Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Kings and Princes by Julia A. Hickey

Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Kings and Princes by Julia A. Hickey

This is a compendium of salacious scandals highlighting a handful of women who possessed power and agency in a world where their gender and sex were deemed inferior to men. For readers who enjoy the political maneuverings rife in European medieval history, this is a fantastic work to add to your collection.

Each chapter focuses on a specific woman, her immediate world, and a narrative charting of her political and public life as it was recorded in the historical archive. There are the usual mentions of the usual heavyweights of Medieval women’s history: Elizabeth Woodville (who became Edward IV of England’s queen), Katherine Swynford (who became the Duchess of Lancaster and the wife of John of Gaunt), Rosamund Clifford (the mistress of Henry II and the object of many romantic poems), and Saxon queens, like Emma or Ælfgifu of Northampton. But the book also brings to the forefront other, lesser known women who came to wield sexual and political power: Maud Peverel (the mistress of William the Conqueror), Herleva of Falaise (the mistress of a Duke of Normandy), Edith Forne Sigulfson, and numerous other unnamed women who bore royal children.

Many of the women in these pages were powerful in their own right as heiresses or bearers of royal blood, but invariably most were eventually cast aside or somehow lost their influence over the men who ruled this world and time. For all their power, Medieval Europe was a patriarchal world.

Medieval history is — to me at least — infinitely intriguing, but the archival evidence on women in this age and the internal lives of individuals is so sparse that monographs are often dry and lack the kind of micro- and prosopographical history I personally enjoy. There is a great deal of historical tennis volley of “Duke So-and-So met Earl Such-and-Such in battle” or “Lady Blah Blah was then wed to the second son, Henry (always a Henry somewhere), but died alone the way” and so on and so on, so on, so on, etcetera, etcetera. But to Hickey’s credit, the prose and style of this book make what might be a dry topic of political intrigue interesting.

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