Q&A with Elena Woodacre (part 2 of 2)

My recent interview with Michael Evans seems like a companion piece to this interview, originally posted in January, so I thought I’d repost it for those who missed it. Enjoy!

I’m back today with Elena “Ellie” Woodacre, editor of the recently published collection Queenship in the Mediterranean and founder of the Royal Studies Network.

AWR: What piqued your interest in the study of queenship?

Ellie: In some ways, I blame my mother–when I was a child I was a voracious reader and I quickly ate up the material in the children’s section of our local library. My mother who was tired of my moaning about not having anything interesting to read suggested flippantly “Go look at a book on Cleopatra–she had an interesting life.” I did as she suggested and soon became obsessed with the Egyptian queen-soaking up anything I could, historically based work, fiction, even the Elizabeth Taylor film. After that as a teenager I was obsessed with medieval queens, particularly the Plantagenet queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castile.

But as far as real research goes, my MA is when I had a bit of an epiphany–I was researching the Queens of Jerusalem and one day in the library I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be great if I could just read about queens all the time?” I find them endlessly fascinating-in particular I’ve always been intrigued with how women were able to access and exercise power in a period when politics was completely dominated by men. However, I’ve also become increasingly interested in the marriages of reigning queens-the diplomatic repercussions which come from the choice of a consort and how effectively royal couples are able to form a personal and political partnership.

AWR: How is current research changing our understanding of the roles of queens in the Middle Ages?

Ellie: I’m really excited about the variety of research emerging on queens and the practice of queenship. I know Theresa Earenfight has also highlighted developing work in the field in her blog on queenship-it’s wonderful to see the work emerging from established scholars, early career and independent researchers and students to increase our knowledge about the lives of queens. This new research is drawing out many queens who had either been sidelined or completely omitted in historical studies or had not previously been examined in the context of queenship. There are so many interesting figures who really deserve our attention-the field was dominated from its earliest beginnings by ‘women worthies’ or the most famous figures and there is still a predominance of well-known queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth I. However, new studies on lesser known figures-many of whom feature in Queenship in the Mediterranean–add breadth and depth to our knowledge of queenship. I’m also encouraged by the interdisciplinarity of the field–there are many wonderful studies from literature and drama specialists, art historians, archaeologists for example which again provide a much more well-rounded understanding of the lives of queens in the Middle Ages and beyond.

AWR: You caught my attention with a paper at the 2012 International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kzoo), Leonor of Navarre, The Price of Ambition, whose father chose her to succeed over her elder siblings, Carolos and Blanca. One of those situations which in fiction would inspire the reader to whisper, “Walk away! Save yourself!” But you know she must accept the challenge or there would be no story. And what a story. Could you recount some of the highlights of her remarkable life?

Ellie: Leonor is a fascinating character–she has suffered at the hands of historians, novelists and even travel writers who had perpetuated this idea that she was directly involved in the death of her sister and possibly even her brother, who both met shady ends. She certainly had a challenge on her hands, governing Navarre in the wake of the civil war between her father and brother. Her authority as her father’s lieutenant and the heiress apparent of the realm was challenged by those who felt her sister had a better claim or opposed her due to their hatred of her irascible father, Juan II of Aragon. When I first started to read about this chaotic family feud which spawned a civil war, divorces and several untimely deaths, it felt like a soap opera-I thought to myself “you couldn’t make this up!” I wish I could recount more of Leonor’s story here but if you or your readers want to know more about her, there is an entire chapter devoted to her life in my monograph The Queens Regnant of Navarre: Succession, Politics and Partnership 1274-1512 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and an extended version of the paper on Leonor that you heard at Kalamazoo (which includes her ‘afterlife’ in fiction) is due to be published in another collection which will hopefully emerge this year.

AWR: I was interested to read in your paper “Questionable Authority: Female Sovereigns and their Consorts in Medieval and Renaissance Chronicles,” (Authority and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Chronicles, Julia Dresvina and Nicholas Sparks, eds, Cambridge Scholars 2012) that the resistance to a queen’s reign was more often opposition to her consort’s rule than it was about a woman’s ability to rule. As you state: “A king consort was a fairly unusual monarch, for he owed his position to those who selected him as a worthy husband for their heiress…. His authority was therefore weakened by his indebtedness to others for his position and by the fact that he was usually a foreigner, and therefore, somewhat suspect.” It reminded me of a quote from János Bak’s “Queens as Scapegoats in Medieval Hungary”, which I read when I was researching Alice Perrers: “Queens were apt to be regarded as instigators of evil not only because of their sex but because they tended to be foreigners and, to boot, usually the highest ranking foreigners in the land. Moreover, when there was dissatisfaction with the government it was usual to blame not the king but the ‘evil counsellors’, and queens were regarded as having the ear of the sovereign more than anyone else.” But of course you’re referring to reigning queens and their male consorts, whereas Bak was writing about reigning kings and their female consorts. Still, it strikes me as a similar problem. Any thoughts?

Ellie: You’re absolutely right–it is a similar problem, foreign consorts have always faced a level of opposition due to the combination of xenophobic suspicion and their proximity to the ruler and therefore, power. For kings consort, the problem is exacerbated by the expectation that as men, they would have a greater degree of influence or even authority over their wife-as Margaret Sommerville noted in Sex and Subjection (Arnold, 1995) Saints Peter and Paul did not put in an exception for reigning queens when it came to a man’s supremacy in the marital partnership. Hence there was a real concern that a king consort from another realm meant foreign rule by the back door. This fear of the power of foreign kings consort could also translate to fear of female rule or weaken the position of a reigning queen, hence the examples from “Questionable Authority” about Sibylla and Isabella, two of the reigning Queens of Jerusalem. Mary Tudor faced considerable opposition to her marriage to Philip of Spain, which was only alleviated (to a certain extent) by the restrictions placed on Philip in their marital agreement and the ‘Act Concerning Regal Power’ which reinforced her authority as queen regnant.

A note to readers—feel free to query Ellie in comments.

And now I’m off to check whether the UW library has a copy of The Queens Regnant of Navarre!

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