Joanna Courtney: Lost Women – Capturing the Female Side of History

Joanna Courtney: Lost Women – Capturing the Female Side of History

Too many stories of historical women are lost to us and that is why I chose to write The Queens of the Conquest, about the women fighting to be Queen of England in 1066. Not that I don’t like the men – I’m a little bit in love with all my heroes – but theirs are the grand stories everyone knows and I was more interested in capturing what happened behind the scenes of the battles.

Exploring the female side of a previous era allows access to those more intimate stories, but it is not without problems. The first is the paucity of information about women in times past, especially further back. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle, the key, and almost the only primary source of information for this period, often has only two or three entries per year and very few of them are about women. Historians can often only piece together what daughters even the most major of rulers had by chance remarks and snippets of documentation or rumour about weddings and abbess appointments. This isn’t really prejudice, simply that little was considered worth documenting unless it affected who owned land, property, goods or titles and that rarely included women.

This is a huge frustration for the historian but something of a gift for the novelist armed with an eager imagination, though it does create the second big problem in exploring female history – how we can truly get under the skin of these women? How can we know what they really thought when we have no access to the basic assumptions and attitudes that must have underpinned their approach to life? There are, however, enough women prepared the challenge the norm – Joan of Arc or Boedicea for example, as well as many others less obviously entering male territory but still carving out powerful roles for themselves – to let us believe that women were not simply doormats, hovering obediently on the edges of history. To me, it all comes down to the essentials of being human and of being female, essentials which surely have not changed that much?

Next year – 2016 – will be the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. In some ways 950 years is a long time, but in terms of the evolution of humanity, it’s nothing and it is surely arrogant to assume that emotions are a modern invention? Saxons, Vikings and Normans would have loved their children, fought with their siblings, made and lost friends, laughed and cried, hurt and grieved, and fallen in love and these are all fertile ground for the novelist and hopefully, therefore, the reader.

I firmly believe that the women (and, indeed the men) of the eleventh century were similar to us in all the essentials of what it is to be human and they certainly didn’t live from headline to headline. Battles, even in those times, were few and far between and in the intervening days people didn’t just sit around waiting to be ‘history’. For me it’s really important to think about those long hours, days, and weeks of ‘normal’ life in which people had to talk to each other. The three heroines of my trilogy were all educated young woman, brought up at the heart of powerful courts. They would have understood the problems facing their husbands and would be a logical person to talk them over with. These were not women to underestimate, however little we may know about them, so who were they?

Edyth, heroine of The Chosen Queen, was the only daughter of the powerful Earl of central England and became Queen of Wales at the age of 14. She reigned for 9 years and gave birth to 3 heirs before losing her husband to the English and being returned to her homeland. Back there, still only 23, she was the only woman powerful enough to help Harold join North and South to make England strong enough to resist invaders. Edyth was carrying Harold’s son when he died on Hastings field and had history been the turn of a sword different, she could have been the mother of a line of kings stretching who knows how far.

Elizaveta, heroine of The Constant Queen (out in 2016), was a fiery and elegant Princess of Kievan Rus, a crucial power in central Europe. Born of royal Rus blood on her father’s side and Scandinavian on her mother’s, she was brought up to be a ruler. Having won the heart of Harald of Norway when he was exiled to her father’s court, she was at his side both when he reclaimed his own country and when he set sail to conquer England. A woman of drive and energy, she fuelled her husband’s ambitions and, with a network of sisters in all the royal courts of Europe, could have made England a highly cosmopolitan queen.

Finally Matilda, heroine of The Conqueror’s Queen (out in 2017), was the eldest daughter of the politically canny and influential Baldwin of Flanders and, with French royal blood flowing in her veins from her mother’s side, was also raised for a high place in the world. Although initially unwilling to marry Duke William because of his bastardy, she soon recognised in the young ruler a fierce and proud ambition to match her own. Together they set out to master Normandy and, eventually, to conquer England, the country they’d been promised by King Edward. As a great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Alfred the Great, Matilda gave William a vital pedigree in his claim to the throne, but as his wife she also gave him culture, stability and credibility to make him the viable ruler he became. The victory in 1066 was not just his, but theirs.

These women were rivals in 1066 and they were battling every bit as hard as the men, if not with swords then with the traditional women’s weapons of words, influence and cunning. They may not have known each other but they did know that their own success would necessarily be at the expense of the others and so it eventually proved. By the end of 1066 there would be two exiled widows and one queen. Did the best woman win? You’ll have to read the trilogy to decide but I do hope that in doing so you can help recover a little of these amazing women who should not have been lost to history.


The Chosen Queen – Joanna Coutrney

Ever since Joanna sat up in her cot with a book, she’s wanted to be a writer.

She’s had over 200 stories and serials published in women’s magazines and has battled for years to make it as a novelist.

She’s therefore delighted that Pan Macmillan have now published The Chosen Queen, the first of her historical trilogy, The Queens of the Conquest, telling the stories of the too-long-neglected women of 1066.