Edward I and his first queen, Eleanor of Castile, were at the sharp end of medieval infant mortality statistics. Eleanor gave birth to at least fourteen children, only to see five of her daughters die in their first year and – perhaps even more agonisingly – three of her sons reach the ages of five, six and ten before they, too, perished.
The question of how parents dealt with such staggering loss has been the subject of much enquiry; of equal interest but less well researched is how the remaining children dealt with the loss of siblings, and how this affected their relationships with the other survivors. The career of Edward and Eleanor’s only surviving son, the future Edward II, is familiar, but, unsurprisingly, less is known of the five sisters who lived to adulthood: Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth. Daughters of Chivalry is thus a welcome addition to the shelves of medieval history.
The intertwined lives of these five women are related in full, from birth to death. And what lives they were, covering almost the entire range of experiences that the daughters of a king might expect: packed into the pages are tales of early bereavement, childhood betrothal, rebellion against parental authority, marriage, religion, motherhood, widowhood, war, danger, regency, illicit liaison and political influence.
There are a few minor irritations for the reader. There are probably a few too many descriptions of lavish tournaments, fine gowns and jewels, and quantities of foodstuffs. Some of the claims that the contents of the book stand in complete contrast to what has gone before are certainly overblown. Given the vast amount of scholarship published in the last decade on queenship and on medieval women’s lives, there can really be few people who any longer think of a medieval princess simply as a ‘finely dressed ornament’, a figure of ‘passive virtue’ or ‘a damsel trapped in a tower’, the rather specious caricature that the author sets out to dismantle. As it happens, the straw man is unnecessary, as the stories of the sisters are interesting enough to stand on their own feet.
The childhoods of the five, explored here in detail, were of a type that would give any modern parent nightmares. Mary was sent to a convent to take vows as a cloistered nun at the age of six. The others were all betrothed before they were ten. They were not in constant – or even frequent – contact with their parents, and they shared nurseries and relationships with siblings whose lives were suddenly snuffed out, all the while living with the fear that they might be next, and under the looming threat of being sent in marriage to a foreign land, never to return.
The danger with this sort of book is that the main subjects might blend into one another to become an indistinguishable mass of royal daughters, but Wilson-Lee proves adept at portraying them as individuals: Eleanora was intelligent and politically active; Joanna was unafraid to defy her formidable father; Margaret was a ‘fashionable courtly lady’; Elizabeth was married and widowed by the time she was seventeen. Perhaps the most interesting is Mary. Veiled as a nun in early childhood, she nevertheless travelled widely, attended court functions and – despite the eye-watering sum the king laid out for her upkeep – racked up debts to merchants and jewellers. Wilson-Lee depicts these different personalities with ease while staying just the right side of stereotype.
The narrative occasionally steps away from the sisters’ stories in order to explore wider themes. Some are discussed well, such as the political dimensions of medieval royal marriage, the education of girls – including the necessity of learning foreign languages in preparation for married life abroad – and the shared experiences of women in a male-dominated environment. There is also an interesting take on widowhood: for medieval men a widow might be a tragic or even a dangerous figure, but Joanna, following the death of her first husband, could reflect that ‘a long life was open to her in which she would no longer have to face the dangers of childbirth, and might enjoy influence at court, the respect that came from living chastely, and astonishing wealth’.
One conspicuous omission is an examination of the question of female succession. It is mentioned in passing that Eleanora was second in line to the throne, but more consideration could have been given to just how significant this was, particularly since the author is keen to stress throughout the book that medieval royal women had political duties as well as childbearing ones.
After the death of ten-year-old Alphonso in 1284, the sole surviving son was a four-month-old baby. Given the high rate of mortality among his children, Edward I was in danger of becoming the first English king for 150 years to die without a male heir (in the twelfth century the death of Henry I without a legitimate son had led to two decades of civil war). This left him with a critical decision to make, and in 1290 he decreed that if this eventuality came to pass, the crown would pass not to his brother, Edmund, but to his eldest daughter and her heirs. This enshrined the precedent of succession via the female line, which would have significant consequences for the English crown in years to come.
Daughters of Chivalry does not, perhaps, offer much that is new to the specialist, but that is not the point. What the book sets out to do is to bring the stories of these five forgotten sisters to a new audience, and in this it succeeds admirably and engagingly. If you do know anyone who still labours under the misapprehension that medieval princesses were little more than damsels in distress, send them a copy.