Princesses in the Middle Ages

The life of medieval princesses is somewhat romanticized in contemporary thought giving the impression of fairy tales and castles.  However, the women of the Middle Ages who became princesses and queens had complex lives filled with politics, public opinion, and societal pressures.

The Middle Ages were a time very much dominated by men, but a number of women were able to rise to prominence.  Women were typically resigned to the background – in most cases they could not ascend to the thrown in a reigning capacity and must be considered Queen Consort, and their lives were dominated by the men in their family (primarily fathers and husbands).

Political and Cultural Roles

Princesses, or daughters of other suitably high-ranking nobles, were used as political pawns to gain power and forge alliances.  From childhood many girls were promised to kings, and many marriages occurred before the princess reached her teenage years.  The young women were uprooted from their home and sent throughout Europe to be married, often never to see their home kingdom again.

Marriages were the ultimate political alliances as they were seen to be permanent (divorce was not acceptable in the Middle Ages) and children created from the union become heirs to two kingdoms.  As such, the primary purpose of a princess or young queen was to produce an heir, more specifically, a male heir.  Daughters were valuable for forging other alliances, but it was the male heir, who could ascend to the throne after his father, that was most desired.  Once an heir was born, it was also the rule of the mother to rear the child to be a ruler and forever championing his cause.

Despite living materially privileged lives at court, princesses and queens held tremendous responsibility and faced many challenges.  Many courts distrusted foreigners, believing them to be unfaithful to their new kingdom and role, which made it difficult for a new queen or princess to hold much power or respect.  Also, it was highly common and even acceptable for men to take mistresses, but women were not allowed the same privilege.  It was an enduring challenge for many monarchs to face the infidelity of their husband and continue to command respect.

Notable Middle Ages Princesses

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine
Rezo1515 / CC BY-SA

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) became Queen of England in 1152 upon marrying King Henry II.  Despite an initially pleasant marriage, Eleanor became disenchanted with her husband and changed her loyalty to her sons, the future King Richard I and King John.  She encouraged her sons to rebel against Henry II resulting in her imprisonment for sixteen years.   Despite the troublesome politics, Eleanor was a renowned patron of music and the arts who frequently employed highly-respected troubadours.

The life of Queen Berengaria of Navarre was strongly influenced by Eleanor of Aquitaine, who arranged the marriage of the Basque princess to her son Richard I the Lionheart.  As Richard was en route to the Holy Land to fight in the Third Crusade, Berengaria was sent to Sicily to be married.  The marriage was neither happy nor productive as no heir was produced.  Richard died in 1199 and Berengaria had never been to England, of which she was queen.  She resided in France for the rest of her life eventually becoming Dame of Le Mans as appointed by King Philip of France.  She was a firm ruler and surprised the clergy who wanted to take advantage of having a woman in charge.

Some princesses and queens, such as Isabelle of Angouleme, were just as power-hungry as their husbands and fathers.  Isabelle (1187-1246) married King John despite having been promised to a French count.  After John’s death Isabelle marries Hugh de Lusignan, the son of the count to whom she was originally betrothed.  The ambitious queen plots to rebel against King Philip of France, and when this is unsuccessful plans to poison him, which also fails.  As a result of her unpopularity and failed plots, Isabelle retires to an abbey where she eventually died.

Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290) married King Edward I to become Queen Consort of England.  She played a very active political role in the English court, and from 1270-1273 accompanied her husband on a Crusade.  It is said of Eleanor of Castile that she was a voice of reason for Edward, who was known to be temperamental.

Queen Constance of Germany and Sicily was the daughter of King Roger II of Sicily.  At the age of 32 she married 21 year-old Henry VI of Germany, son of the current Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbossa.  Constance was a dutiful queen but never became attached to Germany and struggled to produce an heir.  At the age of 40 she became pregnant after being nicknamed the ‘Barren Queen.’  When her cousin William II died, Constance became heir to the throne of Sicily and eventually gave up her German crown.  After Henry’s death, Constance and her son Frederick reigned in Sicily.

Queen Joanna of England was the daughter of King Henry II of England and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.  She was married to King William II of Sicily and had a happy marriage, though without producing any heirs.  After William’s death, political upheaval occurred in Sicily and Joanna was essentially kept prisoner in  a palace without any of the inheritance due to her.

Richard the Lionheart of England, her elder brother, came to her aid and asked her to be a companion to Berengaria of Navarre, his new wife, during the Crusade.  Upon returning to France, Joanna married Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, though this proved an unhappy and tumultuous marriage resulting in her flight to Fontevraud Abbey, where she soon died.

Queen Ingeborg of Denmark was Queen of France from 1213-1223 though she married King Philip Augustus in 1193.  The night of her marriage Ingeborg was rejected by her new husband, and the reason for this rejection have been cause for speculation throughout history.  She fought to maintain the marriage and with the help of two Popes prevented an annulment.  Philip married Agnes of Meran, but after her death allowed Ingeborg the title of Queen, even though they did not live together.

The princesses and queens chronicled above grant insight into the trials and tribulations of being a medieval woman.  Though some of these women conformed to the expectation of passivity, many royal women displayed great strength of character, bravery, and determination.

Other notable Middle Ages princesses include:

  • Matilda of Flanders
  • Good Queen Maude
  • Queen Matilda
  • Queen Matilda of Boulogne
  • Eleanor of Provence
  • Isabella of France
  • Philippa of Hainault
  • Catherine of Valois
  • Margaret of Anjou
  • Elizabeth Woodville
  • Anne Neville

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