Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens Book 1, by Alison Weir

If you’re an English school child, or a college-level history major in the US, you know that in 1066 ce William of Normandy (aka William the Bastard, but not to his face) crossed the English Channel to conquer England and take it from the Anglo-Saxons led by Harold II.  This began the line of the Norman kings and their queens.

The kings get all the ink in history books, but Alison Weir is proposing a four-volume series of histories on the earliest of the English queens, starting here with Matilda of Flanders and the three queens who followed her.

These were queens who went beyond what we normally picture as a life of embroidery, sitting next to the king at banquets, and giving birth to heirs to the throne. Because these Norman kings now had rulership over both sides of the English Channel there was some travel required to supervise both realms. These Norman kings, when leaving to supervise their other properties, would sometimes leave their queens in charge. This would change their status from queen consort to queen regnant. Some of these queens would even take up a sword and lead their troops into battle to support the interests of the king.

Weir follows the lives of these first queens from Matilda of Flanders through Matilda of Scotland (married to Henry I) and Empress Maud and ending with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II and the foundation of the Plantagenet line.

The lives of these women are outlined in the context of their times, which seem to have been filled with constant political turmoil. William the Conqueror wasn’t all that fond of his first son, Robert, but did like his younger son William Rufus. He nearly disinherited Robert but, instead, decided to give Robert rule of Normandy and left William Rufus as the new king of England. This led to a series of civil wars and conflicts that came to their peak in the War of the Roses.

The queens associated with these kings were often intimately involved the in political maneuvering, offering their insights or taking a direct part in the intrigues. Empress Maud, mother of Henry II, even declared herself the first ruling queen (she was the  daughter of Henry I and Matilda, but also widow of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V). This was disputed but she did live to see her son take the throne as Henry II.

The Normans had a fragile dynasty for the first century or so, trying to lead the English without speaking their language … or wanting to … and regular attempts to steal the crown by children and other relatives. The queens as much as the kings enjoyed the love or hate of their subjects depending on which way political sentiments were flowing.

This is an interesting look into the lives of women who are rarely chronicled. Weir offers her best estimates on the true stories of their lives and reigns, and also offers alternate accounts or stories known to be pure myth. Each of the women comes alive with stories from their earliest years and courtship through their final days.