Book Review: Virtuous or Villainess? The Image of the Royal Mother from the Early Medieval to the Early Modern Era, eds. Carey Fleiner and Elena Woodacre

By Victoria Rasbridge

Virtuous or Villainess? The Image of the Royal Mother from the Early Medieval to the Early Modern Era, edited by Carey Fleiner and Elena Woodacre, is the second of two volumes that explore the subject of royal motherhood in Palgrave Macmillan’s Queenship and Power series.

Whilst both volumes focus on the relationships between royal mothers and their children, the second volume specifically addresses the challenges posed by the traditional stereotypes of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ mother, and the effects these stereotypes had on the image and reception of royal mothers. The collection of essays is divided into two parts: part one examines the (self-) fashioned images of royal motherhood, part two considers their legacy from the past to the present.

As noted by Fleiner and Woodacre in the introduction, “motherhood was considered to be the definitive female role” (1). Yet despite the pre-eminence of the role, the question of royal motherhood and the relationship between royal power, political agency, and motherhood is relatively unstudied. This important volume, which draws its case studies from different periods and continents, begins to close this gap by offering a fresh re-evaluation of women who struggled against stereotypes and societal expectations of motherhood.

Part One begins with Kriszta Kotsis’s essay on the ninth-century Byzantine empress Theodora. Kotsis examines a combination of contemporaneous coinage, seals (13-15, 18-20), and engravings on the ‘Beautiful Door’ of the Hagia Sofia church in Constantinople (15-18), as well as later written accounts of her actions at the bridal show ÷when she was chosen to be Theophilos’s wife (20-26), illustrating that through highlighting Theodora’s maternity they promoted the cohesion of the imperial family.

The second chapter, written by Laura L. Gathagan, focuses on Mathilda of Flanders, duchess of Normandy (later Queen of England), and the contrasting accounts of her maternal character. Drawing on the textual descriptions of Mathilda in the accounts of Fulcoius of Beauvais and Orderic Vitalis, Gathagan concludes that Fulcoius’ image of Mathilda as a desolate mother grieving the loss of her daughter to a convent was changed almost beyond recognition, whereas Orderic’s depiction of a militaristic mother valiantly supporting her first-born son is more realistic.

The third chapter discusses Philippa of Lancaster, queen of Portugal, and her role in the education and cultural enlightenment of her children. In this chapter, Manuela Santos Silva delves into Philippa’s own childhood to evidence how the qualities she obtained as a child in England shaped the lives and intellectual inheritance of her own offspring.

Charles Beem’s study of Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, is the subject of the fourth chapter. Beem argues that whilst the empress was chastised for defying the socially accepted norms of her gender, her role as mother was more conventional as evidenced by the fact that she successfully managed to secure her children’s inheritance and the English throne for her eldest son.

The fifth essay, written by Louise J. Wilkinson, takes as its subject Isabella of Angoulême and her desertion of her child-king Henry III of England and his royal siblings in 1217. Through careful examination of royal letters, this study details the circumstances around Isabella’s departure, suggesting that she had little option but to leave the country.

Elena Woodacre pens the final chapter of part one, focusing her discussion on the life and maternal career of Joan of Navarre. The essay offers a thoughtful reconsideration of Joan’s second marriage to Henry IV of England and her abandonment of all but two of her children by her first husband Jean IV, Duke of Brittany. Woodacre demonstrates that whilst Joan’s fecundity earned her a positive persona, her decision to leave her children and pursue what was believed to be an ambitious marriage has led to less sympathetic characterisations.

The second part of the book, consisting of four essays, goes on to consider the legacies of royal mothers from their contemporaries to the modern day. In her essay on Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, Sally Fisher examines the royal mother’s use of the changed signature ‘Margaret R’, concluding that it is proof of her careful and successful self-fashioning of an identity open to a variety of readings.

Zita Rohr’s chapter concentrates on the mother-daughter relationship between Violant of Bar and Yolande of Aragon. Through an excellent and engagingly developed chess metaphor, Rohr contrasts Violant’s unsuccessful queen’s gambit, declined by her adversary María de Luna, with the successful gambit of her daughter, Yolande, against her opponent Isabeau of Bavaria. The study determines that these late-medieval lieutenant-queens anticipated the powerful female sovereigns who would go on to govern throughout early modern Europe.

The following chapter by Katarzyna Koisor on Bona Sforza, the sixteenth-century Polish queen, explores the popular black legend of the queen which cast her as a ‘bad’ mother on account of her failure to act in accordance with Polish cultural conceptions of motherhood.

Katherine Weikert returns in the final chapter to Empress Matilda, the subject of Charles Beem’s earlier essay, this time in relation to her representation in three modern fiction novels from the period 1976-2011. The study charts the fictional depictions against the second and third waves of feminist thought, illustrating that though the idea of the modern-medieval Matilda generates a comfortable character that validates the modern reader’s views, it is nonetheless inauthentic.

Although the collection has a clear bias towards Western queens and mothers, particularly those relating to England, its subjects hail from antiquity to the early modern period and together present a compelling challenge to several misconceived ideas about royal motherhood. The publication thus marks an important contribution to the ever-growing global studies on queenship. Whilst the order of the chapters is broadly logical and complimentary to the volume’s argument, occasionally it renders the underlying thread of the work harder to follow – chapter’s sudden jump to the late-14th century in an otherwise chronological order, for instance. The volume might also be made easier to follow with the addition of either a timeline of significant dates to help readers gain an understanding of how these events interact with one another, or a series of family trees to visually outline the various complex relationships being discussed, particularly given the inevitable overlap and similarity of many royal names. Be that as it may, each chapter and each case study contain an implicit awareness of the enduring and inescapable paradox of royal motherhood – mothers must be politically strong and even ruthless, but such ruthlessness ultimately clashes with cultural images of the ideal, demure mother. Owing to this volume’s large temporal and geographic span, this work will be of use to a variety of queenship and royal studies scholars. For this same reason, however, the majority of the chapters, though largely accessible, require specialised background knowledge that mean this book is most suitable for readers familiar with, or highly educated in, the topic.

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