source material itself, but examples of other powerful countesses who
acted in similar roles to those of the countesses of Chester do show
useful patterns in the way that women of comital rank exerted power
throughout the female life cycle.
noblewomen and power
The Chester evidence
The earls of Chester were among the greatest nobles of the Norman and
Angevin realms, the high political élite of twelfth-century society. Their
power was rooted in extensive land holdings in Cheshire and beyond,
which by 1086 consisted of land scattered throughout
Mediaeval Romance in England (1924, rept. New York 1963), pp. 306–11,
for a discussion of sources and analogues.
A. S. G. Edwards, ‘Gender, order and reconciliation in Sir Degrevant’, in
Carol M. Meale (ed.), Readings in Medieval English Romance (Cambridge,
1994), pp. 53–64.
Edwards, ‘Gender, order and reconciliation’, p. 56.
Jennifer Ward, English Noblewomen in the Later Middle Ages (London,
1992) and (ed.), Women of the English Nobility and Gentry (Manchester,
1995), a collection of documents. These contain the most extensive study
of English women of the
-given might (2181). At other times, it is used to express a sense of cunning or secret plotting, as when the poet admonishes those who would conspire against kinsmen (2168). Cræft could carry gendered connotations in Anglo-Saxon culture, too, including the familiar association between women and textile production.
In Beowulf , weaving imagery contributes to the characterization of noblewomen such as Wealhtheow, who metaphorically ‘weaves peace’ among the warriors through her actions (passing mead and distributing
novels to Sophia, and the use of manuscripts as tokens of love
with unidentified noblewomen. In these transactions Toland exploited ideas
to establish channels of communication. Although he died in relatively poor
circumstances, he moved comfortably in more grand and privileged surroundings. Toland not only made ideas, he communicated and circulated
them across political, social and cultural space.
Insight into Toland’s awareness of the value of this sociability to the
diffusion of ideas, can be read in his description of the ‘humours and
politicks’ of Epsom (1711
, whose parts were performed
by the Queen and various noblewomen. Once again, the contrast
with royalty is provided by witches. If the formal innovation – the
anti-masque – which The Masque of Queens introduced was indeed
suggested by Anne, as Jonson’s preface claims, this would hardly
61 Stephen Orgel’s ‘Jonson and the Amazons’, in Soliciting Interpretation,
edited by Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 119–39, points out that the
queens are ultimately subordinate to the male figure of Heroic Virtue