A new BBC programme airing now in the UK looks at the so-called She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens – these were the women who married kings of England but often wielded equal if not more power than their husbands.
If you think women in the Middle Ages were demure damsels in distress then I strongly advise you to watch the programme – follow the link above and download the episodes on the BBC i-Player. You’re in for an education!
The queen that cannot fail to impress anybody the most is Eleanor of Aquitaine. Well, that was one of her many titles. She took full control of the Duchy of Aquitaine in 1168 and was also Countess of Poitou. This you might say was the French period of her life. She married Louis VII of France and became queen of that country. Unfortunately, Louis seems to have had trouble in the bedroom and Eleanor bullied the pope in to a dissolution of her marriage. She then plumped for a prince eleven years her junior who conveniently became King Henry II of England and the Angevin empire. So now she had been queen of France and then England and duchess of Normandy – not bad going.
Her children were a fiery brood – inheriting some of their mother’s backbone and they included Richard the Lionheart and John – both of whom went on to become kings of England. Richard famously spent the greater part of his reign on crusade against Saladin. And while returning from crusade, he was imprisoned by a German prince who was something of an enemy of his.
Eleanor – no longer wife of the king but an imperious mother to her darling enthroned Richard was furious when Pope Celestine didn’t pull his finger out to get her son released. And she wrote the pope a letter which no leader would write today. It began with a curious description of herself – saying she was queen by the ‘wrath of God‘.
To her revered father and lord, Celestine, by the grace of God the highest pontiff, Eleanor, in the wrath of God queen of the English, duchess of Normandy and countess of Anjou, to show himself a father to her, a suffering mother.
And she implored him to get her son back.
I beg that the clamor of the afflicted enter your ears; for our calamities are multiplied beyond number. You cannot pretend not to know of the crime and infamy, when you are the vicar of the crucified, the successor of Peter, the priest of Christ, the anointed of the Lord, the God even of Pharaoh.
But Celestine seems to have been rather deaf to her pleas. So two more letters came from her queenly hand and they were far less polite than the first.
Give my son back to me, man of God, if you are a man of God and not a man of blood. If you are sluggish in the freeing of my son, may the Highest exact his blood from your hand.
She even suggested that if the pope had any honour, which Eleanor now doubted, he would have offered his life for the return of Richard.
My son is tormented in chains and you do not descend nor send to him; you are not moved by Joseph’s grief. Christ sees this and is silent; but the work of God abundantly repays with the highest severity those who act negligently.
Eleanor went on to lambast the pope for promising to send legates that never arrived whereas if her son was free – they would have come in the hope of getting riches from him.
You alone compel me to despair who alone after God are my hope, who were the confidence of our people. Cursed is he who trusts in man. Where is my expectation now?
She then employed a very poetic turn of phrase to suggest that the pope was a man who condoned wrongdoing.
The highest pontiff sees this and suppresses the sword of Peter which he has replaced in its sheath. So he adds horns to the sinner and his silence is taken for consent.
It’s astonishing to us that such a letter could have been sent but after watching She-Wolves – you’ll find that England brought forth female rulers with the sharpest tongues and most poisonous of pens.