I bought this with my Waterstones Christmas voucher as I love the medieval period and have always been particularly interested in the lives of these women who are often only mentioned as a postscript to their husband’s story.
This book tells the history of all the English (in fact the majority of them were not English) queens between 1066 starting with Matilda of Flanders ending in 1503 with Elizabeth of York. It is full of interesting and even shocking stories such as Isabella of France, watching Hugh Despenser (the suspected lover of her husband) being castrated and hung drawn and quartered. Isabella was argued to have left a “dark stain on the annals of female royalty” and has been traditionally viewed as an unnatural woman, although Hilton points out that in this age (like today) women were condemned for things that men would not be, such as being decisive (seen as aggressive) or being an effective landowner (seen as greedy). I still think watching someone being castrated is pretty shocking.
There are plenty of other engrossing facts such as Eleanor of Castile having fifteen children and the love between her and her husband Edward I, so when she died he had the Eleanor crosses erected in the places where her body rested on the way to London and he ordered masses to be said after her death so that in the six months afterwards 47,000 masses were said for her whereas poor Elizabeth Woodville got none (probably because Henry VII was so stingy). Interestingly, no one else much in England liked Eleanor.
The queens ranged from those with great influence such Eleanor of Aquitaine whereas others like Berengaria were just pawns. Younger royal children were often sent away as dynastic tools, the four year old Joan daughter of Edward III sent to Austria to be betrothed at the age of just four. Hilton also questions whether there is enough evidence to judge whether Richard I and Edward II were gay, something I had just taken as fact. Another gory fact details Pepys kissing the embalmed corpse of Katherine of Valois over 200 years after her death. For the first time as a Yorkist fan, I found myself with some sympathy for Margaret (or Marguerite) of Anjou, imagine getting lumbered with a mentally unstable, ineffective husband, your only son being killed, losing the throne and dying a penniless embarrassment. There are interesting parallels with the role of medieval queens and Hilary Mantel’s recent comments about the Duchess of Cambridge being “a plastic princess” whose only role is childbearing. Hilton points out that as the medieval period progressed there was a decline in the ritual and symbolic role of the queens with Elizabeth of York not even being crowned until 1487, two years after their marriage, but we also have the interesting paradox that less than a century later Elizabeth I becomes “perhaps the greatest period of female power in England before the 20th century”.
There are some problems with this book largely due to the lack of historical sources on women’s history especially relating to this period so some chapters are a bit scanty, for example Elizabeth of York is hardly mentioned at all in her chapter. If you read too much in one go it does become a bit list like and repetitive. I also got a bit upset by Hilton’s obvious bias against Richard III in the Anne Neville chapter, she even had a Richard III lover like me questioning my love for him and ruined my romantic notion that it was a love match. The conclusion was also the weakest section with a long-winded parallel drawn between medieval queens and the queens in Beowulf and the Morte d’ Arthur which I didnt really understand.
This is a great introduction or supplement to the lives of the medieval queens and the medieval period, and is recommended for anyone who wants a historical, but factual page turner.