Why Queens Matter

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.

Do you want to know more about queens?

Queenship studies is a rapidly changing field and a bibliography in print cannot keep pace with the articles and books published. This site aims to provide you with an up-to-date overview of published works, either in print or digitally. They are works in progress and will be updated regularly.

The short bibliographies in Essential Reading tab are organized roughly by chronological period and focus on the most widely cited or influential works in English or, if in another language, by authors who routinely publish in English.

The much longer Comprehensive Bibliography lists all, or at least tries to list all the works published on queens and queenship.

Please send me an email with additions to the bibliographies, suggestions for ways to make this site more useful for everyone–casual readers of biographies about queens, undergraduate and graduate students, and scholars.

Touchstones

A touchstone is a very smooth, fine-grained, black, or dark-colored variety of quartz or jasper used for testing the quality of gold and silver alloys by the color of the streak produced by rubbing them upon the stone. In other words, it is something which serves to test or try the genuineness or value of anything. An acid test, a litmus test, a criterion. In As You Like It, Shakespeare has a character named Touchstone, “a wise fool,” who acts as a guide, putting everyone in the play to the “comic test.”  Touchstones are important because they allow us to test the value of our reading material and Friday night film choices to see whether they are made of gold or some base metal.

For me, a small-town girl in a house with few books who practically lived in the local Carnegie Library, two writers are my touchstones. One, Eleanor Alice Burford, wrote over 200 books that sold over 100 million copies. She wrote under eight pen names, but I knew her as Jean Plaidy. Her queenly subjects, the Norman, Plantagenet and Tudor queens, Catherine de Medici, Mary Stuart, Lucrezia Borgia, Isabel of Castile, and Victoria, were catnip. But then, when I was sixteen, I discovered Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots. Fraser is that rare author who is lauded in the US and UK for both her scholarly work and her popular fiction. In addition to the biography of Mary Stuart, she has written, so far, a dozen books on both royal non-royal women in early modern England and France.

The biography of Mary Stuart was a revelation. I devoured that book. I was drawn to Mary, and not just the romantic drama of her life. Mary, in Fraser’s hands, grabbed me in a way no other historical figure had, at a time when I needed something hefty and erudite about a woman who simply defied expectations. I admit it, I relished the tempestuous drama and romance, but I loved the book’s hefty erudition. I was proud to read a serious book with endnotes and a bibliography and two genealogy tables, one in the front, one in the back. It did not contain paintings of pre-Raphaelite damsels—these were real portraits of people with imperfect noses. I wanted to know everything I could about her—her growing up and her marriages, of course, but also her tenacious fight for her crown and her life with her cousin Elizabeth I of England.

I didn’t know then that my search for answers about Mary would captivate my imagination and serve as the springboard for a PhD in medieval European history and teaching and research about women who never fail to fascinate me. I had no idea it would take me to Spain. When I think I’m done with a project, that I’ve gone as far as the sources will take me, I open another letter from a queen to her sister or an archbishop or a troublesome nobleman, and I’m once again caught up in the complex web of men, women, and power. No matter where I am—in an archive in Spain or the British Library—in my heart and head, I am in the Carnegie Library, with its dark cool stacks and the librarians who kept the catnip coming.