The ancient fairy-tales speak very often of princesses locked in towers for decades, waiting for a knight to come and rescue them, and where the final prize for the heroic quest is the salvation of the dame and a passionate love at first sight between the two. History has taught us that girls, as well as boys, were extremely useful in order to arrange marriages. In reality, the medieval women were way different from the stereotype that arrived to us through the tales and legends we grew up with. To better understand what the average lifestyle was like, we will be analysing the chronicles of the 5 daughters of Edward I (1239 – 1307) and Eleanor of Castile (1241 – 1290), Sovereign of England from 1272 to their death.
Below: the Family Tree of Edward I
1 – Princesses could be in charge of a castle
In 1293, Eleanor, oldest daughter of Edward, married Henry, sovereign of the small region of Bar, current Northern France. Four years after, Henry was battling nearby Lille when he got captured from the hostile French forces and kept prisoner in Paris. With the husband far away, the responsibility to protect the countship passed on to Eleanor, whom was not intimidated by the task.
Below: Eleanor from the Family Tree of Edward I
Like the writer Christine de Pisan from the 14th century, a princess was supposed to “know how to use weapons in order to be ready to take over and rule her men in case of necessity”. Eleanor ordered to the men of Henry’s army to protect the castle of Bar, wrote to her father and other allies for raising funds for the ransom of the husband and managed to safeguard her small children’s legacy. After the crucial battle of Evesham, where husband and first son got killed, the princess kept on fighting, succeeding in sending the younger children abroad thanks to the access that the fortress had to the coast.
2 – In Middle Ages princesses could marry for love
Joan of Arc, second daughter survived of Edward I, got married in her 18’s with a very much older man: Gilbert de Clare, a rich 46 years old landowner from the realm of her father. When the man died, 5 years afterwards, the widow found herself in an advantaged position. Still young, fertile and mother of 4 children, she was in possess of some of the most precious properties that England could boast. The princess was a highly craved woman, wife longed for by many sovereigns in Europe.
However Joan, while still married, had deeply fallen in love with a young man, the squire Ralph de Monthermer. Determined to not split from her lover, the two got married in secret, violating the vow of homage that she was supposed to make towards her father. The rich widow in possess of lands coming from their ex husband, needed a permit from the king in case of a new union; this because the new husband would have resulted enriched and more powerful through the control of the new acquired properties. The king was enraged but he eventually forgave the daughter, who managed to keep her properties and reign alongside with the man that she loved.
3 – They could read and write
At the beginning of the 14th century, Mary of Woodstock from the Plantagenet dynasty and fourth daughter of Edward I, commissioned a book narrating the events of her father’s kingdom. The tale was written in the Anglo-Norman-French dialect that Mary was speaking, detail which suggests she wanted to read the book as well. The literacy teaching in the Medieval England could indicate the ease that reading Latin would require (almost no one apart from priests, some nuns and an even a lower number of laic people were able to comprehend). However Mary wasn’t the only one enjoying the pleasure of books; in the family, both Marian and her sisters were taught how to read by her mother Eleanor of Castile.
Below: Mary of Woodstock with the nun’s veil on
They knew enough Latin to be able to recite the prayers, they had learned how to play instruments and organise reading books with other devout women. Much more rare of reading was the ability of writing (Charlemagne was able to read 4 languages but unable to write them). This difference between reading and writing was due to the complexity of finding parchment, extremely pricey for many centuries. However the older sister of Mary, Eleanor, was used to practicing the writing during the late period of her adolescence.
4 – They used to travel continuously
Intrigues and tragedies led Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, last daughter of Edward I, to become a widow at the age of 18. The princess went to England in the summer of 1300. In the desperate need of seeing her father, Elizabeth travelled through the Netherland, London and then all the way to Carlisle, where her and the king got reunited. This trip, today possible within a few hours, took a total of 2 months to the noble woman. Elizabeth though, as well as her sisters, was used to long distances thanks to a lifetime of roaming around.
Below: Elizabeth of Rhuddlan
The English Court in 1300 was not a static organ but in a constant pilgrimage. It used to stop in great palaces and appeared more as an itinerant fancy caravan than a reference system. King, Queen and their issue used to move along with their knights, servants and ladies-in-waiting in massive convoyes of horses and carriages. Often they would stop by for a night or two in castles spread across the country, in order to show to their subjects their presence on the whole territory.
5 – They could build castles
Below: Margaret with her husband John II in the Grand Place of Brussells. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 3.0
Not much time after having reached the court of her husband in Brussels at the end of 1290, the third Edward’s daughter who survived, Margaret had the necessity to build a solid base for a serene existence. Her husband, John II Duke of Brabant, had several lovers and a libertine conduct of the public affairs which was threatening the serenity of the princess. Margaret needed a place where to feel helself safe, far from the influences of husband and lovers. None of the ducal residences were big enough so the princess decided to build her own estate in Tervuren, Belgium. The castle was created in such a magnificent manner that it became the official palace of the Brabant Dukes from the 14th to the 15th century.
6 – The princesses could gamble
In the summer of 1306, Mary of Waltham started a pilgrimage, funded by the father, to head to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Walsingham. Despite the princess was a nun since the age of six, this was not a trip of ascetic contemplation. In a month time, while the convoy was moving from Northampton to Walsingham, Mary and her companions were entertained by minstrels, were eating great quantities of game and threw various royal feasts.
The cost for this pastime was higher than the one required to cover a knight and his favour for a year
During that trip of one month, Mary wrote 3 times to her father asking for huge sums of money. The nun used to love gold ( she owed lots of money to the jewellers of London), but her biggest vice was gambling. The Medieval aristocrats used to play with chess and dices and many, likewise Mary, rose enormous debts. Not many people had the assets of the King of England’s chest, though.
7 – They could challenge the King
Joan of Arc had never feared her father. When she was young she used to argue with the court officials and she asked to have more servants when she realised to have less ones than her sisters, risking to look less important. When she was adult she remarried against the desires and vow of homage of her father as well as she did not settle the debts with him.
Her biggest insult to the authority occured in July 1305 when Edward I seized the properties and incomes of his 16th son, future Edward II, to rebuke him for his behaviour and favouritism towards Piers Gaveston.
Giovanna sent her own seal to her brother, ordering to pay anything he would have wanted to
Below: painting by Marc Stone, scene of Edward II and Gaveston
The gesture appeared as a direct offence to her father, attitude which would have not been tolerated by many kings on the part of a female daughter. The King Edward was used to the over the top attitude of the daughter and once prince Edward was punished, they simply gave back the seal to her sister and forgave the episode. Edward II and Gaveston kept on enjoying each other’s company up until the death of the prince, happened at the hands of the rival Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster.