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Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens, By Lisa Hilton

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Probably the most notorious of England's medieval queens was Isabella of France, the wife of Edward II – few of us don't know about the red-hot poker murder that ended his life, a grisly death meant also to signify Edward's homosexual practices. Isabella, who was considered responsible for the murder and the manner of it, largely escaped punishment even though she was, as Hilton notes, a queen who "had managed to do something practically unthinkable: to depose an anointed king". She also dispels another myth: the red-hot poker story may have inspired Derek Jarman and Christopher Marlowe, but it probably wasn't true.

Still, Isabella is a good example of just how much power a medieval queen could wield. Biographies of some of the better-known power-brokers, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (whose ambitions eventually led to her imprisonment) and Eleanor of Castile, the avaricious wife of Edward I, could have dominated, but the story of Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, shows a spirited descendant of French kings who initially refused marriage to her illegitimate husband, and might have had a mistress of William's put to death.

Even those women who initially seemed powerless – such as the nine-year-old wife of King John, Isabella of Angoulême, or the commoner, Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV – found ways either to control their husbands, or take advantage of them. We know from the later actions of Henry VIII just how vulnerable royal wives could be to the caprices of the king, but many of the medieval queens here seem surprisingly secure in comparison. That Adeliza, second wife of Henry I, should be the founder of the family line that produced Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, two of Henry VIII's beheaded wives, shows just how much power slipped from queens between the medieval era and the time of the Tudors. A fascinating study.

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