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: ‘Queens of the Conquest’ by Alison Weir

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In the first volume of an exciting new series, bestselling author Alison Weir brings the dramatic reigns of England’s medieval queens to life.

The lives of England’s medieval queens were packed with incident—love, intrigue, betrayal, adultery, and warfare—but their stories have been largely obscured by centuries of myth and omission. Now esteemed biographer Alison Weir provides a fresh perspective and restores these women to their rightful place in history.

Spanning the years from the Norman conquest in 1066 to the dawn of a new era in 1154, when Henry II succeeded to the throne and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first Plantagenet queen, was crowned, this epic book brings to vivid life five women, including: Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, the first Norman king; Matilda of Scotland, revered as “the common mother of all England”; and Empress Maud, England’s first female ruler, whose son King Henry II would go on to found the Plantagenet dynasty. More than those who came before or after them, these Norman consorts were recognized as equal sharers in sovereignty. Without the support of their wives, the Norman kings could not have ruled their disparate dominions as effectively.

Drawing from the most reliable contemporary sources, Weir skillfully strips away centuries of romantic lore to share a balanced and authentic take on the importance of these female monarchs. What emerges is a seamless royal saga, an all-encompassing portrait of English medieval queenship, and a sweeping panorama of British history.

cover and blurb via amazon

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For far too long, queens have been overshadowed by their kings. Often married, rather than born, into the role, they are considered ‘less than’. While there are many great works now out there about queens, here is a masterpiece of a book of true rulers, ready to lead but ‘betrayed’ by their gender. Queens of the Conquest is, excitingly, the first in a new series, which chronicles war, power, betrayal, tragedy and the odd bright moment.

The first queen in the book is Matilda of Flanders, supporting William the Conqueror as he led the Norman invasion of 1066, and she has a tale just as powerful as any warring king. Instead of simply noting a woman as filled with piety or scandal, Matilda gets a real account of her life. Matilda didn’t want to marry William the Bastard, but with no choice, stood by his side when he became the first king of England.

Their son, Henry I, married Edith of Scotland, and had to change her name to Matilda. Edith/Matilda (or Godiva as she was called by the locals who were putting her down). She was made regent regularly, ran the curia and helped the sick. Edith/Matilda had a grand family lineage in her own right, was well-educated for the time and had a large influnce on articecture.  Her son was killed in a bizarre and stupid accident, meaning she could leave the crown was handed to their daughter, Empress Maude, then renamed Empress Matilda.

Maude/Matilda had married the Holy Roman Emperor, and he died, leaving her to be queen of England in her own right, as her brother was already dead. War raged under Maude/Matilda, but she fought to the very end to hold the throne as hers, not her husband’s/son’s/anyone else related. Naturally, everyone was a real dick about a woman ruling. Maude/Matilda had to marry again, to Geoffrey of Anjou, which was hard because he disliked him; Matilda had to fight wars all over Europe to stay queen. She was a woman who had ruled as queen in Germany and Italy, born to rule, but fought her life away before her son took the English throne to become King Henry II.

Also profiled is Adeliza of Louvain, Henry I’s second wife, whom he had hoped to get a son on, instead of leaving the throne to the incredible Maude/Matilda. Adeliza married Henry soon after his son was killed in the White Ship disaster, a beautiful woman from now-Belgium, a descendant of Charlemagne. Henry I was a huge traveller and Adeliza was always at his side for fifteen years. She gave the king no children, sort-of securing the throne for her stepdaughter Maude/Matilda. Adeliza then went on to marry the royal butler and give him a child.

Also portrayed is Matilda of Boulogne, who married Count Stephen of Mortain. Matilda was niece of the King Baldwin of Jerusalem. When Matilda’s husband heard of Henry I’s death, they rushed to England to take the throne ahead of Empress Maude/Matilda. She was crowned heavily pregnant when the new King Stephen took Maude/Matilda’s place, and was engaged in the battles between these two claimants for eighteen years, sometimes the queen, sometimes deposed, as they battled for control. She helped to found the Knights Templar and negotiated with Maude/Matilda in times of war between them.

None of these women should be forgotten and this book is amazing. If you are into royal history, English history, any kind of history, you should own this book.