Volume 7 – Issue 1 – 2020

Interview with Louise Gay

Des commandements militaires féminins en guerre sainte: Marguerite de Provence et Sagar al-Durr lors de la septième croisade

Louise Gay from Université Toulouse II Jean Jaurès specializes on the role of royal women in times of war. She did her master’s degree on “Capetian queens and their implications on warfare and diplomacy in Medieval France Xth to XIVth centuries)”.

King Louis IX and queen Margaret returning from the crusade

RSJ Team: Good day Louise and thank you very much for doing this interview with us.

Louise: Thank you very much to you; it is an honour! 

RSJ Team: You have written a fascinating article that tackles an important topic in Gender History. Could you give us a short overview of the role of female consorts accompanying their husbands on crusades?

Louise: Overseas, royal women are expected to fulfill the roles they hold at court and to assume the same function of representation, which implies being a dutiful wife, mother, and lady. We can assume they also offered some kind of emotional support to their husbands, as I believe it was the case between Marguerite and Louis IX, who did not want to be separated from her during his stay abroad. Before and during the crusade, female consorts can act as privileged diplomatic intermediaries for their kinship and spouses, such as Eleanor of Castile with the papacy during the ninth crusade. 

RSJ Team: Why did you chose these two particular women to analyse and if, how would you compare the two?

Louise: It all started when I was writing a chapter of my master’s thesis about Capetian Queens and the crusading movement. I was investigating the journey of Marguerite of Provence and took a look at Easternchronicles to see if there was any mention of her negotiations on behalf of Louis. That is when I discovered Sagar al-Durr’s remarkable career. The tight chronology between the events that saw these royal women rise to power virtually at the same time, as well as their very different social backgrounds, made me think there was something to develop. On one hand, there is Queen Marguerite, the eldest daughter of a prestigious Count, who didn’t seem to hold much power at the French court despite -or because- of the presence of strong female figures such as her mother-in-law Blanche of Castile. And on the other hand, there is Sagar al-Durr, a former slave who climbed up the social and political ladders to become the favourite wife of the sultan as-Salih, even acting as regent in times of war. The contrast between the two seems striking at first but, when facing the absence of their husbands at some point during the seventh crusade, both women successfully improvised to overcome the difficult situations they were put in. 

RSJ Team: What made Sagar al-Durr so exceptional in comparison to other women of her status that allowed her to reach such a high position – chance or endeavor or a mixture of both?

Louise: I would say a mixture of both. She showed great political skills by taking advantage of a conjuncture of unusual events: the crusade against the Franks, the death of her husband then the murder of her stepson, and more importantly the absence of any male heir able to succeed after him.

RSJ Team: You describe the Crusades as a world of exception where female consorts could escape the restraints of their usual roles. Would you say that especially the symbolic war against non-Christian enemies helped to break traditional stereotypes?

Louise: I would say so, yes. From a theoretical point of view, the concept of Holy War allowed women to take up arms against the enemies of the Church by emphasizing female figures from the Old Testament such as Judith or Deborah. If over the centuries the papacy tried to limit in practice the number of women going to the Holy Land, wealthy noblewomen could organise their own expeditions against the infidels even if they did not wield any weapon themselves. They would hire men to fight on their behalf and pay for the construction of fortifications, such as Countess Alice of Blois who went to Acre with military forces and financed the construction of a tower to defend against Muslim attack, or Queen Urraca of Castile in the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista. Queen Sybil and Queen Isabel of Jerusalem also played more active military roles, commanding fortified cities against Saladin’s forces. 

RSJ Team: Thank you very much for this interview. Would you like to tell us a little bit about your current projects?

Louise: It was a pleasure! Currently, I am working on a paper about the queen’s plural body for the journal Questes that should be published next year if the sanitary situation allows it. More especially, I am also hoping to begin a PhD in Medieval History, studying the involvement in war and diplomacy of French and Iberian Queens from the XIIIth century in a comparative perspective. Meanwhile, I keep my eyes peeled for any Queenship-related outputs or opportunities, and I am thrilled to see how dynamic this academic theme is thanks to the dedication of the Royal Studies Journal and many other scholarly reviews.

RSJ Team: Our journal only thrives thanks to dedicated researchers such as you. So the pleasure was all ours! Good luck for your new project and your PhD. 

Interview with Louise Tingle

Aurum Reginae: Queen’s Gold in Late Fourteenth-Century England

Louise Tingle is an independent scholar who recently completed her PhD in history at Cardiff University. Her work focuses on late medieval English queens. Her article “Aurum Reginae: Queen’s Gold in Late Fourteenth-Century England” appears in issue 7.1 of the Royal Studies Journal.

Philippa of Hainault. Image in public domain and from Wikipedia

RSJ Blog: Thank you for talking with us! For those who don’t know, could you briefly describe queen’s gold?

Louise: Queen’s gold was an extra payment on fines owing to the king, with the profits going to the queen and her household. Originally the custom was in return for the queen’s activity as an intercessor, but by the late fourteenth century, it was essentially an extra tax whether the queen had intervened or not – no wonder it was unpopular and difficult to make people pay! By this time, the tenure of Philippa of Hainault, queen’s gold had been set at a rate of ten per cent which recipients had to pay on essentially any privilege granted by the king, including licences, pardons and other perks. However, when individuals argued against having to pay essentially an extra tax, they tended to base their arguments on whether the fine in question was one liable for queen’s gold, rather than arguing against the queen’s right to claim queen’s gold as a whole. Others seem not to have responded at all, as shown by the multiple examples of the same writ issued for the same claim.

RSJ Blog: What are some of the source problems you faced researching and writing about queen’s gold?

Louise: The main problem with looking at the writs for queen’s gold is that very few of the writs survive. Fortunately, in the seventeenth century a large selection of records from Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Tudor queens were transcribed with the objective of investigating the possibility of queen’s gold under the queen consort at that time. Of the writs surviving in the National Archives, a large amount of these were issued under Philippa of Hainault, which is unsurprising given Philippa’s fairly long tenure for a medieval queen, lasting over forty years. Even so, most of these writs derive from a very few years towards the end of Philippa’s life and still may not represent all of the writs issued. In addition, few records exist for the accounts of the revenues derived from collecting queen’s gold, which makes it difficult to ascertain just how much of the writs issued were actually paid.

RSJ Blog: Since your article focuses on Philippa of Hainault, what are your thoughts on her as a queen?

Louise: I think the image that survives of Philippa in the popular memory is very different from the historical Philippa! There are several stories relating to Philippa – for which we have the chronicler Froissart as well as Victorian biographers to thank – which probably aren’t even true at all. The most famous of these is the story of Philippa’s intercession for the burghers of Calais which poses Philippa as the quintessential merciful queen, when in reality she probably wasn’t present at all. It is however a story that has done wonders for Philippa’s reputation!

I do think that Philippa maintained a close working relationship, if not a loving one, with her husband and it seems that Edward chose to retire in his later years to be near her. Philippa is often forgotten in contrast to queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine and her mother-in-law Isabella of France, who were both queens who in some ways stepped outside the bounds of conventional femininity. Philippa’s role as a prolific mother and her reputation as an intercessor would have classed her as a ‘good’ queen according to contemporaries, even if they might not have liked her lavish lifestyle and spending. Her inconspicuous reputation may have been deliberate in contrast to the upheaval caused in the previous reign when Isabella was involved in the deposition of her husband.

RSJ Blog: What are your current projects?

Louise: I’m currently writing the chapter on one of Philippa’s successors, Isabella de Valois, for a four-volume set on English royal consorts in Palgrave Macmillan’s Queenship and Power series. I’m also in the process of publishing my first book, Chaucer’s Queens, in the same series, which focuses on Philippa of Hainault and Anne of Bohemia, and where queen’s gold features as the linchpin between queenly intercession and patronage.

RSJ Blog: Thank you! We look forward to reading your new work!

Interview with Matthew Firth

The Character of the Treacherous Woman in the Passiones of Early Medieval English Royal Martyrs

Matthew is a PhD Candidate in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. He specializes in cultural memory, historical narrative, and Anglo-Scandinavian acculturation in the tenth to thirteenth centuries. He has published numerous articles on various aspects of society and culture in England and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, and their intersections. He is currently working on his first monograph, a biographical study of English queens-consort in the years 850-1000, scheduled for publication the Routledge Lives of Royal Women series. He contributed to the Royal Studies Journal Issue 7.1 with a fascinating article on The Character of the Treacherous Woman in the Passiones of Early Medieval English Royal Martyrs

RSJ Blog: Hello Matthew, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for us!

You’ve done a fascinating study on the ‘Character of the Treacherous Woman in the passiones of Early Medieval English Royal Martyrs’. Can you give us some background about why you chose this fascinating subject? Why these three royal women in particular?

Matthew: The starting point for this article, as with so much of my research, was the reign of Æthelred ‘the Unready.’ It was a reign that began in murder. Æthelred succeeded to the throne in 978 around the age of ten, following the assassination of his half-brother Edward ‘the Martyr.’ At his side was his mother Ælfthryth. Ælfthryth would wield significant political power in Æthelred’s minority and likely served as queen-regent.

She is a fascinating figure of late tenth-century English history. In contemporary sources Ælfthryth is a powerful and politically active woman: charter witness, landholder, legal advocate, reformer, patron of female religious houses, mediator with the king. She was also England’s first-known native-born queen-consort to be anointed as such. Yet, in the minds of the post-Conquest hagiographers and historians who relayed Edward’s assassination, Ælfthryth’s agency was anathema and it was she, in her thirst for power, who was the architect of Edward’s murder. This is a tradition that seems to start about a century after the event, and there is no contemporary evidence for her involvement in the plot.

So, as I began to research Ælfthryth’s evolving legacy, I also began to notice similarities between her characterisations and those of other royal women in early English saints’ lives. And here there are two tropes running parallel. Firstly, that of the so-called ‘boy-king’ martyrs, a reasonably common sub-genre of English hagiography which revolves around the murder of an innocent. And secondly, that of the ‘wicked queen,’ which is something of a universal motif with biblical and classical precedents. My survey of these saints’ lives landed on three cases that typified the intersection between these tropes: St Æthelberht of East Anglia and Queen Cynethryth of Mercia, St Kenelm of Mercia and his sister Cwenthryth, and Edward and Ælfthryth. The question then became, what underlies this literary construct? What societal attitudes would inform the transition of such royal women from early English history into stock literary antagonists at the hands of post-Conquest writers?  

RSJ Blog: Is this a well sourced area of royal studies? Did you encounter any challenges during your research?

Matthew: It’s a bit mixed. The ‘boy-kings’ of pre-Conquest England received some significant attention in the twentieth century. Even if commentary on the role of the female antagonists in their stories is limited, it does mean there is a body of scholarship to draw on. It also means there are accessible transcriptions of the texts, though only the Life of St Kenelm has an up-to-date critical edition. The Passion of St Æthelberht in particular could use a new edition as significant new manuscript traditions have come to light since it last received dedicated attention in 1917! This said, I am fortunate that in all cases the hagiographies exist in multiple manuscripts and that many of these have been digitised. Though the secondary challenge that then presents itself is sorting out which narrative tradition each manuscript belongs to; the lives of Æthelberht, Kenelm and Edward each have multiple progenitors.

RSJ Blog: Finally – can you tell us about any projects you’re working on at the moment?

Matthew: I’m mainly working on my thesis at the moment (which is what my supervisors want to hear!) – there I’m looking at the historicity of depictions of early medieval English kingship in the sagas of Icelanders. Which said, I do have a couple of other interesting projects on the go.

I recently published an article on the importance of sea-power to English kingship in the tenth century in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology with Dr Erin Sebo, and we’re collaborating again on an article examining the fabrication of King Hiarni in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum. She and I also have an edited volume in the works on extreme or alien emotive display in medieval North Sea cultures. We’re quite excited about that project, it’s bringing together an excellent group of scholars from Celtic, Scandinavian, English and Frisian studies working across history, literature and archaeology disciplines.

Otherwise, I’m working as a research assistant on the Flinders University-led project Exiles: Medieval Responses to Isolation. One of the outputs from this will be a collection of themed essays for an upcoming issue of Neophilologus. For that, I’m writing an article, together with my colleague Cassandra Schilling, that looks at queenly exile in Old English literature and the correlating experiences of widowed queen-consorts in tenth-century England.

And that’s probably enough to be going on with! There are a few other projects on the horizon, but for now the thesis beckons…

RSJ Blog: Thanks again for talking to us!