As most of my regular readers already know, I am a history junkie. Especially English history, and in particular, the medieval period. So it was pretty much a given that I would be picking up Lisa Hilton's latest work, Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York. And once I had my hands on it, I happily settled in for an informative read.
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The author takes the reader on a journey from the Norman Conquest of 1066 all the way through to the death of Elizabeth of York, first queen consort of the Tudor period, in 1503. Each of the twenty six women who were the wives of England's kings is given a chapter to herself, which details the origins of her birth, why she married this or that monarch, and the various highpoints of her life, and winds up with her death. Along the way, if there's a bit of scandal or saucy history to be relayed, Ms. Hilton is certain to touch upon it, and when she reaches a particular queen who has plenty of scandal about her, she goes to town and relates it. Queens who were a bit more decorous were given some praise, especially if they were patrons of nunneries or literature.
All right, I know this is what the reading public wants, and the spicier the better. After all, Ms. Hilton's previous book was about the greedy, notorious mistress of Louis XIV, so I can't say that I wasn't warned.
But there were problems with this one, and serious ones to boot.
The most glaring is the title -- the first hundred years or so of England's queens are apparently not worth talking about, so the publishers decided to go with the more famous of the lot, Eleanor of Aquitaine. But it were these four queens that get the more interesting -- and evenhanded -- treatment in the book. All four were strong willed women, especially Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland, Adeliza of Louvain, and Matilda of Boulougne. Each one was called upon to deal with crises turning her time on the throne, and occasionally had to cope with warfare, or the devastating loss of children -- or in the case of Adeliza, the lack of them. I was very much interested in the lives of these women, but they tend to be ignored by historians who are infinitely interested in the queen who followed them, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
And once Ms. Hilton gets her hands on Eleanor, the book makes an abrupt shift in content -- now it's all scandal, and the more prurient or low, the better. While she does try to be even handed in spots, it seems the author just can't resist the idea of an illicit lover or two on the sidelines, marital problems between the sheets, or a woman being greedy or stupid or both. All of the Plantagenet queens get to have some sort of dirt trailing after them, and it seems that the author does spend a bit of unhealthy interest on those little bits and pieces.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, so beloved of modern historical novelists, here is pretty much a rebellious woman, first with her marriage to Louis VII of France, the divorce that rocked Europe, and her subsequent marriage to Henry II, which established the Angevin Empire, and started the long contentious fight with France that would simmer and bubble for decades. But oddly, little is given over to Eleanor's rebellion with her sons, and the imprisonment that followed, which felt odd, as it would shape so much of English history that followed. Instead, we get momentary flashes of the much more savvy, and politically adept Eleanor when it comes to her time as Regent, and arranging the marriages of her children and grandchildren.
The queens that followed Eleanor get some very odd treatment as well. Berengaria of Navarre, who had Richard the Lionheart for a husband, who you would think had a romantic tale, instead is a pale shadow, perpetually ignored and childless, and dismissed for being a wimp in the face of her more charismatic husband. And Isabelle of Angouleme, who was married off to Richard's brother, King John, gets some of the strangest treatment in this book, being more of a prisoner of her husband and then leading an outrageous life after being widowed -- it's a very odd history to attach to Isabelle, and one that I don't agree with much. Eleanor of Provence, wife to John's son, Henry III, is a greedy harpy, as well as her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile, who is constantly pregnant and covetous to boot.
If a queen isn't strong enough to stand up to her spouse, then she is classified as being good, as Margaret of France, Philippa of Hainault, Anne of Bohemia, and Isabelle of France and Catherine of Valois, and accordingly, doesn't get that much in terms of space. But the bad queens, such as Isabelle of France -- wife of Edward II, who raised a rebellion, and openly took a lover, Joanna of Navarre, accused of being too independent and of witchcraft, Marguerite of Anjou, a major player in the Wars of the Roses, and Elizabeth Wydeville -- greedy and witchy both, all get interminable pages devoted to them.
It seems that the author could not make up her mind to be writing up a scandal sheet or writing a book in praise of good women. It's just too black or white in this book, and very little balance. To me, that's one of the more heinous sins in writing history, as there is good and bad to everyone, and to just focus on one aspect is to me the sign of a sloppy researcher. While there are flashes of more interesting tidbits, especially when a queen makes a second marriage, as Adeliza of Louvain, Isabelle of Angouleme and Catherine of Valois would do, it just gets bounced aside it seems, or seen as a sign of rebellion.
In short, by the time I had managed to grind my way through this book, I was ready to chuck it through the window. There are far better books out there that touch on individual lives of England's queens, and written by better authors to boot. Several fiction authors have written excellent novels about these various women which are much more interesting than this one, and if you ask, I'll let you know who they are. For someone who doesn't know much about the medieval period of history, this would be fine as a starting point to figure who they are interested in, but as an overall history, it doesn't meet the mark at all. And that's a pity, as many of these women deserve a far better history than what they are shown to have here at all.
Despite the excellent bibliography, maps and genealogical tables, and an interesting insert of colour and black and white photos, this one I didn't like at all, and it's not going to remain as a permanent edition in my collection either. For the bad research and over the top theories, this one gets a three star rating. Interesting, but not enough, especially in a nonfiction book.
Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York
2010; Pegasus Books, W.W. Norton, Inc.