In This Chapter
● Finding roles for royal spouses
● Wielding an influence from the sidelines
● Marching into battle and being frogmarched into jail
The position of royal spouse has meant playing many different roles, from mother to deputy monarch. Many royal consorts remained deeply in the shadow of their powerful spouses. But a few stand out as powerful personalities, and some have had a profound effect on British history. A few, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, were powerful politicians; some, like Eleanor of Castile, increased the wealth of the crown; and one, Margaret of Anjou, even led troops into battle.
Because the majority of British rulers have been kings, most of these consorts have been women and have had to cope with the demands of politics and dynastic power while also bringing up children. It’s a tough task, but a few of the most charismatic consorts have thrived on this kind of royal multitasking. A couple of the more successful ones are covered elsewhere in this book - Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, in Chapter 15, and George VI’s consort, Queen Elizabeth, in Chapter 16.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
A high-ranking noblewoman from southern France, Eleanor (c. 1122-1204) rose to be one of the most famous and influential women of the 12th century. She was the daughter of Guillaume, Duke of Aquitaine, and when her father died, Eleanor, still only a teenager, inherited his huge southern French lands - basically the area between the River Loire and the Pyrenees. She married Louis VII, king of France, in 1137, but in 1152, Louis divorced Eleanor. In the Middle Ages, a divorce, which was quite unusual, had to be approved by the church. The official grounds for the divorce of Louis and Eleanor were that the couple were too closely related, but the real reason probably had more to do with Louis’s jealousy. Eleanor, who had two daughters with Louis, became the wife of Count Henry of Anjou, who later became King Henry II of England, shortly after the divorce.
Eleanor was fiery, intelligent, passionate, and devoted to her southern French homeland. She bore Henry eight children, including two future kings of England (Richard I and John). In addition to all this child-bearing, Eleanor played a major part in the government of her husband’s large empire, which stretched from northern England to southern France, often deputising for him in one region while he was in another. But she seems to have turned against her husband and was involved in a plot in which the couple’s sons revolted against Henry. No one knows for sure why, but in 1174, Eleanor was captured, taken to England, and thrown in prison for at least ten years.
But in 1189, Eleanor made an amazing political comeback. Her favourite son Richard inherited the English throne, and his mother became his deputy, wielding even more power than she’d done in the early years of her marriage to King Henry. This responsibility was a major task because Richard was absent from England for most of his reign, pursuing military campaigns in Europe and the Holy Land, and he even got captured by his enemies. By this time, Eleanor was 67 years old (an age that most medieval people saw only in their dreams), and she was amazingly active, holding courts all over England, making governmental decisions, and playing a part in the measures to get Richard released from captivity.
Eleanor was a superstar of the Middle Ages and one of the most influential women of the period. Some medieval writers criticised her because she was said to have had several affairs, but most of these writers were monks who couldn’t cope with a woman wielding power in a man’s world, and a lot of what they wrote was malicious gossip. She was one of the most powerful royal consorts in British history.
Eleanor of Castile
Eleanor of Castile (1241-90) was the daughter of King Ferdinand III of Castile in Spain and his second wife, French noblewoman Jeanne de Dammartin.
She married the English prince Edward, who was to become King Edward I, in 1254.
Eleanor was not the kind of medieval wife who stood aside and let her husband make all the running. During the baronial wars of Henry III’s reign she was suspected of helping Henry’s opponents hire Spanish mercenaries, and when the wars ended, she acquired many lands that had been held by the rebels, building up her already considerable wealth. After the wars, she joined Edward on a different kind of military campaign - she travelled with him on Crusade (see Chapter 8). On the way home, Edward discovered that his father had died and that he and Eleanor were king and queen.
As queen, Eleanor carried on building her wealth. She grabbed lands that were held as security for English knights’ debts to Jewish moneylenders and then began to build up yet more property by buying land where she could.
No previous queen had actively gone out and acquired landed estates, and many contemporaries were shocked that a woman should be involved in this kind of business. But the income from the land brought in much-needed cash for the royal family, and Eleanor spent some of it founding monasteries and encouraging English writers.
Eleanor and Edward seem to have been a devoted couple, and when the queen caught a fever and died in 1290, he was distraught. Eleanor was away from the court, near Lincoln, when she died, and Edward organised a big funeral procession to bring her body back to London. Ornate stone crosses were built at the procession’s 12 stopping places, and the surviving crosses, beautifully carved, are among the glories of medieval art. They’re a fitting tribute to a rich, powerful queen who was also a generous patron of the church.
Queen Isabella (1292-1358) was the daughter of Philip IV of France and his wife Joan of Navarre. In 1308, she married Edward II at Boulogne and was crowned queen in Westminster Abbey the same year. The young queen seems to have found life difficult with Edward. Her husband was not an easy character to get on with - because of his devotion to his favourites, courtiers such as Piers Gaveston, he had little time for his wife. The couple had four children, but they came slowly and with long intervals in between, which was quite unusual in the Middle Ages when kings and queens usually wanted to produce heirs as quickly as possible.
In 1325, Isabella’s brother, French king Charles IV, seized Edward’s lands in France, and the queen returned to France. Estranged from her husband, Isabella fell in love with Roger Mortimer, one of Edward’s nobles who had fallen out of favour. The following year, Isabella and Mortimer invaded England and forced Edward II off the throne. In January 1327, they replaced him with Isabella and Edward’s teenage son, Edward III. Isabella and Mortimer ruled the country as regents.
A few years later, Edward III took over power in his own right. Mortimer was executed, and Isabella was sidelined - she spent the last 30 years of her life in seclusion at Castle Rising in Norfolk.
Margaret of Anjou
Margaret (1430-82) was the French-born wife of Rene I of Naples (he was also Duke of Anjou in France) and Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine. She married the English king Henry VI in 1445. From the start, Margaret had a difficult time as Henry’s wife. The king was more interested in religion than either his kingdom or, probably, his queen, and suffered terrible periods of mental breakdown. But Margaret stuck by her man when it mattered, like when his rival Richard, Duke of York, tried to take over the kingdom.
Henry and Margaret were captured by Richard, but Margaret managed to escape - and straightaway raised an army. She scored some major victories, including the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, when she had rebel leaders, the Duke of York and the Earl of Salisbury, executed. Their heads were later hung on the gates of the city of York as a terrible warning to their supporters. Another victory, at St Albans, enabled Margaret to free Henry from captivity. But further battles ended in defeats for the queen, even when she led her own troops into battle at Tewkesbury in 1471. After this defeat, Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower of London, until the King of France took pity on her and paid her ransom. She lived out her final few years in her native Anjou.
Margaret’s career was an amazing one. It was very unusual for a woman to play a major part in planning military campaigns, let alone to lead troops in the actual fighting. Margaret did so, bravely, and she’s remembered as a remarkable leader, even if, in the end, she was defeated.
Elizabeth of York
The father of Elizabeth of York (1466-1503) was King Edward IV, and her mother was Elizabeth Woodville, Edward’s queen. This made Elizabeth a princess of the House of York in the period when the Yorkists were fighting with the House of Lancaster for the English throne.
As a Yorkist princess, Elizabeth made an attractive wife for anyone who wanted to strengthen their claim to the throne - or to weaken a rival’s claim. When Edward IV died and his brother Richard III became king, there were rumours that Richard wanted to marry Elizabeth for these reasons, even though he was married already. Richard failed to pull off this trick, and Elizabeth was finally married to the next king, Henry VII, the first Tudor.
By taking a Yorkist queen, Henry was making his hold on the crown stronger by allying himself with the House of York. But it seems likely that the marriage was more than a political convenience. The couple had seven or eight children. Elizabeth also played an important role at court, helping to plan new buildings for the royal palace at Greenwich, for example. And everybody seemed to like her - she was described as both handsome and able: not only Henry was saddened when she died, after the difficult birth of her daughter, Katherine, in 1503. Henry had her buried in his magnificent new Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey.
Philip II of Spain
Britain has been ruled by women only on a few occasions, but when kings and queens had real political power, having a woman on the throne posed a dynastic challenge - foreign kings turning up wanting to marry the queen and hoping to take over the country, too. Queen Victoria sidestepped the issue by marrying a relatively minor royal who was content to be Prince Consort rather than king. Queen Elizabeth I got around the problem by refusing to marry at all. But Elizabeth’s sister, Mary, married one of the most powerful kings in Europe, Philip II of Spain.
Philip must have been overjoyed. England was a big prize. The wedding took place in 1554, by which time Mary was already queen in her own right, and the deal was that Philip would have a big role to play in decisions about ruling Britain. But Philip wasn’t actually made king of England, even though there were moves in that direction. (His head was put with Mary’s on coins, for example.)
Philip had a lot on his plate. He had a huge realm on mainland Europe, as well as England. So governing England was mostly left to native English advisers. But, as both he and Mary were devout Catholics, he played a major part in restoring the links with the Roman church that had been broken by Mary’s father, Henry VIII. But Philip’s influence on England was curtailed. He had to spend a lot of time away from the country, looking after his European interests and fighting wars on the mainland. In 1558, Mary died, her Protestant sister Elizabeth became queen, and Philip’s role in England came to an end.
Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-69) was born Henriette-Marie de Bourbon, daughter of Henri IV of France and his wife Maria de Medici. She was married to King Charles I in 1625, shortly after Charles became king. This was a proxy wedding, and the couple were married in person the following year. To begin with, Henrietta Maria found her relationship with her new husband difficult.
A lot of Charles’s time was spent with his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, and the queen, who had been an orphan, missed France greatly. But after Buckingham died in 1628, Charles and his queen became closer and warmer and seem to have grown to love each other dearly.
As well as bearing nine children, Henrietta Maria took an active part in politics, especially when her husband’s power was threatened by Parliament and the country moved toward the civil war of the 1640s. She rallied support for Charles, raising both money and troops for his cause. And she was devastated when the royalists finally lost the war, and Charles was led to the scaffold to be executed.
After the beheading of her husband, Henrietta Maria retired to France, where she lived for most of the rest of her life apart from a few years when she returned as Dowager Queen when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Henrietta Maria was in many ways a good queen who gave her husband children and supported him loyally in the monarchy’s darkest years. But she was also an outsider, a Frenchwoman and Catholic in Protestant England, and a wife who had to stand by when her husband was executed.
Catherine of Braganza
The Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) married Charles II in 1662. In many ways, she had the most difficult time of any British queen because the king was an addicted womaniser who had a string of mistresses. Catherine, meanwhile, was unable to produce a living heir for Charles, in spite of a number of pregnancies.
Catherine coped as best she could with her husband’s unfaithfulness, and Charles, for his part, tried to ensure that his mistresses treated the queen with respect (one was even ditched for not doing so). When Charles died in 1685, Catherine stayed in England for a while, but eventually returned to Portugal. She’s remembered as a long-suffering consort who gave England one lasting legacy - she made tea popular, and it’s been the national drink ever since.
George of Denmark
The husband of Queen Anne was George of Denmark. They were married in 1683, when he was Prince J0rgen of Denmark, and she had no thought of becoming queen. After the marriage, he became a British citizen and was known in Britain as George. He was a rather staid character, not really the most charismatic consort - in fact, Charles II said of him, ‘I have tried him drunk and I have tried him sober; and there is nothing in him.’
But George’s life proved that there was more to being a consort than having a good time with the more dissolute members of the royal family. He was an able administrator, a leader of the Navy, and a good husband to Anne - the poor queen got pregnant many times, but none of their children survived into adulthood. George died in 1708, and the queen was deeply upset. He wasn’t glamorous, but he was a dutiful partner who didn’t want to use his position as royal husband to carve out more power for himself.
Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen
Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen (1792-1849) was the daughter of Georg, Duke of Saxe-Meingingen and his duchess, Luise Eleonore. She married the future King William IV in 1818. It was an unusual wedding in several ways. First, it was a double ceremony at which William’s brother, Edward, also married. Second, the bridegroom, William, had shown no inclination to get married for decades, even though he’d had a mistress for years and had several children by her. What changed William’s mind was that he suddenly realised he was in line for the throne, and he needed a proper wife and legitimate heirs to secure the succession.
This put Adelaide in a peculiar situation. It was her job both to produce an heir and to fit in somehow with her husband’s existing domestic situation. Sadly, Adelaide and William didn’t succeed in producing an heir who survived infancy. But she did accept and accommodate her husband’s past, getting to know his illegitimate children and helping to bring them up.
All this brought Queen Adelaide a lot of public sympathy, which she encouraged by being generally good-tempered and devoting a lot of her time and money to charitable causes. She was also kind to her niece, Victoria, the future queen, even though Victoria’s mother didn’t like her very much. So Adelaide was in many ways a model for later rulers, sacrificing her personal life for good works and to support the monarchy, and she remained popular in her later life, surviving her husband by 12 years.
Alexandra of Denmark
Like Queen Adelaide (see preceding section), Alexandra of Denmark (1844-1925) married a British royal with a colourful past. Her husband was Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII. Edward was famous for his affairs and his love of lavish living. The fact that both of these preoccupations were often pursued in Paris didn’t make them much less public, or less potentially difficult, for a wife to handle.
The royal couple married in 1863 and spent the next 38 years as Prince and Princess of Wales while Queen Victoria ruled her vast empire. Alexandra was beautiful, and Edward liked her, in spite of his wayward ways. During the first decade of their marriage, the queen had six children.
Alexandra grew to tolerate Edward’s mistresses and made a worthwhile public life for herself by supporting many charities, gaining the respect and love of the British people in the process. Perhaps the most famous of her charities was Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, founded to look after wounded soldiers during the Boer War. She survived King Edward by 15 years.