Reviewed: Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

The story of England’s medieval queens is vivid and stirring, packed with tragedy, high drama and even comedy. It is a chronicle of love, murder, war and betrayal, filled with passion, intrigue and sorrow, peopled by a cast of heroines, villains, stateswomen and lovers. In the first volume of this epic new series, Alison Weir strips away centuries of romantic mythology and prejudice to reveal the lives of England’s queens in the century after the Norman Conquest.

Beginning with Matilda of Flanders, who supported William the Conqueror in his invasion of England in 1066, and culminating in the turbulent life of the Empress Maud, who claimed to be queen of England in her own right and fought a bitter war to that end, the five Norman queens emerge as hugely influential figures and fascinating characters.

Much more than a series of individual biographies, Queens of the Conquest is a seamless tale of interconnected lives and a rich portrait of English history in a time of flux. In Alison Weir’s hands these five extraordinary women reclaim their rightful roles at the centre of English history.

Alison Weir’s book is a readable and informative tour de force of the first 3 Queens of England after the Norman Conquest. Well, actually 4, as the Empress Matilda came very close to becoming England’s first ever Queen Regnant (as in a Queen reigning in her own right, instead of the wife of a King.)
Weir’s previous work tended to focus more on the Tudors and late Medieval Monarchs, but she’s done very well with this book focusing on 4 strong, interesting and intelligent women who played important rules in 11th and 12th century English history.

Incidentally, all 4 of them were also called Matilda, which can make things a little bit confusing, and makes you grateful for nicknames. First was Matilda of Flanders, the faithful and capable wife of William the Conqueror, then Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I. Her birth name was Edith, and the blood of the ancient Saxon Kings of Wessex ran in her veins, but she was also the daughter of St Margaret of Scotland, and Malcolm II Canmore. She unified the House of Wessex with the line of William, and was a contemporary of some of England’s greatest Medieval scholars and writers, including the philosopher Anselm of Canterbury, which whom she enjoyed a close friendship.

Some of their letters are transcribed at the end of the book, in a useful and interesting addition.
The final two women were Empress Maud, the famous daughter of Henry and Matilda, and Queen Matilda, the wife of Stephen. Empress and Queen both became involved in the brutal 12th century civil war known as The Anarchy. (I never knew that the Queen Matilda was the niece of Godfrey de Bouillon, one of the leader’s of the First Crusade who became the Crusader ruler of Jerusalem).

Weir’s exposition of the life and career of Maud is extensive and detailed, but has proved controversial for some, because she suggests that some of the contemporary allegations of arrogance and belligerence might have been true. Now, I’m not one for suggesting that everything a historian says is wrong simply because I disagree with them on one or two points, and I suspect a lot of people might have stopped reading as soon as they got to that part.
Weir is objective in her treatment of Maud, and does not take such claims at face value, but questions them and provides some alternative viewpoints and, where she does speculate, she presents it as such.

Some aspects of Maud’s career does suggest she may have been possessed of her father’s negative traits, and indeed at the time of his death, she was engaged in outright rebellion against him. There’s an annoying tendency today to assume that any criticism of a woman is ‘misogyny’ and this refers to female historical figures as well.
We tend to assume that any criticism of their character or actions was based on the ‘misogynistic’ attitudes of the time, and discount any possibility that contemporary observers may actually have had a point. I do think with Matilda, they might have done. Weir (rightly) points out that there was a double standard in terms of expectations and attitudes, but asks the reader to overcome that and look at things from the perspective of the time, and appreciate some of the evidence.

Ultimately, Empress Maud does come over in a good light, but as a woman who was, nevertheless flawed, and made some bad choices. For that, she is all the more human and relatable than some kind of perfect feminist icon to be placed on some kind of pedestal. I would recommend Queens of the Conquest for all who are interested in Women’s History and a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in Medieval European History. It ends with the Empress Maud’s death before Eleanor of Aquitaine became Queen, so she doesn’t feature much in the book.

Thanks to Random House and Negalley for a PDF of this title. This in no way influenced my review, and all opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.

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