Hartrich ’06 Explores Gender Roles of Medieval Kings

Of the eight kings who ruled England in the late medieval period, five were deposed from their thrones. Although many of these kings had successful reigns, they all had one thing in common: they were believed to lack masculinity. On Monday night, Eliza Hartrich ’06 explored the role of sexuality in the successes and failures of English monarchs in a presentation entitled, “The Worthless King: The Gender Expectations of Later Medieval Kingship, 1307-1483.” Hartrich was the second out of five student fellows to speak this year at the Brace Center for Gender Studies on Abbot Campus. After reading many books on the Middle Ages, Hartrich began to notice a trend in the deposition of English monarchs during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Every English king who exhibited weak, submissive, and effeminate characteristics was soon deposed. “The one way you can really distinguish between these kings is by looking at the gender expectations of masculinity,” she said. Contemporary thought dictated that the image of the king reflected the image of the country and its people. A strong, masculine king was expected to always excel in war, appear vigorous and sexually virile, and firmly command his household. Thus the five kings who pursued peace policies between 1307 and 1483, Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, Edward IV, and Edward V, were deposed. “Effeminate kings were the absolute antithesis to the icon of the times – the noble knight. A king should always be prepared to go to war for his people in person; a life without deeds of honor was not a life rightly lived. [A king who promoted peace] denied the common people the chance to prove their own masculinity,” said Hartrich. Just as kings were expected to be masculine, the queens of the time were supposed to be docile, submissive, and perfect wives and mothers. A power-hungry and ambitious queen was almost as bad as an effeminate king. Hartrich said, “The only thing worse than a masculine queen was a feminine king.” Thus, it was crucial for the king to hold the dominant familial position because the people would often depose what they defined as inadequate rulers. A deposed king was known as rex villis, a worthless king. The three rulers of the time period who were not deposed, Edward III, Henry IV, and Henry V, were all successful warriors and dominant patriarchs. “Masculinity was not only a desirable trait for later medieval English kings; it was a necessity for their survival,” said Hartrich. When asked what led her to become involved in the project, Hartrich said, “I’ve been a history nut for a long time. I knew that the Brace Center was a great place for me to hone my skills as a historian.” Hartrich applied for a Brace fellowship last April, and her proposal was accepted in May. She spent most of her summer researching her topic in-depth and began writing it in mid-August. “Not a lot has been written on my topic, so a lot [of the work] was interpreting and finding hints from [books on] other related topics,” said Hartrich, who found the research enjoyable and interesting. Instructor in English Flavia Vidal was Eliza’s faculty advisor during the course of her work on the project. Hartrich said that the research was not the most difficult aspect of the project. “Presenting was the most difficult- I was really nervous. Research and writing was a more comfortable process… I definitely gained better public speaking skills, particularly with answering questions at the end. It required a lot of thinking on your feet, and I’d never done something like that before.” “The most rewarding part was definitely learning to be a historian; I loved picking my own topic and having the opportunity to examine it thoroughly. It fortified what I already kind of knew – that this is something I want to do, and I can do it. It takes work, but it was worth it. I was really proud of it…it also reinforced for me that this is the [time] period I really want to focus on.”