Helen Castor on She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens

The historian and presenter explores the role of queens in medieval and Tudor England

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Female monarchs have been the norm, not the exception, in recent British history. In celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, Elizabeth II emulates her great-great-grandmother Victoria – and, together, these two queens have clocked up more than twice as many years on the throne as the four kings who came between them. But all isn’t quite as it seems.

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Modern monarchs don’t rule: they reign. When Elizabeth II puts on the Imperial State Crown to open Parliament, it’s the words of her government that she speaks, not her own. To find a much-travelled great-grandmother ruling England (as the kingdom governed from London then was) we have to go back more than eight centuries, to the extraordinary Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of both France and England.

On the road

Like Elizabeth, Eleanor was a royal matriarch whose long life was lived in almost constant motion. Eleanor crossed the Pyrenees for the last time at the age of 76 – no mean feat in a world without tarmacked roads and motorised transport. And when her son, crusader-king Richard the Lionheart, famously set out for the Holy Land in 1189, he was following in the footsteps of his mother, who had reached Jerusalem with the forces of the Second Crusade 40 years earlier.

Parallels can only be traced so far, however, before dramatic contrasts start to emerge between this 12th-century queen and her 21st-century descendant. Eleanor visited Jerusalem not as queen of England but of France, whose king, Louis VII, she had married at the age of 13. But cracks were appearing in this royal relationship, not least because of rumours that Eleanor had  an affair with her uncle, the prince of Antioch.

Second husband

In March 1152, not long after their return to France, Louis and Eleanor’s marriage was annulled. Just two months later, Eleanor took as her second husband Henry, Duke of Normandy, a fiery young man nine years her junior who was about to become the new king of England.

It’s not personal melodrama, though, that’s the most significant difference between the careers of Elizabeth II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Instead, as Eleanor’s presence at the head of a crusading army might suggest, it’s politics. Medieval monarchs, unlike modern sovereigns, were required to rule their people. And because a ruler had to be both a lawgiver and a warrior, contemporaries took it for granted that this was a job for a man. 

Formidable women

However, some formidable 12th-century women weren’t inclined to agree that the business of government should remain exclusively male. Eleanor’s new mother-in-law, Matilda – whose story is also told in my She-Wolves series – had come tantalisingly close to inheriting the throne of her father, Henry I, in her own right.

After almost 20 years of civil war with her cousin, Stephen, Matilda stepped back to allow her son to claim the crown as King Henry II, with his wife Eleanor at his side. But Eleanor demonstrated that she would not be content with the role of a passive consort. Henry II ruled an empire that stretched from England’s northern frontier with Scotland to Eleanor’s duchy of Aquitaine in south-western France, but family rifts about how to govern deepened until, in 1173, the king’s teenage sons rebelled against their father. And guiding them all into revolt, it turned out, was their mother.

Rebellious wives

This was extraordinary. People were used to the idea that impetuous young men might act rashly, even against a father’s authority, but a wife rebelling against a husband was a threat to the very order of God’s creation. Henry forgave his sons, but kept Eleanor in prison for as long as he lived. It wasn’t until 1189, when Richard the Lionheart succeeded his father as king, that she was freed. And, as the new king set out on crusade, he ordered that his mother, at the head of her “queenly court”, should supervise the English government during his absence. 

Thus Eleanor became an elder stateswoman ruling England in the name of her son and, in doing so, she challenged the deep-seated medieval assumption that political power was inescapably male. Now, of course, the idea of a female sovereign is utterly familiar – but in a world where a monarch is a figurehead, not a political leader. And, as we look from Elizabeth II to the Government front bencher, we might wonder how much has really changed… 

This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 28 February 2012

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She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens begins tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4