Eleanor of Aquitaine: Why we shouldn’t forget the medieval era when searching for our most powerful queens.

On the 9th September, Queen Elizabeth II surpassed Queen Victoria as the longest reigning British monarch. Journalists marked the event with comparisons between the two queens [1], whilst some historians chose to look back to the Tudor queens of England; Mary and Elizabeth [2]. Both Victoria and Elizabeth I expanded Britain’s oversea territories, were patrons of the arts, and successfully ruled without a husband over shadowing them. It is understandable such large characters dominate our historical view when we search for the strong female leaders of our past. However, our focus on these women, mean that powerful medieval queens often get forgotten. I am not attempting to say that they had any equal power to that of the more modern Queens – medieval queens were undeniably second to the king.


Dispelling a myth

Medieval queens were also not the weak and submissive figures they sometimes come across as. Such an image is often more down to literature than fact. In Beowulf, for example, most of the women are written as barely anything more than a sexual subordinate or “peace-weaver”, withdrawn from the male world of governing [3]. Yet this was not the case for most medieval queens. Whilst it is true they were often married off by their fathers or brothers to create political alliances, the woman did also have a say in her future husband. Some queens were the driving force behind their marriage. Matilda of Scotland, who married Henry I of England, initiated the proposal by writing letters directly to Henry expressing her interest in him [4]. Providing an heir, or indeed multiple possible heirs, was of course one of the main expectations. But this does not mean queens were expected to stay in the bedroom, and in fact their sexual relationship with the king was seen as a political threat by many chroniclers. Not only did sharing a bed with the king mean a queen had special access to him, but a threat to her sexual purity was a threat to the security of an heir. Let us also not forget, a mother also had a special influence over her children, so even when her husband died she still influenced kings until her own death [5].

The medieval era is awash in examples of strong and driven queens. Matilda “The Empress” started a civil war in order to obtain the throne she believed rightfully belonged to her, and her son Henry II; Isabella of France, wife of Edward II helped plan his removal and murder; and Elizabeth Woodville, widow and wife of Edward IV, exercised vast amounts of power to get her family into favourable positions in court. However, there is one medieval queen who comes as close to the type of queenship Elizabeth I exercised during her reign as possible. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right after the death of her brother in 1130, Queen of France from 1137 – 1152, Queen of England 1154 – 1189, and mother of both Richard and John under who she enjoyed the privileges reserved for a kings wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of Britain’s most powerful queens.




eleanorisbaeEleanor and her husbands

Eleanor was betrothed to Louis VII when she was 13 years of age, and at 15 the pair married. By most accounts her first husband was besotted with his new queen, yet Eleanor was by similar reports constantly unhappy. Her unhappiness could have been down to any numerous reasons; she was constantly failing in her task to give Louis and France an heir to the throne, and when she did finally fall pregnant it was with a girl, Marie. Another reason may have been the crusades her husband took her on between 1147 – 9, which opened her eyes to a larger world and more potentials. Whichever the reason, for we can only speculate, it was Eleanor who is said to have first brought up the idea of divorce whilst on the tour of the east. By 1152, after the birth of yet another girl, the pair finally divorced. During her time with Louis, Eleanor exhibited very few royal powers. It was actually with their separation we see Eleanor emerge as the strong, determined woman history remembers her as [6].

Demanding Aquitaine back, Eleanor set about asserting her authority as duchess by issuing a serious of traditional charters securing religious rights for the abbeys of Saint – Jean de Montierneuf, Fontevraud and Saint – Maixent. Not only did this endear her to the church and people as a pious ruler, but by issuing the writs her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, she reiterated to many her hereditary and undeniable right to the land. What her charters as duchess of Aquitaine also show is the powerful lords who supported her, including Briand Chabot and Hervey le Panetier [7].

assholeWhen Eleanor married Henry her it looked as though her power was diminished; the lords who witnessed her charters soon bent the knee and paid homage to their new lord. Elizabeth Brown argues of the couple’s marriage was founded on a mutual love of power, and that Eleanor somehow hoped to dominate the man who was 9 years her junior. Their relationship produced 8 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood, rebellions and finally resulted in Eleanor’s imprisonment at the hands of her husband. Whether Brown is right for the reasons of their union, the couple clearly fought for power constantly. From 1154 – 1163, Eleanor ruled as regent of England whilst Henry was securing his French lands, and from 1163 – 1168, she went back to rule Aquitaine. Henry’s reasoning here is unknown, but the coincidence of sending his domineering wife away at the same time his similarly power hungry mother died, suggests he wanted to rid himself of troublesome women. Whilst there is evidence Eleanor as regent witnessed and signed charters, it was a very limited and concerned mostly religious privileges. Ironically, in trying to free himself from Eleanor, by sending her to Aquitaine he gave her the freedom to exercise more power. Not only did the frequency of charters increase, but only 1/3rd of our surviving records show she even recognised Henry as lord. Furthermore, she appears to have held her own separate court, receiving honoured guests such as King Alphonso II of Aragon and King Sancho VI of Navarre, with whom she discussed wars and borders. By 1172 her writs addressed the people as “her followers” and she was undisputedly the ruler of Aquitaine, even when Richard was made duke.


eleanorMother of Kings

Even before Richard and John became kings, Eleanor was manipulating her children for her political needs. The rebellions fought between all four of her then living sons (Young Henry, Geoffrey of Brittany, Richard and John), against Henry II were all fought for autonomy in ruling pieces of Henry’s French lands. Whilst it is unsure whether Eleanor was the driving force behind the rebellions, the alignment of their interests and her encouragement of the situation was a constant thorn in Henry’s side.

Under Richard’s kingship, Eleanor again became regent of England and this time with more power. She released prisoners, settled disputes between religious figures and Richards magnates, and was present as great councils – including the discussion of Richard’s crusade. Eleanor’s biggest achievement as regent was her reaction to the threat of John usurping Richard as king. Not only did Eleanor, now of 70 years old, face her youngest son and stop him securing a French alliance with King Phillip, but made battle preparations by fortifying the beaches encase of a French invasion. As Ralph Turner comments in his article, her actions were very masculine in her military dealings with her sons. Her military prowess did not end with her England regency, for when John rose to take the throne she had a crucial part in defending castles and negotiating political alliances [8].


Lord and Lady

G. Richardson and G. O. Sayle in their The Governance of Medieval England rightly declare Eleanor was “cursed by fate in being born a woman” [9]. Whilst she did not obtain the luxury of ruling alone as Elizabeth I and Victoria did, Eleanor ruled for most of her life autonomously in all but name. The legends that now surround Eleanor about her sexual appetite and her ‘devils blood’ stem from the fear she created in contemporaries at just how much power she could and did exercise over the Angevin kings [10]. Eleanor, Queen of France, England and Duchess of Aquitaine, who wrote charters like any other male monarch, thought with starling military finesse and negotiated politics with kings of Europe in her own court, should definitely not be forgotten when discussing our most powerful female monarchs.

Originally posted on The York Historian




  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34112486
  2. http://www.historytoday.com/helen-castor/elizabeth-i-exception-rule


  1. Beowulf, translated by Chauncey Brewster Tinker, (Newson: Newburgh), 1902.
  2. Louis Huneycutt, “Alianora regina anglocum: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Anglo-Norman predecessors as Queens of England”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
  3. Elizabeth Brown, “Eleanor of Aquitaine reconsidered”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
  4. Marie Hivergneaux, “Queen Eleanor and Aquitaine 1137 – 1189”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
  5. Ralph Turner, “Eleanor of Aquitaine in the governments of her sons Richard and John”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
  6. G. Richardson and G. O. Sayle, The Governance of Medieval England, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 1963.
  7. Peggy McCracken, “Scandalizing desire: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the chroniclers”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.

I Need a Hero: Why Medieval England Needed Robin Hood

A man in tights, a thief and a fox; Robin Hood has been presented in many different ways. To us, today, he is a legend who most will place within the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the evil King John, who fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and fell in love with the beautiful Maid Marian. However, the story has not always been the fairy tale we know it as today. The first mentions of the outlaw hero appear in the fourteenth century, when an outraged monk recorded several men repeatedly missing mass to listen to stories of Robin Hood and other outlaws such as William of Cloudesley, who was an English version of the famous Swedish archer William Tell. Whilst these stories were orally told and were told to a wide audience, from peasants to courtiers, work by Dobson has uncovered that the most popular audience for these stories was likely to be a middling class of townspeople. The main case for Dobson and other historians who support the claim rests on the word ‘yeoman’ which crops up repeatedly in the tales of outlaws. Yeomen were not only given important protection by outlaws and received help by them, but they themselves were a special type of yeoman; a forester. Why exactly did the middling rank of most societies suddenly find themselves in need of a hero who lived in the forest, robbed and murdered?

heroUnjust laws

By turning a criminal into a hero, what the audience does is condone their actions, even if they are questionable at times. For example, in the story of William of Cloudesley, the outlaws murder ‘thre hundred men and mo’ during their daring escape. Instead of the story being disapproving of their actions, the criminals are rewarded with not only a pardon from the king, but positions of power. What allows them to move from criminals to powerful men, is their outlaw status. People were most often punished with outlawry because of their failure to turn up to court. Failure to turn up to court was often a deliberate decision by the defendant because they believed the crime they were accused of was unjust or because they knew they would be unable to win their case. During the late fourteenth century, many had chosen the life of an outlaw over being imprisoned for breaking the Statute of Labourers which had tried to limit wages for the benefits of the elite. This feeling of dissatisfaction towards laws which were in place only for a privileged few comes across in Cloudesley’s story. Accused of killing a deer, instead of facing condemnation, he is lamented as a ‘false thefe’. Outlaws not only come across as victims because they are being hanged or imprisoned for a crime many saw as being unjust. Outlaws were seen as heroes because by denying the elite a chance to punish them for daring to step above their station, they undermined the unfair laws, and the elite’s control. By choosing the life of an outlaw they in the most powerful way showed their dissatisfaction with the law because they would rather live outside of society rather than live in an unjust society.

Utopian Dreams

The new society the outlaws create for themselves is a wonderful fantasy that highlights their desires. Much like The Land of Cockaygne, and other utopian literature, the outlaws who live in th
e forest have an abundance of food ‘swannes and fessauntes they had full gode’. When this poem is recorded as becoming increasingly popular, the Black Death in England was at its peak. Food had been scarce before the plague had hit England, with a large boom in the human population and several bad harvest’s. Cities in particular were struggling to bring in enough food from the countryside to feed the population, and what little was brought in was being served to the rich for their extravagant banquets. The death of half the population did not ease the situation until a few years after the Black Death due to the fact that the disease also killed off farmers. Robin Hood’s land where food could be hunted, and shared with those who had nothing, was the wish of the hungry people. The forest itself was also a very familiar symbol in utopian literature of freedom and nostalgia. Other poems from the era which spoke of forests claimed they were peaceful and covered most of England. The forest was an escape for many of society – the wars, the plague, economic crisis. Having Robin Hood living in a forest society, the people are conjuring their dream society which is peaceful, full of food, but it is also just. The people Robin Hood judges at his table are all from the elite section of society; a knight, a sheriff and a monk. However, unlike the officials in the audience’s world who use the system to maintain the social hierarchy, Robin judges his guests on their crime and their crime alone; the Knight for example is actually helped by Robin. A fair justice system to these people was as important as food and peace.

picA corrupt elite

The portrayal of the officials in the outlaw hero stories shows a deep dissatisfaction with those who had the most contact with our middle class audience; clergy and sheriffs. In Robin Hood’s The Gest the corrupt Abbot of St Mary’s abbey is made a fool of by the Knight. Whilst the audience knew the Knight had the money to take back his lands, he begs for more time which the Abbot refuses. Turning then to the Sheriff for help, he finds him bribed by the Abbot. This story is a negative commentary on what was happening at the time. Sheriffs and other justice officials took many bribes during court proceedings that would guarantee whoever could pay more would get the outcome they desired. Just like in the story, the Knight who is meant to represent the poor at this stage, as that is what they believe him to be, the Justice does not care about a fair system so long as they profit from it. In Cloudesley’s story, the Sheriff is so concerned with punishing William for breaking an elite law that he sets fire to a house with innocent women and children in it. He appears barbaric and uncaring as long as he gets the outcome he wants, which in this case is William’s capture. Clearly the officials in these stories are the villains: corrupted, aggressive and selfish. This in itself is evidence that the stories were used to show the audience’s dissatisfaction with the elites they came in contact with. Furthermore, by casting them into the position of villains, they make the outlaws the heroes. As heroes their actions are all justified, even when Cloudesley and his companions kill all the officials of their town. Justified violence towards corrupt officials was seen during the Peasants Revolt when the Archbishop of Canterbury and Robert Hales were executed on Tower Hill, where traitors to the crown were sentenced. In a way, by having heroes celebrated in the outlaw stories for acts of violence against officials, the audience is also celebrating those who acted violently against similar figures during the Revolt. That violence was being celebrated even in the stories shows how deeply the people felt a dissatisfaction with the justice system.

We all love an underdog

Robin Hood was the first in a long tradition of people favouring the underdog, or criminal. Highwaymen, bandits and gangsters have joined the man in green tights as a stranger living outside of society in order to judge and correct it. Reflections of outlaw stories like this one provide us with a good insight into the problems in each outlaw hero’s society, and the desires of those reading their tales.

Originally posted on The York Historian



Primary Sources:

“Medieval Sourcebook: Anonimalle Chronicle: English Peasants revolt 1381”, Accessed 8/05/2015, http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/anon1381.asp.

Knight, Stephen Thomas, and Thomas H. Ohlgren, “A Gest of Robyn Hode.” In Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. (Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications), 1997.

Knight, Stephen Thomas, and Thomas H. Ohlgren, “Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough and William Cloudesley.” In Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. (Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications), 1997.

The Land of Cockaygne – Wessex Parallel Web Texts, Accessed 8/05/2015, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~wpwt/trans/cockaygn/cockaygn.htm

Secondary Sources:

Dobson, R. B, The Peasants Revolt of 1381, (London: Macmillan), 1983.

Dobson, R. B. and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robin Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing), 1925.

Musson, Anthony, Medieval Law in context: The growth of the legal consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants Revolt, (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 2001.

Pollard, A. J, “Idealising criminality: Robin Hood in the fifteenth century”, in Pragmatic utopias: ideals and communities, 1200-1630 ed. Rosemary Horrox, pp.156- 174, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2001.

Spraggs, Gillian, Outlaws and Highwaymen the cult of the robber in England from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, (London: Pimlico), 2001.

More than just a Mob: The Peasants Revolt

The Peasants Revolt took place from the 13th – 15th June 1381 when rebels stormed the city of London. The mobs attack as recorded by chroniclers was mindless and animalistic, targeting people, prisons and property [1]. The most horrific attacks recorded were those on John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace [2], and the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury who was dragged from the Tower of London to be executed on Tower Hill [3]. The revolt was finally suppressed after the death of one of the rebel leaders, Wat Tyler, and Richard II promised no harm would come to the rebels if they went home. Despite the name given to the revolt, the majority of the mob were townspeople, the leaders often held official positions such as bailiffs, jurors and constables [4]. Looking at other writs, records and the laws before the Revolt it appears it was in part motivated by the justice system.

abchis723Access to the Justice System

The justice system is what people had to go through to deal with legal issues; from obtaining a lawyer to the judge’s final decision. When marching through London the rebels demanded the death of every lawyer and at times physically assaulted them [5]. These actions committed collectively by the mass suggest there was a wide range of resentment for the figures who were expected to bring justice to every person in society. If the rebel’s motive was a feeling the people who were meant to give justice were failing, it makes sense they marched to London to demand it from the king who was portrayed as the figurehead of justice. Overall, what is implied through their actions is that the justice system was not working for them. If it was not accessible to the lower classes it would be logical to assume to get justice was expensive or that it was hard to find a lawyer. However, after examining the systems structure, it becomes apparent it was easy to access. Lawyers frequently travelled the country so it would not be beyond the people’s power to ask for legal advice or find an attorney. In terms of cost large subsidies were made for those who begged poverty – some lawyers even accepted payment in material forms such as butter [6]. On the other hand in literature such as Piers Ploughman by William Langland [7] the feeling of a failing system comes across again. In Langland’s poem it is the judge who becomes corrupt by accepting Lady Meed’s bribe so the outcome is in her favour. Corruption of the judges through money was a problem that spanned most of the Middle Ages. It was not however, just a problem that concerned the lowest levels of society. Legislation was introduced in an attempt to stop corruption such as the 19 articles introduced in 1246 that focused on the punishment of sheriffs who tried to create lawsuits to better themselves, and officials who took bribes from both parties [8]. Given that the justice system was easy for every class to access and that the length of time corruption had been a problem, with many steps taken to limit how often it actually affected court proceedings, it seems doubtable it was the system of justice itself that had been the main motivation of the rebels in 1381.

peasants-revolt-wat-tylerUnjust legislation

It seems more probable that the revolt was linked to a change that had occurred closer to the date it took place. The Statute of Labourers was introduced in 1351 and sought during the turbulent times of the Black Death to regulate the increasing wages of labourers and punish those who tried to run from their masters. It was people prosecuted by laws like this one who were sprung from the prisons of London during the revolt. Robert Belling, a prisoner in Fleet prison was incarcerated for failing to pay an enfranchisement fine due to poverty [9]. Legislation such as this was clearly seen as unjust, not only from the fact the rebels released men accused of seeking a better wage, but also many who were accused of the crime fled to the forests and lived as an outlaw [10].  Living as an outlaw was seen by many as a protest against the law itself; if the law was not going to protect the people it was better to live outside of it [11]. Coupled with the hints from chroniclers, the ballads of such outlaw heroes like Robin Hood were being spread around this time; it also seems reasonable to assume those who stayed inside the law held sympathy with the men who chose such a life [12]. Whilst it could be argued that it was the judges and therefore the justice system itself that was corrupt, as was proven in the previous section, corruption of judges had been punished severely for years. If anything the amount of people brought to court for disobeying the law showed a continued efficiency with the system. By having an unfair law that oppressed the people, the justice system, as it was used to implement the law, by association became something that too was seen as unjust. It also explains why the rebels called not just for the death of lawyers but for the writers of law. Their targets too were not parish lawyers but the highest-ranking officials in government or in other words, the men who would have had a hand in making such laws. Given the timing of such laws which clearly aggravated the people combined with the type of target the rebels went after, it appears the rebels too were more motivated by what they felt were unfair and oppressive laws.

jean_froissart_chroniques_154v_12148_btv1b8438605hf336_cropA system for the rich

The Statue of Labourers limited not only people’s wages but also their right to move around, making them something akin to serfs. Considering only a minority of the rebels can be confirmed as being ‘serfs of blood’ [13], it seems likely that the rebels felt themselves being reduced to the status of serfs through the law and that this was their reason for their cry to end serfdom. For the men of Kent, a county which had no serfdom, they probably found the extortionate poll tax an oppressive measure of the rich to get richer. Under the laws implemented during the era preceding the revolt there was a crushing of the lower levels by the rich, caused in part by the increased opportunity for social mobility the Black Death had created. The motivation of fighting against oppressive measures also helps in part to explain those above peasant status who joined in in the rebellion. For example, in Cambridge it was the bourgeoisie who used the peasants in order to over throw the current ruling elites to establish themselves in a position of power [14]. Similarly in York, the rebellion that broke out close on the heels of the revolt in London, seemed to have been fuelled by a struggle for power between the council of the town and the merchants [15]. The case of York is particularly important as the city in the North, it was seen to represent nationwide concerns much like London did [16]. It therefore seems a little more than a coincidence that, whilst in London, it was the ‘peasants’ who tried to over throw those seeking to oppress the people, in York it was the merchant class who were feeling the pinch of the elitist circle prior to the peasants revolt. It would appear that the feeling the upper classes were over stepping their right to power by the ruthless crushing of all those under them was upsetting more than just the peasant class. For this reason it should be considered another of the motivations that drove the rebels to revolt in 1381.


The masses of men who stormed the city gates of London in the hot summer of 1381 were not an unintelligent mob of angry peasants. The controlled burning of legal documents in communal areas and the executions on tower hill showed conviction and carried a message. The justice system, which had been surprisingly accessible to all tiers of society, was becoming a tool for the elite to oppress the people. Whilst other factors such as the Hundred Years War and the Poll Tax also added to the passion of the Revolt and should not be ignored, the mobs actions indicate a strong grievance with the justice system that is often over looked when examining this event.

Originally posted on The York Historian



  1. “The Rebels in London according to Anonimalle Chronicle” in The Peasants Revolt of 1381 2nd edition, RB Dobson, pp. 155 – 67 (Hampshire: The Macmillan Press), 1983.
  2. “The Rebels in London according to Henry Knighton” in The Peasants Revolt of 1381 2nd edition, RB Dobson, pp. 181-6 (Hampshire: The Macmillan Press), 1983.
  3. “The Rebels in London according to Thomas Walsingham” in The Peasants Revolt of 1381 2nd edition, RB Dobson, pp. 168 – 80 (Hampshire: The Macmillan Press), 1983.
  4. Christian Dyer, “Social and Economic background to the Revolt of 1381”, in The English Rising of 1381 ed. R.H. Hilton and T.H. Aston, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1984, p.15.
  5. “The Rebels in London according to Thomas Walsingham”, p. 177.
  6. Anthony Musson, Medieval Law in context: the growth of legal consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants Revolt, (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 2001, p. 165.
  7. William Langland, Piers the Ploughman, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books), 1966.
  8. Dobson, The Peasants Revolt of 1381 2nd edition, (Hampshire: The Macmillan Press), 1983, p.74.
  9. John R. Ridge, Joaquin Murieta, (Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press), 2013, p. xx
  10. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rhymes of Robin Hood: An introduction to the English outlaw, Rev. ed. Stroud, (Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub), 1997, p.2.
  11. M. Ormrod, “The Peasants’ Revolt and the Government of England” in Journal of British Studies Vol. 29 pp. 1-30, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1990, p. 16.
  12. Christian Dyer, “Social and Economic background to the Revolt of 1381”, p.15.
  13. Rodney Hilton, Class conflict and the crisis of feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History, (Kings Lynn, Biddles Ltd.), 1990, p. 144.
  14. Christian D. Liddy, “Urban Conflict in Late Fourteenth-Century England: The Case of York in 1380-1” in The English Historical Review 118, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2003, p. 6.
  15. Liddy, p.15.