Today is International Women's Day. My research to date has primarily focused on late medieval and early modern women, specifically queenship. Earlier this year, MadeGlobal published my book Queenship in England 1308-1485, the culmination of years of research and what I would like to refer to as historical discovery. In honour of International Women's Day, therefore, I would like to think about some of the women that inspired my research.
My first introduction to the indomitable Isabella of France, wife of Edward II, was not an especially positive one, for it was based on a book that was both inaccurate and misleading. By immersing myself in the extant primary sources and by reading a fascinating array of secondary material, I gained a fuller and more nuanced picture of this intriguing queen. In Queenship in England, I focused on the multivalent roles that comprised the office of queenship. Isabella was highly active in her household governance, her lordship, her intercessionary activities and her patronage. Her relationship with Edward, moreover, appears to have been close and loving for the first fifteen years of their marriage. But political tensions and the ascendancy of the Despensers fractured their relationship beyond repair.
Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Wydeville, like Isabella, have been similarly maligned or misrepresented, but the last few decades have witnessed several publications that have aimed to rehabilitate their reputations. My research indicated that Margaret was more politically astute and pragmatic than is usually suggested, and she sought to maintain a cordial relationship with the duke of York from early on in her queenship. In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, it was convenient for commentators to assign blame to Margaret for the conflict, but in assuming the role of leader, she was ardently fighting to protect the inheritance of her son and the honour of her beleaguered husband.
Elizabeth's personality and appearance have both been attacked by modern historians, who have condemned her as a cold, grasping and avaricious woman. Much of this results from a misunderstanding of court protocol. In her lifetime, Elizabeth was praised for her "womanly" conduct and, indeed, she appears to have actively distanced herself from the militant queenship of her predecessor. She was, in most respects, the ideal medieval consort, and demonstrated her suitability to be queen by bearing Edward IV several children, thus testifying to divine approval of their union. The events following Edward's death and the accession of Richard III, coupled with her questionable relationship with Henry VII, have perhaps obscured the fact that Elizabeth was one of the most successful medieval queens of England.
These three women are perhaps three of the most well-known of England's medieval queens, and they are certainly not the only ones who fascinated and inspired me during my research and writing. However, I was especially drawn to their experiences and stories, in demonstrating the rich opportunities for the consort to wield agency and, in some instances, power. Investigating the relationship between gender and power as it operated in the political sphere is an exciting exercise and one that continues to resonate, and be relevant to, today.