Though Norman queens were largely unknowable, leave it to this prolific historical biographer to bring them to life.
Having previously tackled the lives of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France, not to mention the Tudors (The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Margaret Douglas, 2017, etc.), English author and novelist Weir presents five queens of the post–Norman Invasion era who sometimes wielded power in their own right, and not just as queen consort. While the author asserts that her portraits are based on primary material, there is scant little to go by, or what she calls with charming understatement “tantalizing gaps,” because “the deeds of women, unless they were notably pious, politically important, or scandalous, were rarely thought worth recording.” However, in England, the Salic code of the Franks, forbidding succession by or through women, did not apply. Consequently, not only did many kings gain their titles through their female ancestors, but some queens got a shot at ruling, such as Empress Maud (1102-1167), widowed queen of the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich V and designated successor of her father, Henry I of England. The first queen Weir portrays is William the Conqueror’s headstrong wife, Matilda of Flanders (1032?-1083), who initially scorned marrying a “bastard.” However, after he roughed her up, she agreed to marry him, saying, “for he must be a man of great courage and high daring who could venture to come and beat me in my own father’s palace.” After their three-decade marriage and long reigns, their son Henry, acceding to the throne after the suspicious death of his older brother, married the controversial Edith of Scotland (renamed Matilda) in order to unite the Norman-Saxon kingdoms in the slow process of integration. Their daughter, Empress Maud, proved a shrewd, and not always well-loved, elder stateswoman. As usual, Weir is meticulous in her research, though the barrage of royal ancestry may deter some American readers.
Another sound feminist resurrection by a seasoned historian.