How do we define "influential" when most medieval women merged into the shadows behind their more powerful husbands or fathers. Or into the anonymity of a convent. Women are frequently silent until released from their male dominated world - but then they are capable of speaking out with strong voices, to our great delight. But readers and writers of medieval history are unlikely to agree on who might head the list. For good or ill, here is my choice, and the reason why I might consider these women, remarkable in their separate ways, to be influential. Some I have written about; one I have not; and one lurks on my horizon for a major role in a future historical novel.
1. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1102 - 1204)
Here is a fine example of a woman who held the reins of political power in Aquitaine in her own right, through birth and inheritance, and who wielded it with enthusiasm. Why was she influential in England? Because her determination to end her marriage to King Louis VI of France and seek a stronger sword-arm in the person of Henry of Anjou, to help her protect her Aquitainian territories, helped to create Henry's mighty Angevin Empire on both sides of the English Channel when the dynamic pair became King and Queen of England in 1154. My novel Devil's Consort tells the story of Eleanor's adventurous early life until she became Queen at Henry's side. It has to be said that, after a brisk beginning, Eleanor's influence was not always for the good. Her support of her sons in rebellion against Henry in later years was detrimental to the peace and unity of the empire, but Eleanor must not be overlooked in a list such as this.
2. Katherine Swynford (1350 - 1403)
From a minor knightly family, Katherine could lay claim to no political power, nor did she have had any ambition to wield it, even when her lover of many years, John of Gaunt, married her and made her Duchess of Lancaster in 1396. As a woman who broke every moral rule in the book when mistress to the Duke, it could be argued that Katherine should not be considered influential, although she was responsible for the education of the Lancaster daughters. But this was not the area of Katherine's influence. Katherine's strength lay in her children with the Duke of Lancaster, children who, when officially legitimised, helped to change the course of history. Through the marriages of two of these Beaufort children - John and Joan - the royal Plantagenet blood of John of Gaunt passed to the House of York, the Scottish Stuarts and of course to the House of Tudor. In later centuries, five presidents of America claimed descent from Katherine Swynford. A remarkable legacy. Katherine made a notable appearance in my novel as The Scandalous Duchess.
3. Julian of Norwich (1342 - 1416)
Julian was a nun and anchoress and mystic, who, shut away from the world, was a woman who influenced the lives of others by her experiences and writings. I have never written about her, nor will I, but living in the troubled years of the late 14th century, her life overlapped those of many of my protagonists. They would have known of her and the power of her intellect. Julian is important for the Revelations of Divine Love in which she reflected on sixteen visions of the crucified Christ which she received in 1373 when she lay close to death. To our enduring gratitude Julian lived, and this work has survived. We know nothing of her origins before taking up the religious life, but her thoughts in the reflections contain astonishing originality, chiefly because she saw neither wrath nor anger in God. To Julian sin was not wrong but merely part of the learning process of life, and God would surely forgive. The most famous quotation of all from this clever woman, familiar to many even seven hundred years after her death, is one which she claimed to have directly from God: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
4. Alice Perrers (1340 - 1400)
Alice was a very different kettle of medieval fish: a woman of no birth, little conventional morality, and no claim to wield power in any sphere. Instead she was a woman of notorious reputation, immense charm and great force of character. As mistress to the aging King Edward III she discovered the ability to dominate the royal court through sheer determination, magnificent ambition and cunning manipulation. With a head for finance and business, Alice acquired land and property until she was the most wealthy untitled woman of her day, knowing as she did that her position of authority was finite. How true that was. Her influence did not outlive the King, and Alice and her family faded into obscurity, but in her day Alice proved to be the epitome of the status a woman of intuition and education could achieve. I loved writing The King's Concubine. Not always a comfortable character, certainly with shady morality, Alice was, to my mind, the first true businesswoman of the middle ages.
5. Joan of Kent (1328 - 1385)
Joan of Kent dominated the later years of the 14th century: a woman of royal blood, sharp intelligence and, above all, ambition. Beautiful, charismatic, her life as the Fair Maid of Kent was blighted by scandal and a bigamous marriage, but Joan had set her sights high and, widowed, she looked to the man who had claimed her emotions since childhood when she was raised at the royal court. So Joan, despite opposition, since she was hardly an innocent virgin, wed Edward, the Black Prince, which put her in line for the future queen of England.
Edward died tragically so that Joan never wore the crown as her husband's consort, yet it was here that her remarkable powers came to light. A mistress of compromise and mediation, a true power-broker despite her failing health, Joan worked tirelessly to smooth the path for her youthful son Richard II in his troubled reign. Perhaps she had learned this skill in the complex relationship with her first two husbands, when she had for a time shared an interesting ménage a trois. Close to John of Gaunt, Joan recognised his ability and so worked hard to shield him from his enemies, keeping peace between her son and this aging but able counsellor. Joan is said to have died of a broken heart when she failed to prevent the friction between Richard and his half-brother, John Holland.
I would like to think that Elizabeth of Lancaster, the mover and shaker of my new novel The King's Sister, would make the grade as one of the most influential medieval women I know. I don't think that she does, either through her intellect or her actions, but Elizabeth, living in a period of social upheaval and revolt, strode through life with conviction and confidence. Influential in the greater scheme of things? Perhaps, in retrospect, she was. But to explain further would be to release the secrets of The King's Sister...
The King's Sister by Anne O'Brien is out this week from Mira for £12.99.