Dan Jones is the author of “The Plantagenets”, “The Wars of the Roses” and his latest, “The Templars.”
At Easter in 1105 , Queen Edith-Matilda of England invited a crowd of lepers to her apartments and washed their feet. Leprosy was a scary disease in the Middle Ages: disgusting, infectious and incurable. Lepers, with their rotting extremities and warning bells, were ostracized by a society that attributed human suffering to an individual’s sinfulness.
The sight of a queen taking sufferers of this foul disease into her chambers, cleaning them with a water bowl and linen cloth, kissing them as she worked, and drying them with her hands was therefore a brave and pious show. Edith-Matilda knew this and very likely conceived it not only as a personal act of religious devotion but also as a PR stunt for the benefit of the monarchy at large. It worked. The story was passed around by chroniclers, who wrote that this privileged woman with the ulcerated toes between her lips was not merely a queen but something of a saint.
The job of a queen in medieval England was well defined but has been widely misunderstood. Of course, a queen was a biological necessity to a king: Marriage was a tool of dynastic alliance, and a royal belly the garden of heirs. Now and then a queen could also serve as a regent for a king, governing in his name or on behalf of an immature son. Less frequently queens ruled in their own right, although this presented significant challenges in a martial society, in which commanding men on the battlefield was vital to political leadership.
Yet beyond childbed the regular duties of a medieval queen lay elsewhere: in embodying specifically female virtues such as temperance, charity, modesty, compassion and kindness, evinced through good works and intercession with their husbands. Today, of course, these skills seem hopelessly bland and even offensive, and those medieval and early-modern queens who have attracted the most attention (and approval) from modern historians are those who subverted the norms: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Anne Boleyn.
The historian and novelist Alison Weir has made queenship a staple of her work: Her backlist focuses almost exclusively on women of the 12th through 16th centuries. Like everyone else, she has concentrated mainly on women who overstepped the boundaries. Now her new project, “Queens of the Conquest,” seeks to fill in the gaps: presenting, across multiple volumes, the lives of every queen from the Norman conquest of 1066 to the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty in 1485.
Weir describes this story as “a chronicle of love, passion, intrigue, murder, war, treason, betrayal and sorrow.” In fact it is mostly a tale of women giving birth, washing lepers’ feet, writing letters to their husbands asking them to calm down a bit, dying young and leaving their candlesticks to churches.
Book One is the story of one woman called Adeliza and four called Matilda: William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda of Flanders; his son Henry I’s two wives, Edith-Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain; Matilda of Boulogne, consort of William’s grandson King Stephen; and Henry’s daughter, the Empress Matilda, who fought Stephen for the crown in a traumatizing civil war known as the Anarchy.
In 400 pages plus appendices, Weir chews over what bones she can find among these women’s largely serene stories. Was Matilda of Flanders a dwarf? (No.) Did Edith-Matilda of Scotland really flee a nunnery before marrying her husband? (Not exactly.) Why did Henry I not father any children with Adeliza? (Not clear.) The book lights up in Weir’s biography of the Empress Matilda (whom she calls by her now seldom-used Germanic name, Maud). Matilda’s war against Stephen was genuinely ballsy: a series of bitter campaigns in which fortunes swung wildly, with Matilda taking and losing the city of London and later making a famous escape from Oxford by fleeing, white-cloaked, through a snowstorm.
However, one of the main causes of the Anarchy was the fact that Matilda was impeded in her claim to the crown by the very fact of her femininity; the reason for the war’s end was that she found an acceptable male proxy in the form of her eldest son. In other words, in the long run of medieval queenship, this story is by its very nature an outlier.
All this leaves Weir with something of a problem. The two most recent notable surveys in her field are Helen Castor’s “She-Wolves” (2010), a brilliant, thesis-driven narrative history that ignores the foot-washers and deals head-on with the problem queens who tried to approximate male rule, and Lisa Hilton’s “Queens Consort” (2008), which is comprehensive, smartly written and sensibly limited to one book. Weir, by contrast, has committed to a multi-volume blow-by-blow on a theme that lacks the drama she is normally so expert in seeking. And while the book is laden with anecdote, it wants continually for a thesis or an intellectual framework by which to judge the relative merits of women whose careers generally consisted of delegated duty and pious acts.
None of this is to say that this is a particularly bad Weir book. It is underpinned by extensive reading in the original sources (although these are, as usual, inadequately referenced in the endnotes) and will serve as a useful reference for those needing a detailed biographical compendium more reliable than Agnes Strickland’s 19th-century work “Lives of the Queens of England.” But with three further books to come, taking us to the death of Richard III’s consort Anne Neville in the 15th century, the end seems like an awfully long way off.
By Alison Weir
Ballantine. 556 pp. $30