Elite women were on the move in late medieval and early modern Europe. Daughters of kings, dukes, barons and renowned military captains often found themselves the object of dynastic marriage agreements that saw them migrate from their family homes to foreign lands where they settled as the wives of rulers they had, in most cases, never met.
A wise marriage contract transacted between the heads of wealthy, powerful, or ancient families often yielded diplomatic fruit for both parties. The saying “Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube” [let others wage war, you, happy Austria, marry] summarised the successful marriage diplomacy of the powerful House of Habsburg, one of Europe’s most powerful royal families in the early modern period.
Yet, whether or not war was waged also depended on the women at the heart of dynastic marriage. As recent scholarship has shown, many women from the medieval and early modern periods were central to maintaining the diplomatic ties between their natal and marital families long after the ink had dried on the vellum. These women used letter-writing, gifts, and personal agents who travelled on their behalf to secure the cooperation of their kinsfolk and spouses on a wide range of political activities.
Elite Women as Diplomatic Agents in Italy and Hungary, 1470–1510, offers insight into how these activities were worked out on the ground using the examples of two sisters who belonged to a cadet branch of the Aragonese dynasty in Naples. Eleonora and Beatrice d’Aragona were the two legitimate daughters of King Ferrante I of Naples. They married the duke of Ferrara, Ercole d’Este, and Mattias Corvinus, the king of Hungary, in 1471 and 1476, respectively. During their marriages, they negotiated with their father, with their husbands, and each other to secure advantageous appointments, military outcomes, and alliances that materially impacted diplomatic relations between all three Houses.
In four chapters, this book takes readers through the actions undertaken by Eleonora and Beatrice during their married lives to reveal the agency exercised by two politically savvy women. The first chapter explores Eleonora’s subtle diplomatic abilities in the context of war, acting as a mediator between her father, her brother, and her husband, who were on opposing and, later, the same sides. Her ability to anticipate the needs of all parties and adapt her words as necessary to suit different contexts enabled her to maintain important political relationships that may otherwise have been lost.
In the second and third chapters, readers learn about the unusual arrangement negotiated by Eleonora and Beatrice that involved Eleonora’s third-born son, Ippolito. Trained for a career in the church from a young age, Ippolito was invited to take up the prestigious archbishopric of Esztergom in Hungary, aged only seven. The incumbent, his uncle, Giovanni d’Aragona, had died unexpectedly during a sojourn to Rome. With Ferrante preoccupied with the outbreak of war in Naples, Beatrice led negotiations to appoint the next Aragonese man to the primate of Hungary.
Beatrice was unable to bear children, and her brother’s death made her dangerously vulnerable at the Hungarian court. Bringing Ippolito to Hungary and raising him as her child offered Beatrice the opportunity to secure a male protector who would occupy the second most powerful position in Hungary. However, Eleonora did not consent to Ippolito’s permanent transfer to Hungary. Although Beatrice affirmed her maternal affection for the boy and claimed that it was as if she had given birth to her nephew, her sister never validated the queen’s displays of motherly care and always maintained that Ippolito would return to Italy once he became a cardinal.
Eleonora’s decision suggests that natal loyalties only survived so long as they were useful. As Ferrante’s star declined in Italy following the threat of the French invasion of Naples, Eleonora no longer needed her father’s approval as much as she once did. Moreover, Eleonora had performed her dynastic duty by giving birth to four sons and two daughters, well and truly securing dynastic succession in Ferrara. As a result, her position was safe, and she enjoyed a degree of influence and affection in Ferrara, never experienced by Beatrice in Buda.
Beatrice’s inability to bear children and ruinous second marriage to the king of Bohemia led her to make very different choices to her sister. Following the death of Matthias Corvinus in 1490, Beatrice remarried the Jagiellonian Władysław II, who double-crossed her and claimed her wealth and land. After a decade of fighting Władysław’s papal petitions for annulment, she returned to Italy more than twenty-five years after she left Naples. Despite being penniless, she rallied her surviving family members, no matter how distant the blood connection, and managed to carve out a life with other abandoned and widowed women of the Aragonese dynasty. Her ingenuity in recasting herself in Naples allowed her to maintain a semblance of influence in a rapidly changing world that looked very different to her childhood.
Overall, this book provides new insights into the role of elite women in dynastic politics. The lives of Eleonora and Beatrice show that women were skilled practitioners of diplomacy and adroitly negotiated difficult relationships using a variety of tools at their disposal. However, whether or not they were able to continue the dynastic line of their husbands and secure their place in their marital families critically impacted the degree to which they could securely exercise degrees of influence at court. In this sense, Elite Women as Diplomatic Agents in Italy and Hungary, 1470–1510, tells a story of the abilities of two women and how they were enabled or diminished by the dynastic system that regulated their lives and of others like them.
By Jessica O’Leary