Book Review: Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens

By Catherine Capel

Catherine Capel is back with her second review of the month – this time focussing on the popular history of England’s Medieval Queens!

Popular biographies of queens have long been bringing to attention the lives of royal women who may have been understudied in academic historiography. Alison Weir’s volume ‘Queens of the Conquest’ is one which continues to make queenship accessible to a public audience. Her work begins with the first Anglo-Norman queen Matilda of Flanders and ends with the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I. Weir also includes Adeliza of Louvain in the volume, a queen who is widely overlooked by both academic and popular writers. Having her first volume cover the first four queen consorts and the empress has allowed Weir to cover them more in depth and think more widely about their lives. The layout of the book takes a chronological approach giving each queen their own chapter until you reach the last substantial chapter which discusses the Empress Matilda and Matilda of Boulogne together. This was a good move by Weir as the two’s presence in historical events are intertwined and instead of having two separate chapters that would result in much repetition, she works their stories together to give a more comprehensive description of events. The relationship between these two women is often ignored by both popular and academic writers and so the choice to put them together shows Weirs understanding of how their narratives interacted with each other. When it then comes to considering the empress on her own, this begins after the death of Queen Matilda when the future Henry II is making his final assault on England and she is staying behind to serve as his lieutenant. The chapters also cover basic important biographical information (birth, parents, marriage, motherhood, queenship) and have descriptive headers to guide readers.     

As with most popular histories, Weir outlines in her introduction that this is not designed to be an academic biography of these queens but her research is based on both primary and secondary sources. One way in which this volume is particularly successful is in her use of the primary sources. Weir weaves them into the lives of these women in ways which enhance their stories. There is no historical analysis into the primary sources and so some of the of the passages are taken at face value without considering the deeper significance they have. For example, Weir includes the story of how William beat Matilda when she initially refused his offer of marriage and although this story is mentioned in medieval chronicles, they all declare it to be untrue. In fact, most sources suggest she was happy to marry William as she recognised the advantages of their marriage even though he was a bastard. She was also instrumental in the agreement formed with Pope Leo IX which allowed their marriage to be officially recognised. However, Weir remains successful in her use of the sources in general because the biography is not supposed to be academic and therefore the reader is still informed of medieval narratives without overwhelming them with information that may put them off continuing reading.

In her introduction, Weir outlines the importance of the “emotional realities of the subjects lives” to her biographical writing, saying that popular biographies have often been accused of being overemotional. Whilst this reviewer may be inclined to agree that popular biographies have a tend to lean towards overemotionalism, I agree that it is important to think about the emotions of the women who are being written about. There is a growing trend in recent historiography to study the history of emotions which will validate this approach in popular biographical writing.

Overall, Alison Weir has written a biographical volume which provides an enjoyable and informative read for a wide popular audience, as she aimed to do, for those who have an interest in medieval queens and wish to know more about the lives they led. Weir has made the lives of these women accessible to those beyond an academic audience and the next volume will continue to do so for the next group of queens.         

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