By: Katrina O’Keefe
Until fairly recently most people assumed that women in the Middle Ages simply stayed at home tending to the homestead while the men did all the daring deeds. The assumption that women weren’t part and parcel of the great events of their time is flawed. Victorian historians refused to believe that “the female of the species is deadlier than the male” in spite of Mr. Kipling’s poem. Logically however, it only makes sense. When the King has called up all your male relatives for a little spat he’s having, who is left to prevent the neighbors from making off with the milk cows and taking over the castle? That would be the lady of the house.
There are a few real ladies of the time who certainly influenced the English tales of Robyn Hoode and Maid Marian. Here is a list of some of the role models for a lady of the time:
Eleanor of Aquitaine – Mother of Richard the Lionheart, usually listed as the King of England in a Robyn Hoode tale, this lady was also Duchess of the Aquitaine by birth, Queen of France when she first went into combat. She packed up a selection of the ladies of her household and went off on Crusade in the Holy Lands with her first husband. When that husband wouldn’t do, she got rid of him and became the first Plantagenet Empress and “by the Wrath of God, Queen of England”.
Husband number two was OK, but eventually he picked the wrong son as heir in Eleanor’s opinion. When reasonable arguments didn’t work, she led troops into battle against him multiple times. She was imprisoned as a bad influence, but eventually won her way free when her son Richard II came to the throne. He trusted her with running his kingdom while he was off on Crusade himself, and she did an excellent job of it. When Eleanor died of old age, her sons had her influence to thank for keeping much of the Plantagenet Empire together. (1122 or 1124 – 1 April 1204)
Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians – When both her father Alfred the Great and her husband Ethelred of Mercia in central England died, Æthelflæd rallied the troops and went into battle against the marauding Vikings. It was something she and Ethelred had both enjoyed and when he was killed in battle in 911 A.D. she just kept going. She had fortresses built, led troops to the aid of her brother Edward and helped consolidate the local Welsh, Danish, and Mercian people into one kingdom. Her raid into Wales to avenge the murder of a Mercian bishop was seen as inspired.
Æthelflæd did such a good job as a war leader that when she eventually died in battle herself, the people gave their allegiance to her daughter Ælfwynn, assuming she would be able to pick up where her mother had to leave off. Unfortunately for Ælfwynn, Uncle Edward usurped her crown and made himself the king of all of the people Æthelflæd had conquered. (d. 12 June 918)
Empress Matilda – Grandmother of Richard the Lionheart, the Empress Matilda was an English princess who had been married the German Holy Roman Emperor at a young age. When he died she married Geoffery the Count of Anjou, which was kind of a step down in rank. However, she was her father’s legal heir and stood to inherit the crown of England as well, making her “Lady of the English”. Then her father died and her cousin Stephan took the throne. Matilda was having none of that and marched her combined English and Norman-French armies over to get it back. After decades of civil war which decimated the English country side and empowered many local office holders like sheriffs, the war was concluded with Stephan adopting Matilda’s son Henry as his own heir.
After so many years of war, Matilda retired to a convent in France where she eventually died of old age. However that was not before spending a little time smoothing over some of her sons’ difficulties with the church and the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. (c. 7 February 1102 – 10 September 1167)
If you want to learn more I recommend the books below, or simply looking these ladies up on the internet. Their influence was so strong that books, movies, and TV shows are still being made about them to this day.
Weir, Alison (1999). Eleanor of Aquitaine: by the Wrath of God, Queen of England. London, UK : Random House UK
Keynes, Simon (1998). “King Alfred and the Mercians”. In Blackburn, M.A.S.; Dumville, D.N. Kings, Currency and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MSS A, B, C, D and E), ed. D. Dumville and S. Keynes, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Vols. 3–7. Cambridge, 1983.
Castor, Helen (2010), She-Wolves: the Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, London, UK: Faber and Faber
Chibnall, Marjorie (1991), The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English, London, UK: Basil Blackwell
Fraser, Antonia (1988). The Warrior Queens: The Legends and Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations in War. New York : Random House Inc.