Daughters Of Chivalry Book Review

The book, Daughters of Chivalry, written by Kelcey Wilson-Lee portrays the forgotten lives of five remarkable women from the 1200s. The author explores and exposes the myths surrounding the lives of the medieval princesses. These women’s (Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth) fates included marriages of convenience to Counts and Princes have been largely ignored by historians who tend to focus on their far more well-known brother, Edward II, and his formidable wife, Isabella of France.   

 

The lives of these women were completely dictated, by their father, Edward I, King of England (1272 to 1307). They were to experience a courtly culture which was founded on romantic desire and pageantry, they knew that a princess was to be disciplined yet a mother to many children, preferably sons. Passive yet able to influence a stubborn husband or even command a host of men-at-arms. As princesses, they were expected to aid in forming alliances, secure lands and territories through marriage. They also had to skillfully manage enormous households, navigate uneven diplomatic waters and promote their family’s cause throughout Europe. Thus, they were utterly unlike the powerless princesses familiar from fairy tales, yet they do not command real power. It is almost akin to being a part of the royal family without having access to the crown. The details about their lives help to shatter many of the myths that continue to surround understandings of the opportunities open to and constraints placed upon medieval noblewomen. 

 

The princesses witnessed horrific sights as they travelled with their father around Europe, for example in the chapter “Three Deaths”, Eleanora, the eldest, arrived at a jousting tournament to celebrate her wedding, saw her father-in-law, the Duke of Brabant wounded so badly he died. However, traumatic events like this did not prevent the princesses from doing as they pleased. Edward I’s daughter, Joanna of Acre stands out the most (she was separated from her parents at a young age which gave her exceptional independence) as, as a teenager, Joanna fell out with a steward, and dared to “send two knights to Gascony to deliver her version of the story to Edward, along with a letter in which she beseeched: ‘Dear sire, we beg you… to believe the things which they shall tell you by word of mouth from me.’” Additionally, she complained that her younger sister Margaret’s household had two more servants than hers. Thus, two weeks later she did not attend Margaret’s magnificent wedding at Westminster, even though she was staying in Clerkenwell at the time. Hence, proving that despite their father constantly reminding them to act chivalrous, they proceed to do as they pleased and their father was unable to prevent them from doing so due to the “chivalry code”. Thus, despite being treated as fragile and weak under the chivalry code, women of the time were still able to have some say in conducting their own lives. 

 

Their rebellious behaviour later brought the end of chivalry for women, until Queen Elizabeth I completely ended the tradition of chivalry. However, these five women were not the only unrecognized princesses. Isabella of France, wife of Edward II of England, joined with her lover Roger Mortimer to dethrone Edward and then, have him murdered. Additionally, there was Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Queen of France (then later Queen of England) who was the Duchess of Aquitaine. Her status gave her significant power as a wife and mother and she served as governor in her husband’s absence. She also helped ensure significant royal marriages for her daughters, and eventually helped her sons rebel against their father, Henry II of England, her husband. She was imprisoned by Henry, but outlived him and served, once again, as governor, this time when her sons were absent from England.

 

Thus, the book illustrates the lives of medieval princesses, from the expectations placed on them as noblewomen, to the limited ways they could exercise authority, to interesting details about their clothing and education and proving that they were able to override basic societal views of the role of princesses. Rather than corporations and entertainment companies like Disney focusing on reiterating known stories of princesses like Cinderella or Snow White, perhaps they could focus on such real-life examples, the richness that is embedded in our own past. The author also portrays that these women, the forgotten daughters of England’s most famous king, were fierce, powerful, political, flawed and human. Thus, the book remains an ode to the earliest examples of empowered women. 

 

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