Silent Witnesses: Writing About Medieval Women

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

– ‘Name Six English Queens.’ –

Faced with this question at a Pub Quiz Night, most teams would make a fairly accurate stab at it. Elizabeth I. Bloody Mary. Queen Victoria.  Elizabeth II. A guess at the wives of Henry VIII, beginning with Anne Boleyn.

Not one of them a medieval English queen.

Why is it that so many of these wives of our early English kings have remained almost invisible, while the sins or exploits of their husbands are legendary? King John is notorious but few would claim to know much about Isabelle of Angouleme. Richard II, brilliant, usurped, and tragic, yet Isabelle de Valois hardly makes a mark. Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, built castles and led his armies. Who can relate more than the basic facts about Eleanor of Castile other than the romantic tale of Eleanor Crosses erected by her grief-stricken husband, which probably says more about Edward than about Eleanor. 

Were these medieval women, and those of the aristocracy, so lacking in authority, in influence, or even in intelligence that they should become anonymous, a mere footnote on a page? Were they uneducated, fit for nothing but to be decorative witnesses to the daring or desperate ventures of their husbands? The impression is that medieval women of the aristocratic class remained solar-bound, waiting for their men-folk to return from war, plying a needle as they sang and prayed and gossiped in a feminine world. We are led to believe that they had nothing to say about what they and their regal husbands were doing. 

The answer is simple enough. They are rendered silent because they lived in a man’s world, written by men, about the feats of men. Women are rarely given a voice, not even royal women, except for the very few, such as the infamous Eleanor of Aquitaine whom it was difficult to silence, yet even she was incarcerated by an enraged Henry II for stirring rebellion amongst their sons. Women are recorded for us in their relationships with men: a daughter, a sister, a wife, a cousin. Thus our medieval women are skeletons without flesh, two dimensional in their lack of character, without even a physical description since medieval portraits are rare.  

As Virginia Wolfe once said: ‘For most of History, Anonymous was a woman.’ For this reason, I decided to shake the cobwebs from some of these medieval women of interest and allow them to take the stage, three-dimensional and with much to say.

Here they are:

Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, a pawn in the game of marriage and power-brokering, but from a family not notable for its silence. Alice Perrers, ambitiously scheming mistress of King Edward III, but also a smart business-woman. Katherine de Valois, a naive political bride for Henry V who managed to snatch some happiness when she found the strength to take Owen Tudor into her tragic life.  Katherine Swynford whose liaison with John of Gaunt was not a light-hearted love affair, but a scandal of sinful proportions. Elizabeth of Lancaster, dragged into the depths of treason by her marriage to John Holland, thus her husband set in conflict against her brother the King.  Joan of Kent, notable for her clandestine marriages, but worthy of so much more in the manipulation of power.

Elizabeth Mortimer, forceful wife of the infamous Hotspur. Invisible Queen Joanna of England and treacherous Constance of York, both women of some reputation. Cecily Neville, doyenne of the Wars of the Roses, must of course take a bow upon the stage.  And now, in my present writing, the women of the Paston family who allowed us to see so much of their lives and their menfolk through their letters.

Link to the rest at Woman Writers, Women’s Books

National Portrait Gallery, (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)