Three Admirable Medieval Women, A Guest Post by Anne O’Brien, Author of The Shadow Queen

The Shadow Queen

I love Anne O’Brien’s writing and am thrilled to be part of the launch celebrations for The Shadow Queen. I reviewed another of Anne’s books, The Queen’s Choice, here and was lucky enough to be able to interview Anne in a post you can read here.

The Shadow Queen will be published by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins in e-book and hardback tomorrow, 4th May 2017 and is available for purchase through the publisher links here.

The Shadow Queen

The Shadow Queen

The untold story of Joan of Kent, the mastermind behind the reign of child-King Richard II. A tale of treachery, power-hungry families and legal subterfuges.

What would enhance the pattern of my life further? One word slid into my mind. A seductive word. A dangerous word, perhaps, for a woman. Power.’

From her first clandestine marriage Joan of Kent’s reputation is one of beauty, scandal and rumour.

Her royal blood makes her a desirable bride. Her ambition and passion make her a threat.

Joan knows what she has to do to survive. The games to play, the men to marry even if one man will always have her heart.

A remarkable story of love and loyalty and of the cost of personal ambition. The story of the woman who would ultimately wield power as the mother to 10 year old King Richard II, from the shadows of the throne.

Three Admirable Medieval Women:

… into whose shoes I would happily step –  if only for a short time.

One precociously royal, one astonishingly literary and one a family matriarch who managed her menfolk and pulled no punches.

A Guest Post by Anne O’Brien

Isabella, Countess of Bedford

Here is a woman I admire for her strength of character, and her willingness to put herself at odds with her powerful family to achieve the life she wanted.  As a member of the Plantagenet royals, Isabella’s future would have been mapped out for her.  It was not a future in which she saw any pleasure.

Isabella was the eldest daughter of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.  Indulged by an affectionate father, Isabella would be expected to marry well to further dynastic policy.  But Isabella trod her own path.  As a young girl, three marriages were planned for her, none of them materialising, even at the point of the  trousseau being complete.  And then in 1351 she was to wed Bernard, heir of the Sieur d’Albert.  At the eleventh hour, when the ships were almost under sail to take her to Gascony, at the very water’s edge Isabella baulked.  She refused to go.  Oh, to be a fly on the wall when her father discovered what she had done.

Isabella remained unwed until she reached the advanced age of thirty three years, refusing any further offers for her hand, until she set her eye on Enguerrand de Coucy, a French prisoner living as hostage at the English Court until his ransom was paid and he could return home.  (This was in the time of the Hundred Years War when there were many such prisoners.)  It was not a marriage that found favour with King Edward III.  Isabelle persisted.  Enguerrand was willing.  King Edward at last accepted that Isabella might remain unwed for ever unless he gave her this freedom of choice.  At Windsor they eventually married and Isabella joined her husband who was granted his freedom to return to Coucy.

What a splendidly independent life Isabella led, defiant of family disapproval and expectations, determined on marriage with a man she both admired and loved.  I would definitely wear her shoes for a little time.

Christine de Pisan

Here was a woman of outstanding courage, challenging all the tenets of the society in which she lived.

Daughter of an Italian academic, widowed at an early age and living in France, Christine turned to writing simply as a way to support her small children, writing both prose and poetry which was well received in high and royal circles in an age when women had relatively no voice.  Nothing particularly exciting here, but Christine wrote to refute the negative ideas that scholars were spreading about the education and role of women in society, expressing very firmly that women benefitted from receiving an education, and were only refused it because men feared that women might actually prove to be more able than men.

Christine wrote extensively to show the elite women of her time how they could navigate successfully in what was a man’s world, working beside her husband, giving advice, managing his response, advising women to dispense peace and good judgement.  Her main work, The Book of the City of Ladies stood as a testimony to the greatness and accomplishments of women, putting them on the same level as men.

Her works were much admired.  Queen Isabeau of France requested a copy of her complete writings so Christine commissioned one, filled with exquisite illustrations.  Christine herself  presented it to the Queen in 1407.

What a remarkable woman, certainly one of the early feminists, who calmly went about the task of promoting the powers of women in a world that was dominated by men.  She championed a woman’s cause against the powerful voices ranged against her.  I would have enjoyed stepping into Christine’s shoes as she sat at her desk with the little dog at her feet and her pen in her hand.  I would also have enjoyed the royal recognition.  What female author would not?

Margaret Paston

I truly admire Margaret Paston.

Daughter of a Norfolk landowner, she was not famous in her life time, but became so because she proved to be a superb letter-writer.  Wife of John Paston, a London solicitor, she was left to manage the estates in Norfolk while he pursued land claims, and later political interests.  Thus Margaret’s life was traditionally feminine – that of wife and mother.  But what a superbly managing female she was as shown by her letters sent regularly to her husband and to her son, the second John Paston.  And these were turbulent times in which she lived in the Wars of the Roses

Margaret’s letters are detailed, entertaining and informative covering the whole range of family activity which fell into her lap in the absence of her husband: family fall-outs, marriage alliances, parental nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties thrown while parents were away from home.  It is a vivid portrait of medieval provincial society. She orders clothes, manages the estates and plans dinner parties where the topics discussed ranged from local gossip, the problems of cash-flow and the wool trade to the shortage of good servants.  She instructs both husband and son wth her shopping list of spices she wishes to be brought home.  She gives advice to her idle and feckless eldest son.

At the same time Margaret finds herself defending the Paston properties from military attack and Margaret is violently removed from besieged manor houses.  When husband John is thrown into Fleet Prison, Margaret shoulders the whole responsibility of household and estate management.

What a remarkable woman she was, holding the reins of every aspect of household management.  I would like to think that I had half Margaret’s ability and stamina to order everything to my liking, although I suspect that this formidable matriarch was not always a comfortable woman to live with.

An Extract from The Shadow Queen


Thomas swept the court with a bold eye, such that I was astonished at his confidence before the eminent throng.

‘It is my intent, my lords, my ladies, to reclaim my wife.’

A look of bewilderment touched the King’s face, and many others except for my mother and the Dowager Countess.  And Will who stiffened again with an intake of breath as if he had been stung by a wasp.

‘Your wife?  We were not aware that you had taken a wife.  Or are you merely affianced?  A secret understanding with some lady, forsooth!’  Edward was intrigued.

‘I have a wife, sir.  And now I will speak her name.  We were married  seven years ago but I did not have the money necessary to prove it.  Now I do.  And prove it I will.’

‘But why do you have to prove it?  Who is the lady?’  Edward, perplexed now.  And then: ‘Is there a problem with her family?’

‘Her family is exceptional.’

With no further warning Thomas held out his hand, palm up.  His gaze on me was uncompromisingly direct.

‘This is the lady who is my wife.  And has been for seven years.’

The court, to a man, stared at Thomas as if he had taken leave of his senses.  As if during the fighting he had suffered a bang on the head that had robbed him of his wits, impairing his judgement.

‘No, no.  That cannot be.’  The King looked at Philippa for help and received none.  She was looking at me with an expression of horror.

Thomas was still staring at me.


It was a command.

What did I want in that fateful moment?  I wanted not to be the object of infamy.  I wanted to remain in the affections of the King and Queen.  I did not want to hurt Will, who was looking at me as if I had a knife in my hand that I might just use to draw his blood.  I did not want the court to whip itself into a storm of chatter and criticism, of finger-pointing at me and at my morals.

I almost stepped back. Surrounded by so much confliction, I almost repudiated him.

But Thomas Holland was regarding me with confidence, with diligence.  There was also in that gaze a depth of understanding.  He had no notion that I might refuse to step with him.

‘My lady,’ he invited, his hand still outstretched to take mine.

So what did I want?  My heart thudded with the immediacy of my desires.  I wanted him.  I wanted to be with Thomas Holland, acknowledging that all the arguments in the world could not change my mind.  I wanted him now as much as I had wanted him seven years ago when I had stood beside him, my raiment covered in feathers and mites from the mews.

‘Joan!’  It was Will.  His voice was harsh with a world of condemnation in it.  ‘Will you do this to us?  To me?’

I looked over my shoulder, curving my lips into a little smile.  Since there was only one action I could possibly take, that smile held a world of apology as I placed my hand in that of Thomas and stepped to his side.  I would be Joan of Kent.  I would make my own choices as much as I was able.  I would follow my own destiny.

Thomas said not a word, or did he have to. I could read the victory in his face as his battle-worn hand closed hard around mine and he led me forward into the little space before the King.

‘The Lady Joan is my wife, as she will affirm.  Joan and I took oaths per verba de praesenti.’  How easily the Latin fell from his tongue.  ‘There were witnesses to that oath-taking who are still alive to speak of it, and there was a physical consummation.  Our marriage is as lawful as your own, my lord.  Joan’s marriage to the Earl of Salisbury is not a legal one, it never was, and never will be.  And now I have the money to prove it in a court of law.’

King Edward’s face flamed, the lines from nose to mouth dug deep, becoming even deeper when Thomas compared our marriage to his own.

‘Do you say?’  It was a the quietest of queries but virulent withal.

I held Thomas’s eyes with my own.  Do it.  Say it now.  Let us claim what is ours to claim.  We had come so far;  now was not the time to retreat.  Even though I trembled at what we were doing.

‘I do say it, my lord.’

About Anne O’Brien

anne o'brien

Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.

She now lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales, where she writes historical novels. The perfect place in which to bring medieval women back to life.

You can follow Anne on Twitter, find her on Facebook, visit her website and enjoy the inspiration for her historical novels on Pinterest.

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