Anne O’Brien’s novels imagine the lives of medieval women, almost silent in the records of their times, but important pieces in the games of diplomacy, dynasty and war. She tells Historia about the royal women who married for duty – and those who defied their families to enter a risky love match.
Women from royal and high-born families married to obey the dictates of their families. They were invaluable in creating alliances, with those in power or with those whose land bordered their own. The age of the two participants was an irrelevance compared with the important securing of estates through a dowry or a sword-wielding ally in times of unrest. If one marriage ended, another was immediately sought for the widow, the perennial bride rarely having any choice in the matter.
In times of insurrection, when women were widowed through death on a battlefield or by execution, if treason was involved, then a precipitate marriage to a man known for his loyalty was crucial. There was no thought of a woman choosing her own husband, or even remaining unwed.
But how willing were these women to toe the family line? Many accepted the role of obedient daughter.
Isabelle de Valois, French child bride of Richard II, was married when she was six years old, widowed when she was eleven. Her father, King Charles VI, insisted that she return to France, her dowry and jewels intact, obviously with another marriage in mind. Henry IV of England planned to keep the dowry, which he could not afford to return, and planned to wed Isabelle to his eldest son, Prince Henry.
Isabelle was unwilling, her father persistent, so she was eventually returned to France with her jewels – but no dowry. Six years later she wed her 11-year-old cousin, the Duke of Orleans. There was no happiness to be found here. Isabelle died in childbed when a mere 19 years old.
Joan Holland, niece of King Richard II, married Edmund, Duke of York, in 1393, when she was perhaps no more than 14 years old and he was 52. After their childless marriage of nine years, Joan was wed three more times: to Lord Willoughby of Eresby, Baron Scrope of Masham and Sir Henry Blomflete, Baron Vesci. All the marriages were childless.
We have no evidence of Joan’s experience. Was it a sterile existence, moving swiftly from one husband to the next, often within a year of the previous one ending, or did Joan find some satisfaction in it, if one husband proved a better companion than the last? Did she mourn her childless state? Joan was by no means alone in her marriage experience.
Not all noble women, however, were prepared to accept the pattern laid out for them by fathers or brothers.
Elizabeth of Lancaster, younger daughter of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, proved to be most wayward despite an auspicious start. Wed at 18 to the Earl of Pembroke, who was eight, she had a marriage in name only. Elizabeth soon met the infamous John Holland, Duke of Exeter, at Richard II’s court. A passionate affair ensued between Elizabeth and the half-brother of the king, resulting in Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Faced with this burgeoning scandal, there was a rapid papal dispensation with much money changing hands between Gaunt and the Pope to release Elizabeth from Pembroke and allow the disreputable couple to marry.
Had Elizabeth got what she wanted?
Not altogether. When this promising marriage to Holland collapsed into treason and the execution of her husband, within six months she was married to Sir John Cornwall, a staunch tournament-friend of her brother Henry IV. Was it love at first sight, as tradition says? Or was Henry devising a situation that would keep a close eye on his sister? Henry was a not a man to allow Elizabeth’s choices to undermine his safety a second time.
But there were some enterprising women who did not fit the pattern to any degree, rebelling shamelessly against royal authority.
Isabella of Woodstock refused to follow the dictates of her father, King Edward III. As Edward’s eldest daughter, she was promised as a bride to an array of European notables during her childhood, the final decision landing on the illustrious Bernard, son of the Lord of Albret. The ship duly arrived to carry Isabella to Gascony to Bernard’s waiting arms. Isabella, by now 19 years old – older than many royal brides – simply refused to embark, leaving her father no choice but to make apologies since he resisted having her carried aboard.
Oh, to be a medieval fly on the wall!
It took Isabella 14 years until in 1365 her eye fell on the man she wished to wed, Enguerrand de Coucy, a French hostage at the English court after the Treaty of Bretigny brought that portion of the Hundred Years War to a close. Not the King’s ideal choice; but since Isabella insisted, and by now she was more than 30 years old, he allowed his favourite daughter to have her way.
Sadly after so much effort, it was not a happy marriage. Enguerrand went to fight in Italy and, estranged, Isabella returned with her children to England.
Joan, the ‘Fair Maid of Kent‘, proved to be the most provocative of royal brides. Raised from childhood by her cousin King Edward III to know her role in royal alliances, Joan promptly flouted any such plans by entering into a clandestine marriage per verba de praesenti (with simple vows of intent between the couple and no priest necessary) to Sir Thomas Holland, a mere knight, when she was just 12 years old. Within a year, unable to escape family pressures to wed William de Montagu, the heir of the Earl of Salisbury, Joan married again, thus becoming a bigamous wife until a papal dispensation released her to return to Sir Thomas, the man of her choosing.
As for her third marriage, to Edward of Woodstock, the Prince of Wales, it was not the alliance King Edward would have chosen for the heir to the crown. He had hoped for a European alliance to strengthen England’s claims in Gascony and Aquitaine. Although there is no evidence of a childhood love affair between Joan and Edward, they wanted marriage and they pursued it, forcing the King’s acceptance of it by a private betrothal before the very public event in St George’s Chapel at Windsor.
Joan was nothing if not headstrong.
What can we gather from all of this? Although most women were obedient to the tenets of their upbringing, marrying without too much complaint as they were instructed, whatever their personal grief over the situation, there were enough independently-minded young women to scatter the spice of scandal throughout medieval history.
For our enjoyment.
Anne O’Brien writes historical fiction based on the lives of medieval women, born into a world dominated by the policies of men, who are almost silent in the records of their time.
Her latest novel, A Tapestry of Treason, is published by HQ in hardback, ebook and audio on 22 August, 2019.
Find out more about A Tapestry of Treason.
Richard II receiving Isabelle de Valois from her father: Jean Froissart, Chroniques, via Wikimedia
The ‘Princess Tomb’ of Elizabeth of Lancaster in the Church of St Mary in Burford, Shropshire: author’s own
The White Tower, Tower of London, as much a royal residence as a place of confinement: author’s own