It’s not ME – it’s YOU

Excerpt from Pharaohs, Emperors, and Other Women who Ruled.

Urraca: León and Castile, 1109-1126

If we were to write about royal women who had to marry men they didn’t want to, we would need several more books. But Urraca of León and Castile went to war to be free of her husband. 

Urraca was the oldest legitimate daughter of Alfonso VI of León and Castile, in northern Spain. Despite marrying five times, Alfonso VI hadn’t managed to have a legitimate son who survived to adulthood. As a result, Urraca was the presumed heir to the throne; this meant her marriage was a matter of considerable political importance. Her upbringing was probably typical of royal brides at the time: she would have been trained to be wife and mother, consort and eventually mother of kings. At the age of about 8 she was formally married to Raymond of Burgundy, a French mercenary nobleman. Now, at first a mercenary soldier and younger son might seem like an odd choice for a royal heiress. However, Alfonso VI had become king of a large part of northern Spain through war and deceit, so Raymond must have looked like a good potential king to him. Urraca and Raymond would have begun living together when she was about thirteen. They had two children, Sancha and Alfonso Raimundez, and were set up as rulers of the province of Galicia, which Alfonso VI had given to Raymond – not Urraca – when the two married.

But in May 1107 Urraca’s life changed radically. First her father, realising that a legitimate son just wasn’t in the cards, made her illegitimate brother Sancho his heir. Raymond of Burgundy must have been annoyed – as the husband of the legitimate daughter and father of a legitimate royal grandson, many would have felt his claim to be stronger than Sancho’s. But by the end of the month Raymond was dead, and Urraca was left single, a princess but not an heiress. She did continue to rule in Galicia, as royal daughter, widow, and mother.

A year later, and it was succession upheaval all over again. Her half-brother Sancho had been killed fighting against the Muslim kingdoms of southern Spain. Left with no sons, Alfonso VI went back to Urraca, declaring her his heir in 1108 and looking for a new husband for her. Neither Urraca nor the court seemed particularly taken with his choice, Alfonso I of Aragon, but his nickname “the Battler” suggests that once again Alfonso VI was looking for a warrior to succeed him. Despite their lack of enthusiasm, in view of no other handy choice, Urraca and her advisors went ahead with the match even after Alfonso VI’s death in 1109.

To say the marriage was not a success is an understatement. There was an immediate rebellion in Galicia, where Urraca’s son with her first husband, and current heir to her throne, was in the care of the archbishop of Santiago de Compostela. Her illegitimate half sister and her husband, Countess Teresa and Count Henry of Portugal (not yet an independent kingdom) began seeking to extend their own power. And in León and Castile there was resentment against the Aragonese officials appointed by Alfonso I. But the final blow to the marriage was Urraca’s own disenchantment with her husband: a short six months after marrying, she split from Alfonso I and began to issue charters and other documents in her own name.

Why was the marriage such a disaster? There are so many possibilities: Urraca claimed that Alfonso I was physically abusive, but in the twelfth century this might not have been enough to get Urraca a divorce. One scholar has suggested that it was Alfonso I’s failure to get Urraca pregnant that was the root problem, but six months is an awfully short time to try before giving up – unless someone wasn’t even trying. There were rumours that Alfonso I, who was a bachelor when he married and never remarried, and wasn’t known to have any mistresses, just wasn’t interested in women. And while Alfonso I may not have wanted any woman, it seems another part of the marriage breakdown was that Urraca may not have wanted any husband; after Raymund’s death, she had been an independent woman, ruling her own domain, and she already had an heir from that marriage. Her father got it wrong – what Urraca needed wasn’t a tough, take charge warrior, but a man who would be content to either stay in the background, or to be her general, not her king. She doesn’t seem to have objected to men so much as husbands: later chronicles list her lovers, although they almost certainly overestimate.

Whatever the reasons for the difficulties, by 1111, marital discord had escalated into civil war. Things started badly for Urraca, who was defeated by a joint force of her husband and her brother-in-law, Henry of Portugal. But Henry of Portugal soon switched sides, tempted by a better division of the spoils offered by Urraca’s faction. And back and forth it went for a year, with various battles, alliances, betrayals, etc. One particularly important change was when Urraca got physical custody of her son Alfonso Raimundez; she now could command the support of those who were loyal to her late husband and young son, and Alfonso Raimundez had a better claim than Alfonso I (yes, there are too many Alfonsos here – no doubt Urraca thought so too). Eventually, in 1112, it was over: the marriage was annulled, the division of lands agreed, and Urraca could get on with the daily work of ruling and trying to win back as many lands as possible. She did pretty well, driving out Alfonso I in 1113, and settling into peace in 1116.

But having gotten rid of her ex, she now had trouble with her half-sister. Although Teresa was an illegitimate daughter of Alfonso VI, her father’s decision to name his illegitimate son his heir had opened the door of Teresa to advance her claims, and those of her son (yet another Alfonso). Teresa, now a widow, had been quite content to sit and rule her own domains while Urraca dealt with her ex-husband.  But by 1117, Teresa began to call herself Queen of Portugal, and Urraca wasn’t having that. With ex-husband, son, and rebellious vassals, Urraca was able to use a combination of diplomacy, double-dealing and war to maintain her own position. But Teresa was not interested in any compromise. Battle erupted on at least three occasions, before Teresa was finally captured in 1121, and only allowed her freedom in exchange for submitting. (Teresa would eventually be removed from power in Portugal following a civil war with her own son.)

Not only did Urraca retain her throne and her single status, but the kingdom that she left to her son was unified and largely peaceful – the mark of any successful medieval sovereign.

Pearls Are Made of Grit

Excerpt from Pharaohs, Emperors, and Other Women who Ruled.

Shajar al Durr: Egypt, 1250

In one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in history, Shajar al Durr went from slave girl to sultan of Egypt.

We know very little about Shajar’s early life, which is not surprising: no one keeping records would have cared much about a slave girl. Her name means “tree of pearls” and was almost certainly a name applied to her as a slave, rather than one her parents gave her (slave girls often had such “poetic” names). She may have been of Turkic origin. She enters history when she was acquired by As-Salih Ayyub, the son of the sultan of Egypt. She was more than just a pretty face, for in 1240 she accompanied As-Salih and his Mamluk soldiers to Egypt, where he took over from his deposed brother as sultan of Egypt. In Egypt Shajar gave birth to their son Khalil, and they were eventually married. From slave to sultan’s wife was a pretty big step up, but concubines who bore sons often moved up the harem ladder. Shajar’s next promotion would be much more spectacular.

In 1249 things looked shaky in Egypt. The sultan was ill, and an army of French Crusaders under Louis IX, possibly the strongest king in Europe, had landed in Damietta. Then As-Salih died (timing!). The death of the sultan would have been a huge blow to the Egyptian side, so Shajar, along with the top general and eunuch, told everyone that the sultan was just sick. She even had a servant continue to deliver food to his tent, and through the use of signed blank documents, was able to issue orders from the ‘sultan’. As-Salih’s son Turanshah was sent for (Shajar’s own son had died by this point), and in the meantime the Fatimid generals displayed tactical brilliance. The Crusaders had attacked the (empty) town of al-Mansour, and soon found themselves trapped and slaughtered inside. At the next battle the French king was taken prisoner, and the Seventh Crusade was pretty much done.

The Mamluks and Shajar had done a pretty good job of things, and only somewhat grudgingly handed over power to Turanshah when he arrived. Things got a lot more grudging, as Turanshah seems to have been less than politic in his conduct. He replaced his father’s Mamluks with his own servants, and was drunk in public more than once. He also demanded the sultan’s treasure from Shajar, but she did a “jewels, what jewels?” act. In short, his reign was short: the Mamluks murdered him and installed Shajar al-Durr as sultan in May 1250.

Why might they have chosen to place a woman on the throne? Shajar was an Abbuyyid widow, and represented a link with the dynasty of her husband. She might have been of a similar ethnicity to the Mamluks, who may have seen her as one of their own; she’s considered the first Mamluk sultan. She had also helped hold things together during the Crusade.

Whatever the reason, Shajar got to work: Within days Louis IX had agreed to pay an eye-watering ransom and the Crusaders had been shipped home. She had coins minted with her own name and the title malikat al-muslimin “queen of Muslims”, and her title (although not her name) was mentioned in Friday prayers, a sign of respect given only to rulers.

But the former slave girl was not an acceptable sultan to everyone. The Caliph of Baghdad refused to recognise her as sultan, and suggested that if the Mamluks couldn’t find a man to be sultan he would send one. The Caliph represented political and religious legitimacy, and so a man was found: Aybek, a Mamluk general. Shajar married him after about three months on the throne.

Things seem to have gone okay as long as Aybek was away at war, but less well when they spent more time together. Shajar, a capable woman who had been sultan, even if only briefly, was a threat to Aybek’s own authority, and the last straw seems to have been when he proposed taking a third wife. Shajar had Aybek murdered during his bath. However, she was unable to organise enough support to retake power, and the story goes that she was beaten to death with clogs on the orders of Aybek’s first wife, and her body thrown from the roof. The bones of the former Sultan were eventually gathered up and placed in the tomb she had had built for herself.

It’s a book!

Isn’t it pretty? I made it myself (publishing on zero budget…)

Cover Image of Pharaohs, Emperors, and Other Women who Ruled.

So, I think it’s pretty obvious that the book is about women who, well, ruled. I can’t remember why, but one evening years ago I got to wondering about women who were official leaders with actual power. Not women with influence, or pulling strings behind the scenes – women who were officially recognised as being the one in charge. I think maybe it started with a wikipedia article? So many things do… Anyway, there were fewer than I might have hoped for, but so many more than I’d heard of.

And at first I just thought these women were cool or terrifying. But the fact that I had heard of so few of them nagged at me. Bookshelves in the English speaking world generally feature just a handful of big name rulers. Part of it is unavoidable: there’s just a lot more historical documenation for Cleopatra or Elizabeth I than, say, the queens of ancient Qedar (see, who among my fellow white anglos has even heard of Qedar, let alone its five queens regnant?). But part of it is avoidable; there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t hear about the sister queens of Patani, or the formidable anti-colonial queens Nzinga Mbande or Ranavalona. And I’d recently started writing as a hobby, and honestly it just kind of spiralled from there.

I started making notes, writing little mini-biographies, and realised something about these female leaders: it was a global phenomenon. Throughout history and around the world, stories of women who were calling the shots. Not limited to the European Enlightenment or ancient societies, but everywhere and everywhen. Those “exceptional” well-known examples turned out to be exceptional, not in the quality of leadership, but in the quality and quantity of documents recording their time in power. Elizabeth I wasn’t even the first queen regnant of England – that was her sister, Mary.

The second realisation took a bit longer, but was just as fundamental: female leaders, just like male ones, come in all varieties. There was Tamar of Georgia, born into the ruling dynasty and brought up to rule, but there was also Shajar al Durr, a slave girl who became sultan of Egypt. Boran of the Sassanid Empire, who understood basic politics, and her sister Azarmidokht, who … did not. The much-married Anula (hint: bring your own food) and never-married Elizabeth of Russia. Mawiyya, who defeated the Roman legions, and Zenobia, who ultimately lost. Raja Hijau, who had a collaborative approach to rule, and Ranavalona, who was very much “one woman, one vote”. There’s no one way to be a female leader, just as there’s no one way to be a male leader.

And finally, the third realisation: unsurprisingly, these women sometimes faced opposition to their rule. Not infrequently the opposition was based on their gender, but sometimes it was just ordinary power struggles. And the opposition was almost always male – husbands, sons, rivals, outsiders – with a notable exception: sisters (or sisters-in-law). Because what other woman would have the status to make a run at the top spot? The Ptolemaic queens Berenice, Arsinoë and Cleopatra are a prime example of sisterly infighting.

Oh, and the title! It turns out that while English has the very gendered terms ‘king’ and ‘queen’ – seriously, in Old English cwen originally meant ‘woman’ – this is not always the case. There is no specifically female version of pharaoh; no pharaoh-ess. Possibly because when the word first evolved the default was male, but it’s interesting to note that a gender-specific form never appeared. In German, for example, we have königin, a female king (könig being king). Linguistically, English doesn’t have female kings, and neither did Ancient Egypt. But where English had to occasionally struggle with the existence of actual female kings, Ancient Egypt never bothered: male or female, you were pharaoh.

Anyway: buy my book! It’s short and fun! Like me.*

* I am undeniably short.

Loving the “unlikeable”

Iron Widow cover

*spoilers*

Iron Widow is a YA Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history. The series follows an 18-year-old re-imagining of her as she avenges her sister’s murder by an intensely patriarchal military system that pairs boys and girls up to pilot giant magical mecha based on creatures from East Asian myth (Nine-Tailed Fox, Moon Rabbit, etc.), but in which boy pilots are treated like celebrities, while girl pilots must serve as their concubines. (summary from author’s website)

It will surprise no one to know that the concubines generally die in battle, sacrificed for the male pilots in the ongoing war with the Hundun.

From page one Zhao shows us a society where women are being abused, deformed, devalued and discarded, and then keeps making it worse. Right along with Wu Zetian, we know how awful it is, and yet are still somehow surprised by how much worse it is than we thought. One of the characters even admits that they can’t let people know that women can be strong than men, that men might die in the Chrysalis mecha, because who would risk their son’s life? Or when her parents beg her to spare her brother’s life, when for her murdered sister they only complained that she’d been so inconsiderate to die outside of battle, depriving them of the payout. But wait – there’s more awfulness! To go along with the violent misogyny we also have racism, with the Han despising the Rongdi (which includes Iron Demon and Zetian’s eventual battle-partner Li Shimin). Zhao constructs a society so awful you can’t help but cheer for Zetian to burn it all down.

But my very favourite part is the trio of main characters. Gao Yizhi, a wealthy, soft-skinned younger son whose devotion to Zetian is such that at the end of the book he literally incinerates his own father who is trying to blackmail Zetian. Li Shimin, an unexpected academic whose life gets derailed because of racism, used as a killing machine (of the enemy and girls) by the army. The bit where Shimin confesses to Zetian that Yizhi’s skin just looks so soft is adorable. In some alternate universe I hope Shimin gets the quiet scholar’s life he deserves.

But it all centres on Wu Zetian, the Iron Widow who killed the pilot who’d murdered her sister (she very nearly fell for his “you’re not like the other girls” bit). The girl who spent a lifetime raging against a society that said she had no value, who took that rage and overthrew that power structure. Who takes that rage and does terrible things, knowing all the time that she’s doing terrible things but deciding that’s the price she will pay/make others pay to stop the slaughter of girls. Who make Bruce “I’m always angry” Banner seem mildly annoyed. Zetian has spent her entire young life being told she is less, and decides no. She will burn down the world for the chance to make it better.

And Zetian knows this, she is aware of her anger, her burning focus. She’s even afraid sometimes to show any “softer” emotions, mainly her love for Yizhi and Shimin. Shimin also struggles with this, but not because he’s afraid to be soft; Shimin has spent so long being loathed for who he is and what he’s made to do (including killing a co-pilot he loved) that Zetian’s affection is hard for him to accept. Yizhi, oddly, is the best at relationships: when it’s obvious Zetian has feelings for Shimin as well, Yizhi says that it was a bit hard at first but he realised it wasn’t a competition and anyway, he and Shimin end up kissing.

Apart from her ferocious anger, the other thing that stands out about Zetian is how she frees herself from all the fears that society would use to hold her back. Fear of death? She fully expected to sacrifice her own life to avenge her sister, and was as surprised as anyone when she survived. Held at gunpoint later, she walks up to the soldier, puts her head to his gun, and says “go ahead, shoot”. He doesn’t and everyone is seriously unsettled. Shame? Family ties? Friends? She lets it all go, everything in pursuit of her goal.

Zetian does it: she finds an ancient dragon, literally smashes the old power structure, and sets out to create a new order. With Yizhi at her side, but not Shimin, who died when fellow pilots betrayed him. Just as she’s starting out though, she gets the biggest shock: the Hundun aren’t the invaders: they are.