Butt-Kicking Princesses in History – Thyra of Denmark

The Danes, as a group, pretty much ruled in the nicknaming department. Particularly with their various monarchs. Olof the Brash. Halfdan the Black. Harald Bluetooth. And so forth.

Thyra, Queen of Denmark, was a lady of questionable parentage – with more folks listed as possible fathers and mothers than a new-born kit in a bunny factory. Which is to say that her parents, while terribly important, were likely not married. So she was married off to a Danish king who’s moniker was, I’m not even kidding, Gorm the Old.

And he wasn’t even old. And plus, his name was Gorm, for god’s sake.

And that, of course, makes a good story – the clever girl marries the schumpy boy and makes a great man out of him. It is, as we all know, the Marge Simpson approach, (“Lisa, most women will tell you you’re a fool to think you can change a man but those women are quitters.”) with a long and glorious history in storytelling. And it may be true.

However there is another record from the historian Saxo Grammaticus tells us another story, thusly: “This man [Gorm] was counselled by the elders to celebrate the rites of marriage, and he wooed Thyra, the daughter of Ethelred, the king of the English, for his wife. She surpassed other women in seriousness and shrewdness, and laid the condition on her suitor that she would not marry him till she had received Denmark as a dowry. This compact was made between them, and she was betrothed to Gorm.” Was she a princess or a bastard? Who knows. What I do know is this: Stories like that make me question my whole life. Withholding your hand in marriage until the young man in question can produce for you an entire nation? My god. This woman was brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that?


Thyra was already well-known by the time she married poor old Gorm. Or, at least it is said that she was. Thyra has many stories. Perhaps they are all true. Perhaps none are. The stories say that she was pretty, brave and resilient. They say that she fought an army of Germans and held them at bay. They say that she travelled across the Sea of Trolls to retrieve a stolen daughter.

They say a lot of things.

And you know what? I’m inclined to believe it. After all, they called her husband Gorm The Old. Know what they called her? The Pride of Denmark. (Or the Ornament of Denmark. Or the Jewel on the Neck of Denmark. In any case, it’s clear she was held in high regard.) According to legend, she was wooed aggressively by Otto, the emperor of Germany. And she held him off with batted lashes and sly smiles, all the while building a massive dyke (that still stands today) from which to wage war. And friends, war was waged and Otto ran off with his tail between his legs.

Go Thyra.

Later, when Gorm persuaded her to become his wife, she laid down her final terms for the nuptials to take place: He must first build a new house and sleep in it by himself during the first three nights of winter, and record what dreams he had. Only if she liked what she heard would she then consent to marry. When he reported that he had dreamed that a herd of oxen came out of the sea and that birds fluttered down from the sky and landed on the house, Thyra was satisfied.

Which means that Gorm may be cleverer than originally believed. After all, these dreams came straight out of the bible (they are the ones that Pharaoh reported to David – oxen from the ocean symbolizes a bountiful harvest, while birds indicate a strong nation). Gorm wasn’t a Christian, but he knew his beloved was. Could it be that he would think to report the exact dreams that he knew would please his wife? Could it be that he invented the stories that would, for once and for all, remove her last hesitations and pave the way of winning the gril of his dreams? Nice move, Gorm. Nice move.

Tricky fellow.

In any case, Thyra lived a long time, but not nearly as long as her husband. When she died, he mourned desperately, and erected two runestones in honor of his beloved. The Pride of Denmark. The Treasure of Denmark. The Jewel of Denmark. The Mother of Denmark. Thyra.

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Urraca of Zamora

I love a good sibling rivalry story. As one of five siblings myself (oldest sister of four girls and one boy) and the mother of three (I may have mentioned them once or twice), I know quite well the shrewd calculations and endless scheming, the simmering  cauldron of perceived slights and all-out wrongs, the endless record-keeping and pecking-order-awareness. It’s more complicated than Secret Santa day at the UN, I’ll tell you what.

Take the Infanta of Zamora, Urraca. First of all, look at this picture:

Notice the heavy lidded stare? Notice the sidelong glance? Notice the scheming slump? My daughters make that same face. Hell, I make that face, and I don’t even live with my siblings anymore.

Urraca was – as I am – one sibling in five, but was, unlike me, the heir to a kingdom. Lucky girl. I, on the other hand, will be heir to my dad’s ginormous dictionary and my mom’s ancient Cuisinart (though, I may have to thumb wrestle my sister for it) (she doesn’t know that I have THUMB ARMOR! With POISONED BARBS! And RAZOR WIRE! One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war, HI-YA!).

Wait. What was I saying? Oh, right Urraca.

Anyway, Urraca’s father was Ferdinand the Great, the guy who conquered the heck out of the various principalities of Spain – held by both Christian and Islamic rulers – and crowned himself Emperor of Spain. This is not – to be clear – the same Ferdinand who kicked out Spain’s Muslims and Jews and, just for fun, whipped up a good old fashioned Inquisition, and ushered in one of Spain’s more unpleasant chapters. I mean, crowning oneself emperor is – let’s face it – a jerk move. But at least it’s not an Inquisition.

So, on his death bed, he divided up his empire, giving his three sons separate kingdoms, while his daughters were each given a walled city-state to call their very own. Ferdinand, having abandoned the trappings and riches of emperor-ness and wearing the simple clothes of a monk, challenged his children to play nice and to be fair and to love one another and God and Spain and then he died.

And then the wars started.

Really, we can blame brother Sancho – the eldest, who, rightfully so, thought that being the oldest meant that he was In Charge. As an eldest child myself, I can relate. He was, after all, king of Castille, the largest and most important of the three kingdoms. So he convinced his brother Alfonso to go to war with brother Garcia to nab Galicia, which Alfonso did willingly. Then, with extra money and arms at his disposal, Sancho went after Alfonso’s Leon, Elvira’s Toro and Urraca’s Zamora.

“NO FAIR,” Alfonso said, but Sancho wouldn’t listen, and now Alfonso was on the run.

Toro folded like a napkin, so Alfonso and Urraca combined forces. Alfonso tried to convince Urraca to come with him to Leon, but Urraca wouldn’t have it. “Have you seen this friggin’ castle?” Urraca said.

Sure, it’s looking a bit worse for wear now, but then it was impenetrable. Nothing that Alfonso would say could convince her. She had said her piece. She had counted to three. And she wasn’t moving. So Alfonso left for Toledo to regroup, and Urraca prepared for war.

Sancho, meanwhile, had teamed up with El Cid, (yes, that El Cid)

who convinced Sancho to go and pay his sister a visit, kiss her hand, and then wage all-out war. Which he did. Because why not?

It was unsuccessful, alas. Zamorra was too well-defended, and Urraca too shrewd a tactician. Unable to penetrate the walls, El Cid convinced Sancho to just wait the city out. Eventually, with her people starving, Urraca would cave. After all, El Cid argued. Ladies are delicate. And tender hearted. And they can’t stand to watch the men and women and children in their community suffer starvation or pain or bloody death. And that may be true. But Urraca was very good at convincing people to do things. And so the Nobleman Vellido rode out to meet Sancho. As Urraca had instructed him to do, he told Sancho that he was switching teams. And then, using trickery and cunning, got Sancho alone. I imagine the interchange went something like this:

VELLIDO: Boy, oh boy, Sancho, I sure am glad I switched sides. Your team rules!

SANCHO: I know, RIGHT? Welcome aboard.

VELLIDO: Hey. I have a GREAT idea! Let’s go over on the other side of that rocky knoll. Just the two of us. With no one else. We’ll watch the sunset and drink some wine and have lots of fun male bonding!

SANCHO: OMG! That’s totally the best idea EVAR!

VELLIDO: Awesome! I think I’ll bring this spear! For no particular reason!

And off they went.

Now, no one can prove that Urraca was behind this, of course. But it is widely believed that she was. Because she had a city to defend. And a snot-nosed brother to put in his place. And, as I said, she was very good at convincing people.

When Sancho was discovered, spear sticking out of his puny little body and hovering near death, he is said to have uttered these words:

“The traitor Vellido has killed me, and I die for my sins because I broke the oath I made to my father.” In which the rest of the world said, “WELL, DUH,” and then he died.

And let this be a lesson to all of us. If Sancho hadn’t made such a fuss, then the five siblings might have been content with their respective shares, and maybe later crises in Spain would have been averted. Or maybe not. While no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps the truths of human intolerance and the lust for power and the unbreakable code of sibling rivalry would have asserted itself no matter what. Perhaps the Inquisition was inevitable – just as any exercise of human horror, of man’s inhumanity to man.

Still, one may take some hope in the person of Urraca – who didn’t go after her brother’s share or her sister’s share, who didn’t make a mockery of her father’s plea to share and play nice. Instead, she simply stood up to a bully, and took him down. And rightfully so. There are too many bullies, and I expect the Middle Ages had far more than their fair share. Having dispatched with her brother, and the aftermath of nobles with too much time on their hands and too many weapons at their disposal and too much temper boiling behind their ears, she went back to ruling her small nation with some amount of fairness – and perhaps a little smug satisfaction as well.

She was a sibling after all. And no one does smug like siblings.

Butt-Kicking Princesses In History: Isabella of France (aka The She-Wolf)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I have decided to start writing a series of posts about real-life princesses who didn’t fit the stereotype of the delicate princess attached to their husbands or fathers or brothers like roses on the vine. My new book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET, features a princess who, like these, does not fit a lot of stereotypes: she is not  beautiful; she is not delicate. She does not wilt in corners or suffer in silence. She is crafty and cunning and full of wiles. And that’s how I like it. I like to write about princesses who make noise, whose actions have consequences – both good and bad.

So I’ve been looking into some princesses who made a little noise. And it’s been fun. First off: Isabella, the She-Wolf of France.

If I had ever been given the power to choose my own moniker, I would for sure choose “she-wolf”. Because wolves rule. And she-wolves are powerful and wily and cunning and strong and I love them. They are excellent mothers, they are good communicators, they back up their sister-wolves always, and they can go from snuggles to throat-ripping to home-building to gonna-stand-my-ground-and-don’t-even-THINK-about-attacking-my-young-you-big-jerkface, to snuggly mama and cubs time again. She-wolves rock.

I, alas, am far from wolfy, so I fear it is a long shot. Instead of Kelly “The She-Wolf” Barnhill, I’m more like Kelly “The Inconsistant Door Mouse” Barnhil. Or Kelly “The Perpetually Late Robin” Barnhill. Or something.

Not so for this lady:

 I mean, look at her. She is holding that rose so dangerously. I half expect it to be hiding a poison dart. And her lovely, calm expression belies her intention to raise an army of mercenaries and kick the royal butt of her philandering royal husband.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Isabella of France. Betrothed at seven. Married at twelve. A pawn for peace between two nations hell-bent for generations on kicking the spit out of one another. As an act of good will, King Phillip (usually called Phillip the Fair) and Queen Joan of Navarre, sent their only daughter to marry King Edward II of England – by all accounts an unserious, incurious and selfish King, more interested in pleasures and parties than the tedious work of running a kingdom. What’s worse is that he was famous for his long line of lovers – both male and female – and it pleased him to use his special-friend-of-the-week as a tool to insult and humiliate his young bride.

A jerk, right? I mean look at that guy:

He’s got “jerk-face” written all over him. I would never invite him over for dinner. And if I did, it would be something that I only mostly reheated from the freezer.

Of course, I am not a she-wolf.

Isabella was young and inexperienced, but she knew an insult when she saw one. And she was not about to take it lying down.

Now, at this time, the control that the King had over England was shaky at best. Like that old adage “all politics is local”, the real power lay in the local authority, and the local Barons were not all that happy with Edward. He had a nasty tendency to pick favorites (typically handsome favorites that he considered dating-material), lavishing favors on the  favored few while ignoring or insulting everyone else. Sabers rattled; battle cries yawped in the enraged throats of the jilted barons. And everyone polished their armor.

The King had a lover named Piers Gaveston, and despite the natural discomfort that one would have in dealing with the lover of one’s husband, Isabella forged a working relationship with Piers, even building strong diplomatic ties between his house and France – and the house of Edward and France, solidifying everyone’s position across the board. Though mostly, to be fair, her own. Isabella gained control over an impressive amount of land – all of which was hers outright – and her own militia and her own treasury. She was a force to be reckoned with. While Edward hardly bothered himself with Matters of State, Isabella was figuring out how to run a country – and how increase her adopted country’s status in the world.

Good on her.

But then Piers was murdered. And things got tricky.

This was, of course, a politically-motivated murder, though, to be fair, most accounts say that Piers was intensely annoying. And insufferable. And the fact that the Crown lavished everything possible on him I’m sure was too much to bear. The barons didn’t like Piers’ favored status, so they slaughtered the poor sod. But King Edward was, well, a man with needs, so he found himself a new boyfriend – Hugh Dispenser the Younger (a guy who tried his hand at piracy for a while. PIRATES!) – and England got bloody. Again.

First, there was the Dispenser War. (Side note to feudal despots everywhere: wars waged in the name of love or lovers typically do not go well. See: Helen of Troy). Then, there was the fact that Isabella and Hugh could barely stand to be in the same room as one another. So the working relationship was out. Add to that, the growing discontentment among Britain’s feudal lords – even those who stayed on Edward’s side during the war. It seemed that few people could tolerate Edward, and NO ONE could stand Dispenser. Things were not looking good for anyone.

So Isabella did what any self-respecting She-Wolf would do.

First, she went to France under false pretenses (and she brought her lover with her. Because why should Edward have all the fun?). Second, she asked the King of France (her brother) for an army. He refused (his own grip on power was tenuous), but Isabella didn’t let that stop her. She used her impressive treasury and land holdings to purchase herself an army of mercenaries. And they all went to England.

At first Edward and Hugh didn’t see her 1,500-strong army as much of a threat. They probably laughed about it over a good bottle of Bordeaux. But once she crossed the channel into England, the barons – all still pretty sore at the King – got wind of it, and they joined the party.

Isabella dispensed with Dispenser, jailed the king (and probably murdered him) (reportedly with hot pokers) (ouch)and put her son – Edward III – on the throne, with herself as regent, as the boy was too young to rule.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t mess with She-Wolves. They will turn your armies against you, humiliate you in public, put you in prison, put your lovers to death, and possibly murder you with hot pokers. You have all been warned.