Monday, 27 April 2015
Herstory and the Explosion of Interest in England's Ruling Women
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in the lives of England's medieval and early modern queens. Popular historians in particular have become fascinated by the extraordinary lives of these women. The majority of attention has focused on the late Middle Ages and the Tudor era. Countless books are published every year detailing the lives of these magnetic, captivating women.
What is to account for these trends? What makes one woman particularly fascinating to biographers, at any point in time? Where does the desire to recover her history - 'herstory', as it has been termed - come from? Why are we so fascinated by these women, and why are readers lapping up biographies of medieval queens like there's no tomorrow?
The simple answer is because their lives are interesting in and of themselves. The more complex answer is because their lives were forgotten for centuries, swept away as if they had never existed. These women, even queens, were confined to the footnotes of history, dismissed in a sentence and remembered only if they contributed to their husband's achievements. If they were not forgotten, they were misrepresented. They were slandered, their names dragged through the mud. Consider the infamous tale of Eleanor of Aquitaine, in a fit of jealous rage, murdering her beautiful rival Rosamund Clifford by poison. Or the story of Elizabeth Wydeville and her mother greedily extorting their rights to queen's gold. Or the legend of Isabella of Angouleme living in open adultery with her lovers, causing her vicious husband King John to brutally murder them in revolting fashion.
If these women were not condemned, they were sanctified in hagiographical works. They were celebrated as passive beings who caused no trouble, satisfying the whims of their husbands and living quietly and gently. Jane Seymour was idealised as a pious, motherly wife who provided Henry VIII with his heart's desire. Anne of Bohemia is remembered only for her gracious acts of intercession. For centuries, Katherine of Aragon was viewed as nothing short of a saint, the very embodiment of virtuous womanhood.
In more recent times, we as historians have become aware of how simplistic and misleading these characterisations are. We recognise that these women were complex beings; they were human. They were neither saints nor sinners, neither whores nor angels. We seek to uncover their stories respectfully, admiring their achievements, celebrating their lives and respecting their decisions. In short, historians are taking advantage of developments in the study of history to present these women more truthfully than ever before.
As a biographer of Katherine Howard, with a keen interest in the lives of medieval and early modern women, I eagerly await new studies. Having spent a number of years researching Katherine (and I continue to hope to devote more time to her life), I anticipate with pleasure upcoming biographies of her by Gareth Russell and Josephine Wilkinson. Katherine was, for centuries, the most neglected of Henry VIII's queens. Historians were not particularly interested in her. Lacey Baldwin Smith's biography of Katherine, published in 1961, remained the standard work for decades. There have since been only three published biographies of Katherine: Joanna Denny's of 2005; David Loades' of 2012; and my own.
I am not sure why historians are suddenly interested in Katherine. Perhaps they are more aware than ever of how inadequate most of the studies about her have been. Perhaps, in the light of the rehabilitation of Anne Boleyn's reputation, and the publication of impressive studies detailing the considerable achievements of Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr, it has been acknowledged that Katherine Howard deserves to be better known and celebrated for her own achievements. New found interest in her is surely to be welcomed.
Yet other women deserve the attention of historians, for they remain forgotten. If they are remembered, it is mostly negatively. Isabella of Angouleme, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou are three powerful, well known women who continue to be misrepresented and slandered, their lives distorted. Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Queen Elizabeth Wydeville, was an acknowledged woman in her own lifetime, and yet there has been no biography of her. Philippa of Hainault, Joan of Navarre and Catherine de Valois are queens of England that have still not acquired biographies in their own right. There has been exceptionally little attention given to Isabel Neville, elder sister of Queen Anne. Nor has there been for other highborn women in England who were not queens of England, but were nonetheless important. Alice Perrers, Katherine Swynford and Elizabeth Shore are women who deserve to be re-examined.
The expansion of 'herstories' is an immensely positive achievement. Let us hope the field continues to expand and develop. We need to learn more about these incredible women. We should endeavour to reinterpret their lives and re-examine the myths about them. Celebrating their achievements and respecting their experiences is essential to uncovering the full story of English history.