Examining the Resources and Revenues of Royal Women in Premodern Europe Workshop Three: Affinities & Administration

by Dr. Cathleen Sarti (Balliol College, Oxford)

Workshop Three: Affinities and Administration

This workshop on Affinities & Administration of Royal Women in Premodern Europe closed a workshop series conducted virtually during the pandemic. Going online enabled us to keep the conversation on resources and revenues of royal women, started in a core team around 2018, going, and – even more important – to include much more and much more widely spread scholars than usual. In this third workshop, scholars from England, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Australia were able to share their research. The audience also joined from their homes all over Europe, Australia, or North America.

Detail of a presentation miniature with Christine de Pisan presenting her book to queen Isabeau of Bavaria. Illuminated miniature from The Book of the Queen (various works by Christine de Pizan), BL Harley 4431 © British Library

In the first two workshops on lands and resources the importance of administration and networks for royal women – be they empresses, queens, electresses, duchesses, or princesses – were discussed. This third workshop now put the spotlight on “queen adjacent”-actors, as Nicola Clark (Chichester, UK), one of the presenters, called them. Monarchical rule, despite the name, was a joint effort, and royal women were often particularly good in making use of formal and informal connections. Royal female households, consisting of administrative personnel, ladies-in-waiting, household staff, and family members. Discussing cases from various European realms showed that the understanding and practice of who exactly belonged to the queen’s household varied. In the early modern period in Scandinavia, more and more the king and his officials decided who would belong to the queen’s household. In England, lands (see workshop 1) were often administered by state officials who did not change when the queen changed. On the Iberian Peninsula, royal women were directly responsible for officials serving in their household, e.g. paying their salary. Still, many officials served both in the king’s and the queen’s household, making political loyalty a very individual question. Furthermore, some official positions such as tax collector were much more bound to the crown, and more independent from individual crown bearers. In particular the presentation by Paula Del Val Vales (Lincoln, UK) comparing the personnel in the queen’s household from England, Castile, and Aragon in the 13th century emphasised the need to use a variety of sources (account books, lists of personnel, normative documents, declarations, but also letters and chronicles). In general, the workshop and the discussion showed that there is still much to understand about a queen’s household to interpret her power base. Analysing loyalty during conflicts as well as paying special attention to payrolls is a way forward to a more detailed and sophisticated understanding of a royal woman’s role within her territory. Using surviving letters from a Spanish lady-in-waiting for Catherine of Aragon, Nicola Clark showed just how useful these insights into a royal woman’s household are, not just to understand Catherine’s agency, but also the broader political situation in England in the last years under Henry VII.

Royal women fulfilled governmental functions which were usually based on her possession and rule over queen’s land, as Diana Pelaz Flores (Santiago de Compostela) with her analysis on the queen’s justice in late medieval Iberia showed. Queens acted as mediators, and organised justice within their jurisdictions. And sometimes, her role as queen even enabled her to mediate between conflicts outside of her jurisdiction as the example of Leonor de Trastamara, queen of Navarre, but mediating in Castile, showed. Needless to say fulfilling such functions would build strong connections and a wider power base for royal women.

However, blind spots in sources, bad survival rates, and the need to read between the lines in sources and older historiography still are a challenge to anyone working on women’s history. Cathleen Sarti (Oxford) discussed a further challenge with an early 18th-century queen of Denmark, not very present at court in Copenhagen and as such much underestimated and overlooked in contemporary sources and later historiography. Her impact on her own lands outside the capital, however, is seen in surviving letters and regional historiography.

Questions of political loyalty within the queen’s household were a common theme throughout the papers. Michele Seah (Newcastle, AU) showed that on the local level there was surprising stability, even during the conflicts in the late 15th century in England. Despite repeated changes of kings and queens, the actual local administration did not exchange people, and continued to function. Queens nonetheless could be traced in sources as taking an active role within the administration on a very high level but were less involved with every day running of these estates and lands. Tracing the development of the Swedish queen’s land from the late 13th century to the 18th century, Fabian Persson (Linnaeus University, SWE) emphasised the impact of political conflict on the actual holding of promised dower lands, but also the problems with very long-lived dowager queens, basically blocking these lands for any of their successors.

A striking example of political interference based on a queen’s affinity was presented by Zita Rohr (Sydney, AU), discussing the Aragonese queen Yolande de Bar. Connections from her natal French dynasty underlined the importance of the Jewish community which she in turn protected in her new kingdom. Yolande’s strong political will can be traced throughout her life, although Zita’s research flags up another common problem, namely that sources connected to royal women are often spread throughout several territories. At least the birth territory and her marital realm should be considered, and in times of personal unions, or in the case of several marriages, even more possible realms and, thus, archives come into play.

The question of financial administration is closely connected to the financial and administrative education of royal women, as already raised in workshop 2. Charlotte Backerra (Göttingen, DE) exemplified a particularly striking example of a financially savvy consort needing to balance her especially wasteful husband the importance, but also the difficulties, of keeping an eye on the account books. Additionally, having many children added to financial strains, as in all other strata as well. Modern historians will need to take into account these circumstances in a much broader sense than hitherto often practised.

At the core of all these discussions were once again questions of who belonged to a royal woman’s household, and if, e.g., officials and servants who did not change their role with a change in ownership can be considered as affinity or part of the household? Looking at individual cases showed the large overlap – people serving in the king’s and the queen’s household, having additional official positions within the realm, or only temporarily being attached to a household. This question of who belonged to a household – and connected with it – and thus who was most likely dependent or loyal to the queen (or king) will have far-reaching implications for future research into a royal woman’s economic resources and power.

This post is the third in a series reflecting on the recent Queen’s Resources workshop series and conference. Part of the Examining the Resources and Revenues of Royal Women in Premodern Europe project.

Past & Present is pleased to support this event and supports other events like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars working in the field of historical studies at all stages in their careers.

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