5 Extraordinary Medieval Women

Our understanding of medieval women is often overshadowed by their male counterparts. This article will explore the lives of some impressive women of the medieval period.

Apr 6, 2021By Kurt Readman, MA Conflict Archaeology & Heritage, BA History
medieval women
Isabella of France with Roger Mortimer, from the “Chronicles of Jean of Waverin, 15th century (left); with Queen Eleanor, by Anthony Frederick Sandys, 1858 (center); and Hildegard of Bingen divine inspiration, from Scivas, the Rupertsburg manuscript, C.1151 (right)


Medieval Women are often overlooked as having little to no influence in their period. However, upon closer inspection, this is not the case. Here are 5 Medieval women from around Europe and beyond that show the influence that could be held by those in power. 


5. Queen Isabella Of England (1295-1358): The She-Wolf Of France


Early Biography Of Isabella

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Isabel Queen of France, William Nelson Gardiner, 1793, Royal Collections Trust


Born in Paris to Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre in 1295, Isabella has been recorded as intelligent, beautiful, but also manipulative and deceptive. At the time, France was one of the most powerful forces in Western Europe as her father Philip centralized royal power and authority and sought international alliances, such as with England. Isabella was promised to Edward II and married in 1308 at the age of 12 or 13. 


Isabella And Edward II


In her queenship, Isabella was noted for her intelligence and diplomatic skill by contemporaries. Edward II faced numerous challenges in Scotland and from his barons at home, all of which Isabella sought to resolve politically, even negotiating an alliance with Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s confidant and potential lover. Unfortunately, she was unable to cultivate a similar relationship with Edward’s next favorite, Hugh Despenser the younger who it seems actively tried to aggravate Isabella. He removed her children from her care and took over much of her land in England, impacting France and England’s relationship. 


isabella of france roger mortimor
Isabella of France with Roger Mortimer, from the “Chronicles of Jean of Waverin, 15th century, British Library

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Pushed aside by her husband and allies, Isabella sought alliances elsewhere. Seeking Hugh’s enemies, she found Roger of Mortimer who aided her in an expedition into England in 1326, resulting in Hugh’s death and Edward II’s abdication. She organized the marriage of Edward III and enjoyed some influence until Edward III asserted his independence from both Isabella and Mortimer. 


End of Isabella’s Life

hugh spenser froissart chronicle
Execution of Hugh Spenser in Froissart’s chronicle, 14th century, Wellcome Collection


Isabella was retired from 1330 after Roger’s execution, pardoned as an innocent bystander. She was kept under house arrest but still lived a lavish lifestyle until her death in 1358. Not only did Isabella manage to lead a coup, an invasion, and work to develop popular support amongst the nobility. She also lived up to the title of She-Wolf of France and deservedly made her place on this list of medieval women. 


4. Eleanor Of Aquitaine


The Early Life Of Eleanor 

eleanor of aquitane
Eleanor of Aquitane with her riding companion, 12th century, Chapel of Sainte-Radegonde in Chinon, France, via Medieval European History Archives


Queen of both France and England, Eleanor is well known amongst medieval women for her fierce attitude and loyalty to her family. Born in the early 12th century, likely in Poitiers to William X, the duke of Aquitaine, and Aenor de Chatellerault. Her father ensured that she had the best possible education learning arithmetic, history, hawking, domestic skills, and Latin. Becoming the Duchess of Aquitaine in her youth, Eleanor became one of the most desirable heiresses in Europe. 


Eleanor, France, And Louis VII


Eleanor’s first marriage was to Louis VII of France, extending his lands to the Pyrenees. This union granted him extensive wealth and power. However, Eleanor was not popular with the church elders and the nobility. Fortunately, Louis was deeply in love with his wife granting her favor. 


Eleanor’s achievements were not limited to the domestic. She formally took up the cross for the Second Crusade, encouraging her royal ladies in waiting and her Aquitane subjects to join her. During this time, she garnered titles and comparisons to ancient Amazonian queens. Louis, though, was not as successful. He gained little in the Crusade, and their relationship began to deteriorate. This, coupled with her inability to produce an heir, led to the annulment of their marriage in 1152. 


England And Henry II

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Queen Eleanor, by Anthony Frederick Sandys,1858, National Museum Cardiff


Eleanor spent little time finding a new husband, marrying Henry of Anjou, the later Henry II of England. This is where Eleanor indeed strode into her own. She aided Henry II’s governing of multiple kingdoms, stretching from England to Normandy, often ruling in his stead whilst he was at war or squashing rebellion in his territories. 


Unfortunately, this was not to last, and she involved herself in her son’s rebellion against their father. The young Henry was inspired by Louis VII to rebel against his father, to gain more independence from Henry II. Eleanor is suspected of aiding him financially and, as such, was imprisoned by Henry II. She also supported the rebellion of her other son Richard, later the lionheart, again financially and with suspected advice. Henry II was mortally wounded in this conflict against his son and died. Richard rewarded Eleanor by releasing her and involving her heavily in government.


Eleanor, Richard, And Retirement


Eleanor was regent in 1190 when Richard went on a crusade and actively took part in organizing his release when he was taken prisoner in Germany. By this time, she was in her late 60s/early 70s and despite this still commanded the respect of her sons and the nobility. Upon Richard’s death, John took the crown as the final and youngest son of Eleanor and Henry. As an avid administrator, John felt that Eleanor was not needed. She retired to Aquitaine where she died in 1204.


Eleanor faced many challenges in her lifetime, experiencing conflict across the Western World from England to Syria. Dealing with multiple powerful nobles, Eleanor was truly a fierce queen and part of an impressive cohort of medieval women.


3. Anna Comnena 


Anna’s Early Life

fresco temple of isis
A fresco from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii depicting Isis (seated on the right) welcoming of Io’s (left) arrival in Canopus, c. 62-79 CE, via The National Archaeological Museum, Naples


Considered to be the world’s first female historian, Anna Comnena acts as a significant source for her father’s reign, Alexius I, and Crusader lifestyle. She was born in 1083 in the Byzantine Empire. Throughout her life, she interacted with crusader leaders, witnessed the tumultuous reign of her family, and wrote a biography of their rule, dying in 1153  Theotokos Kecharitomene Monastery in Constantinople. 


Anna wrote her Alexiad chronicling her father’s 37 years on the byzantine throne in the style of the heroic Greek epics. Unique not only for its female authorship and for the influence of the classical genre but also its subject of military history. She managed to utilize her royal influence to infiltrate the barriers of education and power usually denied to her gender. 


The Alexiad

alexios komnenos
Mosaic Of Alexios Komnenos, unknown artist, 1122, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul


The Alexiad itself is a 15-book account and often depicted Anna’s father as a faultless hero against the odds. In the preface, Anna discusses her desire to preserve her father’s history and believes that she is the person to do so due to her qualifications and understanding of Greek literature, rhetorical skill, and history. 


Modern historians have criticized Anna’s writing for its clear bias and partiality to her father and his endeavors. However, despite this, her account is of invaluable significance to our understanding of the first crusade as a source. Whilst much of the history happened before her birth, or when she was a child, Anna had the chance to talk to and record the potential attitudes of the Byzantine nobility and general population of her lands. Her husband, Nicephorus Bryennios, took an active role in the crusader movement in 1097 with Godfrey of Bouillon. Her uncle, George Palaeologus, was at the meeting between the crusaders and Alexios in June 1097. We can see this in the pages of the Alexiad as Anna conveys the atmosphere and feeling of these meetings. 


Anna’s Life 


Even though the Alexiad was Anna’s lasting legacy, she also led a fascinating life. As well as experiencing and excelling at her many educational vocations, her father also charged her to lead a hospital and orphanage in Constantinople. She even taught medicine at this hospital and the orphanage. 


As her father fell ill in the latter part of his reign, Anna fought with her brother for succession. Her brother John II was declared Emperor in 1118 and despite this, Anna found herself embroiled in unsuccessful plots to overthrow him. Upon her husband’s death, Anna was sent to exile with her mother to Theotokos Kecharitomene Monastery. There she wrote the Alexiad, pushing her claim to the throne. 


Without her, we would certainly have a much less clear understanding of this period and how the crusades were responded to in the Near East, a unique perspective from a different type of medieval woman. 


2. Isabella Of Castile


Princess Isabella, Struggle For The Crown

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The Return of Christopher Columbus, by Eugene Delacroix, 1839, Toledo Museum of Art


The daughter of John II of Castile and his second wife, Isabella of Portugal, Isabella of Castile oversaw the unification of Spain through her marriage, financed Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, and completed the Reconquista expelling the Muslims and Jewish communities from the Iberian Peninsula through strengthening the Spanish Inquisition.


Whilst not originally heir to the throne, Isabella succeeded her half-brother Henry IV as ruler of Castile in 1474 upon his death following the earlier Accord of Toros de Guisando in 1468. Henry had nearly sparked civil war as he supported his daughter over Isabella’s older brother, Alfonso. However, he died in 1468, granting Isabella a chance to succeed. Isabella was both active in politics and cooperative during Henry IV’s reign until the decision on her marriage, with her choosing to marry Ferdinand, king of Aragon, in October 1469 as opposed to Henry’s choice of Alfonso V, king of Portugal.


Henry thus attempted to remove his support for her succession and transfer it to his daughter, Joan. Despite being furious with Isabella and canceling her right to succession, when Henry IV died in 1474, Isabella took the crown. Her rival Joan also claimed the crown and sought an alliance through marriage to Alphonso V of Portugal. However, the combined might of Isabella and Ferdinand quashed the rebellion in 4 years, unifying Spain and their marriage. 


Isabella, Ferdinand, And Spain

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The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (in the year 1492), by Emilio Sala Francés, 1889, Museo del Prado


This unity served them well in their rule as they ousted Granada’s Muslim rulers in an expedition that took nearly a decade of conflict. During this time, Isabella personally received Christopher Columbus and secured the finances for his voyage. The remaining years of her reign saw Isabella attempt to reform the clergy and the religion of Spain granting many powers to the Spanish Inquisition. A move that is infamous in the minds of modern historians. 


Isabella overcame civil wars and religious tension throughout her reign. Still, she was ultimately able to choose, within reason, her husband, fund a unique and immensely advantageous trip and participate in her country’s unification. 


It goes without saying that Isabella is one of the most impressive medieval women we have on record. 


1. Hildegard Of Bingen 


hildegard of bingen
Hildegard of Bingen divine inspiration, from Scivas, the Rupertsburg manuscript, C.1151


Hildegard’s Early Years


Hildegard of Bingen/Sybil of the Rhine/St. Hildegard was born in 1098 and became a Benedictine abbess, writer, poet, and composer. In addition to these fantastic skills, she was also known to have experienced numerous prophetic and mystical visions, even working her own miracles when the time arose. 


Hildegard was born to noble parents but was a sickly child. She received an education in a Benedictine monastery near her home time of Böckelheim, where it first became known of her visions. Eventually, at the age of 15, Hildegard joined the nuns and, by the age of 38, succeeded the Abbess there, taking charge in 1136. 


Hildegard And Her Visons


hildegard von bingen
The Universal Man, Liber Divinorum Operum of St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1165, copy of the 13th century


Having had visions for years, Hildegard spoke to her confessor about them, who in turn asked her to consult the Archbishop of Mainz. He and a committee of theologians subsequently verified her visions and permitted Hildegard to begin recording them. Her first book, Scivas, was completed by the mid-12th century and consisted of 26 prophetic and apocalyptic visions. She went on to compose two more volumes, the Liber Vitae Meritotum and the Liber Divinorum Operum discussing the rewards of life and a book of divine work, respectively.


In addition to this, Hildegard is known to have created 77 lyric poems, writing on the lives of saints, treatises on medicine, and natural history. She traveled throughout Germany preaching to large groups about her visions and religious insights. All her work, however, did not get her canonized until 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI and became a doctor of the church, one of only four other women. 


Her Legacy


Hildegard is considered a patron of writers and musicians. She has had a more recent uptake in interest by modern historians as she used her position and voice to condemn the corruption of the church and its faults. An exemplary feat considering her position within the institution of the church and being a woman usually not being afforded a platform to speak on. 


Whilst she has faced recent criticism for her treatment of women, she undoubtedly deserves to be remembered for all her fantastic contributions to medieval society. A knowledgeable inclusion in our list of medieval women


Medieval Women Powerful Or Not?


The Medieval women above show that women could have a huge impact on medieval society. However, it should always be remembered that their power was often restricted by their medieval male counterpart. They could independently if they were supported by their partner, whether that be their royal husband or the church. We can often overstate medieval women’s freedom and must remember that only those with great support or power were able to act in this way. For many women, it was the story that we hear of far too regularly.


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By Kurt ReadmanMA Conflict Archaeology & Heritage, BA HistoryKurt holds a BA in history and a MA in Conflict Archaeology and Heritage from the University of Glasgow. He has studied the political and religious relationships of the British Isles as well as Europe. Kurt’s main specialties lie in the Medieval to the Early Modern Period. In addition to this, he has spent time working with the Siege of Haddington Research Group.