We caught up with Ellie Woodacre to find out what we can expect from her talk, Medieval Queens: Ruling Women in a ‘Man’s World’, at our Winchester History Weekend 2018…
Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk at our Winchester History Weekend 2018?
I’ll be speaking about queens regnant, or queens who rule in their own right – just as our own queen, Elizabeth II, does today. In the Middle Ages, this really turned the patriarchal political order on its head.
During my talk, I’ll explore what factors enabled, or prevented, women from coming to the throne and how they negotiated sharing power with their husbands. I’ll share stories of queens who successfully managed to claim a crown and craft a winning partnership with their husband, like Isabel of Castile, and women who struggled to make it to the throne or had a difficult relationship with their partner in rule. Melisende of Jerusalem is a great example of the latter; she first had to push back against her husband when he was excluding her from rule, and later fought her son, Baldwin III, when he felt she should retire from ruling and leave him to it.
Q: Why are you so interested in this period of history?
This was the topic that initially fired my interest in researching queens and queenship in an academic context. I had long been interested in particular queens, but it was the question of how a woman could come to the throne and wield power – in a period where we often assume women were powerless – that intrigued me.
The Middle Ages are the ideal place to examine this issue. It was the time when rules for royal succession were being developed and shaped into the firmer structures for the right to the throne that we know today. Our current line of succession in this country is crystal clear; it is quick and easy to check who is the 16th person in line to the throne (Isla Philips). In the medieval era, there was much discussion and debate about ‘blood right’ to the throne and whether dynastic or elective succession was preferable. This lack of clarity and malleability led to dynastic disputes, usurpation and even war.
Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…
That the so-called Salic Law [the law that excluded females from dynastic succession] was retro-engineered to prevent women from coming to the French throne. Although it was an ancient law, it was first applied to the succession in 1358 following a suggestion by the monk Richard Lescot. This was not long before the first test case for a woman’s right to the French throne – that of Jeanne (Juana) de Navarre (c1370–1437), who was the only surviving child of Louis X. Yet in the later medieval period, the ‘myth’ of Salic Law was promulgated as a foundational element of French royal history that had excluded women and the female line for centuries. There is still quite a lot of confusion and misinformation about this even today!
Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?
Some people may not be aware that we’ve had two Navarrese queens consort in England: Berengaria (wife of Richard I) and Joan (wife of Henry IV). However, very few people know that Navarre’s first regnant queen, Juana I, was originally betrothed to wed Henry, the first son and heir of Edward I of England. Unfortunately, Henry died young and the marriage never came to pass. Juana later wed Philip IV of France which brought France and Navarre into personal union. However, if Henry had lived and the English marriage came to pass, that would have meant that the English and Navarrese thrones would have been joined through the marriage of their two rulers. This would have had huge ramifications on medieval politics and our national history as well – it’s a very interesting historical ‘what if’, I think!
Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?
I’d invite regnant queens of course! I think I’d choose Cleopatra of Egypt, Sibylla of Jerusalem and Elizabeth I of England so I can ask them questions about their complicated relationships with men. I’d love to talk to Cleopatra about her liaisons with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. I’d ask Sibylla why she decided to stick by her husband Guy de Lusignan, and crown him as her king consort even when her barons hated him. I’d ask Elizabeth I why she decided not to marry. I can theorise about the motives behind all of their decisions but it would be so fascinating to hear their own thoughts and feelings on these matters.
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Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?
This is a difficult one. I think perhaps the 16th century because it was such a dynamic time when so much was changing; the foundations of European society were being rocked with ideas of humanism and the Reformation, plus political upheaval and global voyages of exploration were opening up contacts and trade to the east and west. It would have been an exciting time to be alive, in my opinion.
Q: Which history book(s) would you recommend (excluding your own)?
I’d have to say the works of Nicola Tallis: Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey (2016) and Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys (2017). I’m biased, of course, as Nicola is my PhD student and I’ve known her a very long time, but she’s a fantastic historian and her works are well-researched and engaging reads.
I also really enjoyed Sarah Gristwood’s Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth Century Europe (2017). I could go on and on but I’m developing an interactive online bibliography of works on queens and queenship that I hope to bring out fairly soon, so that will offer plenty more suggestions.
Ellie Woodacre will be speaking about medieval queens at BBC History Magazine’s Winchester History Weekend on Saturday 6 October. To find out more about her talk and to book tickets, click here.
To read more about the festival and other speakers, click here.