The medieval rebel princesses

Medieval England’s royal women had the power to shape the world around them, and they weren’t afraid to use it, writes Kelcey Wilson-Lee

A rocky relationship: Eleanor of Woodstock with her husband, Reginald II of Guelders. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the April 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Eleanor of Woodstock, Edward II’s eldest daughter, was 24 years old when she stripped herself nearly naked before the dignitaries gathered at her husband Reginald II’s palace. The year was 1342, and the young Duchess of Guelders had been absent from Reginald’s court (in Nijmegen, the modern-day Netherlands) for months – banished to a house on the other side of the city on the pretext of suspected leprosy. Eventually, rumours spread to the English princess that Reginald was planning to divorce her on the grounds of her supposed illness. A divorce would ruin Eleanor financially, threaten her two sons’ inheritance, and rupture one of England’s most critical military partnerships in its war with France. But Eleanor knew she had the power to stop it.

Reasoning that the swiftest way to silence her accusers would be an unequivocal demonstration of her health, Eleanor gathered her young sons and travelled unannounced to the ducal palace, the Valkhof, on a day she knew Reginald’s court would be filled with witnesses. Ushering her children before their father, she dramatically cast off her mantle to reveal a tunic of the flimsiest silk – through which her unblemished skin was apparent to all.

The chronicler William of Berchen reported that the duchess challenged anyone present to examine her for “the bodily affliction of which I am thoughtlessly accused”. She also declared: “I know that this threat to our marriage has stemmed from malicious slander.”

The young princess evidently made quite an impression: the scene Berchen described was popular in Dutch engravings as late as the 19th century, often depicting the semi-nude princess throwing her head back with wild abandon.

But behind the theatre and the titillation of Eleanor’s gesture lies a question: why was Reginald so determined to cast off his wife?

Woodcut of a woman who may be stoking a furnace or baking bread, printed in the 15th century. (SSPL/Getty Images)

From a distance of 700 years, it doesn’t appear that Reginald genuinely believed his wife had leprosy – if that had been the case, he surely would have blocked any contact between his sons and their afflicted mother. And this was a marriage that, in its early years, had appeared a great blessing to Reginald: Eleanor’s vast dowry of 10,000 pounds greatly enriched his coffers; the English princess provided her older husband with two healthy sons; and when, in 1339, Reginald was made a duke, he largely had his union with Eleanor to thank for his elevation. In short, the Duke of Guelders’ motivation for ostracising his royal wife appears scant.

But motivation there was, and it may have been the product of a widely ignored phenomenon – one that contemporary histories barely acknowledged but that had a transformational impact on court politics and international diplomacy. That phenomenon was the power of royal women.

The power of princesses to shape the world around them has largely been forgotten. One of the reasons for this is that women are almost invisible in the major national chronicles that have for centuries provided the foundation on which histories have been written. When their names do appear, it is most often only to record which leading nobleman or foreign potentate had been linked to the king through their marriage. More detailed or personal accounts of women’s exploits were even more rare – only written down in instances deemed particularly memorable or dramatic, as Eleanor’s act of defi-ance at the Valkhof palace undoubtedly was.

From left to right: French regent Anne de Beaujeu; and Catherine of Aragon. (Photos by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/DeAgostini/Imagno/Getty Images)

But women’s absence from the written record shouldn’t be mistaken for an absence of power. I have been researching the princesses of medieval England for a biography of Edward I’s five daughters (Eleanor’s aunts, although she could only have known two of them), and what became clear early in my research was that Eleanor and her peers were required to be so much more than the submissive stereotype popularised by fairy-tales. Not for them was the passive acquiescence of Rapunzel in her tower or the serenity of Sleeping Beauty as she awaited rescue by Prince Charming. Instead, the roles they played within political and social structures were dynamic, active and empowered.

This is not to deny the deep misogyny at the heart of medieval culture, which saw most women deprived of legal autonomy, and widespread suspicion of the female sex as weak, lustful and changeable. But feudalism, with its emphasis on social status, offered elite women an opportunity to wield influence – economic, political and cultural – that far exceeded most of their contemporaries, even aristocratic men.

Far from being meek pawns to be traded in marriage by their fathers without consultation, many English royal women in the medieval period participated in their own marriage negotiations. There were adolescents like 12-year-old Eleanor, eldest daughter of Edward I, who in 1282 dictated a letter in her own name affirming her desire to marry. Calling herself “the eldest child of the illustrious King of England”, Eleanor dispatched an official embassy to Aragon to contract a marriage “between us and a man of glory, Prince Alfonso, eldest child and heir of the illustrious King of Aragon”, confirming both her own consent to the match and that of her parents.

Whereas the norm among the famous princesses of fiction – like good Victorian children – was to be seen but not heard, their historic counterparts knew their proximity to the king gave them a voice. At the royal court, these women advocated forcefully (and with considerable success) on behalf of favourite causes and to secure promotions for friends and loyal servants. Meanwhile, those who married abroad used the considerable power of the English king to advance the interests of their new home. Their letters back to England were full of familial warmth, turning the knife of emotion – even when they were writing on matters of business, securing more favourable trading partnerships or requesting that English privateers be held accountable for unlicensed raids against merchants.

Eleanor’s aunts, Margaret, Duchess of Brabant, and Elizabeth, Countess of Holland, both wrote regularly to their father, Edward I, on behalf of the business interests that fuelled their mercantile countries, often with favourable results. And many, like Eleanor in the early years of her marriage to Reginald in Guelders, promoted military collaborations that supported English aims to expand an empire across Britain and into France.

The norm among the famous princesses of fiction was to be seen but not heard, but their historic counterparts knew their proximity to the king gave them a voice

For women to play these roles was neither unexpected nor discouraged. Contemporary treatises, such as Christine de Pisan’s Treasure of the City of Ladies and Geoffrey de la Tour Landry’s Book of the Knight of the Tower, make clear that 14th-century aristocratic women were expected to be effective in managing complex estates, deploying patronage to increase their influence, and even commanding a castle garrison. In the event her husband was captured or died, a royal woman might be required to govern, acting as regent to safeguard her own interests and the inheritance of her children. Princesses knew they could not afford to shy away from such responsibilities; in Christine de Pisan’s words, a princess “should conduct herself with such skill that she may be feared as well as loved”.

The significant demands on royal women required more than a knowledge of embroidery, hunting and romance. To succeed as a regent, princesses had to be literate: they predominately read in the Anglo-Norman French that was the mother tongue of English royals until the late medieval period, although they also learned some Latin gleaned from recitation of devotional texts like the psalms. They studied basic arithmetic from a young age, while absorbing much about the management of courtiers and administrators from watching their mothers and grandmothers in action.

Dramatic episodes involving royal women were not unusual. Medieval princesses got married in secret, engaged in high-stakes power plays, and fell prey to gambling addictions

Young women needed to master the social conventions by which they might wield authority in heavily patriarchal medieval society. Most often, this education was passed down from mother to daughter, and supplemented by tuition from aristocratic governesses and other ladies charged with attending the princess.

But perhaps the most important factor determining a medieval princess’s success was her ability to perfect the art of intercession – that is, using privileged access to husbands and fathers to win favours. This skill was passed on largely by example. It was also learned from religious models such as the Virgin Mary – the ultimate intercessor, whose position seated at the right hand of Christ on the day of judgment afforded unique opportunities to plead with her son on behalf of worthy souls.

By the early 14th century, intercession was accepted as the most effective tool in the princess’s armoury. It was soft power, but it was very real. Surviving chancery rolls (in which were recorded the bestowing of royal offices and lands, licences conferred, fines levied and pardons granted) abound with references to actions executed at the request of royal women. As a result of such entreaties, courtiers were rewarded, incomes were enhanced, and murderers were pardoned.

In a well-known example of royal female intercession, Philippa of Hainaut, lauded by the English people for her kindness, persuaded her husband, Edward III, to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais after the English had seized the city at the height of the Hundred Years’ War. In using her emotional link to the king as a powerful bargaining tool, Philippa was far from alone.

Surviving patent rolls detail that, while travelling with her father, Edward I’s, army in Scotland in 1304, Joan of Acre convinced the king to pardon Walter Page of Framlington for killing Roger Founyng of Newcastle-on-Tyne. No other records tie Joan to Walter Page; most likely, Page’s supporters sought out Joan as a senior royal woman at court and, in recognition of her accepted role as an intercessor, begged her support.

Successful intercession might also bring official recognition: Joan’s sister Mary of Woodstock, a nun of Amesbury Priory in Wiltshire, was as a teenager named as a legal representative of the chief abbess of her order in recognition of her ability to argue the abbess’s interests directly to her father, the king. Mary was attached to her title; in a request to her father that he help restore lands seized from the priory estate, she concluded: “Do as much, sweet father, for the love of me, that my lady the abbess of Fontevrault may perceive in all things that I am a good attorney for her in this country.”

And princesses were just as skilled at influencing their husbands as they were their fathers. Theirs was a mission in stealth diplomacy, in which emotional ties were expected to serve international political aims. The early years of Eleanor’s marriage offer an excellent example of success: in providing her husband with heirs, her position was strengthened. The duchess’s increased influence in turn bolstered her advocacy for English wool and Plantagenet empire-building at the court in Nijmegen. Eleanor helped win military support for England’s wars, and reinforced essential economic ties for its exports.

But while a princess’s distinctive position – her full membership of two ruling families – gave her power, it could also make her a target. As Edward III flexed his muscles on the continent, Reginald’s advisors became increasingly wary of their duchess’s brother, and – by extension – of Eleanor’s influence on their ruler. Rather than a genuine fear that she was infected with leprosy, therefore, the threat to Eleanor’s marriage seems likely to have stemmed from anxiety among the duke’s inner circle that, through Eleanor’s advocacy for the English cause, the small duchy of Guelders might become collateral damage in what would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. By 1340, their concern was not unreasonable: Edward III’s claim to the French throne might easily have threatened an ally so close to the border with France.

Happily for Eleanor, her decision to take off her clothes in full view of her husband’s court paid dividends. The duchess could no longer be sidelined on the pretext of a disease from which she was unmistakably free, and Reginald ceased seeking a divorce. Through her bold and unexpected action, Eleanor was restored to her position at court. Over the following months, she demonstrated her renewed influence by offering patronage to the Franciscan convent in Harderwijk and endowing a new house for that order – a favourite of English royal women since her great-grandmother Eleanor of Provence – at the trading city of Deventer.

Eleanor’s brush with nudity in Nijmegen may have inspired generations of artists but it was far from the only episode of high drama involving royal women in the Middle Ages. Medieval princesses got married in secret, engaged in high-stakes power plays, and fell prey to gambling addictions. Though chronicles remain mostly silent on these women, by paying close attention to less well-known sources, they can be uncovered in their vibrancy. What emerges is a new vision of a medieval princess: a woman trained from childhood to excel in cultural, economic and military diplomacy on an international stage. She is not the powerless girl the fairytales would have us believe. She never really was.

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Kelcey Wilson-Lee is a historian and author. Her book Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I was published by Picador in March.