Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

In Alison Weir’s new non-fiction book, Queens of the Conquest, she explores the lives of the five queens of England who followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. These five, in the order they appear in the book, are Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror), Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain (the two wives of Henry I), Matilda of Boulogne (wife of King Stephen), and the Empress Maud, Henry I’s daughter, who was never actually crowned but called herself Lady of the English. Lots of Matildas, then – Maud is also referred to in many sources as Matilda – but with each queen discussed chronologically (apart from where their stories overlap), things aren’t as confusing as you might imagine!

Apart from Maud, whom I have read about several times in fiction, I knew very little about the other queens whose stories are covered in this book. Considering the general lack of information available to us today – we don’t even have a clear idea of what these women looked like due to the absence of contemporary portraits – I think Weir still does a good job of providing as full and comprehensive an account of each queen’s life as she possibly could. There is inevitably a lot of padding – facts about medieval life, descriptions of castles and long passages quoted from letters – but if you don’t know a lot about the period, most of this should still be of interest.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book as my own knowledge is very limited, but Weir does provide references to back up most of what she says. In fact, the additional material which includes the references, sources, maps etc takes up about a quarter of the book! There are still times, though, when she is forced to speculate and make assumptions about how one of the queens may have felt or behaved, and resorts to using words like ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’. Usually I prefer more certainty when I’m reading non-fiction, but in this case, I do understand that with the primary sources being so sparse, some guesswork was necessary to round out the characters of the queens and to make this into an entertaining read rather than a dry textbook.

15th century depiction of the Empress Matilda/Maud

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was the section describing the period of civil war known as the Anarchy during which Maud (who was named as her father Henry I’s heir) and Matilda of Boulogne (whose husband, Stephen, was Henry I’s nephew and another claimant to the throne) found themselves on opposite sides. As I’ve read several novels which have this period as a setting, it was good to read a factual account this time instead of a fictional one, while still recognising some of the most interesting episodes, such as Maud’s escape in the snow from the besieged Oxford Castle.

Maud certainly didn’t seem to have made herself very popular, having a reputation for being proud, haughty and arrogant, but I have always assumed that this was probably due to the prejudice of the male chroniclers of the time against a female ruler who didn’t behave the way they expected a woman to behave. Weir points out that Matilda of Boulogne often acted in a similar way but her actions were seen as acceptable because she was taking them on behalf of her husband, King Stephen, rather than for herself, but she also suggests that Maud’s overbearing attitude and poor decision-making may have been due to mood swings caused by early menopause or a long-term illness she suffered following childbirth. This was the one place where I thought there may have been some bias creeping in, as Weir clearly seems to like Matilda of Boulogne much more than the Empress – and I couldn’t help wondering what caused the aggression and lack of judgement of some of the kings mentioned in the book!

18th-century impression of Matilda of Flanders

I was also interested to read the various theories and legends behind Matilda of Flanders’ marriage to William the Conqueror and the controversies surrounding Matilda of Scotland’s marriage to Henry I (she had previously spent some time in a convent so it was debatable whether or not she was free to marry). I felt that I learned very little about Adeliza, though; while she is described as being particularly beautiful and helping to promote the arts, it seemed that she had less power and political significance than the other queens.

Although I sometimes felt that too much time was devoted to the general history of the period when I would have preferred more analysis of the specific lives and characters of the five queens, I did find Queens of the Conquest a fascinating read. Apparently this is just the first of four volumes which will take us through the rest of the medieval queens to the end of the Wars of the Roses. I will be looking out for the next one.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

16 thoughts on “Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

    • Helen says:

      A lot of my historical knowledge comes from fiction too as I much prefer reading novels to reading non-fiction – hence the title of my blog! I do like to read books like this from time to time, though, in an attempt to add some facts to the fiction.

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I agree with WHATMEREAD I enjoy her non-fiction more although there is often a lot of speculation. I know nothing about any of them so I’m sure I’ll find this one interesting.

    • Helen says:

      I would have preferred less speculation in this book, but I suppose the further back in time you go the harder it is to avoid having to make guesses. It’s an interesting read anyway, and I learned a lot from it.

  2. FictionFan says:

    I’ve only read one of her books before and I must admit I found her specualtion went too far for me – I felt she was really stretching sometimes with very little basis for what she was suggesting. Still, it’s good that someone is trying to look at the less well remembered Queens – there are only so many times I want to read about Anne Boleyn!

    • Helen says:

      I don’t mind reading about the Tudors now and then, but yes, this book made a refreshing change! I felt I was learning something new rather than just covering the same ground again.

    • Helen says:

      The Pillars of the Earth was my first encounter with Maud and Stephen too. It was good to learn more about them, as well as the other early queens and kings.

  3. Miss Darcy's Library says:

    What an interesting review! I confess I have only recently come to know about the Anarchy and the fierce conflict between Stephen and Maud (a colleague gave me the TV miniseries “The Pillars of the Earth” for Christmas). So much has been written about later monarchs that I find it refreshing and illuminating to fill in the gaps and try and understand all that happened before. I grew up with Alison Weir’s books on Queen Elizabeth Ist and I see what you mean about her style. Not 100% scientific, perhaps, but it has the merit of making the subject more accessible to the novice…

    • Helen says:

      I think a lot of us probably got to know Stephen and Maud through The Pillars of the Earth! The Anarchy was a fascinating period of history and it was interesting to read about it from a factual point of view this time rather than a fictional one. I’ve only read two of Alison Weir’s non-fiction books so far, but I would agree that they’re very accessible.

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