SESSION III: Putting Women Back in the Story
Feudal Prerogatives and Female Vassals: Philip II’s Manipulation of Marriage
Erin Jordan (Old Dominion University)
The Third and Fourth Crusades devastated the French nobility as did the Angevin Wars – many heiresses abounded during the thirteenth century. The high mortality rate of medieval warfare and practice of primogeniture collided to produce a vast number of women in power. They were not just feudal ‘place holders’ and not necessarily disadvantaged by their new positions. Philip II placed women in positions of authority. This paper examines the experiences of a handful of female lords during this period and their opportunity to wield power.
Choosing a husband for an heiress was a tricky business. The king preferred to keep women unmarried in order to force them into positions of dependency on the crown. Even with such dependency, some women were able to remove French nobility, annul marriages, found hospitals and remain in positions of power. They formed strategic alliances with Philip, thus securing their power.
Blanche of Navarre, Countess of Champagne was an example of this experience. Philip forced her to promise not to marry without his permission after losing her husband to a Crusade. She sought additional guarantees of support from Philip in 1209, to accept her son into his custody for four years. In 1213, Blanche’s fears were realised when there was an attempt to wrest the county of Champagne from her but by securing Philip’s backing she managed to keep her land and her son’s succession. Having the King as an ally meant she did not have an immediate need to marry and she remained a ruler over Champagne for 21 years. Blanche was an active religious patron and eventually entered an abbey.
This example argued for women’s’ ability to wield power during the reign of Philip II in the thirteenth century. Philip II was by no means an ‘early feminist’ – he was all too aware of the limitations of women and he capitalised on them. He eroded the autonomy of fiefs in France but then unwittingly had women who enjoyed autonomy under his rule. This was a mutually beneficial arrangement – the women were content with their single status because they became valuable allies to the King, secured their ends and gained unprecedented amounts of freedom to rule over their domains. They were dependant on a man but that man was the King so it wasn’t the same as being bound by marriage. Philip kept rebellion at bay by forcing these women to stay single and the women kept their freedom and lands.