When a Queen Needed to Know Her Place; Walking a Precarious Line: Edward IV's Medieval Consort Elizabeth Woodville
Byline: Lucy Moore
QUEENS CONSORT: ENGLAND'S MEDIEVAL QUEENS by Lisa Hilton (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, ?20) HENRY: VIRTUOUS PRINCE by David Starkey (Harper Press, ?25)
MEDIEVAL queens, as Lisa Hilton explains in Queens Consort, walked a precarious line between what was expected and desired of them, and what they could be condemned for.
Beauty was a requirement, but too much allure might distract the king from affairs of state or tempt his subjects into adultery (and with a queen it was treason).
Wealth was necessary so the queen could display her majesty and mercy, but too much gave her a dangerous sense of her own importance. Foreign connections were advantageous, but not when the queen tried to promote her homeland's interests in England..
Given how hard it was for queens to get it right, it's hardly surprising that many of them failed spectacularly.
One royal villainess was Eleanor of Castile, first wife of Edward I.
Her era (the late 13th century) was the first in which England's rulers lived predominantly in England, her grandfather-in-law King John having lost the remnants of his Angevin inheritance.
Her taste for luxury was notorious.
Sophisticated herb gardens and orchards, glazed windows, lead roofs, Venetian glass and rich tapestries ornamented her castles, and she adored fresh fruit and the spiced Moorish cuisine of her childhood.
Like her husband, she was a keen hunter, keeping her own pack of hounds, and she was a significant patron of literature as well as of religious foundations.
Perhaps most importantly (and relatively unusually among Hilton's subjects), her husband sincerely loved her. When she died, he commemorated the staging posts of her body's journey from Lincoln to Westminster with 12 'Eleanor crosses', the best known of which is Charing Cross, (where a replica stands).
But part of what motivated Edward to build the crosses was an awareness of his dead wife's unpopularity.
Despite her beautifully courtly lifestyle, she had a vicious temper and a terrible reputation for avarice. As the saying went: 'The king would like to get our gold,/ The queen our manors fair to hold.' Seen in this light, those crosses (as Hilton puts it) become 'something of a public relations exercise'.
Eleanor is just one of the 20 women who people Queens Consort a procession of Mathildas, Isabelles, Elizabeths and Eleanors who were, as Hilton shows, more than mere corollaries of their husbands.
Hilton's last queen is Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII, the subject of David Starkey's Henry: Virtuous Prince. …