Heroines come in many different forms, and it is no less true for medieval heroines. They can be found in all areas of medieval life; from the dutiful wife and daughter to religious devotees, warriors and rulers. What makes them different compared to those of today are the limitations placed on them by those who directed their lives – their fathers, husbands, priests and kings.
The Medieval Ideal
Matilda of Flanders is the prime example of a perfect medieval woman. She helped to bring a sense of legitimacy to her husband, William Duke of Normandy, a man who, although powerful, was tainted by his illegitimate birth. The marriage proved to be a strong and trusting relationship; William is one of very few medieval kings believed to have been completely faithful to his wife, no known lovers or illegitimate children have ever been uncovered, although that did not stop the rumours. Matilda provided a nursery full of sons and daughters, to ensure the continuation of the dynasty, and was a competent regent of Normandy during her husband’s absences in England. Matilda also acted as a peacemaker between William and their eldest son, Robert Curthose and was a generous benefactor to the church, particularly her own foundation, the Abbaye aux Dames (La Trinité) at Caen.
Heroines in Religion
St Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon princess, a great-granddaughter of Ӕthelrӕd II (the Unready), who fled to Scotland following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Although she wanted to dedicate her life to the church, her royal blood meant she was a great prize on the marriage market and she was married, in 1069-70, to Malcolm III Canmor, King of Scotland. Margaret used her position and influence as queen in order to help reform the Scottish church, steering it away from Celtic influences and bringing it in line with Western Catholicism. She was supported in all her reforms by her husband. Educated and knowledgeable, Margaret was able to confidently debate with the leaders of the Scottish church; she embarrassed some of the clerics by knowing more about the proper procedures of the Church than they did and even had the papal manuals to quote from. Margaret was a strong figure; she was pious but also worldly-wise. She and Malcom would have a large family, with six sons and two daughters growing to adulthood. Margaret died three days after the siege of Alnwick, in 1093, possibly on receiving the news of the deaths of her husband and eldest son.
Mistresses and Scandal
You wouldn’t automatically think of a mistress as being a heroine, but these were the women who gave up everything – their future and reputations – for the sake of the men they loved. Katherine Swynford became the mistress of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster and third son of Edward III, shortly after the deaths of her husband and his wife. She bore him four children, three sons and a daughter; she watched him marry another woman – Constance of Castile – and go off to fight for her crown. At one stage she was publicly ‘put aside’ when Gaunt’s popularity was at a low ebb; but she remained faithful throughout and eventually won her prince. Katherine married her duke in Lincoln Cathedral in 1396 and their children were legitimised by the pope later in the same year. Through her Beaufort children by John of Gaunt, Katherine was the great-grandmother of kings of England and Scotland. She died in May, 1403, and was buried in Lincoln Cathedral; her daughter, Joan Beaufort, countess of Westmoreland, would eventually be laid to rest beside her.
The youngest daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joanna of England was born in 1165. At the age of 12 she was married to William II, king of Sicily, in Palermo Cathedral. Their baby son was born – and died – in 1181 and William himself died in 1189. William’s illegitimate nephew seized the throne, imprisoning Joanna in order to gain control of her dowry. She was rescued by her brother, Richard the Lionheart, who called at Sicily on his way to the Third Crusade. Travelling to the Holy Land with Richard, she was at one stage offered as a bride to Saladin’s brother to cement peace. However, she flatly refused to consider marrying a Muslim. When she returned to Europe, she was married to Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, in 1196 in an attempt to bring that prestigious county into the Plantagenet fold. Raymond was far from the ideal husband, having married his third wife without divorcing his second. This third wife was now confined to a convent so that he could marry Joanna. In 1199 and pregnant, Joanna was hurt during a siege against Raymond’s rebel barons, she sought refuge with her mother in Rouen, where she died giving birth to her son Richard, who only lived long enough to be baptized. Mother and son were buried together at Fontevraud Abbey.
The only daughter of Eleanor de Montfort and Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native prince of Wales, Gwenllian was born on 19th June 1282; her mother Eleanor died 2 days later. Following the defeat and death of her father, in December 1282 and the capture of her uncle, Dafydd, Gwenllian was taken into the custody of the King of England, Edward I. A potentially powerful symbol of Welsh resistance the little Welsh princess was sent to be raised at a convent far away from her homeland, at Sempringham in Lincolnshire; where she eventually became a nun. She died there on 7th June 1337, the last of her father’s line, her grave lost following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. She was probably never allowed to speak, hear or learn her native language. As a heroine, Gwenllian is still loved; in 2009 a Welsh mountain was named after her in Snowdonia and she even has her own society, who had a memorial plaque placed where the priory once stood at Sempringham.
Nicholaa de la Haye was an incomparable heroine. She held Lincoln Castle during not two sieges; the first against King Richard I’s justiciar, William Longchamp in 1191 and the second during the 1216-17 invasion of the Dauphin Louis of France, in support of the rebel barons in the First Barons War. A stalwart ally of King John, Nicholaa held out against the French force for almost three months, long enough for William Marshal, regent for young Henry III and Earl of Pembroke, to form a relief force which destroyed Louis’ army, commanded by the Comte de Perche, on 20th May 1217 in a battle which has since become known as the Lincoln Fair. In a monumental display of ingratitude Nicholaa was relieved of her position as Sheriff of Lincoln and castellan of the castle just four days after the battle. Although in her 60s, Nicholaa refused to take this laying down and travelled to the court of King Henry III to recover her position. A compromise was reached whereby Nicholaa retained the castle, but the Earl of Salisbury kept control of the city itself.
Women Who Ruled
Adela of Normandy was the daughter of England’s first Norman king, William the Conqueror, and his wife, Matilda of Flanders. Born in the mid-1060s she was married, in about 1081, to Stephen of Blois, count of Blois and Champagne and the couple had about eleven children together. Letters between the couple attest to a deep affection. Adela was a capable administrator and took charge of her husband’s domains when he left on the First Crusade in 1095. She was instrumental in Stephen returning to the Holy Land in 1101, having returned home without fully completing his Crusader vows. Stephen was killed at the Siege of Ramallah in 1102 and Adela took on the role of regent for her son. Even after Theobald came of age, mother and son ruled jointly until Adela retired from public life in 1120. An able administrator and negotiator, Adela settled many disputes among monasteries, and even between monasteries and laymen, she was praised her skills as negotiator and peacemaker. An avid patroness of the arts, the book Ecclesiastical History Together with the Deeds of the Romans and the Franks, written by Hugh of Fleury, was dedicated to Adela. Aged almost 70, and having been a widow for half of her life, Adela of Normandy died in 1137, having lived to see her son, Stephen, claim the throne of England in 1135.
Joan of Acre was a daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. Born in the Holy Land in 1272 while her parents were participating in the Ninth Crusade, she was first married to Gilbert de Clare, earl of Hereford and Gloucester, in 1290; Joan was 18 years old while Gilbert was 46. The marriage lasted five years, and produced one son and three daughters, before Gilbert died in December 1295. As her father set about finding Joan a politically acceptable new husband, the young princess took matters into her own hands. After sending her late husband’s squire, Ralph de Monthermer to the king to be knighted, she secretly married him in January 1297. A furious Edward I imprisoned Ralph in Bristol Castle and deprived Joan of all her lands. When the king’s anger cooled, probably on learning that Joan was pregnant with Ralph’s child, the couple were reunited and Ralph was restored to favour. They lived happily together, with four more children, until Joan’s death in April 1307.
Every female author owes a nod of recognition and thanks to Christine de Pisan, the first women to ever make a living from her writing. Born in Italy, Christine moved to France as a child, when her father was appointed royal physician and astrologer to the king of France, Charles V. When her father and husband both died within a couple of years of each other, it fell to Christine to provide for herself, her small children, her mother and a niece. With patrons such as the Duke of Orléans and France’s queen Isabella of Bavaria, Christine wrote both poetry and lais (poetry set to music). The Duke of Burgundy commissioned her to write a biography of his brother, Charles V, entitled The Book of the Deeds and Good Character of the Wise King Charles V. Her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies was published in 1405, telling of the lives of past and present heroines, including pagan, Hebrew and Christian ladies who were renowned for being examples of exemplary womankind, famed for their chastity, loyalty and devotion. Christine’s final work the Poem of Joan of Arc was written in 1429, a year before her death.
Eleanor of Aquitaine has to be the ultimate survivor in any list of medieval women. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Eleanor was the only woman to have ever been Queen of both France and England. She endured Crusade, survived several kidnap attempts and the births of 10 children. After rebelling against her second husband, Henry II, she endured 16 years of imprisonment, before being released on the accession of her son Richard I the Lionheart. Active to the very end, Eleanor was instrumental in securing Richard’s release from captivity in German, made the arduous journey to Spain to select a bride for the Dauphin of France from her two granddaughters, Uracca and Blanca of Castile, and was besieged by her grandson at Mirebeau in 1202. Surviving all but 2 of her children, Eleanor died in 1204, having seen her youngest son, John, accede to the throne of England. To many she is the ultimate medieval heroine.
With so many incredible women, it is hard to rank them from 10 to 1, or 1 to 10. Suffice to say that they all deserve to be in the top 10 – and maybe they all deserve to be number 1. If I had to pick on, it would probably have to be Eleanor of Aquitaine, simply because of her reputation, her ability to survive and the legacy she left as mother of the greatest dynasty in English history.