In Queens of the Conquest, Alison Weir chronicles the tumultuous lives of five medieval queens historians have mostly ignored. Her meticulously researched book begins in 1066 with Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and ends in 1154 with Empress Maud, an “intrepid spirit” who fought to rule England. Despite a relative scarcity of information, Weir reconstructs a tale of murder, love, ambition, rivalry, treason, adultery and betrayal. Each queen’s story is filled with details that give readers a vivid sense of the women and the times they lived in. Weir’s talent as a novelist is evident, but her rigor as a historian is also impressive. Queens of the Conquest is filled with child brides, shipwrecks, castles and court intrigue, but it also contains more than a hundred pages of supplementary material, including sources, maps and letters.
Perhaps most notable is Weir’s ability to portray the queens as strong, intelligent women without romanticizing them or subjecting them to present-day standards. Matilda of Flanders initially refused William the Conqueror’s proposal because he was a “bastard son,” only to relent after he beat her so severely she took to her bed to recover. It would be easy to dismiss her change of heart as an example of women’s subjugation or to assign it to a weakness in character. Weir does neither. While she does make the inferior position of women clear, she never lapses into polemics. Citing a primary source, she records that Matilda told her astonished father she would marry no one but William, “for he must be a man of great courage and high daring who could venture to come and beat me in my own father’s palace.” Matilda soon became William’s most trusted confidant and would rule as regent in his absence on many occasions. When she secretly supported their rebellious son, William railed against the betrayal of the woman “whom I love as my very soul” but did not punish her.
I’ve already spent too much time on Matilda of Flanders, in part because her section was my favorite, but also because it is easy to get caught up in each woman’s tale. At a time when women were valued primarily as breeders of future kings, these queens proved they were far more than that. Maltilda of Scotland, whisked from a nunnery to marry Henry I, garnered criticism for surrounding herself with too many musicians, poets and scholars. Queen Adeliza was known for her beauty and her patronage of the arts. Empress Maud, who was married off and sent overseas at eight years old, went on to lead a rebellion against King Stephen in hopes of gaining the throne. Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, in turn led her own rebellion to restore her husband to power while he was imprisoned in chains.
The women’s stories, however, aren’t the only ones I’ll remember. Weir’s depiction of the plight of their English subjects is also moving. The five queens witnessed (and, in some instances, caused) famine, torture and war. Subjects were hung upside down, castrated, flayed and had their eyes put out. Villages were burned and lands plundered, often at the behest of the ruling class. While I can’t say I enjoyed these passages, I’m grateful to Weir for documenting them.
Queens of the Conquest is the first of a four-book series about the medieval queens, one which will undoubtedly appeal to fans of British history. My only caveat is that the book may not win over readers looking purely for historical drama (if you’re looking for that, read one of Weir’s excellent novels). It’s a dense book, rich with facts, so at times it can be a bit slow going. I admit to skimming all the supplementary material and to occasionally confusing the four (four!) Matildas. On the flip side, gaps in the historical record may bother other readers. There are few pictorial representations of the women, no diaries, and fewer primary sources than exist for later rulers. That said, Weir has done a remarkable job of bringing these women to life. I thoroughly enjoyed Queens of the Conquest and plan on reading the next installment.