Queens Of The Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens: Book One, by Alison Weir
This is the sort of book that is somewhat inevitable in our times, as writers seek to plumb the depths of of source material that they can find about powerful women as a way of writing books about the obscure but important women of history who have not been focused on as much as the kings they were married to. That said, it should be noted that most of the women in this particular book are obscure in large part because the times they lived in were particularly obscure. This book sits between the Norman conquest and the rise of the Plantagenets, and that is one of the more obscure areas of history in general. Few people outside of medievalists could tell the difference between William the Conqueror, William Rufus, and William Clito, much less figure out who was married to the obscure King Stephen of Blois or separate the various Mauds and Matildas from each other. So while this book does a good job at showing the women whose efforts were vitally important in securing kingship in late 11th and early 12th century England, it’s not like many readers will know the kings all that well unless they are close students of the period.
This book, if one includes its intriguing appendices, comes out to around 450 pages of reading material, a substantial work about a sizable chunk of English medieval history and the queens of that period. The book begins with substantial introductory material, such as maps, family trees, illustrations, a glossary of British terms, an introduction, and a prologue that sets the stage for the book to come. The first part of the book then examines the history of Matilda of Flanders, the queen of William the Conqueror, and her efforts to keep peace between her subjects and family members. After that comes a discussion of Matilda of Scotland, the first wife of Henry I, and her death with only a son and a daughter led to a bit of a succession crisis, all the more unfortunate because her successor, the subject of part three, the obscure Adeliza of Louvain, did not have any children with Henry I after his son died in a terrible accident, leaving the Empress Maud, his daughter, the widow of the emperor of the Romans, and Matilda of Boulogne, the wife of Stephen of Blois, to fight it out for rulership of England and Normandy. The book then ends with the survival of Empress Maud into the reign of her son, Henry II, the first of the Plantagenets, and with the settlement of the marriage between him and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the subject of a volume of her own. The appendices of the book include a guide to the principal chronicle sources as well as letters, and then a bibliography, notes, and index to close the book.
Still, even if this book seems inevitable given feminist trends in scholarship, even if the written evidence of these rulers is often very slim and, especially in the case of Empress Maud, extremely hostile in England, it is by no means a bad book. It is a perfectly decent book as long as you are fond of discussions of the royals of the High Middle Ages in England, and are interested in feminist perspectives on times that are obscure to most people. The author has acquired a devoted fanbase of those who appreciate her writing about the English queens of the Middle Ages and this book is sort of a retrocon to put that work into a larger series that covers the queens from Emma of Normandy (who makes a cameo appearance as a Norman pre-conquest queen) to Elizabeth I and possibly beyond. The author, in including all of the known letters we have to and from the queens in this book, indicates just how limited the primary documentation we have of these women is, and points out the importance of interpretation and the major role that revisionist interpretation has in creating a sizable work like this one out of very limited source material, much of it not particularly sympathetic to women and a great deal of it relating to details of dispensing money and property to the church to get out of purgatory faster, a concern many readers will likely be unable to relate to.