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.

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‘Fair Rosamund’

Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse

The story of Rosamund de Clifford is shrouded in more legends than most medieval lives. After Eleanor of Aquitaine, she is the woman most associated with Henry II, king of England. In historical fiction, she is the woman who claimed his heart and stole him away from his queen. But who was she? How much of her story is real, how much is fantasy?

Rosamund de Clifford was probably born around 1140. She was the daughter of Walter de Clifford, a lord on the Welsh Marches, and his wife Margaret de Tosny. We know nothing of her childhood, she may have been educated at Godstow Abbey, but it is not certain; nor is when she actually met the king. The rest of her life is made of rumour and gossip.

Rosamund’s father served Henry II on campaign in Wales in the 1160s. It is possible that the king first met the young woman on a visit to de Clifford’s residence of Bredelais during the campaign. Some theories have Henry’s affair with Rosamund starting around 1165, the first Christmas that Henry spent apart from his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor held her Christmas court at Angers while Henry was at Oxford. Henry had a tendency to be constantly on the move and it was unusual for him to be so immobile, which has led to suspicions that this was when his love affair with Rosamund began. However, there is evidence that Henry may also have been nursing some sort of injury, which would also curtail his movements.

Henry and Eleanor were to have one more child, John, born at Christmas 1166, which suggests the Christmas 1165 separation was more due to the logistics of ruling large domains than it was to Henry finding love elsewhere. However, there is a later story of Eleanor intending to have her lying in at the royal palace of Woodstock, only to find Rosamund in residence on her arrival and quickly relocating to Oxford to give birth.

Henry and Eleanor holding court

Henry was never a faithful husband and was known to have several illegitimate children, including William Longspée and Geoffrey, Archbishop of York. He numbered among his conquests Rohese, a daughter of the prominent de Clare family and Ida de Tosny, who later married Hugh Bigod, earl of Norfolk, and was mother of Longspée. If Henry and Rosamund did begin their relationship in the mid-1160s, they did a marvellous job of keeping the affair secret, as it was not made public until 1174.

Henry’s relationship with his queen soured considerably in the early 1170s with Eleanor taking the side of their sons and joining them in open rebellion in 1172-73. Henry managed to crush the rebellion and forgave his sons, but he was not so lenient with Eleanor. In 1174 he escorted her to England and installed her in Old Sarum, condemning her to what would be 15 years of imprisonment; she would only be released when her favourite son, Richard I, ascended the throne in 1189.

In the same year as Eleanor’s imprisonment, Henry ‘s relationship with Rosamund became common knowledge. She resided at the royal palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, which was extensively refurbished in the early 1170s. It was said that ‘King Henry had made for her a house of wonderful workmanship, a labyrinth of Daedelian design.’¹ There was said to be a labyrinth, a secret bower where Henry and Rosamund met and a well where Rosamund bathed. Rosamund’s Well can still be seen today in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, which now stands where Woodstock once stood.

Although it has come down through legend as a great love story, nothing is known of Rosamund’s feelings towards Henry, nor whether she any any say in her position as teh king’s mistress. The chroniclers of the time, of course, painted her as the fallen woman, a seductress and adulteress. They crated puns derived from her name; Rosamund, or rosa mundi meaning the rose of the world became rosa immunda – the unclean rose – and rosa immundi – the unchaste rose.

The ruins of Godstow Abbey

That poor Rosamund was blamed for Henry’s infidelity was a sign of the times; women were the daughters of Eve, temptation for honourable men who had no power to resist them. Rosamund’s early death was seen as a just punishment for her lascivious lifestyle. Rosamund ended her relationship with Henry in 1175/6 and withdrew to Godstow Abbey. It seems likely that she was already ill when she entered the priory and she died in 1176. Henry paid for a lavish tomb within the convent church, at which the nuns left floral tributes on a daily basis. In the years following Rosamund’s death, Henry endowed the convent with 2 churches at Wycombe and Bloxham, new buildings and substantial amounts of building materials. Rosamund’s father, Walter, granted the abbey mills and a meadow, for the souls of his wife and daughter.

Unfortunately, however, Rosamund was not allowed to rest in peace. In 1190 when  the saintly Bishop Hugh of Lincoln visited Godstow he was horrified that Rosamund’s tomb had a place of honour within the church and ordered her remains to be removed. The tomb was resited in the nun’s chapter house, with an accompanying inscription admonishing her lifestyle:

This tomb doth here enclose the world’s most beauteous Rose,

Rose passing sweet erewhile, now nought but odour vile.²

 

Eleanor prepares to poison Rosamund by Evelyn De Morgan

Rosamund’s early death – she was still only in her 30s – inspired legends of revenge; Eleanor has been variously accused of stabbing her in her bath and poisoning her. 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 she was, it was impossible for Eleanor to do any such thing. But it makes for a good story!

Rosamund’s relationship with Henry probably lasted no more than 10 years and possibly as little as 3 years. She may have seen little of Henry in that time, as he was a constantly on the move and only spent a little over 3 of those 10 years in England in total. It is possible that Rosamund sometimes travelled with him, discreetly, although this seems unlikely given that no one knew of her until after Eleanor’s rebellion and imprisonment. There are some theories that suggest Henry had lost interest in Rosamund even before her death, and that was the reason for her retirement to Godstow. Although his lavish endowment of the Abbey may argue otherwise, Hnery is said to have turned his attentions too his son Richard’s fiancée, Princess Alys, sister of Philip II of France.

Perhaps the truth of Rosamund’s story matters less than the legend and romance that has grown up around it. Maybe the story of unrequited love, secret trysts and hidden bowers are just as important to history than the sordid truth a woman seduced by a king with little say in the direction of her own life, denied husband, children and a future.

Maybe the romance is what makes the story more palatable.

The Ballad of Fair Rosamund

The Flower of the World

 

When as king Henry ruled this land,

The second of that name,

Besides the queene, he dearly loved

A faire and comely dame

 

Most peerless was her beautye founde,

Her favour, and her face;

A sweeter creature in this worlde

Could never prince embrace.

 

Her crisped lockes like threads of golds

Appeared to each man’s sight;

Her sparkling eyes, like Orient pearles,

Did cast a heavenlye light.

 

The blood within her crystal cheeks

Did such a colour drive,

As though the lillye and the rose

For mastership did strive.

 

Yea Rossamonde, fair Rosamonde,

Her name was called so,

To whom our queene, dame Ellinor,

Was known a deadly foe.

 

The king therefore, for her defence

Against the furious queene,

At Woodstocke builded such a bower,

The like was never seene.

 

Most curiously that bower was built

Of stone and timber strong,

An hundred and fifty doors

Did to this bower belong.

 

And they so cunningly contriv’d,

With turnings round about,

That none but with a clue of thread

Could enter in and out.³

 

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Footnotes: ¹Polychronicon quoted in Oxforddnb.com; ² Speed quoted in Oxforddnb.com; ³Anonymous quoted in Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Oxforddnb.com by T.A. Archer, rev by Elizabeth Hallam; Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by J.P. Kenyon; kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett; King John by Marc Morris; The Devil’s Brood by Desmond Seward; The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge; Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd; Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.

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Coming in November!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly