‘Women were considered inferior and their virtue was interpreted according to the degree to which they accepted their theoretical and social inferiority. Submission and obedience were virtues.
Pride, ambition and autonomy were perceived ultimately as rebellious and as crimes against both the natural and the moral order. The best thing inferior women could do was to know her place.

Medieval culture was mistrustful of women who were in positions of power, for it was the patriarchal belief that women in such a position were subverting the ‘natural order’ where ‘women were meant to be ruled and is understood to be the result of defective generation and is, as it were, a deformed male. Since she is imperfect, it is natural that man should rule over woman’.[1] The medieval ruler was meant to be the enforcer of justice, the political leader of a nation state and the defender of his people through diplomatic and violent avenues; this meant not only organising and training soldiers to defend his territories, but personally leading the attacks themselves. This had historically been the dominion of men to the complete exclusion of women who were thought to be unfit for positions of power. Women were considered too merciful, politically inept and incapable of leading an army into battle; characteristics and virtues which designated them unfit and unworthy to rule. This chapter shall explore what was the expected behaviour and conduct of queen consorts throughout the Middle Ages in order illustrate why Blanche and Margaret’s actions during the times as queen regents were so unusual.

This concept does not have its origins within the medieval period and it could be argued it stems from the women of differing civilisations taking guidance from their respective goddesses. Whilst the emulation of the religious figures carried through multiple cultures, it was the underlying divine examples of the feminine which have changed. In the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Rome, the feminine gods were not of a submissive nature; indeed a number of the most powerful gods were female such as Isis and Nut from Egyptian mythology and Artemis, Hera and Athena from Greek and Roman mythology. This heavily contrasts with the submissive Christian Biblical examples of Queen Esther and the Virgin Mary, who were represented in the medieval period as passive wives and mothers.

The women of these ancient civilisations not only mimicked their behaviour on their deities, but began to personally identify with them by incorporating divine names into their own. The divinity of the Virgin Mary with the title of ‘theotokos’, which meant ‘the one who bore God’, confirmed at the Council of Ephesos during the fifth century was used by several Byzantine empresses to identify themselves with her[2] This kind of emulation would be copied by French queens who would affix ‘Blanche’ as a second name in order to associate themselves with Blanche of Castile.[3]
The Bible was a text used to support the medieval belief in female submission with passages like ‘wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord; for the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ is the head of the church’.[4]

With these examples of expected virtues, the succession of women to positions of power was an occurrence to be avoided; women were meant to be consorts only. In order to confirm some legitimacy to their position, medieval queen consorts began to associate themselves with Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus; Stroll outlines that the Virgin Mary was frequently ‘praised, venerated and respected, but she is also manipulated to fulfil the goals of others’.[5] Queen Esther was another prime example of how a queen consort should behave, for she approached her husband unbidden, which was against the law, to invite him to a series of banquets at which she later revealed plots from his counsellors against his people.[6]

By the fifteenth century, these virtues were reinforced in medieval texts by Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, where Esther is shown as the perfect example ‘of a good and obedient wife who gained and held the trust of her husband and who was suitable rewarded for her proper behaviour’[7]; and in Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus (Of Famous Women), a collection of mythological and historical women (see Appendix I.) that was written for ‘posterity about women who were renowned for any sort of great deed, either good or bad’ and he hoped that by ‘recounting the wicked deeds of certain women that hopefully in the mind of the reader it would be offset by the exhortations to virtue by other respected women’.[8] A copy of this manuscript was given to Margaret of Anjou in honour of her marriage to Henry VI of England in 1445.[9]

The concept of ‘Christian charity’ was demonstrated by medieval queen consorts through the funding the construction of monasteries, hospitals and churches, the giving of dowries to peasant girls within their domain to allow them to marry, the patronage of artists, musicians and architects to promote and supporting the arts, and giving of alms to the poor and destitute. This was not an official
power, but more of an unofficial behind the scenes type of influence which Huneycutt describes as ‘the power of a medieval queen [consort] rested on a perception of influence rather than any
institutional base and the loss of that perceived influence could spell disaster’.[10]

Parsons argues that as monarchy became more hereditary based, only a certain quality of woman was considered worthy enough to marry the ruler. In some cases the girl’s own birth and lineage were more prized than the individual character of the potential bride in question. Having secured such a bride, it was now essential to have the new queen crowned, in either a joint or sole coronation. The crowning and anointing of a queen was to ‘distinguish them above all other princesses; not only by outward appearances, but by the mysterious gifts of the holy unction; which sets a public character upon them as queens, puts them more particularly under the protection of God and makes them more awful to their subjects and more worthy of society with the sacred person of the kings, their spouses’.[11]

However, whilst the ceremony elevates the queen above all other women in the land, the same ceremony still placed the queen in the submissive position underneath the king. In the medieval French ceremony, whilst the king is anointed with the holy oil up to nine times on the head and torso, the queen is anointed only twice ‘on the head and breast and in no other place’, demonstrating that the queen does not hold as holy a position as the king does.[12] In the medieval English ceremony, the queen is also anointed twice when crowned with the king; however if she is crowned on her own, she is anointed only once and given a sceptre in addition to a ring and crown; whereas the king is anointed up to seven times.[13]

There was a balance in the dual relationship of a royal couple with the male ruler emulating Christ and the female consort emulating the Church. As the male ruler was meant to be the enforcer of law and justice, the warrior who defended his people and punished his enemies and the leader of a nation, the female consort was meant to be the bringer of peace, the mother who comforted her people and the intercessor for acts of kindness and mercy. Murray even argues that ‘women [had] the responsibility to correct or compensate for her husband’s moral failures…the wife is enjoined to use
her charm and her feminine wiles, as well as her ability to cajole and persuade. If necessary, she is to manipulate her husband into altering his behaviour’.[14] The one of the core difficulties queens faced when occupying positions of power, either as a ruler in their own right or as regent, was the maintenance of their natural feminine virtues whilst inhabiting a position which required ‘unnatural’
masculine virtues. Somehow the queen regnant or regent was meant to exude both masculine and feminine qualities without losing either identity. These were issues that both Blanche of Castile and Margaret of Anjou faced during their terms as regent.

There were a number of instances when a regency became necessary for the continual efficient governing of the realm. This included, but was not limited to, the absence of the monarch due to war or crusade, the incapacity of the monarch due to illness or the succession of a minor. The position of regent is traditionally an office that must be given, rather than taken; for any woman who openly covets such a position is branded as vindictive and ambitious, as with Margaret of Anjou’s claim to the regency.[15]

In the event of a regency, the women of the young king’s family were called into such positions of power and authority due to the fact that male relatives usually ‘posed a threat to the child ruler’ wanting to establish their own claim in place of the late king’s son.[16] Stafford also argues that ‘the women of a young king’s family and especially his mother posed no threat [for] their own survival was bound up with his’.[17] Women of the king’s family were traditionally restricted to mothers and sisters, but did not include step-mothers. Therefore the widowed queen was not automatically in contention for the position; a blood tie between the widowed queen and the new king was essential, they must be mother and son.

A queen could only become regent by the authority of the king, regardless of whether that king was either husband or son. She must be raised up to the position by the will of a man and to subvert this cultural practice was to commit political suicide for the queen involved as with Margaret of Anjou. Kings usually drafted their wills, allowing for their final wishes to be carried out; if the heir to the throne was a minor, details concerning the approaching regency were outlined here. The king was able to dictate how the regency would govern, what limitations it may or may not have and most importantly whose hands within the authority may lie. There were two main options; install the regency upon one individual, like the queen mother[18] or a paternal uncle[19]; or in the hands of a council made up of multiple family members and loyal, trusted servants of the realm. [20] In both Blanche and Margaret’s cases, it rested upon them alone.

A major obstacle for queen regents was their ‘foreignness’; she was not a native born princess of their indigenous dynasty, she was an outsider, a foreign import who would be accused of having hidden agendas that would disadvantage their marital country.[21] As women were often overlooked and not even considered for positions of power, their education reflected this lack of potential. Therefore if a queen was fortunate enough to ascend to the position of regent, there was the problem of having to learn on the job. In this arena, however, there was little room for error. Mistakes could end up having far reaching international diplomatic consequences.

However the major issue was the fact that a queen, who was expected to display the feminine virtues of peace, mercy and compassion, now inhabited the traditionally masculine role of regent, which called for masculine virtues such as war, justice and strength. A delicate balance of both gender roles had to be maintained, in order to attract as little criticism as possible. A female regent who declared war and led soldiers to battle was a traitor to the fairer sex. However, a female regent who refused to declare war could be accused to being too weak to remain in the position. These challenges, and many others, Blanche and Margaret would have to face during their tenures as regent.

Being a female regent during the medieval period was a dangerous station; their very right to defend their own children and inheritances was called into question simply because of their sex. It did not matter if they were the only choice that would safeguard the interests of the minor or absent monarch, for women were meant to be ruled and not rule themselves, even temporarily in the name of
another. Blanche and Margaret were queens who were exceptions to the traditional gender roles and at times, actively defied it. By taking on such an important and influential role, they must have believed themselves to be capable of fulfilling the position. They may have relied on the council of other men, but they would be the public face of the regency; they would be held accountable for whatever happened during their time as regent, both the good and the bad.

[1] Marie-Therese d’Alverny. “Comment les theologiens et les philosophes voient la femme.” Cahiers de civilisation medievale, no. 20 (1977): 105-29

[1] Maryanne Cline Horowitz. “Aristotle and Women.” Journal of the History of Biology, no. 9 (1976): 183-213

[2] Judith Herrin. “The Imperial Feminine in Byzantium.” Past & Present 169 (2000), p12-14

[3] Annie Forbes Bush. Memoirs of the Queens of France: Volume I. Philadelphia: Parry & McMillan, 1854, p167

[4] Jacqueline Murray., Ibid., p5

[5] Mary Stroll. “Maria Regina: Papal Symbol.” In Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe, by Anne Duggan, 173-233. London: Boydell Press, 1996, p173

[6] Lois Huneycutt. “Intercession and the High-Medieval Queen: The Esther Topos.” In Power of the Weak, by Jennifer Carpenter, 126-146. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995, p127

[7] Christine de Pizan. The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated by Sarah Lawson. Middlesex: Harmondsworth, 1985, p63

[8] Giovanni Boccaccio. De Mulieribus Claris (On Famous Women). Translated by Virginia Brown. Boston: Harvard Press, 2001, p xii

[9] The British Library. De Claris Mulieribus in an anonymous French translation . January 2011. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=8359&CollID=16&NStart=160705 (accessed August 13, 2011)

[10] Lois Huneycutt., Ibid., p138

[11] Nicholas Menin. A Description of the Coronation of the Kings and Queens of France. London: Ludgate Hill, 1776, p209

[12] Ibid., p221

[13] Roy Strong. Coronation – From the 8th to the 21st Century. London: Harper Perennial, 2006, p88-90

[14] Sharon Farmer. “Persuasive Voices: Clerical Images of Medieval Wives.” Speculum, no. 61 (1986): p534

[15] Jock Haswell. The Ardent Queen – Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrian Heritage. London: Peter Davies, 1976, p15

[16] Pauline Stafford. Queens, Concubines and Dowagers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983, p154

[17]  Ibid., p155

[18] Anne of Kiev for her son, Philip II Augustus of France – Andre Poulet,. Ibid., p106

[19] Andrew of Hungary for his nephew, Ladislaus III of Hungary – Pál Engel et al. The Realm of St Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526. London: I.B.Tauris & Co, 2005, p89

[20] Ingeborg of Norway for her son, Magnus VII of Norway and IV of Sweden – Jonathon Truedson Demitz. Throne of a Thousand Years. Los Angeles: Ludvika, 1996, p27

[21] Zan Steadham. Blanche of Castile – A True Ruler of France. Carrollton: West Georgia College, 1981, p21