Who are the forgotten queens of 1066?
Joanna Courtney, author of the Queens of Conquest series, on why she wanted to capture the female experience of the often forgotten women in the English monarchy in 1066.
Women are something of a rarity in history – supposedly shy, domestic creatures, who peep out between the cracks of their husband's 'greater' deeds. However, anyone who has ever lived with a mother/sister/auntie/girlfriend/wife/daughter will know that very few women really stand quietly in the background of life and I see no reason why this would not have been every bit as true in the past as it is now.
Too many stories of historical women are lost to us and that is why I chose to write The Queens of the Conquest, about the women fighting to be Queen of England in 1066. Not that I don't like the men (I'm a little bit in love with all my heroes) but theirs are the grand stories everyone knows and I am more interested in capturing what happened behind the scenes of the battles.
Exploring the female side of a previous era allows access to those more intimate stories, but it is not without problems. The first is the lack of information about women in times past, especially further back. This isn't really prejudiced, simply that little was considered worth documenting unless it affected who owned land, property, goods or titles and that rarely included women.
This is a huge frustration for the historian but something of a gift for a novelist armed with an eager imagination, though it does create the second big problem in exploring female history – how we can truly get under the skin of these women? How can we know what they really thought when we have no access to the basic assumptions and attitudes that must have underpinned their approach to life? To me, it all comes down to the essentials of being human and of being female, essentials which surely have not changed that much?
This year we'll celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and in some ways 950 years is a long time, but in terms of the evolution of humanity, it's nothing and it's surely arrogant to assume that emotions are a modern invention? Saxons, Vikings and Normans would have loved their children, fought with their siblings, made and lost friends, laughed and cried, hurt and grieved, and fallen in love. These are all fertile ground for the novelist and hopefully, therefore, the reader.
I firmly believe that the women (and, indeed the men) of the eleventh century were similar to us in all the essentials of what it is to be human and they certainly didn't live from headline to headline. Battles, even in those times, were few and far between and in the intervening days people didn't just sit around waiting to be 'history'. For me, it's really important to think about those long hours, days and weeks of 'normal' life. The three heroines of my books were all educated young woman, brought up at the heart of powerful courts. They would have understood the problems facing their husbands and would be the logical people to talk them over with.
These were not women to underestimate, however little we may know about them, so who were they?
Edyth, the heroine of The Chosen Queen, was the only daughter of the powerful Earl of central England and became Queen of Wales at the age of 14. She reigned for 9 years and gave birth to 3 heirs before losing her husband to the English and returning to her homeland. Back there, still only 23, she was the only woman powerful enough to help Harold join North and South to make England strong enough to resist invaders. Edyth was carrying Harold's son when he died on Hastings field and had history been the turn of a sword different, she could have been the mother of a line of kings stretching who knows how far.
Elizaveta, the heroine of The Constant Queen, was a fiery and elegant Princess of Kiev. Born of royal Rus blood on her father's side and Scandinavian on her mother's, she was brought up to be a ruler. Having won the heart of Harald of Norway when he was exiled to her father's highly influential court, she was at his side both when he reclaimed his own country and when he set sail to conquer England. A woman of drive and energy, she fuelled her husband's ambitions and, with a network of sisters in all the royal courts of Europe, could have made England a highly cosmopolitan queen.
Finally, Matilda, the heroine of The Conqueror's Queen, was the eldest daughter of the politically canny Baldwin of Flanders and, with French royal blood flowing in her veins from her mother's side, was also raised for a high place in the world. Although initially unwilling to marry Duke William because of his bastardy, she soon recognised in the young ruler a fierce and proud ambition to match her own. Together they set out to master Normandy and, eventually, to conquer England, the country they'd been promised by King Edward. As a great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Alfred the Great, Matilda gave William a vital pedigree in his claim to the throne, but as his wife, she also gave him culture, stability and credibility to make him the viable ruler he became. The victory in 1066 was not just his, but theirs.
These women were rivals in 1066 and they were battling every bit as hard as the men, if not with swords then with the traditional women's weapons of words, influence and care. They may not have known each other but they did know that their own success would necessarily be at the expense of the others and so it eventually proved. By the end of 1066 there would be two exiled widows and one queen. Did the best woman win? You'll have to read my books to decide but I do hope that in doing so you can help recover a little of these amazing women who should not have been lost to history.