Notable Noblewomen of Medieval Times

Posted: 27th August 2021

The Middle Ages were a period of great historic interest, with dramatic upheavals and transformations across the entire spectrum of civilised life, including politics, culture, agriculture, social orders and all aspects of daily living for all classes. Even the territories were subject to frequency shifts and changing hands as battles were won and lost and empires rose and fell.

Yet, the history books of the time feature a largely one-sided record of the period - that of the lives and times of medieval men. Such were the social and educational dictates, the stories of women were largely absent from the many documented stories of life in the Middle Ages. The rare exceptions tended to be the famous or powerful queens and their daughters, or the scandalous mistresses of legendary men.

While the everyday stories of medieval women of the working classes may be lost to the mists of time, there were some notable medieval women whose stories did survive in books or endured through legend.

Here are two short accounts of a couple of these notable women, whose intriguing lives are made all the more captivating for ensuring their histories survived against the odds among the male-dominated medieval history books.

Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

Like a good number of the noblewomen whose lives did manage to attain documented attention during the Middle Ages, Katherine Swynford was initially renowned as the mistress of a famous or powerful man. Yet Katherine and her children, and their subsequent descendants, were to play a significant role in the history of England's monarchy, politics and aristocratic lineage.

Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

Historical Honey

Katherine was born in the mid-14th century, one of many children of Paon De Roet, a nobleman granted the title of Knight. The details of her early life are not well documented, as was normal for the period when record-keeping and official registrations were not commonplace, especially for females.

Yet Katherine's notoriety was established when she began a scandalous love affair with her employer - the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. While the lives of the landed gentry often made for salacious gossip during the medieval period, the Duke of Lancaster's antics were of particular note, since he was the middle child of the King of England, Edward III. The Duke was also a powerful and influential character within the court and politics of the time, as well as being vastly wealthy.

What is known about Katherine is that she went to work for the rich and powerful Duke of Lancaster as a governess to his children - a testament to her civilised or noble background when courtly positions would be appointed to women from good families with aristocratic heritage. It would appear that Katherine was a popular addition to the household, being allowed to raise her own child alongside her privileged charges, and the Duke even stood as godfather to Katherine's daughter from her first marriage.

Their relationship would assume its scandalous status, however, upon the death of the Duke’s wife, Blanche, when Katherine became the Duke’s mistress. The love affair endured for almost a decade and produced four illegitimate children, until the Duke was forced to end it for the sake of his reputation and political standing. However, this was not the end of the story for the Duke and his beloved Katherine. Fifteen years later, following the death of the Duke’s second wife Constance, Katherine was finally able to legitimise their union when she married her prince at Lincoln Cathedral.

Katherine’s children, despite being born out of wedlock, would also go onto future legitimacy and become prominent players in the English royal family and seats of power. Katherine Swynford, from governess to mistress to Duchess of Lancaster, left her mark in the history books as the founder, alongside her Duke, of the noble Beaufort line which would include future Earls, Dukes, Counts and Marquesses, as well as family links with the legendary House of Tudor in England and the House of Stuart in Scotland.

Catherine de' Medici

Catherine of the infamous Medicis of Florence - the renowned Fathers of the Renaissance - was another noblewoman who went on to become a legend in the royal histories of the Middle Ages.

Catherine de' Medici

Attributed to Germain Le Mannier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hers was a more traditional, and respectable, route. At the age of fourteen, Catherine married Henry, the second son of the King of France, a highly advantageous match for the Medicis who had risen to their wealth and influence from merchant origins, though they already had family in the highest social and political positions - Catherine's marriage had been arranged by her uncle, Pope Clement VIII.

While the marriage was not cited as a happy one, her husband reputedly neglected his wife in favour of his favourite mistress, Catherine's social elevation was undisputed. A couple of years after their marriage, Henry became the Dauphin of France, after the death of his elder brother, Francis III. Less than a decade later, Henry was the King of France, with Catherine his Queen Consort.

Catherine's influence within the French court was further increased when her husband died in a jousting accident, leaving her in the position of Regent for her young sons, first for King Francis II, then King Charles IX who was just 10-years-old when he assumed the throne. Given the ages of her children when they became King, Catherine's powers as her role as Regent were considerable. She was thought to be highly influential in the decision and reigns of her sons, including a third son who also went on to become King of France, Henry III. Her influence was not solely limited to the French crown and governance, for example, Henry III's titles also included King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

While the reigns of Catherine's sons were often deemed unpopular and controversial, it's undeniable that her role in the politics of France was unique and substantial, particularly for a female, and even more so for a noblewoman from non-royal origins. And as one of her legacies was the collection of stunning properties in France, most famously the magnificent Chateau of Chenonceau, there's no doubt that Catherine De Medici was one of the most influential and historic women of the Middle Ages.

These two women, from similar social ranks within the medieval aristocracy, went on to secure their places in the most historic stories of the Middle Ages. While their influence or notoriety was initially due to the men they loved or married, they subsequently made their own legends through their own lives and their descendants. And in the recording of their stories and achievements, history is far richer for this rare female perspective of the medieval period.

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