Jane Austen, in her famously witty ‘History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian,’ written in 1791, opens with this description of King Henry IV:
“Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales came and took away the crown; whereupon, the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespeare’s Plays, & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.”
Austen’s tongue may have been in her cheek when she said that ‘it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife’, but she clearly had her wits about her. She knew her history, and her historiography, too, when as a precocious fifteen-year-old she wrote this parody of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England (1771). Her barb was aimed not only at Goldsmith, but also a long and illustrious line of historians who knew that queens must have been present but they could not remember exactly who they were.
Such forgetfulness is not confined to England. Until the 1980s, professional scholars did not consider queens worthy of serious study. The study of queens was something intelligent and often well-educated gentlewomen did, but they most often wrote biographies for female readers that were rarely, if ever, read by a university student, who was most likely male. Even the most well educated people could name only a few queens – Isabel of Castile (r. 1451–1504), Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), Marie Antoinette (d. 1793), and Victoria (r. 1837–1901) – and they would not know that Henry IV had not just one but two wives. The first, Mary de Bohun, was the mother of his five, not four, sons (one died in infancy) and two daughters, too. She died before Henry came to the throne and so was never queen, but Henry’s second wife, Joan of Navarre, was. Neither Mary nor Joan were unknown to their contemporaries: Mary’s family was one of the oldest and most distinguished noble families in England, descendants of the Welsh king, Llywelyn the Great; Joan was the daughter of King Charles II of Navarre, the dowager duchess of Brittany, and had blood relations among the royal families of Spain and France.
Mary de Bohun, Joan of Navarre, and countless other queens and royal women were highly visible to their contemporaries. Their lives were recounted in chronicles, the management of their estates and households recorded in fiscal documents, their letters collected in archives, and their religious and artistic patronage remembered in the books, buildings, and works of art they sponsored and treasured. Yet later scholars put kings at the center of the history of medieval Europe and ignored most queens, dismissed them as unimportant, forgot their actions, and obscured their lives. History was told by men about kings, their governance, their advisers, and their exploits.
The purpose of this site is to pay attention to Jane Austen’s wisecrack and introduce medieval queens—some famous, some not—to a wider audience interested in the lives of women who held court at the apex of political life in the Middle Ages.