Medieval She-Wolves: Part One

Throughout history – and particularly in medieval times – strong, determined women have been labelled ‘she-wolves’. It is a term that has been used as a criticism or insult. It has often been applied to suggest a woman of serious character flaws who would invariably put her own interests ahead of others, who fought for what they wanted, be it a crown, their children or independence. Men who performed similar actions and had similar aims tended to be called strong and determined rulers. However, the term can also be used to show women in a positive light, women who didn’t give up, fought for themselves and their families. So I have chosen 6 women who could have been termed ‘she-wolves’ to show women from both viewpoints, and to demonstrate the strength of the characters and the challenges they faced. And while their actions were not always exemplary, their stories were always remarkable.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

The daughter of King Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Æthelflæd was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. Although she exercised regal rights in Mercia even before her husband’s death, after Æthelred died in 911, it was left to Æthelflæd to lead the Mercians in the fight against the Danes. Alongside her brother, King Edward of Wessex. It is universally acknowledged that Æthelflæd helped to push back the Viking incursions. Losing four of her greatest captains in the battle to capture Derby in 917, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates.’

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited by Michael Swanton

In 918, Æthelflæd captured Leicester, ravaging the countryside around the town until the Danes surrendered. The combination of her indefatigable forces and compassion in victory saw the Danes soon suing for peace; in the summer of 918, the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her. She personally led campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes – though whether she actually wielded a sword in battle is unknown.

While often magnanimous in victory, Æthelflæd could be ruthless when it was her friends who were attacked; even she was not immune from the desire for revenge. In June 916, on the feast of St Cyriac, Æthelflæd’s good friend, Abbot Egbert, was murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot and his retainers were ambushed and killed while travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog. The abbot had been under Æthelflæd’s protection and within three days she was leading an army into the Wales to exact revenge.

Statue of Aethelflaed and Athelstan

Æthelflæd’s army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom and taking many hostages. Although King Tewdr escaped Æthelflæd, his wife did not; Queen Angharad and thirty-three others, many of them relatives of the Welsh king, were taken back to Mercia as hostages. Æthelflæd’s strength and determination was complemented by her quick actions and an impressive ruthless streak. When the Welsh king eventually submitted to Æthelflæd, he promised to serve her faithfully, and to pay compensation for the murder of the abbot and his people.

Æthelflæd died suddenly in June 918. She did not live to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had worked tirelessly to achieve; between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England (died 1204)

Tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, France

Eleanor of Aquitaine is iconic. Probably the most famous woman of the middle ages, she is the only woman to have ever worn the crowns of both England and France. She has even been promoted as the first feminist.

Eleanor’s long life saw her weather the dangers of crusade, scandal, siege, imprisonment and betrayal to emerge as the great matriarch of Europe.

When her first husband, Louis VII, led the Second Crusade, Eleanor went with him, only to find herself mired in scandal.  Eleanor’s uncle Raymond of Toulouse, Prince of Antioch, welcomed Eleanor warmly and lavished such attention on her that rumours soon arose of an affair. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, but accused of adultery and incest, Eleanor spent most of the crusade under close guard on her husband’s orders.

Louis and Eleanor’s marriage had been dealt a fatal blow; they left the Holy Land in 1149 and their divorce was finally proclaimed 21 March 1152. By May 1152 Eleanor was married again, to the man who would become her first husband’s greatest rival. Henry of Anjou would become King of England in 1154 and eventually built an empire that extended 1,000 miles, from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and incorporating most of western France.

Later rumours again mired Eleanor in scandal, accusing her of murdering Henry’s lover Rosamund Clifford. In one extravagant version, Rosamund was hidden in her secret bower within a maze but, with the help of a silken thread, a jealous Eleanor still found her and stabbed her while she bathed. In another the discarded queen forced Rosamund to drink from a poison cup. Of course, a closely guarded prisoner in Old Sarum or at Winchester as Eleanor was at the time of Rosamund’s death, it was impossible for her to do any such thing. But who are we to let facts get in the way of a good story?

Eleanor did, however, commit one of the most heinous crimes a woman could in the medieval world. As a she-wolf, protecting her cubs, she rebelled against her husband. In 1173 her eldest son by Henry, also called Henry, rebelled against his father and fled to the French court for support. His father-in-law, King Louis VII welcomed the disgruntled Angevin prince and Eleanor of Aquitaine, having sided with her sons against her husband, sent two of her other sons, fifteen-year-old Richard and fourteen-year-old Geoffrey, to join their older brother at the French court, while she rallied her barons in Poitou to their cause. In 1174, when the rebellion failed, Henry accepted the submission of his sons.

Eleanor, who was captured as she rode towards safety in France, wearing men’s clothing – an act itself highly frowned upon – was not so fortunate. While it was not encouraged for sons to rebel against their father, it could be seen as boys flexing their muscles. For a wife to rebel against her husband was practically unheard of, and went against the natural order of society, and therefore deserved harsher punishment – where would the world be if women refused to behave?

Unforgiven and defeated, Eleanor was sent to perpetual imprisonment in various castles throughout southern England. She was only released after Henry II’s death in 1189, when her favourite son, Richard I, the Lionheart, ascended England’s throne. If she had done everything of which she was accused – murder, incest, adultery and rebellion – Eleanor would be the ultimate she-wolf. As it was, her rebellion, an act unprecedented for a queen, meant she paid the price with her freedom for the next fifteen years.

Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France

Isabeau of Bavaria

If all the stories of Isabeau of Bavaria were to be believed, she would be the most ruthless and wicked queen to have ever lived. For centuries Isabeau has been accused of almost every crime imaginable, from adultery and incest to treason and avarice. Variously described as being beautiful and hypnotic or so obese that she was crippled, the chroniclers have not been kind to Isabeau. According to them, her moral corruption led to the neglect of her children and betrayal of her husband and country.

However, they ignored the challenges faced by a queen whose husband was sinking deeper and deeper into the realms of insanity, going so far as killing four of his own knights during one mental breakdown and thinking he was made of glass in another. Married to King Charles VI of France, also known as Charles ‘the Mad’, Isabeau was left to raise her children and navigate the dangers and intrigues of court politics with little assistance from her mentally disturbed husband. Her political alliance with Louis of Orléans, her husband’s brother, led to her imprisonment amid slanderous rumours of adultery and incest – from the opposing political party.

To add to this, France was – not that they knew it at the time – halfway through the conflict with England that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war was going badly for France – Henry V defeated them decisively at Agincourt – and Isabeau was forced to put her signature to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. In that instant she disinherited her own son, the Dauphin, making Henry V heir to King Charles and handing France over to England. Much of Isabeau’s life and career has been re-examined in the twentieth century and she has been exonerated of many of the accusations against her, but, despite the fact Isabeau was backed into a corner, she still signed away her son’s inheritance in favour of a foreign power…

Although not all their actions were womanly, and some of what they did could be seen as dishonourable and ruthless, what is certain is that these women – and many others from their time – left their mark on history. With each of them, applying the term ‘she-wolf’ highlights their strengths, their determination, and the challenges they faced and overcame. They fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.

Look out for Part Two of Medieval She-Wolves, next week.

Selected Sources:

The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine.

My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Maud de Braose, the King’s Enemy

220px-William_de_Braose,_4th_Lord_Bramber.svg
Arms of William de Braose

Matilda de Braose was probably born in the early 1150s in Saint-Valery-en-Caux, France, to Bernard IV, Seigneur de Saint-Valery and his wife, Matilda. Contemporary records describe her as tall and beautiful, wise and vigorous.

Made famous by the de Braose’s spectacular falling-out with King John – and the manner of her death – very little is known of Matilda’s early years; though she probably spent time at her family’s manor of Hinton Waldrist in Berkshire.

Sometime around 1166 she married William de Braose, 4th Lord of Bramber, a Norman lord with land on the Welsh Marches. William was highly favoured by both Richard I and, later his brother King John.

Whilst William was away campaigning in Normandy, Matilda would be left to manage their estates in Wales. In 1198, Matilda defended Painscastle in Elfael against a massive Welsh attack by Gwenwynyn, Prince of Powys. She held out for 3 weeks until English reinforcements arrived, earning the castle its nickname of Matilda’s Castle.

220px-Hay_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_61858
Hay Castle

One of Matilda’s titles was the Lady of Hay and Welsh folklore has her building the Castle of Hay in one night, single-handed, carrying the stones in her skirts.

The couple had around 16 children together, who married into some of the most powerful families of the time. Their eldest son, William, married Maud de Clare, daughter of the Earl of Hertford. Another son, Giles, became Bishop of Hereford.

Of their daughters Loretta, married Robert de Breteuil, 4th Earl of Leicester and another, Margaret, married Walter de Lacy, Lord of Meath.

A third son, Reginald, married, as his 2nd wife, Gwladus Ddu, daughter of Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales. Reginald’s son, William, by his 1st wife married Eva Marshal, daughter of the great knight, William Marshal. It was this William de Braose who was ignominiously hanged by Llewelyn the Great, after being found in the bedchamber of Llewelyn’s wife Joan, the Lady of Wales and natural daughter of King John. William had been at the Welsh court to arrange the marriage of his daughter, Isabel, to Llewelyn and Joan’s son, David. Interestingly, the marriage still went ahead, although it was to be childless.

170px-John_of_England_(John_Lackland)
King John

William de Braose was greatly favoured by King John in the early part of his reign. He was given  Limerick in Ireland for 5,000 marks and also received the castle at Glamorgan and the lordship of Gower. William de Braose was the knight who captured the rival to John’s throne, Arthur of Brittany, at the Siege of Mirebeau in 1202 and possibly witnessed Arthur’s murder at Rouen in Easter 1203.

It was following Arthur’s murder that things started to go wrong for the Lord and Lady of Bramber. John became increasingly suspicious of de Braose’s loyalty and turned against him. This could have been for several reasons, not least being de Braose’s knowledge of Arthur’s fate.

Elsewhere, De Braose had fallen behind in his payments to the Exchequer for the honour of Limerick, but he had also sided with his friend William Marshal in his disagreements with the king. In addition, de Braose’s son, Giles had been one of the bishops to approve an Interdict against John.

250px-TrimCastle
Trim Castle, Meath

Whatever the reason, in 1207 King John moved to make a public example of one of his most powerful barons, and punish him for his debts to the Exchequer. John demanded William and Matilda give up their sons as hostages.

Matilda refused and Roger of Wendover recorded her response to the soldiers sent to collect the boys, as; “I will not deliver my sons to your lord, King John, for he foully murdered his nephew Arthur, whom he should have cared for honourably.”

William is said to have admonished his wife for speaking so harshly of the king; but what mother wouldn’t react rashly when in fear for her children’s lives? William and Matilda realised she had gone too far, and tried to placate John with gifts. But it was too late.

John took possession of de Braose’s castles and moved to arrest William. Forewarned, the couple fled to Ireland with 2 of their sons, where they took refuge with Walter de Lucy, their son-in-law and Lord of Meath. John followed after them, bringing other recalcitrant barons to heal along the way. While William de Braose tried to come to terms with the king, Matilda and their eldest son, William, escaped by taking ship for Scotland.

However, Matilda and her son were captured in Galloway by Duncan of Carrick, and having been returned to England in chains, they were imprisoned in Windsor Castle. King John made an agreement with both William and Matilda; freedom for her and a pardon for William in return for 40,000 marks.

220px-Outer_bailey_wall_west_of_the_outer_gatehouse_corfe_castle
Corfe Castle

However, being either unwilling or unable to pay, Matilda and her son remained in prison – either at Windsor or Corfe Castle – and William was outlawed, eventually escaping into exile in France, disguised as a beggar, where he died in 1211.

Matilda’s fate was more gruesome; she and her son were left to starve to death in John’s dungeons (though whether this was at Corfe or Windsor is unclear). Tradition has it, that when their bodies were found, William’s cheeks bore his mother’s bite marks, where she had tried to stay alive following his death.

Magna_Carta_(British_Library_Cotton_MS_Augustus_II.106)
Magna Carta

John’s treatment of the de Braose family did not lead to the submission of his barons, as John had intended, and the remainder of his reign was marred by civil war.

However when Magna Carta was written in 1215, Clause 39 may well have been included  with Matilda and her family in mind:

“No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”

*

The story of Matilda and her family will feature in my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta; Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, which will be released in the UK in May.

*

Sources: sussexcastles.com; genie.com; steyningmuseum.org.uk; berkshirehistory.com; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; The Life and Times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

*

My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

*

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

English Princess, Exiled Duchess

Matylda_Anglicka
Matilda of England

Matilda of England was the eldest daughter and third child of, arguably, Medieval Europe’s most glamorous couple. Born in London in June 1156, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II was baptised by Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Aldgate.

As her parents ruled an empire, that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, travel was a constant part of Matilda’s childhood. She took her first sea-voyage across the English Channel at just 2 months old with her mother and older brother, Henry, to join her father in Anjou; before travelling to Aquitaine in October.

Throughout her childhood, Matilda is often seen accompanying her mother throughout the vast Angevin domains. She and Henry would be joined in the nursery by 3 younger brothers – Richard, Geoffrey and John – and 2 younger sisters – Eleanor and Joan – who survived into adulthood.

Negotiations began for Matilda’s marriage in February 1165, as part of an alliance with the German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, in opposition to Louis VII of France and the Pope, Alexander III. It was one of a series of dynastic marriages, which included her younger sisters, aimed at strengthening their father’s position in Europe.

The first of her parents’ daughters to be married, her dowry and send-off cost around £4,500 (about a quarter of England’s annual revenue). The money was raised by taxes specifically levied for the occasion. The 12-year-old princess was given a trousseau worth £63 , including saddles with gilt fittings, ‘two large silken cloths, and two tapestries and one cloth of samite and twelve sable skins’. 34 packhorses were needed to transport all her belongings.

Heinrich_der_Löwe_und_Mathilde_von_England
Coronation of Henry V and Matilda

In July 1166 the emperor’s envoys arrived in England, to escort Matilda to Germany. Her mother accompanied her to Dover, where she embarked on a German ship; and the wedding to Henry V ‘the Lion’, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, finally took place in Minden Cathedral, Germany, on 1st february 1168.

Henry the Lion was 27 years Matilda’s senior, his first marriage, to Klementia of Zahringen, had been annulled in 1162. The marriage appears to have been successful and produced 10 children, although the fates of some seem to be in question, and several did not survive childhood. Their eldest daughter, Richenza (her name was later changed to Matilda), born around 1172, was married firstly to Geoffrey III, Count of Perche, and secondly to Enguerrand III, Lord of Coucy.

Of their sons Henry, born in 1173, would succeed to the Duchies of Saxony and Bavaria on his father’s death in 1195. Born around 1175, their second son, Otto, Earl of York and Count of Ponthieu, would become Holy Roman Emperor as Otto IV in 1209; Otto was briefly considered as heir to the English throne, by his uncle Richard I, before King John claimed the crown. A third son, William, Duke of Luneberg and Brunswick, was born in England in 1184 and would be ancestor, in the direct male line, of the House of Hanover, Kings of Great Britain in the 18th Century.

220px-JindraLev
Henry V ‘the Lion’

In 1180 Henry V quarrelled with the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who held him responsible for the failure of a campaign in Italy. Henry, it seems, had grown very powerful in his own domains and Barbarossa, after the quarrel, deprived him of his fiefs and sent the Duke of Saxony and Bavaria into exile for 7 years.

Henry, Matilda and their children left Germany and sought refuge at the Angevin court in Autumn 1181. Henry II welcomed his daughter to his court in Normandy and, whilst energetically lobbying the German emperor on his son-in-law’s behalf, gave his daughter the palace of Argentin as a family residence.

Matilda was heavily pregnant and remained with her father whilst her husband left on pilgrimage to Compostela. The family was together again by Christmas 1182, spending the festive period with Matilda’s siblings at Henry II’s court in Caen.

Matilda and her family spent 1183 in the Angevin lands on the Continent; a pregnant Matilda accompanied her father to England in 1184, where she gave birth to her son, William, at Winchester in mid-June. While at the Angevin court Matilda was instrumental in getting the restrictions eased on her mother’s imprisonment; Eleanor of Aquitaine had been held at Old Sarum, following her complicity in a failed rebellion by her sons in 1173-4.

Although she was still in the custody of guards, Eleanor was allowed to reside with Matilda at various locations in England, including Windsor and Berkhamsted. When Eleanor was allowed to cross the Channel to take possession of the Vexin Castles, Matilda accompanied her.

In early 1185, having asked the Pope to intervene with the Emperor, Henry II finally secured agreement for his son-in-law to return to his German domains; although Henry would not be restored to Imperial favour until 1190, when he made peace with the new Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI.

170px-Braunschweig_Brunswick_Heinrich_der_Loewe_(Dom_2005)
Henry V ‘the Lion’

Matilda and Henry arrived back in Germany in October 1185, although their children, Otto, William and Matilda had been left at Henry’s court, to be raised by their grandparents.

Henry the Lion would be exiled from Germany again, when Frederick Barbarossa left on Crusade, but this time, Matilda remained to oversee their German domains.

Matilda died at Brunswick on 28th June 1189 and was buried there, in the Cathedral of St Blasius, of which she was co-foundress. Henry II died just 8 days later, probably before the news of his daughter’s death could reach him. Matilda’s husband would be buried alongside her, following his death on 6th August 1195.

There seems to be no surviving description of Matilda; however, Bertran de Born, troubadour to Matilda’s brother Richard (the Lionheart) composed a song about her and compared Matilda’s beauty to that of Helen of Troy.

*

Sources: Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Douglas Boyd Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine; Alison Weir Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Pictures taken from Wikipedia.

*

My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly