With much ado about royal weddings this year, a historical perspective might curb fairy tale dreams for William and Kate’s marriage. Unlike the modern hope that marriage includes romance and love, medieval society held no such expectations. Marriage was a matter of dynastic survival. In a world where battles over boundaries abounded and family fortunes were decided by the slash of a sword, noble medieval brides were valuable tools to advance their family’s ambitions and dynastic claims.
Matilda, the daughter of Henry I of England, left her native home in England at age of six to become the bride of Heinrich V of Germany, who was future Holy Roman Emperor. When she turned twelve, the canonical age for marriage, the official wedding took place. Firmly ensconced in her position as a wife, her duties began.
Duties assigned to medieval noble wives were five in number. All carried a risk for the noblewoman.
The crucial task was to provide her husband with a legitimate heir to inherit his titles and land. If the marriage remained childless, two options were available for the families of the bride. If the husband died before the noble woman, his wife was once again the pawn of her family politics. Matilda found herself in such a position in 1127. With Heinrich’s death, her father Henry I of England forced to her marry a man eight years her junior and of inferior status. Her marriage to Geoffroi, the heir of Anjou, protected Henry’s duchy of Normandy from French encroachment. It would also provide his heirs to the English thrown through her bloodlines as Matilda’s brothers were dead.
The other possibility for a woman in a childless marriage was annulment of the marriage. With the Pope willing to annul his marriage, the nobleman was free to find a new wife. His former wife, being barren, was of no use in the medieval political games or in the eyes of medieval society because she had failed in her wifely duty, was shipped off to a convent for the rest of her life. The treatment could also apply for reason of state. When Louis VII’s sister-in-law, Petronilla, needed a husband, the king of France chose his cousin, Raoul, Count of Vermandois. Although the count was married at the time Eleonore of Champagne, the Pope saw no problem of nullifying the first marriage to sanctify a second.
If the lady managed to produce the heir and survive, her next duty was to conduct herself in her husband’s court with a piety and decorum that left her and her children above any scandalous rumors that would cause her husband’s enemies to question the heir’s right to the lands. Otherwise she faced retribution. Her supposed lovers would face execution while she would be imprisoned or executed. The trumped up charges of scandalous love affairs sometimes accompanied reason of state, namely the need for a male heir, for removal of a wife. Anne Boleyn is the most notorious example.
While her husband presided over his court and his lands with an absolute justice, the noble wife had the duty to bring clemency and mercy to those judgments by interceding with her husband. This allowed the king to mete out leniency without jeopardizing his iron authority.
The noble wife’s next task was to secure her husband’s borders and lands while he was away at war or on a crusade. Although her husband had taken over the rule of whatever lands she brought in her dowry, she was his deputy when he was gone or unable to rule. Margaret of Anjou, married to a simpleton, Henry VI of England, had a more difficult task. She fought from 1444 until 1471 to keep control of Henry’s realm in the king’s name. While she was ultimately defeated by the Duke of York and imprisoned, she embodies the struggles to ensure a dynastic line that was the heart of marriage in medieval England.
The final task a noble wife faced was securing and holding her eldest son’s territory for him while he was yet a minor. The fact that Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, was able to negotiate a settlement with Stephen whereby her son Henry II would succeed him proves tenacious women could protect their children’s claim to the throne. However, Margaret of Anjou’s life as a queen reflects the other side. After years of protecting her husband and son, she was unable to defeat the Duke of York. With Henry VI in his possession, the Duke of York waited until he pinned Margaret and her son down when they landed in England in 1471. Prince Edward was killed in the engagement, Margaret was taken prisoner, and Henry died the next day. Margaret lost the battle to save the Lancastrian inheritance of England for her son.
A love match simply wasn’t part of the medieval calculated marriages. As a modern romance writer with modern views on marriage, the actions of the medieval lords against their wives leaves me with plenty of fodder for the two wives my fictitious first Earl of Ryne. There are plenty of indignities that would motivate a woman, or in my case two women, to haunt his castle for five centuries in Wanted Ghostbusting Bride.
For further information about royal brides of medieval England and the politics that swirled about them, read She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.
Who are the four She-Wolves Helen Castor writes about? Hint (Visit my website for the answer)