Early medieval ladies

This post is a follow-up to an earlier one about the lives of castle ladies.

Prior to 1100, medieval ladies didn’t have castles, they had halls. There was one key difference that completely shaped the lady’s life. That is, instead of stone walls and moats, they had only the defense of loyal fighters. The walls were human.

In those days, realms were much smaller so there were many kings in northern Europe. A poem like Beowulf doesn’t bother distinguishing between one kind of lord and another; they are in command of a hall, a tribe, and many men: that’s all that matters. That’s a lord. His lady was a queen (even the word has changed little with time).

One of the key reasons that medieval lords married only among the aristocracy is that the queen’s job required years of training, and that training was only to be found in a queen’s household. Of course there were other reasons, such as making alliances with another tribe, but those reasons didn’t always work out well.

Girls in a ruling household were raised to know that someday they would marry another ruling lord, and from the first day they arrived in the new household, they had to be prepared for the role. Perhaps as young as 14 or 15, they would be handed a ring of keys. Each key fitted the lock of a storage chest, and all of the chests had daily uses. The most important one held the lord’s treasure, and yes, she had the key.

The treasure was loot that came in on raids. In a pre-coin society, silver rings were the “coin” of trade, but they were also trophies to be handed out in public. The lord could do this, but it was really the queen’s job. During a feast, she would make speeches and hand out treasure, honoring men who had done some feat for the ruler. Receiving honor this way was the highest possible value for men in the tribe.

The queen’s job was to keep the peace among the men. She was to watch for jealousy and try to placate it with gifts and honor. She could not allow private dislikes of her own to interfere. She was in an especially tight place if a powerful warrior made sexual advances on her, since she probably needed to keep that information very private. If her lord felt the need to punish the man, he had lost a valuable ally and perhaps made a fatal enemy. A former insider enemy was always the worst kind.

When the lord had gone away to war, or even just on a few days’ hunt, the queen was responsible for defending the hall. Some queens led desperate last stands, fending off attackers and fire. Any decisions she made during the defense were final, as though the lord had made them.

There’s a great story about an English Saxon queen in approx. the 500s, before they had converted to Christianity. She was the queen/princess of her own tribe, not yet married; she made a marriage agreement with a teenage prince of the Franks (on the continent). Gifts had been exchanged, which made it legally binding, but they had never seen each other. His political situation shifted, and he was pressured to marry a different princess on the continent. When the English princess heard of it, she was not willing to just forget the gift agreement. She had a brother who raised a war band and crossed the channel to pursue the young Frank. They captured him alive and tied him up until she could arrive in person (she may have been right there with the war band). She addressed the teenage boy, saying, “What cause did you have to dislike me? Why did you betray me? Now revoke this second alliance and come back to me.” He did. Procopius, the source of the story, says they were married and lived on in a reasonably normal way.

The young queen knew that it was extremely important to force an outside tribe to honor an agreement. If she had signaled weakness, they could have been attacked by others.

One last important task for the queen: keeping secrets. Loose lips sink ships. The queen was taught from girlhood never to complain or share confidences. A wrong word from her could sink the tribe, since she knew exactly how much treasure was in the chest, and who had shouted angry words at her lord in private.

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