Review 1470: Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens

In Queens of the Conquest, Alison Weir does what she does best—constructs a well-researched biography of a notable Medieval woman—in this case, four of them. Queens of the Conquest is the first of four volumes called England’s Medieval Queens, which will detail as much as is known of the lives of these queens. This volume begins with Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and ends approximately 100 years later with the death of Empress Maud, the mother of Henry II.

Weir’s premise in this volume is that the early Medieval queens of England were not removed from the governance of the kingdom. She has thoroughly proved this premise with documentation of their charters to award lands, their stints at being regent, and their attendance at cabinet meetings. Of the three women, only Adeliza of Louvain, King Henry’s second wife, seems to have taken a more traditional role.

Although the stories of the first two queen’s lives are largely dependent upon reading endless charters and religious devotions, which could get a little tiresome, Weir has faithfully documented what is known of the women’s lives. She does this in an eminently readable style while still backing the facts up with source material and footnotes. These materials include appendixes with the text of extant letters.

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Day 646: The Marriage Game

Cover for The Marriage GameAlthough I have read several of Alison Weir’s meticulously researched histories and historical biographies, I feel her gifts are more for nonfiction than fiction. In her novel The Marriage Game, she concentrates on the struggles and power plays around the issue of Queen Elizabeth I’s marriage during the first years of her reign. Unfortunately, Weir focuses on this subject so much to the exclusion of others that you would think it was the only item of concern in the realm. For example, Elizabeth sends Cecil away to broker a peace with Scotland, which is almost the only mention of a war.

The novel begins right after Elizabeth hears of her sister’s death and takes the throne. Her advisor William Cecil almost immediately raises the issue of her marriage. Elizabeth, determined not to lose her hard-won power to a husband, finds her repeated statements that she will not marry either not believed or met with the opinion that her remaining unmarried would not be good for the kingdom. Elizabeth takes a flirtatious stance, refusing to be pinned down to a decision but forever pretending she’s considering a suitor.

Confusing the issue is Lord Robert Dudley, for whom she has a decided preference. But he is already married. Still, she heeds no one’s warnings about her reputation. She keeps him with her even when his wife is dying, and at least in this novel, their physical relationship includes everything except actual penetration. Just whether the Virgin Queen was a virgin is a subject of debate, and this seems to be Weir’s (perhaps unlikely) compromise. The mystery of what happened to Dudley’s wife seems much less important than it actually was at the time.

http://www.netgalley.comWeir has not chosen to make this story romantic or even depict the two main characters sympathetically. Neither is fully formed, but both are selfish, ambitious, demanding, and conniving. Although the novel is well written and should be interesting, it eventually devolves into repetitious arguments, with Dudley’s ambitions thwarted and Elizabeth incensed because he has overstepped his bounds. If there is an arc to the plot, I couldn’t discern it. I couldn’t help thinking that a novel about Elizabeth that was a little broader in scope would be more interesting. After reading most of the novel, I finally decided I was finding it tedious and quit reading it. Very disappointing, especially considering Weir’s excellent biography of Mary Boleyn.

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Day Nine: Mary Boleyn

Cover for Mary BoleynIn the introduction to Mary Boleyn, biographer Alison Weir talks about the many misconceptions we have about Anne Boleyn’s less famous sister, which were not only derived from such popular fictions as The Tudors (wildly inaccurate, but I still loved it!) and The Other Boleyn Girl (ditto), but also from biographers and historians over the centuries. Weir calls her book both a biography and a historiography, because she tackles many published statements about Mary’s life and attempts to show the extent of their truth or even likelihood.

Because most of Mary’s life was spent in the background of her glittering, ambitious family, not many actual records or letters that mention her exist, and only a couple of her own letters survive. Even the exact date of her birth is unknown, so that there has been been debate about whether Mary is the older or younger of the two sisters. (Weir makes a good case for older.)

Weir examines Mary’s life from as early as it is known and explores such subjects as whether she had an affair with the King of France (yes, probably a short one), whether she came from that with a ruined reputation, as has been alleged (no, but her family may have sent her away from court), whether she had an affair with Henry VIII (yes, but possibly reluctantly), whether she was then labeled a “famous whore” as has also been alleged (no, hardly anyone knew about it), whether she was married off to an unworthy but complaisant husband as a result (no, she married before the affair to William Carey, a wealthy and influential courtier who was one of Henry VIII’s trusted friends), and so on.

The picture Weir paints is of a woman who has repeatedly been smeared over the centuries. She certainly did not seem to be ambitious, like the rest of her family, because she got very little from her royal lovers. She was almost certainly also not well regarded by her family, probably because she had taken these lovers without gaining an advantage. After her first husband died, she eventually remarried for love, William Stafford, a relatively poor man much lower in status who was 12 years her junior. After she was cut off from her family and court as a result, she described the time of her widowhood as “bondage” and stated in a letter to Thomas Cromwell that no one in the world cared for her except Stafford.

Mary seems to have been slighted by her family for much of her adult life and was finally exiled from them because of her second marriage. This separation may be the only reason she survived her sister and brother.

Weir makes a strong case for Mary’s first child, Katherine Carey, being the unacknowledged daughter of Henry VIII. An appendix relates what happened to Mary’s descendants. Weir remarks that Henry VIII’s line is believed to have died out with Elizabeth I, but assuming she is correct about Katherine’s birth, she provides a fascinating list of some of the famous British people who can trace their lineage back to Mary’s daugher—and so to Henry—including Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, Lord Nelson, Vita Sackville-West, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Princess Diana, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Queen Elizabeth II herself.