered her many relations with generous grants of lands, money, wardships, offices, titles, bishoprics and privileges, and encouraged the outraged English nobility to intermarry with them. Matthew Paris blamed Alienor for spurring the king to favour them, and Henry for “being under the influence of his wife” – and letting her get away with it. This was the common view, and Alienor’s popularity suffered accordingly.

Henry III and Alienor’s love match may have had its detractors but that didn’t stop their son Edward I following its template. Raised in the happy family atmosphere his parents had created, Edward came to adore his wife, Eleanor of Castile (1241–90). She was his constant companion and “inexpressibly dear to him”. The love and supportiveness between them would become much talked of by their contemporaries.

Eleanor’s love for her husband always came first, even exceeding her affection for the numerous children she bore him. She accompanied Edward everywhere he went. While on crusade together, she is said to have had one of her clerks transcribe for him Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s De re militari (Concerning Military Matters). The tale that she sucked poison from a stab wound he was dealt by an assassin is often dismissed as spurious, yet there may be some truth in it.

Their marriage also lasted for 36 years and, when Eleanor died in 1290, Edward was bereft. He wrote: “The impiety of death, which spares no man, has stricken our heart with vehement sorrow and turned the harp of our house into mourning. Our queen of good memory, whom in life we dearly cherished, and whom, in death, we cannot cease to love, has been prayed for constantly.”

No English queen was ever honoured with such elaborate obsequies. Edward had three tombs and 12 crosses raised in Eleanor’s memory. Her legend became entrenched in the public consciousness and it was she – over and above the four very different women who preceded her – who came to embody the medieval ideal of queenship.

Alison Weir is Britain’s bestselling female historian. Her latest book, Queens of the Crusades (part two of her England’s Medieval Queens series), was recently published by Jonathan Cape

You can also listen to Dr Elena Woodacre discuss medieval queens in our Everything You Wanted to Know podcast series


This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine