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;;;; 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.

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Zoe, Empress of Constantinople

Mosaic of Empress Zoe at the Hagia Sophia

Zoe Porphyrogenita lived most of her life in relative obscurity. She was the second of 3 daughters born to Constantine VIII and his wife, Helena. Zoe was born in Constantinople in about 978. She was the niece of Basil II, the warrior emperor who had co-ruled, as senior emperor, with Constantine for over 60 years. Basil died in January 1025, leaving Constantine to rule alone for a further 3 years before his own death in November 1028. By all accounts, while Basil fought to preserve his empire, Constantine was more in love with the trapping of power, rather than the wielding of it.

Zoe’s father had been emperor since the age of 2, meaning that Zoe was ‘born into the purple’ – born to a reigning emperor. She had an elder sister, Eudokia, who joined a monastery, and a younger sister, Theodora. Zoe’s uncle Basil II refused to arrange marriages for his nieces, as such marriages would give their husbands a claim to the imperial throne. The girls lived in virtual obscurity in the women’s quarters of the palace for many years.

Zoe first appeared on the international stage in 1001, at the age of 23, when her uncle offered her as a bride to German Emperor Otto III (reigned 996-1002). Zoe had set sail from Constantinople, but on arriving at Bari, was met with the news that her prospective groom had died of a fever. Zoe returned home to Constantinople and the continued seclusion of the royal palace.

Following the death of her uncle, and with no legitimate male heir to succeed him, Zoe’s father, Constantine, sought to settle the empire’s future by finally arranging Zoe’s marriage. At the age of 50, in 1028, she was married to her father’s designated successor, probably to add legitimacy to his claim to the imperial throne. Her new husband became Emperor Romanos III, and Zoe empress consort, when he succeeded to the throne just 3 days after the wedding.

Zoe was described by a palace courtier, Michael Psellos, as;

‘a woman of great beauty, most imposing in her manner and commanding respect … a woman of passionate interests, prepared with equal enthusiasm for both alternatives, death or life, I mean. In that she reminded me of sea-waves, now lifting a ship on high and then again plunging it down to the depths … Zoe was openhanded, the sort of woman who could exhaust a sea teaming with gold-dust in one day … [she] confused the trifles of the harem with important matters of state … her eyes were large, set wide apart with imposing eyebrows. Her nose was inclined to be aquiline, and her whole body was radiant with the whiteness of her skin.’

Zoe and Theodora, Chronographia

As empress consort, Zoe asserted herself. Her younger sister, Theodora, was sent to a monastery. Romanos was an unpopular ruler, his economic policies and military defeat in 1030 causing consternation. Neglected by her husband, who took a lover and refused to allow Zoe any say in affairs of state, the empress took a much younger, teenage lover, her chamberlain, Michael. Together they conspired to dispose of Romanos and he was found dead in his bath on 10 April 1034, allegedly poisoned by Zoe or her lover.

Michael IV

Zoe promptly married her young lover and made him Emperor Michael IV. Not surprisingly, their marriage was full of distrust and Zoe was allowed no power or say in government. Michael IV then banished Zoe to a monastery. His reign was no golden age, with the aristocracy opposing the undue influence of the emperor’s brother, John the Orphanostrophos. High taxation sparked a revolt, led by Peter Deljan, who used it as a pretext to end the Byzantine dominance of the Bulgars. The rebellion was quashed within a year, with the aid of Harald Hardrada and his 500 Norwegians, who had joined the Varanagian Guard in 1034. Further losses in Sicily and the emperor’s worsening epilepsy added to the empire’s woes. Not to be forgotten, Zoe began scheming to reclaim her throne. After she was allowed back to court, and unable to bear her own children due to her age, Zoe was persuaded to adopt Michael IV’s nephew, another Michael, and make him her heir.

Michael IV’s life would have probably ended in the same way as his predecessor, Romanos III, drowned in the bath or with a knife in his back, had he not died of natural causes in 1041, after retiring to a monastery. His nephew, Zoe’s adopted son, ascended the throne as Michael V; Michael was the son of the sister of Michael IV. Michael V was crowned in 1041 but immediately turned against those who had raised him to the throne. His uncle, John the Orphanotrophos, was exiled from court and Zoe was again banished to a monastery, an act which caused an uprising in Constantinople.

The people of Constantinople and the church wanted to see the crown returned to Zoe and the legitimate dynastic line. The mob ransacked the royal palace and deposed Michael V in April 1042. The young emperor was deposed after only 4 months of disastrous rule. He was exiled to a monastery, but complaints about such lenient treatment meant that Zoe issued orders for his mutilation. He was blinded, an act symbolically rendering him incapable of ruling, supposedly by Harald Hadrada, the future king of Norway, himself.

Zoe and Theodor

Now 64 years old, Zoe was empress once again.

Zoe’s sister, Theodora, was retrieved from her monastery to rule beside her. As the elder sister, Zoe’s throne was placed slightly forward of her Theodora’s at the joint coronation ceremony, as an obvious indication of which of the sisters was in charge!

The sisters sought to reform Byzantine imperial policies, making new court appointments, ending corrupt practices, such as selling titles, and instigating an investigation into the actions of their predecessor.

In the same year, 1042, Zoe took a third husband, Constantine Monomachos, who ruled as Emperor Constantine IX. Long-admired by the empress, Constantine had been exiled to Lesbos but was recalled to become Zoe’s third husband. Constantine was rich and elegant, with a reputation as a ladies man, but with experience of Byzantine government as a senior civil administrator. He co-ruled the empire with the 2 imperial sisters.

Domestic arrangements, however, were frowned upon when Constantine moved his long-time lover, Sclerina, into the imperial palace, apparently with Zoe’s blessing. The public were not so tolerant and called for Sclerina’s removal; the crisis was resolved by Sclerina’s sudden death from a pulmonary disease.

Emperor Constantine IX

Constantine set about reforming the Byzantine administration, exiling John the Orphanotrophos from court for a second time, and surrounding himself with noted intellectuals, among them Michael Psellos. However, his reforms and neglect of the army led to two uprisings, in 1043 and 1047, respectively, and saw the frontiers of the empire crumbling under incursions from the Normans, the Seljuks and the Pechenegs.

Constantine outlived his wife; Zoe died in 1050, aged about 72. And when her sister, Theodora, died in 1056, the Macedonian dynasty founded by Basil I (reigned 867-886) came to an end. Zoe is remembered in the gold and glass mosaic of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in which she is portrayed with Constantine IX and Jesus Christ. The inscription reads ‘Zoe, the most pious Augusta’.


Courtesy of Wikipaedia

Sources:; A History of the Vikings by T.D. Kendrick; God’s Viking: Harald Hardrada by Nic Fields; Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway by Snorre Strurluson; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Ancient History Encyclopedia.


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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,  Amberley Publishing, and Book Depository.

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