HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy’ by Matthew Lewis

The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favourite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus.

Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

cover and text via Pen & Sword

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I must admit that the civil war of the 12th century is definitely not in my time period of expertise, but this book jumped out for two reasons – 1) that a kick-ass woman was trying to be a king, and 2) Matthew Lewis wrote it. I thought there was no way this book could fail.

In 1120, King Henry I lost his only legitimate male heir, William, in the disaster of the White Ship. The sole heir to the throne was being a moron, and drunkenly sank his ship off the coast of Normandy, killing hundreds. While the king had two dozen bastard children (though one bastard son also died aboard the White Ship), all Henry had to inherit his throne was William, and his older sister, Matilda. With the loss of William, Henry I had what all kings fear – the possibility to handing power to a woman.

Matilda was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, only to have him die in 1125, when Matilda was still young. Henry moved his daughter back to Normandy, and set about making her the heir to the English throne. Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, and the nobles of England and English-controlled France swore fealty to Matilda and Geoffrey. Matilda didn’t seem to like her husband, but in 1135, when King Henry died in Normandy, she was pregnant with her third child, and ready to march on cities and put down rebellions.

Enter Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, the Count of Boulogne and new Duke of Normandy. Stephen hastily made his way to England, and claimed the English throne for himself while Matilda battled Anglo-Norman nobles. This problem of multiple claimants to the throne started The Anarchy, which would last for almost 20 years. Both Matilda and Stephen were descendants of William the Conqueror, and Stephen had the backing of the church, developed ways to raise money, and was prepared to fight the Scottish, the Welsh and Geoffrey of Anjou for Normandy. While several years of fighting had moderate success, by 1138, the tide was turning on all fronts, and supporters were withdrawing support for Stephen in favour of Matilda.

Lewis’ book tells the story from both points of view. Stephen seems to have been a well-liked man, with his wife, Queen Matilda, a powerful ally at his side. On the other side, Matilda is also a strong woman, her half-brother Robert a loyal supporter, and her husband Geoffrey a tough man. Matilda landed in England in 1139, but Stephen was hesitant to lay siege on a castle harbouring a female enemy. But he had underestimated his cousin, for Matilda, alongside Robert, was ready to fight for the throne. By 1141, Matilda had captured Stephen.

Matilda was an incredible woman. She lived in a time where men simply couldn’t comprehend a woman in power. She couldn’t be a woman who ruled, she needed to be a king. The fine line Matilda needed to walk was one almost impossible; she was expected to be a woman, but act like a king. She needed to rule and control as a king, but all her nobles and commoners saw was a woman. Empress Matilda, Lady of England and Normandy, set forth to London to be coronated, only to have the population revolt against her just days before she wore the crown as king of England.

Matilda soon had to face another battle, from Stephen’s wife Queen Matilda, who overthrew Matilda and forced her into hiding. Matilda was forced to let Stephen go from prison, in return for her brother Robert, who was caught by Queen Matilda in battle (phew!).

Battles continued for several years with Stephen still the king, and Matilda on her own with husband Geoffrey taking Normandy across the channel. In 1147, Matilda’s brother Robert died, and her son Henry, aged only 14, took up the battle in his mother’s name. But the fresh fighting produced no winners, and young Henry wanted to bail out, but was broke. King Stephen paid for his enemy to leave the fighting, a strange gesture indeed, paying his cousin and enemy to safely leave. This left the people of England to make truces and find some peace at last, but Matilda wasn’t done yet.

By 1153, Henry was at it again, fighting Stephen for the crown. But instead of battles to the death, Stephen and Henry made peace, and decided Henry would be Stephen’s heir, in place of Stephen’s own son who was ruling in France. Stephen died only one year later, and Henry became King Henry II, leaving his mother Matilda to never rule England.

This book goes into fine detail about the battles that raged over this bloody period in English history, which gives The Anarchy context and fleshes out the realities of what happened to the country, and how the people suffered over the period of 1135 – 1154. With the book covering both Stephen and Matilda, it makes it hard to decide who you want to win. Matilda was an extraordinary woman in English history, so to hate Stephen for taking her throne should be an easy task. Instead, Stephen is a liked and capable man  who makes the right decision at crucial moments. Despite the 19 years in which the civil war spanned, there were times of peace in all areas of the country.  Neither Stephen nor Matilda made the battle for the crown personal, neither wished to kill the other, or at least it seemed. When it fell to Henry II to rebuild after the fighting, rebuilding the country and her finances took only around a decade, and went on to rule much of France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. To suggest England was in anarchy under Stephen isn’t the full picture, which Lewis details meticulously. However, with the coinage debased and law and order a mess, the battle had done much harm to the general population in the south, while northern areas were largely untouched. The fortunes of England raised and fell with every move Matilda and Stephen made.

I expected to read this book, cheering for Matilda’s success, despite knowing the ultimate outcome already, and yet that didn’t happen. Lewis has written the book in a way that the reader can see the battle from both points of view and I liked Stephen more than I wanted to. There is much to cover in The Anarchy, and yet the author fits it all in without wasting any time. While I was already a very big Matthew Lewis fan, this book has left me better for reading it, learning about a period I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if not for him.

 

 

 

 

 

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Women in Medieval England’ by Lynda Telford

This fascinating book explores the status of women in medieval England, both before and after the Norman Conquest.

The author starts by contrasting the differences in status between Anglo/Danish or Saxon women with those who fell under the burden of the feudal system imposed by the Normans. She covers such subjects as marriage and childbirth, the rights and responsibilities of wives, separation and divorce, safety and security and the challenges of widowhood. She also examines such issues as virginity and chastity and the pressures placed on women by religious groups.

At a time when women’s rights were minimal, the author charts their struggles against the sexual politics of the era, its inequalities and its hypocrisies. She also examines the problems of the woman alone, from forced marriage to prostitution. The lives of ordinary women are the centre of attention, painting a fascinating picture of their courage and resilience against the background of their times.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Resting on the theme of women in history is Women in Medieval England. My initial interest in this book was the pre-conquest women included. England and its rulers is so often detailed as post-1066, so someone like myself with limited knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon era found the overview and laws of the time useful. New leaders made for new husbands for noble women, who may not even be able to understand them, given language barriers. A nightmare of any woman, and to cap it off, not speaking your new husband/owner’s language is a scary thought.

What classified as marriage was quite different (as I’m sure everyone knows) which made for a messy history and difficult lives for the women traded to their husbands. The book even delves into what was birth control in the pots-1066 era, and lol-worthy concepts for cures for impotence. Life for women was exceptionally difficult, mostly due to the largely uncontrollable act of pregnancy, and the book shows just how damned awful it was for our predecessors to battle on creating a new generation.
Married life was all kinds of awful – as everyone knows the ‘rule of thumb,’ in that a man cannot beat his wife with anything thicker than his thumb. Though, in some ways, you read this and wonder how much life has altered for many women. This book digs through a realities of being a woman in the medieval period, where men are cast as sword-wielding heroes, women have been left standing in mud-floor huts. This shines a light on those women, who had the temperament of saints, strength tougher than any soldier, and bravery beyond that of a king. The world was a strange place for women; you could die of the plague, or you could survive an outbreak and clean up in the vacant jobs market.
This is no heavy book you will be reaching for when researching, it is a read on the lives of women in a world none of us would want to return to. There is plenty of information to be had in here, without feeling like you’re in a history lesson, a book for those who would like to read for pleasure, not study.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Queen of the North’ by Anne O’Brien

1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.

For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.

But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.

To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.

To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.

This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.

cover and blurb via amazon

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It’s 1399 and King Edward III’s descendant Elizabeth Mortimer is married to Henry Hotspur Percy, heir of the Earl of Northumberland. Richard II is king, and deposed by Henry Bolingbroke under dubious circumstances. Richard II had no heirs, but he did have someone ready to replace him until Henry IV takes his crown. That is where Elizabeth comes in.

Elizabeth expected her nephew Edmund Mortimer to take the throne, also a descendant of Edward III, a boy born of royal Plantagenet blood.  Elizabeth’s family has just as good a claim to the throne as the new Lancaster king. Whenever there are multiple claims to a throne, blood is certain to follow.

Elizabeth is not a man who can go into battle for the Mortimer claimant. She is not a beautiful young princess to be traded by families and launched into power. Elizabeth is a smart noble woman, who knows her family has a valid claim, who has given her husband the children he needs, and, to history, should be left on the sidelines. But Elizabeth is not a woman who should be cast aside in the battles of men and the throne, for she has the knowledge, skill and education to make a difference in the Mortimer claim to the crown.

 

All sides the early battles had legitimate claims to the throne, and we have a viewpoint in Elizabeth which is valid yet undemanding, unlike the men who surround her. Real life Elizabeth is not a well-known figure of history, so the author has had to use historical detail of others, and weave Elizabeth into the story, which gives new life to an old tale. Percy takes the Lancaster’s side of the war and Elizabeth is rich in the blood of the Mortimers, and nobler than her husband.  But what can a wife do in such challenges? Elizabeth is the wife of Percy, who holds the north. Whether it is from London or the Scots, the Percys have plenty of battles to face and Elizabeth is the northerners queen.
No sooner than choices are made, Elizabeth and Percy find they should be on the side of the Mortimer. Politics, treason and ambition are going to explode, and I am desperately trying not to write spoilers, but all I can say is you really need to read this book! Everyone knows what happened to Hotspur Percy at the Battle of Shrewsbury, part of a plot to overthrow Henry IV, but Elizabeth and her family’s claim carries on.  The Bolingbrokes and the Mortimers are going to need to be friends if civil wars for the throne are to end, and greed is as powerful as blood. This book has historical accuracy combined with beautiful storytelling. I adored this novel.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

cover and blurb viz amazon

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I have spent a long time with my head in academic history books, so to read something that reads more like a story was a welcome relief. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book hard to get here in NZ, so when a copy generously floated my way, I grabbed it with both hands. The first thing I thought was – do we still use the word ‘heroine?’ Should it not just be ‘heroes?’ But then people may purchase and then get their egos crushed by finding out all the heroes are women. That only made me like this book more.

The book is great, separated into chapters about women from all over Europe. The book writes about the women of England and France, but also from Spain (yay!) and even as far east as Kiev. There are Warrior Heroines, Literary Heroines, Religious Heroines and Scandalous Heroines. You can read them in order, or however you like depending on your mood. I enjoyed how The Pawns weren’t simply bartering gifts, but smart women in their own right, and the Medieval Mistresses were more fleshed out (excuse the pun) than the simply fallen women ideal.

You won’t be confused between your Eleanors, your Matildas or your Isabels, and while you will read about well-known heroines, they are also great forgotten women given fresh air. The women are not viewed as heroines through 21st century eyes, rather they are simply celebrated for their strength in the time period while on their own crusades. They are heroines for all centuries. Putting together such a thorough assembly of women must have taken considerable time and energy, so treat yourself to the author’s hard work and gain further insight to the women that came before us. Heroines have far more skills and techniques than any hero.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Edward II the Man – A Doomed Inheritance’ by Stephen Spinks

Edward II is one of the most controversial kings of English history. On numerous occasions he brought England to the brink of civil war.

Author Stephen Spinks argues that Edward and the later murdered Piers Gaveston were lovers, not merely ‘brothers-in-arms’. Influenced by successive royal favourites and with a desire for personal vengeance, his rule became highly polarised and unstable. His own wife took a lover and invaded his kingdom resulting in his forced abdication; the first in British history. Edward’s prevailing legacy remains the warning that all kings can fall from power.

And yet … war, debt and baronial oppression before 1307 ensured that Edward II inherited a toxic legacy that any successor would have found almost impossible to wrestle with. Stephen Spinks explores that legacy using contemporary and later sources. By focusing on Edward’s early years as much as on his reign, and exploring the conflicting influences of those around him, Stephen shows the human side of this tale against a backdrop of political intrigues and betrayals. He peels back the layers to reveal the man who wore the crown. Edward’s belief in his unchallengable right to rule, increasingly at odds with those at his court, and his undeniable thirst for revenge, creates a fourteenth-century tragedy on a grand scale.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Poor Edward II; he constantly gets spoken of in negative terms. I confessed to not knowing Edward II in much detail, so to receive this book was much appreciated.

The rule of Edward II suffered from war, famine and betrayal, though Edward inherited a troubled kingdom from his father, Edward I, in 1307. By the time he became king, Edward was already very close to Piers Gaveston, long considered to be Edward’s lover. The incredible closeness of the pair would trouble Edward for many years.

Edward’s troubles increased when he married Isabella of France when she was just 12. Edward was able to continue loving his buddy Piers, and also women of his court, before Isabella was old enough to bear their first child at around the age of 16. The author uses primary sources to discuss these issues, and while nothing can ever be proved around Edward’s sexuality, the author’s suggestion of a homosexual relationship seems very likely.

Edward’s initial troubles came from within, barons around the country pushing against his plans to reform the country and secure money and favour. Edward and Gaveston effectively ruled together, and the nobles disliked the king’s lover. The book tells the story of Gaveston’s eventual capture and murder in 1312 in detail.

Edward forged on without Gaveston, seeking peace with France and money from various sources, only to face war against Robert the Bruce in 1314, followed by bad weather which crippled and starved England for seven long years. Many saw this as a punishment from God, and civil war broke out in 1321, and by the time this was quashed, the Scots were at it again, followed by the French.

By late 1326, Edward had fallen from his wife’s favour, thanks to having to flee the Scots and the ever-rising power of Hugh le Despenser at court (and his also-horrid son of the same name). With Edward in a relationship with the horrible younger Hugh, Isabella set off to France on a mission and would not come home. Isabella fell in love with Roger Mortimer and they prepared to invade England from France, succeeding in 1327 when Edward’s support collapsed. The Despenser father was killed, and Edward’s lover Hugh the Younger was castrated and beheaded. Edward was imprisoned while Isabella and Mortimer ruled, with many nobles executed.

Edward II died imprisoned in September 1327, and Isabella and Mortimer continued to rule with her son Edward III named as king. By 1330, young Edward had disposed Mortimer from his place of wealth and power and executed. Rumours of Edward II’s murder swirled, with graphic depictions of torture. While this dramatic life is written up, the book tells the story of Edward as a person rather than simply a ruler. The book ends with copies of letters written by Edward II to his son and the king of France, and a letter written about the suspected survival of Edward after his supposed death.

The author has gone into great detail to tell the story of Edward II as the facts and evidence present themselves. While history is littered with speculation, the author leaves his own assumptions out, leaving the reader to decide based on facts, not opinion. Congratulations to Stephen Spinks on a wonderful read.