Crusading Women, by Berni Dwan

reposted from

Strong women are the unsung heroes of history, their achievements usually undocumented, hidden or denied, the most recent obvious example being the realisation that the role of Cumann na mBan in Ireland’s road to freedom went far beyond making pots of tea and rolling bandages. Only now are we hearing about the unstinting bravery of women involved in espionage for the Allies in World War ll while Somalian women like Dr Hama Abdi and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are making history by surmounting intolerable obstacles. Many of noble birth though did get a chance to shine during the Middle Ages, especially during the time of the crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries. With husbands racing off to Jerusalem to save their souls, women were left to mind the castle, run the farms, rear the children, and in some cases run the country.

Take Eleanor of Aquitaine who was an independent ruler in her own right when she inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine and Poitiers, at the age of fifteen. After her first marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled, she married Henry of Anjou, ten years her junior, who would soon become King Henry ll of England. [That’s the Henry, by the way, who triumphantly marched from Waterford to Dublin in the wake of the Norman conquest of Ireland.] You might remember Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of their stormy marriage that great old sixties Hollywood blockbuster that I apologetically love – The Lion in Winter. Anyway, twenty years and eight children later this marriage was also on the rocks. After two decades of having the babies, reluctantly sharing the power and enduring his marital infidelities, Eleanor was one angry lady and it was payback time. So, she led three of her sons in a rebellion against Henry, but it was quashed and Eleanor spent the next fifteen years locked up at his majesty’s pleasure.

Fifteen years of incarceration though did nothing to dim her spirits. With Henry dead and her son Richard now king, the sixty-five year old Eleanor just continued like nothing had happened, ruling England for the next four years while Richard went off to the Crusades. Living into her eighties, she used her second wind to travel around Europe doing what dowagers do – arranging suitable alliances for her army of grandchildren, enough indeed to earn her the title Grandmother of Europe. Weirdly lying somewhere between The Wedding Planner and My Big Fat Greek Wedding – a visit from Granny Eleanor usually meant whisking away a teenage granddaughter to be married to another European royal. Hello magazine must weep at the loss of prolific European royal families and their countless royal nuptials. Her trip to Spain to collect her thirteen-year-old grand daughter Blanche of Castille to marry Louis VIII was prophetic. Years later Blanche was also left holding the country and the grandchildren while her son Louis IX went on crusade. But not only did Blanche baby-sit France, she suppressed rebellions, and succeeded in creating a larger and more powerful country for Louis to return to.

While Eleanor and Blanche lived into old age and died a natural death, their eastern contemporary Shagrat al-Durr was not so lucky, although, for a girl who had been a slave of Turkoman origin, she ran with the influential gang and lived on the edge, albeit, a powerful edge. When Louis IX arrived with his crusading army at the mouth of the Nile Shagrat defended Egypt while her husband was on a junket in Damascus. Soon after returning home he died, and Shagrat concealed the fact, pretended he was sick and continued to have servants bring food to his tent, so that she could remain in charge. Not until her son Turan appeared did she announce his death. She handed him the reigns of power but she was still really in control and demolished Louis’ crusading army. Her generals adored her and wanted her to stay in power so they murdered Turan and put Shagrat on the throne, an exceptional occurrence in Islamic history. The Caliph of Baghdad though was not happy having a Sultana instead of a Sultan, so he sent Aibak, a male replacement. Shagrat seduced him, married him and continued to rule in everything but name. But when Aibak decided to take a second wife Shagrat showed her displeasure by having him murdered. What an excellent Netflix series this would make!

It’s all downhill from here. The lowdown, two-timing Aibak had left a wife and child in Baghdad and this wife – no slouch either – was baying for revenge. With enough support from the army the abandoned wife of Baghdad triumphed and harem slaves beat poor Shagrat to death with their wooden clogs. An ignoble end for a noble lady, but then she did resort to some rather nasty tactics that would have been better left undocumented or hidden.

A slightly shorter version of this was broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Sunday Miscellany December 12th 2002

©Copyright Berni Dwan 2002, 2015