Princess Alys of France: a Twelfth-Century Patty Hearst?

A second instalment from students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’. Hayley Bassett grapples with sexual exploitation of female hostages.

6 January 1169: King Henry II of England and King Louis VII of France ratified the Treaty of Montmirail, in an attempt to settle their long-running territorial disputes in France. Henry agreed to divide his lands between his sons with Henry the Young King receiving the kingdom of England, Duchy of Normandy and County of Anjou. Richard would receive his mother’s Duchy of Aquitaine and become betrothed to Louis’ daughter Alys and Geoffrey would receive the Duchy of Brittany upon his marriage to its heir Constance (there is no mention of the infant John at this time). At the age of nine Alys was sent to the English court as Henry’s ward in preparation for her future wedding to Richard. There is nothing unusual in these arrangements, the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I, moved to the German court aged eight upon her betrothal to Henry V Holy Roman Emperor in 1110. The main issue of contention here was the absence of a wedding between the engaged couple which culminated in Alys being returned to the French court in 1195, still unmarried some twenty six years later.

Alys’ time in the Angevin court is poorly documented but embellished with scandal; most commonly she is depicted as Henry’s mistress prompting Richard to reject his father’s “conquest” as wife. The “real” Alys presents historians with a challenge but there are similarities to be drawn between her and later women in, if not identical, then certainly comparable circumstances. One such twentieth century example is Patty Hearst, granddaughter of US politician and media mogul William Randolph Hearst. In 1974, 19-year-old Patty was violently kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California, and held hostage for two years during which time she was repeatedly physically, emotionally and sexually assaulted by an organisation calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Patty’s time as a hostage is well documented; her family’s position in US society and her assimilation by the SLA guaranteed large scale media attention and it’s that transparency which allows parallels to be drawn with Alys. Alys position at Henry’s court offered her little security; she awaited a marriage and a bridegroom that, although promised, never came and was locked into an arrangement beyond her control, which neither her father nor Pope Alexander could force Henry to conclude. This position of abject helplessness also applied to Patty, when it became clear whatever action her family took to secure her release would not be sufficient for her kidnappers to release their “prisoner of war”. In her trial defence Patty insisted that the unrelenting physical and psychological pressure of her situation made her agree to anything, culminating in her public declaration of support for the SLA and participation in criminal activity (Nancy Isenberg, “Will the Real Patty Hearst Please Stand Up”, in Historic U.S. Court Cases: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, ed. John W. Johnson (New York, 2001), 142). Likewise for Alys, she had no bargaining power at the Angevin Court and self-preservation was her only option for survival, in whatever form that took.

For both women sexual exploitation was a factor in their confinement and was a weapon employed by the media of their respective time to denigrate them. Patty claimed she was consistently raped by William Wolfe whilst the SLA orchestrated the image of a “love affair” between them for the world’s media, who swallowed that interpretation. Similarly, Richard of Devizes and Roger of Howden, as well as the more scandalising Gerald of Wales, refer to Henry seducing Alys sometime around 1177, whereas a more accurate portrayal would suggest a powerful authority figure pressurising a dependent into a sexual encounter (Roger of Howden, Gesta, ii, 160. Richard of Devizes, Chronicon, 26. Gerald of Wales, Opera, viii: 232) For both women there would seem to be no choice in the matter and little prospect of protection from a third party. Alys and Patty did what they had to do in a difficult situation and whilst they might be divided by eight hundred years, they are testament to their own ability to endure difficult circumstances.

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The King’s Wife

This is the second instalment of guest posts from students who are undertaking research experience placements with me over the summer period. This one comes from recent Cardiff University graduate Laura Richards, whose research placement yielded some interesting gems from a surprisingly small pool of available evidence.

For two weeks I completed some research on Anglo-Saxon marriage alliances focussing on the primary source material. The main thing I learnt was what every person must grapple with when taking on historical research; you have to go through a lot to get a little. What I did find was often scattered across vast pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the main narrative source for the period c. 800-1066. Most evidence came in the form of the names of the couple involved in the marriage and a brief summary of their genealogy. Little was written in way of formal agreements, nevertheless some ideas about these powerful marriages can be drawn out.Books for research

The status of the wife within these alliances was intertwined and representative of her familial support. Eadburh, Queen of Wessex inspires infamy which extends into today as inspiration for the fictional character Princess Kwenthrith; a Mercian princess with a taste for power and poisoning in TV’s Vikings. This stems from the reputation Eadburh receives within the sources granting her an important role within Wessex history compared to other queens. Asser in his Life of King Alfred recounts how Beorhtric of Wessex married Offa of Mercia’s daughter, Eadburh. Once in power she began ‘to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father’, poisoning those she could not control or force the King to disown them. As part of her scheming she accidently poisons her husband. She flees to the court of Charlemagne who, after having his age insulted, places her in a nunnery where she is later caught in debauchery and dies in poverty. Asser casts Eadburh as an evil queen to give warning against granting the king’s wife an equal title.

Despite its aspects of legend, through this narrative it is possible to see how women within marriage alliances represented the power of their families and kingdoms. Eighth-century Mercia was the dominant kingdom. Offa was a powerful king and marrying his daughter to Beorhtric cemented Wessex as a lesser kingdom. With the power of her father behind her Eadburh influenced her husband and had the power to destroy those in her way.

However, if the eighth century belonged to Mercia than the ninth was one of Wessex dominance where equal status was no longer granted to the wives of their kings. This could have been more than just a lesson learnt from the evil Eadburh. It shows that Wessex was the dominant power in any alliance so did not need to give power within its court to the female representative of the alliance. The only Wessex queen within the ninth century is Judith, daughter of King Charles the Bald of Frankia who was crowned before her arrival in Wessex. As a Queen Judith was of equal standing to the King and showed the strength Frankia held as an individual kingdom and ally to Wessex. This is seen as a major contributing factor to the conflict between her husband Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald. Furthermore, Judith created her own scandalous reputation by marrying her step-son and later eloping without permission.

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Nevertheless, Wessex, once a dominant kingdom, was quite happy to use its women to extend its influence. Æthelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great married Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and within his lifetime witnessed many charters as Regina of Mercia and after his death ruled as Lady of the Mercians. However, Alfred’s own wife was unable to challenge the Wessex court’s refusal to name her Queen. As most of the sources for the later Anglo-Saxon period are written from a Wessex viewpoint, exercising power and familial backing was positive for Wessex women exported to other kingdoms but disastrously dangerous habits for women being brought into the Wessex royal family. Therefore Eadburh’s infamy must be viewed from this particular angle.

Overall my experience of research has at times been painstaking and although I have to accept that the evidence is lacking on marriage alliances, it was possible to see examples of power being wielded by married women through their familial alliances and for other related ideas when I allowed the evidence to lead my areas of exploration.