How the little-known queens of England’s early history contributed to the nation’s political stability—or didn’t.
In this vast, rigorous text, Hilton (Athenais: The Life of Louis XIV’s Mistress, the Real Queen of France, 2002) includes an impressive bibliography, and the reading experience requires frequent switchbacks and consultations of family trees (mercifully provided). The narrative encompasses the lives of queens from William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda of Flanders, whose alliances were key to his success at Hastings in 1066, to Elizabeth of York, who had been designated as a bride for her uncle Richard III, until the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 heralded the triumph of Henry VII and the end of the medieval era. The author is fascinated by the things that set these women apart among their sex: their “sacred capital“; their legal rights (they could manage their own affairs, while most females other than widows had to submit to masculine authority); their uncommon education; their piety and the cult of maternity associating them with the Virgin Mary. Hilton examines the double standard that depicted assertive queens as unbecomingly masculine viragos. Strategically tracing tangled hereditary strains, the narrative moves from the rule of the Normans and the Angevins to the “apogee of English queenship” under the very literate Matilda of Scotland and later Matilda of Boulogne, who was adored by her husband, King Stephen. Foreign queens from the South included the exceptionally powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine, who overcame stifling 12th-century strictures to become a formidable politician, and a terrifying mother-in-law. During the turbulent period of the Plantagenet monarchs, the extraordinary Isabella of France first deposed her husband’s probable homosexual lover and then King Edward II himself in order to install her son on the throne. The book closes with the feud between the houses of Lancaster and York, painting a touching portrait of the love match between commoner Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV.
A compelling trek through English history in the company of some remarkable women.