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Ruling Behind the Throne: The Powerful Queens of Medieval England


When we think of medieval English history, the kings are often what come to mind first – towering figures like William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, and Henry VIII. But while the throne of England didn‘t officially pass to a ruling queen until Mary I in 1553, the medieval period saw many queens who wielded significant power and influence. Some ruled as regents for absent kings or underage sons, some were key political and military players in their own right, and a few even fought for the throne themselves. In this article, we‘ll explore the lives and legacies of some of the most remarkable women ever to wear the crown of England in the Middle Ages.

The Context of Medieval Queenship

To understand the role of queens in medieval England, it‘s important to look at the broader social and political context of the time. England in the Middle Ages was a fundamentally patriarchal society, where women were subordinate to men and largely excluded from formal positions of power. As the eminent historian Marion Turner has noted, "The medieval world was one in which women were systematically marginalized and oppressed" [1].

However, queens occupied a unique position that gave them more authority and influence than most women could dream of. As the wives of kings, they were expected to provide heirs, oversee the royal household, and serve as consorts and helpmeets to their husbands [2]. But they could also act as regents in their husband‘s absence, rulers in their own right, and power behind the throne.

Over the course of the Middle Ages, the nature of queenship evolved significantly. In the early Anglo-Saxon period, queens were often seen as mere adjuncts to their kingly husbands. But by the 12th century, the idea had emerged of the queen as a "virago" – a woman of masculine abilities and virtues who could take on military and political roles [3]. The most famous medieval queens were larger-than-life personalities who broke the mold of traditional femininity and made their mark on history.

Matilda of Flanders (c.1031-1083)

One of the earliest post-Conquest queens to wield significant political influence was Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror. Matilda was a powerful duchess in her own right, and contemporary sources describe her as participating in councils and issuing writs alongside her husband [4].

It was Matilda who served as regent in Normandy during William‘s absences in England, which could last for years at a time. She also commissioned the famed Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of William‘s invasion and victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The Tapestry was a work of dynastic propaganda, but it also forever memorialized Matilda as the partner of the Conqueror [5].

Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122-1204)

Arguably the most famous queen in all of medieval European history, Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman of extraordinary ability, ambition, and longevity. Inheriting the vast Duchy of Aquitaine in her own right at age 15, she would eventually become queen of both France and England, as well as the mother of three kings.

During her marriage to Henry II of England, Eleanor played a key role in governing the sprawling Angevin Empire. She served as regent in England while Henry was away in his continental domains, a role she reprised later in life for their son Richard I during his absences on Crusade [6]. A patron of the arts, she is credited with popularizing the courtly love tradition through her sponsorship of troubadour poets [7].

But Eleanor was also a fierce political operator who was unafraid to defy her husband. In 1173 she supported a rebellion by her sons against Henry II, for which she was imprisoned for 16 years. Yet after Henry‘s death in 1189, the nearly 70-year-old Eleanor stepped easily back into a leading role, governing as regent for her son Richard and negotiating his marriage alliances [8].

Isabella of Angoulême (c.1186-1246)

The second wife of King John and mother of Henry III, Isabella of Angoulême is a less well-known figure than Eleanor of Aquitaine, but she played a significant role in 13th century English history. Married to John at the age of 12, Isabella bore five children before his death in 1216 [9].

As regent for her young son Henry III, Isabella faced a major challenge with the outbreak of the First Barons‘ War in 1215. The barons rose in revolt against the perceived abuses of Angevin rule and forced John to sign the Magna Carta. After his death, Isabella worked with the regent William Marshal to reissue the charter and restore royal authority [10].

Following the end of her regency, Isabella returned to her native France and stirred up trouble by marrying Hugh X of Lusignan, a key Plantagenet vassal, without her son‘s permission [11]. This contributed to the tensions that would lead to Henry III‘s ill-fated intervention in French affairs and the eventual loss of most of the Angevin territories on the continent.

Eleanor of Provence (c.1223-1291)

As the wife of Henry III, Eleanor of Provence was a major cultural influence on the English court. A patron of the arts, she sponsored poet Henry d‘Avranches and helped introduce Continental fashions and courtly etiquette to England [12].

Politically, Eleanor worked closely with her husband, accompanying him on military campaigns and diplomatic missions. During the Second Barons‘ War of 1263-1267, she was a key supporter of the royalist cause against the rebel barons led by Simon de Montfort [13].

Her influence can be seen in the fact that Henry trusted her to serve as regent in England while he was away in Gascony in 1253-1254. Letters from the period show that Eleanor was closely involved in the business of government, issuing orders and rendering legal judgments in her own name [14].

Isabella of France (c.1295-1358)

The daughter of Philip IV of France and wife of Edward II, Isabella is one of the most colorful and controversial queens in English history. Often known as the "She-Wolf of France", Isabella notoriously led an invasion of England in 1326 that deposed her husband in favor of their son Edward III.

Isabella‘s marriage to Edward II was dysfunctional, and she became a key player in the faction-ridden politics of his reign. In 1325 a dispute with the king led her to flee to France, where she gathered an army to invade England in alliance with her lover Roger Mortimer [15]. After Edward II‘s deposition and probable murder, Isabella and Mortimer ruled as regents for three years until the young Edward III overthrew them in turn.

Though her period of direct rule was short, Isabella demonstrated that a queen could be a political and military leader in her own right. As historian Alison Weir has argued, "Isabella proved that a woman could take control of her own destiny and influence the course of politics" [16].

Philippa of Hainault (c.1314-1369)

The wife of Edward III, Philippa of Hainault is remembered as a beloved queen and a key supporter of her husband‘s reign. Married at 13, Philippa bore 14 children and accompanied Edward on many of his military campaigns [17].

Philippa is particularly associated with the chivalric culture of Edward‘s court. In 1347 she famously persuaded Edward to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais who had surrendered to him after a long siege [18]. She was also a major patron of the arts, supporting poets like Jean Froissart and overseeing the foundation of Queen‘s College, Oxford [19].

During her lifetime, Philippa enjoyed great popularity with the English people. The chronicler Jean le Bel described her as "a very good and charming person who exceeded most ladies for sweetness of nature and virtuous disposition" [20]. Her death in 1369 was sincerely mourned, and her tomb at Westminster Abbey remains a testament to the esteem in which she was held.

Elizabeth Woodville (c.1437-1492)

Though she lived slightly after the main medieval period, Elizabeth Woodville‘s dramatic life story bears many similarities to earlier medieval queens. Born into the English gentry, Elizabeth caught the eye of King Edward IV and married him in secret in 1464, just a year after he had taken the throne during the Wars of the Roses [21].

As queen, Elizabeth worked to advance the interests of her own family, the Woodvilles, who were seen as upstarts by the established nobility. This contributed to the internal conflicts that would eventually lead to Edward‘s brief deposition in 1470-1471 [22].

After Edward‘s death in 1483, Elizabeth was again at the center of a succession crisis. Her young sons, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, were declared illegitimate and possibly murdered by their uncle Richard III. Elizabeth initially allied with Richard but later supported Henry Tudor‘s invasion that overthrew him and founded the Tudor dynasty [23].

As historian David Starkey sums up, "Elizabeth Woodville was the first of a new breed of queens, self-made women who skillfully navigated the tides of politics and courtly intrigue" [24]. In many ways she represents the culmination of the rising power and influence of medieval English queens.

The Legacy of Medieval Queens

Taken together, the stories of these remarkable women show that even in a deeply patriarchal society, medieval queens found ways to wield significant power and shape the course of history. Whether acting as regents, spearheading factions, leading armies, or setting cultural trends, queens were far more than just passive consorts.

That said, the power of medieval queens was still heavily constrained and contingent on their relationships with men. A queen was always at risk of losing influence if her husband died or her son came of age. Only a handful ever tried to claim the English throne in their own name, and even fewer succeeded.

And yet, as historian Helen Castor argues in her book "She-Wolves", the example of powerful medieval queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou laid the groundwork for the idea of a female sovereign [25]. Figures like the Tudor queens Mary I and Elizabeth I still faced immense challenges and double-standards as women rulers, but it was their medieval foremothers who first proved that it was possible for a woman to wear the crown in her own right.

In studying the queens of medieval England, we see a compelling portrait of how women navigated and negotiated patriarchal power structures to achieve incredible things. Their stories are an essential part of the broader pageant of English history, and a powerful reminder of the role that gender has played in shaping the nation‘s destiny.


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  2. Wheeler, Bonnie. (1996) Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady. Palgrave Macmillan.
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  13. Prestwich, Michael. (1988) Edward I. University of California Press.
  14. Parsons, John Carmi. (1995) Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England. Palgrave Macmillan.
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  20. Quoted in Hilton, Lisa. (2008) Queens Consort: England‘s Medieval Queens. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  21. Weir, Alison. (2013) Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World. Ballantine Books.
  22. Hicks, Michael. (1998) Warwick the Kingmaker. Blackwell Publishers.
  23. Baldwin, David. (2013) Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower. The History Press.
  24. Starkey, David. (2003) Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. Harper Collins.
  25. Castor, Helen. (2010) She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. Faber & Faber.