If the practical authority of English queens can be said to have declined since the twelfth century, then intercession had undergone a concomitant diminution in status. Where the Anglo-Norman queens had shared and participated in their husbands’ governments, the conciliar role of the consort since then had been reduced to one of supplication. The way intercession had lost its meaning through ritualisation, becoming a staged means of permitting a king to act in a ‘feminised’ manner – to change his mind or show mercy – without compromising his masculinity, has been traced here through Isabella of France’s intercession for the banishment of the Despensers in 1321 and Philippa of Hainault’s pleas for the citizens of Calais in 1347. The failure of Anne’s intercession for Simon Burley shows that as a device it now had no spontaneous power, but merely modified the perception of a decision that had already been taken.
Lisa Hilton concludes her survey of the English queens between the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the death of Elizabeth of York in the first years of the sixteenth century with an extended and rather meandering comparison of the portrayal of women in “Beowulf” with Thomas Malory’s version of Guinevere in “La Morte d’Arthur.” If you can wade through a discussion that is more exhausting than exhaustive, you reach a point that is rather more interesting and pertinent to the book as a whole.
One of the threads Hilton traces throughout the centuries she covers in the book is the political role and power of the queen. Early in her time frame, you find women like Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Boulogne, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, not to mention Isabella of France, known to some in history as the “She-Wolf of France.”
These women had political clout. Some led armies. Some governed lands as regents for their husbands or their sons. Some were reviled for it, like the Empress Matilda who was a contemporary and rival of Matilda of Boulogne, or like Isabella of France, who openly lived with her lover and led an invading army into England to depose her husband and replace him with her son.
That said, they weren’t completely independent beings. They and the kings they married ideally complemented each other as public beings. Sometimes they functioned in conjunction. Sometimes they opposed each other.
The queen’s role involved traditionally female roles. They endowed religious institutions, were patrons of artists, authors, and musicians, and did their best, by the day’s standards, to ensure their children had the best of the best. One of their greatest powers was as intercessor with the king. They could plead with him to pardon wrongdoers and there was no shame in his commuting sentences.
Somewhere along the line, though, the role of the queen begins to diminish in actual, everyday political power. The true intercessory power began to diminish. Instead, it became a piece of political theater. The petition for pardon was staged to present a decision already made as not weakness in the king, but chivalric and magnanimous behavior to please a woman.
Unlike her predecessors, whose names show up on charters and other legal documents, Elizabeth of York seems like a very home-and-hearth kind of queen. That’s of course a vast oversimplification, but Lisa Hilton puts it better – the queen, when anointed, became an extension of the king, an extension of his royal body. As such, over the reigns, she became more and more subject to his will and his interpretation of what she was expected to be.
Hilton’s conclusion goes into this development at some length, but ends with an interesting observation. With all this diminution of queenly power, for all of Elizabeth of York’s seemingly passive existence as queen, it is important to remember that she was the grandmother of England’s first two queens regnant, including her forceful, astute, and very powerful namesake, Elizabeth I.
Next Up: She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, by Helen Castor