Game of Queens

A recent addition to the History Collection is Game of Queens. Written by Sarah Gristwood it is a survey of some of the most important royal women in Sixteenth Century Europe, who ruled as queens in their own, as queen consorts or who acted as regents for sons, brothers or fathers, and includes figures such as Louise of Savoy, Margaret of Austria, and Maria of Hungary, as well as the usual Tudor suspects. Most of the women discussed were well respected figures in their own lifetimes, patrons of the arts as well as rulers. Yet with its similarity to the popular TV series, Game of Thrones, Game of Queens conjures up a less sedate and respectable image; of women who plot, scheme and murder at will to gain and hang onto power at any cost, and most of all of Cersei Lannister.

Cersei, with her endless ambition, scheming, adultery, capacity for murder on a grand scale, and of course her fondness for red wine, is the archetypal Bad Queen. To the ecclesiastical writers of the middle ages, such queens were the very worst type of women, a Jezebel, examples of the worst kind of typically female excesses and degeneracy, and as a warning of the dangers of female rule.

‘Bad’ queens though are much more fun to read about. Two of the more widely known and written about queens are Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France, both of whom were involved in rebellions against their husbands. Both featured along with Margaret of Anjou in a BBC documentary series and book by Helen Castor, dramatically entitled ‘She-Wolves’, which explored the difficulties and perceptions faced by women as they tried to exercise power.

However the queens who continue to dominate both the public imagination and the shelves of bookshops are the Six Wives of Henry VIII. The lives of Henry’s wives seem to epitomise the intrigue, scandal and tragedy which people find so fascinating. But the emphasis on Henry’s wives is disproportionate to the amount of time they occupied the place of consort. Henry’s last four wives account for less than 10 years of English history yet Catherine Howard consort for little more than a year has been the subject of two biographies of this year alone, whilst it can be very difficult to find biographies of royal women outside of the Sixteenth Century. And yet there is a lot more to the history of queens than scandal, intrigue, disaster and a date on Tower Green.

Queenship, as a whole, is a topic that until recently has been largely overlooked by historians.

Queens were seen as peripheral figures, mere adjuncts to their more important husbands. One of the reason for this was the apparent paucity of sources. Chronicle sources seldom mention queens in depth except of extreme examples of the good or the bad. And one of the first collective biographies of English Queens, Agnes Strickland’s multi volume work Lives of the Queens of England, continued the moralising tradition of good queens and bad queens.

However, with the advent of feminism, and the growth of interest in women’s history, historians began to consider queens and queenship in a different light, and to subject the sources to more careful scrutiny, and concluded that many medieval queens had the means and the ability to participate significantly in their husband’s rule.

Surprisingly perhaps, the most powerful English medieval queens were the wives of the Norman kings, the three Matildas, of Flanders, Scotland, and Boulogne respectively. Recent study of the official documentation of the Norman period has highlighted their importance at the heart of their husband’s administration. Both Matilda of Flanders and Matilda of Scotland acted as regents for their husbands. Whilst Matilda of Boulogne fulfilled much the same role for Stephen during the protracted civil war with the Empress Maude as Margaret of Anjou did during the Wars of the Roses. Only successfully and without lambasted as a She-Wolf. Instead Matilda was praised for her combination of manly resolution and womanly virtues.

Then, as now image was important. Womanly virtues were an important part of a queen’s armour. Just as medieval chronicles drew on Biblical inspiration to depict bad queens, so the Bible was a source of role models for good queens. A good queen should be a model of Christian virtue, piety, charity, a model wife and mother, who knew how to counsel her husband wisely and urge him towards mercy when necessary. And a queen who conformed to these high standards could go a long way.

One of the most effective of English consorts was Matilda of Scotland. Matilda was known as the Good Queen for her piety, virtuous way of life and her good deeds. But Matilda’s good deeds and patronage also extended her influence. Her recent biographer Lois L Honeycutt talks of Matilda as being “skilled at manipulating” the structures available to her. In other words, Matilda of Scotland  knew how to play the game.

Matilda’s success was underpinned by having a large dowry to draw on. Queens needed financial resources to support themselves and increase their influence.  John Carmi Parson’s study of Eleanor of Castile, shows a queen actively involved in the management of her lands and resources, and her determined pursuit to acquire more. Eleanor it would appear was not quite the beloved and popular queen that Agnes Strickland’s romanticised account would have us believe.

Queens then did have the resources at their disposal to make their mark. Even as their political influence declined as an ecclesiastical dominated bureaucracy rose to take their place, queens could still influence events through their roles as wives, mothers, and patrons of the arts, and could use the rites and rituals of the court to manipulate their images and those of their family.

In the academic sphere there is wide variety of literature to support the research being done on queenship. Academic conferences that produce volumes of proceedings, biographies that treat a queen’s life thematically rather than narratively, and analyses of the various aspects of queenship. There is even a series published by Palgrave Macmillan entitled Queenship and Power, of which Senate House Library holds several volumes.  The series includes general surveys, studies of specific regions and individuals, and treatment of specific themes in queenship such as image, representation, and reputation.

The study of queenship is an important contribution to women's history. The continuing interest in Henry’s wives, and the slow spread of biographies outside of the Tudor bubble shows that there is a demand for stories with women at the centre. Even so, despite the extensive research into queenship, we are still conditioned by the good queen/bad queen images handed down from the Middle Ages.  On the one hand, there is the popular image of the fictional Cersei as the ultimate bad queen. On the other  hand a recent academic study of Michelle Obama considers her in terms of her politics, her charity work, her work in the community, and her involvement in the arts. In many respects it is not unlike Lois Honeycutt’s biography of Matilda of Scotland. And perhaps in the respect and admiration for Michelle Obama we can see something of the true influence and standing of queen consorts.

Recent Acquisitions on Queens and queenship. 

Blanche of Castile, Queen of France : power, religion and culture in the thirteenth century / Lindy Grant.

Queenship, gender, and reputation in the Medieval and early modern west, 1060-1600 / Zita Eva Rohr, Lisa Benz, editors.

Virtuous or villainess? : the image of the royal mother from the early medieval to the early modern era / Carey Fleiner, Elena Woodacre, editors.

The daughters of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine / Colette Bowie.

Top Queenship picks

Queens, concubines, and dowagers : the king's wife in the early Middle Ages / Pauline Stafford.

Eleanor of Aquitaine : lord and lady / edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons.

Medieval queenship / edited by John Carmi Parsons.

Berenguela of Castile (1180-1246) and political women in the High Middle Ages / Miriam Shadis.