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Empress Agnes of Poitou (1043-1077). Reflections on the Legal Basis of Her Regency

Empress Agnes of Poitou (1043-1077). Reflections on the Legal Basis of Her Regency

By Eva-Maria Butz

Less Favored – More Favored: Proceedings from a Conference on Gender in European Legal History, 12th – 19th Centuries (2004)

Introduction: During the 10th and 11th century Ottonian and Salian queens and empresses became more influential than ever before in the East-Frankish and German Empire. Evidence of female participation in governance is documented by the large number of interventions in royal charters, in addition to the designation of the empress as consors regni, as the co-partner in the reign. However, female rulers were not accepted on an equal footing with male rulers. Agobard of Lyon described already in the 9th century the empress as an essential assistant to the ruler, helping him in ruling and managing the court and empire. At the beginning of the 11th century, Wipo, a writer at the royal court, denoted queen Gisela as necessaria comes, an indispensable companion of Conrad II. In her role as necessaria comes she was first and foremost the wife who proved to be an eminently efficient counsellor. To her 11th century contemporaries, a queen not only had the right but also the duty to be involved in ruling. However, she could not legally claim her share in power.

The only possibility of legal female rulership was when a queen ruled for a minor son after the king had died. In the Ottonian and Salian Empire women assumed regency, vice regency or governorship.  However, this possibility was not always utilized. Other potential guardians, such as the closest male relative, could assume this position besides the mother. The guardianship of the young king did not, however, automatically make that person a regent. The early death of a ruler could evolve into a political crisis for the royal dynasty and also for the empire: other magnates might take opportunity for seizing power. We see this occurring in 983 when the minor king Otto III acceded to the throne. His mother, Empress Theophanu, competed against duke Henry of Bavaria, who was the patronus legalis, the legitimate guardian of Otto III. Theophanu obtained the regency and secured the throne for the Ottonian family. Thus, by the 10th century, regency was not always linked to male guardianship.

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