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.
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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.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Black Prince’ by Michael Jones

As a child he was given his own suit of armour; in 1346, at the age of 16, he helped defeat the French at Crécy; and in 1356 he captured the King of France at Poitiers. For the chronicler Jean Froissart, ‘He was the flower of all chivalry’; for the Chandos Herald, who fought with him, he was ‘the embodiment of all valour’. Edward of Woodstock, eldest son and heir of Edward III of England, better known as ‘the Black Prince’, was England’s pre-eminent military leader during the first phase of the Hundred Years War.

Michael Jones uses contemporary chronicles and documentary material, including the Prince’s own letters and those of his closest followers, to tell the tale of an authentic English hero and to paint a memorable portrait of warfare and society in the tumultuous fourteenth century.

cover and blurb via amazon

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My area is the 1400s and 1500s, so Edward, The Black Prince, hasn’t really been on my radar. So when I wanted to make a start on this legendary man, I came across this book, which stuck out. With my head already swimming with countless heavy academic books to read, it was a relief to find such an informative but easy to read book.

Edward of Woodstock (cool name) was born in 1330, was an earl while still in medieval nappies, and the first ever English duke, Duke of Cornwall, by age 7. King Edward III would have a slew of healthy sons, somethings all kings would dream of, but Edward was the first, the heir England needed. Young Edward was at his father’s side, and educated 1300s style – jousting, warfare and a touch of chivalry, which was on its way out. As a child, Edward had to attend council meetings and was Prince of Wales by age 13.

But it was the battlefield where Edward would reign, and get that nickname. The Crecy campaign of 1346 in France let Edward get taste for blood, winning the battle by his father’s side. The English had much of Normandy and had Calais, and then went to defend the sea between England and France from the Castilian soon after.

Battles in Aquitaine raged constantly and the Poitiers Campaign ravaged the French in 1356, and now the English had roughly a third of France in their control, making black-clad Edward a formidable soldier who could also be a great leader. Edward also sided with Pedro the Cruel in Spain to attempt victory in the Najera Campaign of 1366 which was a bad move, as Pedro more than lived up to his name, and Edward wasted his time in Aragon.

Edward’s name and reputation suggests a vicious man, cold and ready to use violence, but the author has shown a different man; a man loved by his countrymen, educated and cultured. Edward married his cousin Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, in 1361, and only just into his thirties, started to suffer an unknown affliction where he began to waste away, possibly of liver or kidney failure, or a number of infections picked up on numerous battlefields. Edward and Joan gained two precious sons, Edward and Richard, only to lose Edward at a young age, leaving waif-like Richard as the heir to the throne.

By 1371, Edward was again fighting to hold onto power in Aquitaine, but needed to return home with illness. He attempted one more battle into France with his father but had to return home again. He spent the remainder of his life suffering until an early death in 1376, aged only 45, his heir Richard only nine.

Edward was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and wasn’t called The Black Prince until a century and a half later, a result of his black armour and his ability to kill French people in Aquitaine, winning two of three major campaigns England made into France (the other is Agincourt 14515 btw). Edward III would have been devastated at the death of his son, and Richard went on to be a useless king, which caused death and battles among Edward III’s remaining heirs, all of which might have been avoided.

The Black Prince is the king who never was, and I am so glad I chose this book to start with learning more about the royals of the 1300s. You don’t need to be an expert to read this fluid piece of work, well laid out, and solid on the details. Much credit to the author for this book; I am glad to have it in my collection.