Agnes of Poitou (c.1025-1077) and ‘Medieval’ Attitudes to Women in Power?

by Emily Ward

Popular interest in medieval queenship was sparked by the recent television dramatization of the novel, The White Queen, and its portrayal of the relationship between a queen mother and her young sons, the ‘princes in the tower’. This triggered thoughts for me about my own research period, the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Can the example of one eleventh century empress, Agnes of Poitou, inform our views about the power held by mothers of child kings and attitudes towards these women?

Agnes’ son, Henry, became king of Germany at only five years old. His birth in 1050 was widely celebrated since he was the first male child born to Henry III of Germany, who died a few years later in 1056. We have no will for Henry III but we know he left his son in the hands of Pope Victor II. There was no mention of what role Agnes should now play, although several sources claim she was approved as her son’s guardian by the princes of Germany. These were men who could certainly have challenged her power at the time if they had wanted to but, at least initially, they left Agnes to her own devices. Yet was this really power she now held? Her prominence rested solely on the legitimacy of husband and son and Agnes knew this. She is visible in diplomas issued during the first few years of the young Henry’s reign, but any ‘policies’ at this time were continuations of her husband’s plans and she relied on the same men he had had about him.

This is not to say that Agnes could not make important political decisions. She organised marriage alliances for her own daughters during this time; a task of far more importance than it may seem since the marriage of royal princesses could bring political, monetary and military gain. Usually the king would have been at the forefront of these nuptial decisions but it seems that, in this instance, Agnes had an influential role.

Resentment against the queen mother grew during the late 1050s. Much of the criticism aimed at Agnes was anti-feminist. Resenting some of her actions, canons at Bamburg claimed “there may not be much glory in defeating a woman, but there is certainly great shame in being defeated by one”.[1] Speculation and slander was also rife. Agnes was accused by a chronicler of sexual relations with a bishop purely because he had risen in prominence at her court. These examples clearly show the unease of medieval commentators around female empowerment. In 1062 a coup was staged by secular and ecclesiastical magnates who kidnapped the boy king from his mother and forcibly removed Agnes from power.

So what can be gained from such a bite sized biographical investigation? Sweeping judgements based on one case study would most certainly be anomalous. However, we can draw tentative parallels with our modern society. Agnes was a woman who struggled to gain and hold power in a male-dominated field. Gender equality in leadership positions is something that makes the headlines regularly today. Whilst Agnes held power, commentators felt the need to justify her position in terms of masculinity, “a woman of manly disposition”.[2] How often do we still see prominent women in leadership described in ‘masculine’ terms as if to justify their success? An article in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2004 demonstrated that women who succeed in traditionally ‘male-dominated’ roles are still more likely to be judged negatively for their achievements. And finally, the removal of Agnes from her position was based on little fact but much speculation. She faced anti-feminist and sexual slurs against her, something that recent news stories perhaps mirror. So does the modern world still propagate ‘medieval’ attitudes towards women, particularly those in positions of power? I will leave that for you to decide.

Further Reading:

  • B. Arnold, Power and Property in medieval Germany, 900-1300 (2004)
  • M. Black-Veldtrup, Kaiserin Agnes (1043-1077). Quellenkritische Studien (Cologne, 1995)
  • Medieval Queenship, J. C. Parsons ed. (Stroud, 1994)
  • I. S. Robinson, Henry IV of Germany, 1056-1106 (Cambridge, 1999)

[1] Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Briefs Meinhards von Bamberg, ep.61, p.107-9

[2] Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, T. E. Mommsem and K. F. Morrison eds. (London, 1962), p.106

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