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.

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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 

Ladies of Magna Carta

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England

In my first year of writing History … the Interesting Bits I told the stories of 2 remarkable women, contemporaries of each other, but with markedly different fates. Matilda de Braose fell foul of King John and suffered a horrible death in his dungeons, while Nicholaa de la Haye was John’s steadfast supporter, successfully defending Lincoln Castle in no fewer than 3 sieges; the last against a combined French and rebel army.

These 2 stories became the catalyst for my latest book, which looks into how the 1215 Magna Carta was relevant to the women of the great families of 13th century England, including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Bigods, the Salisburys, Braoses and Warennes.

Magna Carta clause 39: 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.

This clause in Magna Carta was in response to the appalling imprisonment and starvation of Matilda de Braose, the wife of one of King John’s barons. Matilda was not the only woman who influenced, or was influenced by, the 1215 Charter of Liberties, now known as Magna Carta. Women from many of the great families of England were affected by the far-reaching legacy of Magna Carta, from their experiences in the civil war and as hostages, to calling on its use to protect their property and rights as widows.

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships – through marriage and blood – of the various noble families and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. Including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Warennes, the Braoses and more, _Ladies of Magna Carta_ focuses on the roles played by the women of the great families whose influences and experiences have reached far beyond the thirteenth century.

And it is almost here! 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.

Book Launch:

Please join me at The Collection, Lincoln, for the launch of Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, hosted by Lindum Books.

I will be doing a talk and book signing, at The Collection in Lincoln. Tickets: £7  Single; including book:£29. Couple including book: £32. Tickets are available from The collection and Lindum Books, Lincoln.

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.

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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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Jilted Princess

JoanEngland
Joan of England, Queen of Scotland

Joan of England was the oldest of daughter of King John and his 2nd wife, Isabella of Angoulême. Born 10th July 1210 she was the 3rd of 5 children; she had 2 older brothers and 2 younger sisters would join the family by 1215.

Even before her birth, she was mooted as a possible bride for Alexander of Scotland, son of King William I of Scotland. A verbal agreement between the 2 kings in 1209 provided for John to arrange the marriages of William’s 2 daughters, with 1 marrying a son of John’s, and Alexander marrying one of John’s daughters.

Following the death of William I a further treaty in 1212 agreed to the marriage of 14-year-old Alexander II to 2 year-old Joan. However, the agreement seems to have been made as a way of preventing Alexander from looking to the continent – and especially France – for a potential bride, and by extension allies.

It did not stop John from looking further afield, nevertheless, for a more favourable marriage alliance. Nor did it stop Alexander from siding with the Barons against King John; Alexander was one of the Magna Carta signatories. John refused a proposal from King Philip II of France, for his son John, and settled in 1214 for a marriage with his old enemies the de Lusignan’s.

In 1214 Joan was betrothed to Hugh X de Lusignan. Hugh was the son of John’s rival for the hand of Isabella in 1200; Isabella’s engagement to Hugh IX was broken off  in order for her to marry John. Following the betrothal Hugh, Lord of Lusignan and Count of La Marche, was given custody of Joan and of Saintes, Saintonge and the Isle of Oléron as pledges for her dowry. Joan was just 4 years old when she travelled to the south of France to live with her future husband’s family. She was away from England at the height of the Baron’s War, and at her father’s death in October 1216.

It’s possible she was reunited with her mother in 1217 when Isabella of Angoulême left England, abandoning her 4 other children, in order to govern her own lands in Angoulême.

In 1220 in a scandalous about-face Hugh repudiated Joan and married her mother, his father’s former betrothed. And poor 9-year-old Joan’s erstwhile future husband was now her step-father!

330px-Hugues_le_Brun
Hugh X de Lusignan, Joan’s betrothed and step-father

And worse was to come…

Instead of being sent back to England, as you would expect, Joan went from being Hugh’s betrothed – to being his prisoner. She was held hostage to ensure Hugh’s continued control of her dower lands, and to ensure the transfer of his new wife’s dower, while England was withholding Queen Isabella’s dower against the return of Joan’s dower lands.

Negotiations to resolve the situation were ongoing. In the mean time, Henry III was already looking to arrange a new marriage for Joan. On 15th June 1220, in York, a conference between Alexander II and Henry III saw the Scots king agree to marry Joan, with a provision that he would marry Joan’s younger sister, Isabella, if Joan was not returned to England in time.

Negotiations for Joan’s return were long and difficult and not helped by the fact Hugh was threatening war in Poitou. Eventually, after Papal intervention, agreement was reached in October 1220 and Joan was surrendered to the English.

Joan and Alexander II were married on the 19th June 1221, at York Minster. Joan was just weeks from her 11th birthday, while Alexander was 22. The archbishop of York performed the ceremony, which was witnessed Henry III and the great magnates of both realms. Henry III’s Pipe Rolls suggest the wedding was followed by 3 days of celebrations, costing £100. According to the Chronicle of Melrose ‘having celebrated the nuptials most splendidly, as was befitting, with all the natives of either realm rejoicing, [Alexander] conducted [Joan] to Scotland.’

York.mstr.
York Minster

The day before the wedding Alexander had assigned dower estates to Joan, worth an annual income of £1,000, including Jedburgh, Crail and Kinghorn. However, part of the dower was still held by Alexander’s mother, the dowager Queen Ermengarde, and Joan was not entitled to the income until after her mother-in-law’s death. This left Joan financially dependent on Alexander from the beginning.

There is a suggestion that Joan was not enamoured with Scotland and its society. She was hampered by her youth, her domineering mother-in-law and, eventually, by the fact she failed  to produce the desired heir. Her position was further hindered by tensions between her husband and brother from time to time.

In this, though, she seems to have found her purpose. Joan regularly acted as intermediary between the 2 kings. Alexander often used Joan’s personal letters to her brother as a way of communicating with Henry, while bypassing the formality of official correspondence between kings.

One such letter is a warning, possibly on behalf of Alexander’s constable, Alan of Galloway, of intelligence that Haakon IV of Norway was intending to aid Hugh de Lacy in Ireland. In the same letter she assured Henry that no one from Scotland would be going to Ireland to fight against Henry’s interests. Another letter, this time from Henry, was of a more personal nature, written in February 1235 it informed Joan of the marriage of their “beloved sister” Isabella to the holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, news at which he knew Joan “would greatly rejoice”.

In December 1235 Alexander and Joan were summoned to London, possibly for the coronation of Henry’s new queen, Eleanor of Provence. This would have been a long and arduous journey for the Scots monarchs, especially in the deepest part of winter.

Henry’s use of Joan as an intermediary suggests she did have some influence over her husband, this theory is supported by the fact that Joan accompanied Alexander to negotiations with the English king, at Newcastle in September 1236 and again at York in September 1237.

In 1234 Henry had granted Joan Fenstanton in Huntingdonshire and during the 1236 negotiations she was granted Driffield in Yorkshire, giving Joan an income independent of Scotland. Many have seen this as an indication that Joan was intending to spend more time in England, especially seeing as the chronicler Matthew Paris hints at an estrangement, although we cannot be certain.

330px-Alexander_II_(Alba)_i
Alexander II

The 1236 and 1237 councils were attempts at resolving the ongoing claims of Alexander that King John had agreed to gift Northumberland to Alexander as part of the marriage contract between Alexander and Joan. Henry, of course, denied this. With the mediation of a papal legate, agreement was eventually reached in York at the 1237 council, with both queens present, when Alexander gave up the claim to Northumberland in return for lands in the northern counties with an annual income of £200.

Following the 1237 council Joan and her sister-in-law Eleanor of Provence departed on pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Given that Joan was now 27 and Eleanor already married for 2 years, it is possible both women were praying for children, and an heir.

Joan stayed in England for the rest of the year; much of the stay seems to have been informal and pleasurable. She spent Christmas at Henry’s court and was given new robes for herself, her clerks and servants, in addition to gifts of does and wine. Her widowed sister Eleanor, Countess of Pembroke, was present, along with the Countess of Chester and Joan’s cousin, the captive Eleanor of Brittany.

In late January arrangements were being made for Joan’s return to Scotland, but she fell ill before she could travel north. Still only 27 years of age Joan died on 4th March 1238 at Havering-atte-Bower in Essex, her brothers, King Henry III and Richard, Earl of Cornwall, were at her side.

HenryIII
Henry III

According to Matthew Paris ‘her death was grievous, however she merited less mourning, because she refused to return [to Scotland] although often summoned back by her husband’. And even in death Joan elected to stay in England. her will requested that she be buried at the Cistercian nunnery of Tarrant in Dorset.

The convent benefited greatly from Henry III’s almsgiving for the soul of his sister; in 1252, over 13 years after her death, the king ordered a marble effigy to be made for her tomb (which unfortunately has not survived).

Talking of her wedding day, the Chronicle of Lanercost had described Joan as ‘a girl still of a young age, but when she was an adult of comely beauty.’

Alexander II married again just over a year after Joan’s death, to Marie de Coucy and their son, Alexander III, the longed-for heir, was born in 1241. Alexander II died of a fever in 1249.

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Joan’s story will be told in greater detail in my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth century England, which will be released in the UK on 30 May and in the US on 2 September, this year.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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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.

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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 Pen & Sword, 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.

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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.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly