Posts Tagged ‘Female History’

Book Review: Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I by Kelcey Wilson-Lee

May 24, 2021

Having enjoyed ‘Blood Sisters’ and ‘Game of Queens’ by Sarah Gristwood and Helen Castor’s ‘She-Wolves’, I was interested to read this book on the daughters of Edward I and it is very much in-line with their re-evaluations of the lives of aristocratic medieval and renaissance women and their too-often overlooked contributions to statecraft and diplomacy.

It seems unnecessary in 2021 to point out that women’s lives are and have always been valuable, demanding and multi-faceted or that our female ancestors didn’t merely marry, breed and die yet these books are more than biographies of long dead humans. There is still a very real need to re-evaluate these women when the contemporary source material was so focused on their male relatives that ‘history’ has brought us little more than a vague impression of their personalities, drives and accomplishments and when we still regularly come across commentators who barely mention the other half of the population when studying the ‘deeds of great men.’ When medieval women emerge from the media blackout it is often with a large helping of negative baggage – they are ‘she-wolves’ or viragos, unnatural mothers or adulterous wives who are only mentioned because they dared to over-step the ‘natural’ obedience and reserve of their invisible sisters. Our C21st viewpoint on their characters and actions is already overlaid with a huge layer of accumulated interpretation and propaganda from contemporary source material and later commentary which must be painstakingly unravelled and cleaned up before we can really begin to assess them in any objective way.

Kelcey has found a window into the world of these medieval women through the wardrobe, patent and fine rolls which give a tantalising insight into the circuit of perpetual travel, private and public engagements and personal habits of these ‘daughters of the king’ which does something, at least, to make up for the sparsity of monastic chronicles or official documents and allows her to build a more evidenced picture of their lives based on their personal effects, household arrangements and medical care and how much was spent on their servants, tutors, gifts and betrothal arrangements.

Victorian impression of Eleanor of Castille – modelled on Queen Victoria

In the Introduction to the book, Kelcey explains how the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837, the first female monarch since Queen Anne some one hundred and twenty years earlier, led to an explosion of interest in female monarchs and queenship. Agnes Strickland in partnership with her sister Elizabeth, wrote an important book ‘Lives of the Queens of England’ three years after Victoria’s ascent to the throne followed by Mary Anne Everett Green’s ‘Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain’ which allowed the reading public an opportunity to hear the voices of these long dead women for the first time through the authorship of women.

Her subsequent ‘Lives of the Princesses of England, from the Norman Conquest’ which ran to an impressively well-researched six volumes gave even greater detail; drawing on her knowledge of Latin and medieval French and access to charters, letters and original source material to detail biographies of every princess from the C11th to the C19th.

However, the Victorian obsession with an idealised form of ‘medieval gothic’ culture and tendency to romanticise the past led to a re-affirmation of the medieval princess as a damsel in distress; usually under threat and in need of rescue by a strong and true Christian knight which not only reinforced the skewed monastic viewpoint on female agency but also added a further layer of infantilization and helplessness to public perceptions of medieval queenship.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

So, what was the reality of being a daughter of a ‘great and terrible king’ like Edward I? Kelcey’s book discusses the role models provided by Edward’s mother, Eleanor of Provence and his wife, Eleanor of Castille in shaping the early lives of his daughters and how their different queenships demonstrated that life for an aristocratic woman was far more nuanced and conflicted than many historical commentators have tended to present it.

Both these queens were adept at juggling the demands of being a consort – expected to travel long distances with their partners and undertake a constant round of public engagements, build a dynasty with their bodies and manage the grief of losing multiple children in infancy whilst simultaneously interceding on behalf of their birth family and their interests; their adopted family through marriage and their interests and numerous unrelated petitioners who might approach with a third set of grievances and demands. To survive and balance all these conflicting demands on their person must have taken a considerable toll of their physical and mental well-being.

Monastic chronicles, being written by monks who had very little experience or contact with women in the secular world and were writing from the vantage point of the cloister, may be forgiven for a lack of empathy for experiences they could never understand or the mysteries of the female body but because of their lack of basic understanding and familiarity with what it means to be female, they left a void in their accounts which needs to be recognised and re-assessed today.

There is still too little written about the personal tug-of-war that went on within the body and soul of these aristocratic women. They were raised in their respective homelands to be queen consorts in a distant land but with the understanding that their dynastic marriages were a means of them contributing to their families’ wealth, strategic security, economic interests and ambitions as well as promoting their place in the great houses of Europe. This meant that they would always be torn between their mission to advance their families and their duty to support and facilitate their husband’s personal and national agenda which often lay in the opposite direction. They were then castigated in the chronicles for bringing over foreign relatives who took key positions in the court and for disloyalty to their adopted nation and it’s pre-existing courtiers and great families. Their dower arrangements, personal wealth and the results of the diplomatic negotiations surrounding their marriages often led to accusations of extravagance, mis-management and loss of strategic territories which, despite the alliances they forged and the heirs they produced, seemed to outweigh their usefulness to their adopted country.

When things went wrong or they outlived their child bearing years, they were even further marginalised and often either sent home or consigned to a convent where you wonder whether they breathed a sigh of relief or pined for the world and secular influence they had left behind.

Eleanor of Provence, Queen to Henry III

Eleanor of Provence was to have a direct influence over the course of her grandchildren’s lives but most especially for Mary, the forth surviving daughter of Eleanor of Castille. Much against the queen’s personal wishes, the king agreed that Mary would be cloistered as a nun in training with her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence at the incredibly young age of six years old. The motivation behind his decision was no doubt due to multiple factors but his mother’s personal intervention seems to have been the critical impetus behind his decision. Eleanor wanted a grand-daughter to share her retirement at Amesbury and to have the opportunity of raise Mary to become an influential abbess in the fulness of time. Mary would pursue the family interests by praying for their souls to ease their time in purgatory but she would also one day administer vast estates for the church and perhaps become Abbess at the mother house of Fontevrault which would ever be associated with the legacy of their Angevin ancestors and her great great grand-mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Mary had no personal say in her fate and her mother, Eleanor of Castille, seems to have also been over-ruled as she was recorded as being reluctant to give her up at such a young age and stipulated various proviso’s to the arrangement which allowed Mary not only a very comfortable living but also unusual access to court and travel throughout her life as a nun. Both parents visited her regularly and she came to court frequently and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle within the constraints of her position.

Later in her life she undertook the education of her nieces and the two young boys, Thomas and Edmund, from her father’s re-marriage. She commissioned a history of her father’s reign and no doubt played an important role is praying for the souls of her mother and many siblings who died in early childhood.

Eleanor of Castille

Eleanor of Castille was the epitome of medieval queenship, as seen in the idealised effigy on her tomb at Westminster Abbey and she is probably more well-known than many other medieval consorts due to the enormous outpouring of grief after her death by Edward I which saw the construction of the Eleanor crosses marking the route that her body took to reach its final resting place. Eleanor had been a tireless life partner to Edward throughout their marriage. She was never far from his side; travelling with him on crusade and extended diplomatic missions in Europe to further their interests and influencing policy decisions both at home and in the wider theatre of European politics. Despite the problems of succession caused by the tragic early deaths of several princes and princesses, she gave birth to an impressive number of healthy children who ensured the continuation of their dynasty and could be used to further strategic alliances across Europe. Her surviving daughters, Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth were all influenced and moulded by their mother despite long periods of absence and her fairly early death at the age of 49.

Eleanora, Countess of Bar

Eleanora spent the greatest amount of time under her mother’s instruction and is thought to have shared her interest in reading and chivalric culture. She seemed personally committed and enthusiastic about her betrothal to Alphonso of Aragon and ready for the role that she would fulfil in her mother’s homeland and fully educated by the age of twelve to undertake such a daunting prospect.

‘Far from being a passive pawn of her father’s diplomatic ambitions, she plainly wishes to play an active role in the arrangement of her marriage.’ (p.34-5)

Eleanora was to be denied the fulfilment of this betrothal and took a different road, marrying Henri of Bar and later having to defend her adopted country from French attack and negotiate a random for her husband while he languished in prison. Despite petitioning her father for money, he seemed to have diverted his attention elsewhere and she was left with small children and isolated, far from home, to manage as best she could with only a modest contribution towards the ransom. Reality for this princess, like so many others, was trying to manage competing warring factions, frequent childbirth, semi-autonomy without the ability to exercise full power and a desperate long-term fight to protect her children’s inheritance. Far from romantic tournaments and rescue, these women rescued themselves and their spouses and protected their lands through their own agency and efforts and for the benefit of their children with a single-minded focus and determination that should be appreciated in its own right.

Joan of Acre, or Joanna from a later manuscript

Joanna comes across as a very independently minded princess who was prepared to openly defy her father on more than one occasion in order to follow her own path. Married to the powerful marcher lord Gilbert de Clare, she carved out an influential role in the lawless Welsh marches, enjoying great wealth and localised power away from court until his death and then secretly married for love; a man considered her social inferior which brought down the wrath of her father, who also happened to be her feudal overlord and to whom she owed obedience. He was even more incensed as he was negotiating another dynastic marriage for her, quite possibly without her knowledge or consent, when she admitted not only to the secret marriage but also being pregnant. Joanna managed to negotiate her way out of a very sticky situation and to retain nearly all her holdings and to see her new husband elevated and accepted by the king which speaks volumes for her ability to intercede and manage her property rights, raise men-at-arms to fight in her father’s wars and demonstrate her independence of will over her choice of husband which is pretty impressive considered the established norms for most aristocratic women and their ability to retain autonomy within the feudal system. She also offered her brother Edward financial assistance and shelter when he fell foul of his father, effectively undermining the power of the king, and seemed unconcerned that her actions might result in some fairly dire consequences for offending such an autocratic father.

Maybe Joanna was able to use her personal relationship with her father to act in a way that a male relative could not have managed and maybe she was fiercely independent and willing to risk the fall-out for pushing hard against the conventions of her age but she certainly demonstrated great spirit and personal courage in standing for what she believed in and was able to argue her cause effectively.

Women had been feudal vassals in previous generations despite diagrams of the feudal system air-brushing them out completely; Nicola de la Haye famously inherited the role of Constable of Lincoln Castle and defended it against two sieges, being gratefully rewarded by King John and Henry III and only retiring from the role due to old age. Aristocratic women were at the heart of the feudal structure; cementing alliances, acting as patrons and also administrators of huge estates but also taking control of the defence of property and withstanding sieges and military attacks across Europe and in the Holy Land as loyal vassals and Christian defenders of the holy places in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Margaret, the third surviving daughter of Eleanor of Castille became Duchess of Brabant but delayed her departure to her new home for several years. Kelcey speculates that she may not have wished for the life that awaited her there and quotes a passage from Tristan and Isolde on the fears of young princesses, bound in marriage to a far-off country

‘You must take heart! You had much better be a queen in a strange land than humble and obscure at home. Honour and ease abroad, and shame in your father’s kingdom have a very different flavour.’ (p.127)

This was the stark reality of being born the daughter of a king. To be uprooted and transported on dangerous roads and separated by seas far away and perhaps never to see your home or family again; to learn a new language and settle into the rhythms of an alien culture with so much expectation on young shoulders.

Elizabeth of Rhuddlan

Elizabeth, the baby of the family comes out of the shadows in the final chapters of the book. Having spent most of her childhood with her brother, Edward of Caernarvon, at the royal nursery at Langley which her mother made a comfortable home for her youngest children; Elizabeth, like her elder sister Margaret delayed leaving England after her marriage to John, Count of Holland and her father was so enraged by her unwillingness that he reportedly threw her ceremonial crown into a fire, damaging several of the precious stones which had to be hastily repaired by Adam, the royal goldsmith. This episode shows the nature of the relationship between royal parent and child during this period when the stakes were so high and the royal word was law. Much as Edward seems to have lavished goods and attention on his offspring, he expected unquestioning obedience and wasn’t above ‘bullying’ his daughters into doing their duty.

In Elizabeth’s case, her fears were well founded as she was catapulted into a very dangerous situation were her husband was manipulated by an older advisor and possible lover who abducted him. It was Elizabeth who galvanised support to free her husband and his advisor ended up being ripped apart by a mob but she was still left a young widow after John died suddenly of dysentery though he was most likely poisoned. There were passing similarities to her little brother’s episodes with favourites and the events that would propel her sister-in-law, Isabella of France into the role of ‘she-wolf’ a little later on.

Although queens and duchesses were supposed to defer and obey their husbands, it was often their strength in moments of national crisis that turned the course of history and their intervention, for good or ill, that was to have the most wide-reaching consequences. They often had to exercise power through a male figurehead – as regents for a male relative or by proxy but nevertheless, they were the actors and agents of their times as much as their male counterparts.

Inevitably, with such a scant amount of documented material to draw on, Kelcey has to speculate about what the records suggest about the lives of these royal women and how they viewed their roles as wives and mothers but also as active partners in the business of statecraft. They were raised to sit at the apex of society; to be great landowners and administrators, diplomats and champions of causes. Aristocratic women influenced policy making and judgements, they literally saved lives through their intercessions and shaped dynastic alliances. They were powerful patrons of art and culture and through the lavish decoration of their homes and bodies and the ceremonial display of court, they were important consumers and influencers of elite culture which should not be under-estimated.

As Kelcey says at the end of the book, these women may lack physical monuments and have been largely forgotten in the historical record; they may live on in the bloodlines of their descendants and in a few written documents which detail the everyday consumption and movements of their lives on Earth but her book represents a new memorial and does something to re-introduce their voices to the world. So much has been written about their father and brother in comparison that it feels only fitting that these women should have a light shone upon them and receive the attention they deserve.

Beyond that, of course, lies the great silence that surrounds the countless ordinary women throughout history whose lives have gone by completely unrecorded or remembered. The millions of female babies who died without their names being recorded or who never survived the perils of childhood. The women who toiled in the fields and kept the farmsteads, who brewed and spun and carried the water from the river, who nursed the sick and the dying, made the remedies and sat through long nights battling with death to save their children. These women have no memorials and are the unsung heroines of life. They struggled against oppression and abuse, fought against unjust laws and were burdened with the responsibilities of child-rearing and endless labour without even the recognition that their male counterparts received as workers, guildsmen, soldiers and businessmen though none of them could have practiced their trades, gone to war or built their fortunes without the women who stood beside them, in the shadows, and made it happen.

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