Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our Top 5 Renaissance Women Who Should Have Movies Made About Them.
Women’s lives in the middle ages get short shrift on screen — there’s a few queens (hi, Eleanor) and that’s usually it. But actual history has more going for it. Let’s give Hollywood some ideas…
1. Christine de Pisan
Christine de Pisan is one of the first historical women you might learn about in school. Not that there weren’t any worth studying before her, but she was so famous in her day that there she is arguably more important a historical figure than her contemporary Joan of Arc.
Born in 1364 in Venice, Christine was the daughter of an Italian astrologer and physician, who accepted an appointment at the court of Charles V of France within the first few years of her life. Raised in the French court, she received an education on par with that of her male counterparts, something of a rarity for women of this age. Married at 15 to a royal secretary of the court, she bore her husband three children before he died, leaving her at age 25 with a family to support that included her mother, a niece, and her two surviving children. So, she turned to her writing, becoming a sensation in the French court for her love ballads (the renaissance equivalent of trashy romance novels, but with less turgid members).
But what really catapulted Christine to international levels of recognition (both good and bad) was her treatise, The City of Ladies. In this book, she argued that women had unique gifts that made them effective peacekeepers and negotiators and contradicted negative stereotypes of women by pointing out that ladies have been historically prevented from proving those stereotypes wrong by not being allowed to participate in intellectual dialogues with men. Christine is also known to have made a point of supporting other female artists, working with a woman artist by the name of Anastasia of whom she wrote “one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris — where the best in the world are found — who can surpass her.“ Girl power!
2. Kathrine Swynford
Annoyingly, there doesn’t seem to be any portraits of Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt’s third Duchess of Lancaster, so instead you get an image of Circe from an anonymous French translation of De claris mulieribus (Royal 16 G V f. 42v, to be exact). Anyway, the story of Katherine Swynford is fascinating and about as juicy as they come.
Katherine Swynford, daughter of a certain knight named Paon de Roet from Hainault, grew up in and around the court of Philippa of Hainault, Queen of England. She was educated, likely more so than the average woman of her time, and at around the age of 16 or 17, she married Hugh Swynford, a knight and landowner who was doing fairly well for himself. This probably would have been the the most noteworthy part of Katherine’s story if she hadn’t been appointed to the household of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and younger son of King Edward III, a few years after her marriage.
Katherine was appointed the governess to John’s children by his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, and their affair is theorized to have started fairly early on after she was brought into the Duke’s household. Duchess Blanche, who was sick with the illness that would eventually claim her life a year or two later, seems to have allowed the relationship to flourish without complaint. Katherine was said to have been very devoted and close to Blanche, and the children from both of John’s first two marriages demonstrated a great deal of affection for her, so apparently Katherine’s relationship with Blanche’s husband was a non-issue. Four years after Blanche died in 1368, Katherine gave birth to the first of her four children by John, which leads to the question as to whether John and Katherine waited to consummate their affair until after the death of the much loved Blanche, but not before he remarried, for in 1371, John soon found himself in need of another wife … who wasn’t Katherine. Instead, he chose Infanta Constance of Castile, a solid political choice in order for John to claim the throne of Castile. The affair between Katherine and John continued under Constance’s tenure as Duchess of Lancaster until 1381, when Katherine was removed from the Duke’s employ in an attempt to mitigate the scandal surrounding their relationship that had been increasingly building for the last several years.
Katherine and John were finally wed in 1391, and thus she became his third Duchess towards the last few years of John’s life, legitimizing their adult children in the process (who bore the surname of Beaufort and through which their decedents eventually claimed the throne of England). As an aside, Katherine’s sister married Geoffrey Chaucer, which made him the brother-in-law of the Duke of Lancaster–a fact I find amusing for some reason.
3. Empress Matilda
Yeah, I know Matilda/Maud has shown up in various films and TV shows over the years, but there’s never been an attempt to tell her story fully. She’s often relegated to an off-stage role (as in Brother Cadfael) or a second, or even tertiary character (as in Pillars of the Earth), but I think she’s interesting enough to warrant her own film. Everyone is so preoccupied with her daughter-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine that they overlook the fact that Eleanor wasn’t the only badass woman in the English court during the 12th century. In fact, it would be easy to draw a parallel between Matilda’s bad-assery and Eleanor’s, presuming that because of his mother’s influence, Henry II had a thing for strong women.
Matilda was the only daughter and eldest surviving child of the English King Henry I and his wife Matilda of Scotland, born around 1102. At the tender age of 8, Matilda was married off to Henry V, then known as the King of the Romans (who was German. It was complicated). She acquired the title Empress of the Holy Roman Empire in 1114. Her younger brother, William Adelin, was the heir apparent as his father’s only surviving legitimate male issue (as opposed to the dozen or more illegitimate issue he sired during his lifetime) until he very inconveniently perished in the White Ship disaster in 1120, which threw England into a succession crisis. Even though England did not operate under Salic Law, which forbade the succession of a woman to the throne, a woman had never ruled England in her own right and given the less-than-progressive views about females in general, a good portion of the English lords weren’t excited when Henry named Matilda his heir apparent.
Enter Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, who decided, based on the fact that he was Henry I’s nearest surviving MALE heir who wasn’t illegitimate, that he should be King of England, thank you very much. The English nobles split into two warring factions: those that supported Matilda’s claim to the throne and lead by Matilda’s half-brother Robert of Gloucester, and those who supported Stephen’s claim. Civil war ensued from 1135 to 1154, a period known as The Anarchy, which is far too complicated to sum up in a single sentence, so if you’re curious about it, here’s the Wikipedia article. At any rate, Matilda’s (highly disputed, even to this day) reign as Queen of England lasted only seven years, from 1141-1148 before she was ousted by Stephen in a sort of anticlimactic denouement that probably had as much to do with sheer exhaustion as it did with lack of funding. Stephen resumed his reign and died in 1154, having named Matilda’s 21 year old son Henry FitzEmpress, as his heir. Matilda continued to involve herself with English rule as the mother of King Henry II, and the mother-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine, and died in 1167.
4. Empress Theodora
Ok, I’m stretching the “medieval” a bit here, to include the Byzantine Empire, only because I feel like Empress Theodora hasn’t been given her proper treatment in film. Two Italian films exist that depict her life, Theodora, Empress of Byzantium (1909) and Theodora, Slave Empress (1954) and judging by the stills from the latter, we might as well just pretend that these movies never happened.
So, what do we know about Theodora? Quite a bit, actually. Her life started out about as far from the imperial throne of the Byzantine Empire as a girl could get. Her father was a bear trainer and her mother was a dancer and actress (and as we all know, before the 20th century “dancer” and “actress” were usually code for “prostitute”). Theodora was not exactly royal, in other words, and as a result, she went into her mother’s profession and became a prostitute in a fairly low-end brothel, allegedly attaining some semblance of notoriety for her portrayal of Leda and the Swan. There were some wilderness years between the ages of 16 and 20 where she was the mistress of Hecebolus, a Syrian official who took her to the Libyan Pentapolis when he was appointed governor. Hecebolus seems to have abandoned her in North Africa which lead her to Alexandria, Egypt, and managed to become friendly with a few well-connected and well-placed individuals. Even as a humble wool spinner, she somehow managed to catch the eye of the heir to the Byzantine Throne, Justinian. Of course, marriage was out of the question as law forbade royals from marrying actresses. However, the main opponent to the match, Justinian’s aunt Empress Euphemia, conveniently died and his uncle cleared the way for the two to wed. When Justinian was crowned Emperor, he made Theodora co-ruler.
As Empress, Theodora proved a capable and strong leader, a patron of the arts, mentor to some of the greatest men in history, and a formidable force that reshaped the laws regarding women’s rights to allow women the right to divorce, the right to own property, and made rape a capital punishment. All in all, a pretty amazing trajectory from a back alley brothel to the Imperial palace.
What medieval women do you think are sadly overlooked by filmmakers?
Irene of Athens! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irene_of_Athens Byzantine, but held her own as regent, played the Game of Thrones with religion, her follows captured her son after he fled and she most likely said ok when his eyes were gouged out….
Katherine Swynford has been one of my favorite medieval women since reading Anya Seton’s “Katherine” as a teenager. The novel is rather dated, but it still reigns as one of my favorite historical novels of all time. I was pleased when it was reprinted a few years ago, and I could stop hoarding my decrepit used copies gleaned from garage sales – it’s difficult to read a book when half the pages are falling out.
Christine de Pisan and Empress Matilda/Maud are also two women I have admired (though I tend to prefer Eleanor to Matilda/Maud, mainly through simply knowing more about her)
That novel has been on my shortlist forever!
How about Isabella of France (queen of Edward II of England), or Isabella of Angouleme. Slightly more obscure, Nicolaa de la Haye or Eleanor de Montford.
I completely agree! I would love to see a movie made about Isabella (Edward II’s Wife) talk about a facinating woman. You see her portrayed in Braveheart and in World Without End (sequel to Pillars of the Earth). Both portrayals are dramatically different in how they show her personality. World Without End is exact how I imagine she was…strong, determined and amazing! If you haven’t seen it Toni youus check it out!
I second Isabella of France. She’s a great example that interesting historical women can get just as down and morally dubious as the bros.
Oh, hell yes…then again, having your husband not only totally ignore you for his boyfriends, but give them a large portion of your jewelry as well wouldn’t sit well with most women, although most women wouldn’t have their husbands dispatched the way Edward allegedly was…
Probably anyone called a “she-wolf” would be a great candidate!
Just to note- I did some work on Isabella while I was in school. As far as I could find (even after digging through stacks of chronicles), the ‘She-Wolf’ title wasn’t given to her until Kit Marlowe used it, well after she was dead. Marguerite d’Anjou was called a She-Wolf in her lifetime though.
In addition to her dealings in England, Isabella was also supposedly the driving force behind the Tour de Nesle scandal, here the wives of all three of her brothers were accused of adultery. Supposedly they were caught when Isabella noticed that a couple of courtiers were wearing items she had given to her sisters in law as gifts. One theory I’ve read is that Isabella disliked her sisters in law and set the whole thing up. Very medieval soap opera-ish
The Anarchy definitely deserves its own mini-series, or at least a good TV movie (given that television does a much better job w/this kind of thing these days than cinema does)–there was one episode where Matilda and several of her supporters escaped from a castle where they were trapped and, wearing white robes, fought their way through the snow to safety. It’s also been suggested by some historians that Matilda and Stephen may have had a fling at one point and that Henry may have been Stephen’s son rather than Geoffrey Plantagenet’s, which would put quite a different spin on history if the Plantagenet kings, well…weren’t. (I’m descended from Matilda, Henry and Eleanor on one branch of my mother’s family, and Robert of Gloucester–who would have made an excellent king had he not been so loyal to his half-sister–on another, which always helps make history even more fascinating. No wonder The Lion in Winter seemed like just another family fight…)
Oh god, I read a terrible historical fiction book about a supposed romance between Matilda and Stephen — it was ludicrously implausible!
I know exactly the one you’re talking about it and I still can’t believe I read that garbage.
Agreed. It would make a great mini series. I too am descended from Matilda and also from the list Katherine de Swynford.
Inês de Castro, María de Padilla, Heloise, Urraca I of León, Berenguela of Castilla and Blanche of Castile, Queen of France, would totally be my top 6
Granted, Heloise’s story with Abelard already appeared in “Stealing Heaven” and Urraca is a supporting character of “El Cid” which is based on the Lay of the Cid. BUT GIMME THEIR STORIES FROM THEIR POVS.
Berenguela and Blanche were sisters (granddaughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine through her daughter Eleanor, who married Alfonso VIII of Castile), mothers of sons who were Saints (Fernando III of Castile and Louis IX of France) and all around badass af ladies.
And well, Inês’ love story with Pedro I of Portugal is epic (and rather gory, so not for the faint of heart), and so is María de Padilla’s story with Pedro I of Castile *(there’s a really good series made by RTVE in the 1980s “Pedro I el Cruel”, which they recently uploaded to their site. It’s a bit dated production and costume wise -think BBC in the 70s but with even less money- but the whole cast is pretty amazing and I remember it to be pretty accurate. But then I want something from her POV too)
*(Constance of Castile was one of their daughters btw)
Oh, oh and Hildegarde von Bingen, and Kassia of Constantinople, my badass composer ladies that defied the establishment.
Thank you! Hildegarde was top of my list. Also Hatshepsut. And Mary Walker, who was a doctor and dressed as a man to treat soldiers during the Civil War.
I know the last two aren’t Medieval, but they still need biopics.
I wholeheartedly second the Hatshepsut one! (As for Mary Walker, I didn’t know about her, but I am really interested in learning more!)
Also, Poppa de Bayeux, the wife/concubine of Rollo the Ranger (we kinda get a composite of her and Gisela of France in the figure of Gisla in Vikings but I would like something a bit more accurate tbqh)
My choices are yours listed above but with the addition of Melisend Queen of Jerusalem (subject of Judith Tarr’s novel Queen of Swords). She was daughter of Baldwin of Jerusalem, knew Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of King Baldwin & Almeric of Jerusalem. She was regent to son Baldwin and styled herself Queen.
Another is Julian of Norwich, mystic. Finally Margrethe I of Denmark. She did what Elizabeth I did but in 1387. Amazing woman.
I came here to say Julian of Norwich! When I was younger I wanted to write a stage play of her visions but never figured out how to do it . . .
Addendum: Isabella de Trastamara, Queen of Castile and with her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon united Spain.
And initiated the Spanish Inquisition. (What a show!)
Susan, if you can, check the Spanish tv series “Isabel”. It’s really good (for Spanish standards, considering the budget per episode was circa 700000 € (804799$) which is waaaay less than what British or American shows get), and the three seasons cover from her arrival to her brother’s court to her death.
Clara, I’ve tried watching it on YouTube, but my Spanish is minimal. I’m hoping for DVD to be released in US and English or French subtitles.
I notice Eleanor of Aquitaine was not mentioned. Although she has figured in many films, I don’t think she’s had one devoted to her alone. How can we ignore the richest woman in Europe, wife and mother of kings? I’d also offer St Walburga, or Walpurga, notoriously associated with dark magic, which actually had nothing to do with her, just happened to fall on her day. On the other hand, she is also associated with the Codex Walpurga, still the oldest known manual of swordsmanship, in which a woman, presumably she, practising sword and buckler fencing with a priest.
St Balthild: she was, in sequence, noblewoman, slave, Queen of the Franks, queen regnant for her son, nun, and then saint. She probably slept her way to the top, despite her biographer’s claims to the contrary, and she held onto political power until forced into a convent after murdering an archbishop. The script writes itself.
Or else Margery Kempe.
For a good fictional overview of Stephen and Matilda, I recommend Graham Shelby’s, The Villains of the Piece (1972) (published in the US as The Oath and the Sword). I’ve had a copy for a long time and still love it.
I’d choose Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI of England. English monarchs who married French wives never fared well..
Margaret of Anjou probably cuckold Henry about their son with Margaret Beaufort father or uncle but cannot remember which. I feel and most things I’ve read intuit that Henry wasn’t interested in sex. It would be interesting to see how she coped with him and how ferociously she defended her sons rights.
What about Joanna of Naples, Queen of Sicily?
Matilda and Theodora without a doubt, and I, too, have always loved the novel Katherine. That, possibly because of when it was written, has the affair start not only after Duchess Blanche dies, but also after Hugh Swynford, Katherine’s husband, does as well (don’t scoff–I read a Jean Plaidy novel about Charles II in which she apologized for the bawdiness, that it was the time in which the story was set).
Margaret of Anjou could be interesting and so could the love story of Katherine d’Valois and Owen Tudor (but that could be easily mangled). Actually one on the civil war between Matilda and Stephen, focusing on the women–Stephen’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne, was a powerful force on her husband’s side, and I think Henry I’s widow, Adeliza of Louvain, may have had some influence. What about William the Conqueror’s wife Matilda? She refused his suit initially–and very insultingly, too–and the story goes that he rode to Flanders and assaulted her in the streets. But they did apparently make a good marriage in the end.
How was the White Queen on screen? The book has its questionable moments, but it’s the only one I can think of about Elizabeth Woodville.
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s grandmother Dangereuse (Dangerose, Dangerossa). She left her husband and became the mistress of Eleanor’s grandfather, William IX. Her daughter by that husband married William’s son by his own wife, and they were Eleanor’s parents. Dangereuse was apparently quite wild and free-spirited!
Loved this! I would add Hildegarde of Bingen – the executive and leadership capabilities required to run a large abbey must have made her an extraordinary woman. And Julian of Norwich, a mystic whose writing still fascinates.
Julie, there’s a movie about Hildegarde von Bingen directed by a well-known German director who just happens to be a woman. I saw it yoinks ago, but it still impressed me as to how the director worked with her cast. She also covered the matter with grace, flair and love.
But still an English film or miniseries would be great.
Anne de Bretagne, she lived more during the Renaissance than during the Middle Ages but she’s a very interesting woman. It was during her reign that Brittany entered the Kingdom of France. She was Queen of France twice. She is Britanny’s most famous historical figure.
Just thought of another one. Margaret Plantagenet, Duchess of Burgundy. Sister to both Edward IV, Richard III and stepmother and regent for her stepdaughter Mary of Burgundy, who was Philip the Beautiful grandmother (Juanna I of Castile’s husband) and Mary was great-grandmotherto Charles V.
Juanna of Castile also would make an intriguing subject, too.
How about a film about Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great. She sure kicked the arses of those Danes.
How about Fredegund(a) whose feud with Brunhilda of Austrasia may have inspired the Nibelungslied?
She’s a villainess if ever there was one; supposedly also the inspiration for the Evil Stepmother in Cinderella.
Margret Beufort so long as it’s not a version based on the Phillipa Gregory novel. I starts historically very inaccurate and just goes downhill from there. She has a very biased view of the very early Tudors and tends to invent things to make them look bad.
Wait, IS there a Philippa Gregory novel that ISN’T historically inaccurate and goes downhill?
I’m kind of a fan of Beatrice Cenci!
Again, late to the party,BUT…can we PLEASE get something about the Tour de Nesle affair in Medieval France!? I will watch the S*#& out of it if someone makes it! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tour_de_Nesle_affair)
If the shows/films are based off novels written by Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Kay Penman, I’m in. These books are not only well written, but well researched. And they are about many of the people mentioned above.