7 things you didn’t know a medieval princess could do

Many fairy tales tell us that princesses spent years confined to towers waiting for knights to rescue them, little more than decorative pawns to be traded by their father. But the lives of historical princesses paint a very different picture. Here, through the lives of the five daughters of Edward I, historian Kelcey Wilson-Lee shares seven lessons on what it was to be a real medieval princess…

Eleanor of Woodstock, eldest daughter of Edward II, whom you can read more about in the April 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine. Medieval princesses had more agency than we might think says historian Kelcey Wilson-Lee. (Image by Alamy)
1

Medieval princesses could command a castle

In 1293, Eleanor, the eldest daughter of Edward I, married Henri, the ruler of the small province of Bar in present-day northern France. Four years later, Henri was fighting near Lille when he was captured by hostile French forces and taken as a prisoner to Paris. With her husband imprisoned, responsibility for securing the county fell to Eleanor. As the 14th-century writer Christine de Pisan wrote, a princess should “know how to use weapons… so that she may be ready to command her men if need arises”. Eleanor marshalled what remained of Henri’s army to defend her home – the castle at Bar – and wrote to her father and other allies to raise money for Henri’s ransom, successfully safeguarding the inheritance of her young children.

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Two scenes from the Chronique de St Denis, late 14th century. The left-hand scene depicts the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France in 1137. The scene on the right shows Louis departing by ship to go on the Second Crusade in 1147. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Almost 30 years earlier, another princess named Eleanor held Dover Castle against her own brother, King Henry III, for several months during the uprising led by her husband, the rebel baron Simon de Montfort. After the decisive battle at Evesham, in which Eleanor’s husband and eldest son were killed, the tireless princess nevertheless fought on, bringing in a siege engine to defend the castle and using its coastal position to ship her younger children abroad with money for their upkeep.

2

Medieval princesses could marry for love

Joan of Acre, Edward’s second daughter, first married at the age of 18 to a much older man – Gilbert de Clare, a 46-year-old divorcee who was a troublesome magnate within her father’s kingdom. When he died five years later, his widow found herself extremely eligible: young, proven fertile (as a mother of four), and in sole possession of one of England’s most valuable estates. Coupled with her royal connections, the princess proved a strong temptation to powerful European rulers and could easily have found herself consort at a rich court far from England.

Illustration of Queen Matilda of Boulogne, by Eleanor Shakespeare

But Joan had fallen in love, with a dashing but landless young man in her deceased husband’s retinue named Ralph de Monthermer. Determined not to be parted from her lover, Joan married Ralph in a secret ceremony that contravened her vow of homage to her father (rich widows who held land directly from the monarch needed the king’s permission to remarry, since their new husbands would be empowered through control of their estates). The king was livid, but eventually he forgave his headstrong daughter, who managed to keep her estates and independent income, as well as the man she loved.

3

They could read and write

Early in the 14th century, Mary of Woodstock, the fourth daughter of Edward I, commissioned a history of the reign of her father. It was written in the Anglo-Norman dialect of French that Mary spoke, suggesting that she intended to read the book herself. Its close focus on key moments in her life seem almost autobiographical.

Elizabeth Woodville - Getty Images

Mary was not alone in enjoying reading. Although ‘literacy’ in medieval England meant fluency in the reading and writing of Latin (which almost no one except priests, some nuns, and a tiny number of secular men and women were able to achieve), Mary and her sisters were taught to read by their educated mother, Eleanor of Castile. They had enough Latin to recite major prayers, having learned to sound out their letters practising on psalters and books of hours bought for that purpose in Cambridge. And they had much greater familiarity with Anglo-Norman romances, histories, and devotional works, mostly read aloud in small groups with other women.

Even more rare than reading was the ability to write the challenging letterforms of a medieval scribe, but princesses might also have devoted themselves to this exceptional skill. Purchases of writing tablets recorded over several years show that Mary’s eldest sister, Eleanor, was practicing the art of writing during her late teens.

A portrait of Isabella I of Castile. (Photo by PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)
4

Medieval princesses would travel – constantly

Intrigue and tragedy brought Elizabeth, the last of Edward’s daughters and a widow at only 18, home to England from Holland in the summer of 1300. Desperate to see her father again, Elizabeth journeyed from the Low Countries to London and then north as far as Carlisle, where she and the king were reunited. The journey of sea and land took two months of near constant travel, but Elizabeth, like her sisters, was accustomed to the extraordinary distances covered from years of itinerant living.

The English court in 1300 had yet to become settled. It was nothing at all like the palace-based courts at Versailles and Whitehall in centuries to come, and more resembled a travelling circus with the king at its centre. Up and down the countryside the monarch, his wife, their children (from the age of about eight), and vast retinues – of knights, clerks, and servants of widely differing rank – travelled in convoys on horseback and cart. Often they stopped only a night or two in royal castles, aristocratic houses, and monasteries before moving on. They moved to check in on estates and to display their majesty to their subjects throughout the country.

Joan of Kent. (Image by Getty)

Princesses like Elizabeth travelled extensively with their parents, but also independently with their own households. They would have been perched fairly comfortably atop a saddled, narrow-backed palfrey horse, or less pleasantly inside a fixed-wheel carriage, over-stuffed with velvet cushions that did little to dampen the jolts inevitable on rutted dirt roads.

5

They could build castles

Not long after joining her husband’s court in Brussels in the late 1290s, Edward’s third daughter, Margaret, needed a plan. Her husband, Jan, the Duke of Brabant, was conducting very public affairs with a succession of mistresses whose influence threatened her own. Margaret needed an alternative court – a forum away from Jan’s mistresses, somewhere she could preside that was desirable enough to tempt powerful courtiers and even her husband. None of the existing ducal houses were grand enough to suffice, so she built her own on the site of an old hunting lodge at Tervuren in Belgium.

Edward I. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The building of castles is most commonly associated with conquest. The first motte and bailey castles in England appeared in William the Conqueror’s reign, and Margaret’s father constructed a commanding sweep of fortifications across north Wales following his capture of that principality. But Edward’s construction programme imposed more than just military might on the Welsh landscape; his castles featured delicate gardens, decorative stonework, and elaborate symbolism, and their grandeur was testimony to the king’s power even far from London. Margaret, who visited the Welsh castles as a child, learned from her father and created at Tervuren a palace that affirmed her own position within Brabant.


6

Medieval princesses could gamble

In the summer of 1306, Mary of Woodstock undertook a pilgrimage at her father’s expense to the great shrine of St Mary at Walsingham. But though the princess was a nun – veiled at Amesbury Priory at the unusually early age of six – this was no ascetic contemplative journey. Over the course of one month, as they travelled from Northampton to Walsingham and back to Amesbury, Mary and her lady companions were entertained by groups of minstrels and ate lavish feasts with many courses of game, roast meats, and fish. In total, they spent more than the sum needed to fund a knight’s household for a whole year.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

But despite the king’s generosity, three times during that month Mary was forced to send messengers to her father begging for significant cash sums. The nun had a taste for gold (and ran up astronomical debts to London jewellers), but her greatest decadence was losing money on dice. Medieval aristocrats gambled on games of skill such as chess, and on games of luck such as dice. Many, like Mary, fell into trouble paying off large debts, but few could rely on the resources of the crown to save them – the princess-nun was lucky that her father proved happy, time and again, to cover her losses.

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7

They could defy the king

Joan of Acre had never been afraid of her father. As a youth, she quarrelled with her father’s clerks, demanded a larger household when she learned she had fewer paid retainers than her sisters (and consequently appeared less influential). She also petulantly missed a sister’s wedding – seemingly to prove that she could – soon after her own marriage brought her greater independence. As an adult, she married against her father’s wishes (and her own vow of homage), and rarely repaid her large debts to him.

But her most direct snub to the king’s authority may have been in July 1305, when Edward confiscated the estates and income of his son, the future Edward II, to reprimand the prince for his behaviour and troubling favouritism of the courtier Piers Gaveston. Unabashed, Joan sent her own seal to her brother, instructing him to use it to pay for whatever he wanted. The gesture was a direct challenge to her father, and few could have gotten away with such insolence. But the old king was used enough to his daughter’s headstrong behaviour and, once a chastened Prince Edward returned his sister’s seal, nothing more is mentioned of the incident.

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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 2019. You can read more from Kelcey in the April 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale now.