The Stolen Crown by Carol McGrath

When Henry I of England dies in 1135 leaving no legitimate male children, he names his daughter, Maud, as heir to the throne. Through her marriage to the late Holy Roman Emperor, the Empress Maud, as she still calls herself, is used to wielding power, yet she is unable to gain the support of the nobility and clergy of England and the throne is taken instead by her cousin, Stephen of Blois. Maud, however, refuses to give up her claim and so a battle begins between the cousins that will become known as ‘the Anarchy’ – a period of civil war lasting for almost two decades.

Carol McGrath’s new novel, The Stolen Crown, tells Maud’s story, exploring her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou, the years of conflict with Stephen and her relationships with her half-brother Robert of Gloucester and with Brien FitzCount, her most loyal supporter. Although Maud (sometimes known as Matilda) was never actually crowned Queen of England and was referred to instead as ‘Lady of the English’, she left an important legacy as the eldest of her three sons with Geoffrey would go on to become Henry II, the first of the great House of Plantagenet.

The novel is written largely from Maud’s own perspective and she is portrayed as a strong, courageous and determined woman, but also one who makes mistakes, ignores advice and acts impulsively at times – in other words, a believable human being who comes to life on the page. We follow Maud throughout her adult life, beginning with her marriage to Geoffrey, a husband she didn’t choose and didn’t want, but with whom she eventually settles down to start a family in Anjou. When Stephen seizes the throne, Maud leaves her husband and children behind to travel to England and fight for what she believes is rightfully hers. Some sections of the book are also written from the point of view of Maud’s illegitimate half-brother Robert, which was a good decision as it allows us to see Maud through the eyes of someone else close to her, as well as filling in the gaps when Maud is not directly involved in the action. I’ve always liked Robert when I’ve come across him in historical fiction and it’s interesting to think of the sort of king he would have made had he been a legitimate heir.

I knew from the other Carol McGrath books I’ve read (The Silken Rose, The Damask Rose and The Stone Rose, a trilogy of novels about three queens who were labelled ‘she-wolves’) that she also likes to include fictional characters in her stories. In this book, we meet Alice, a young woman from a family of entertainers – musicians, jugglers and puppeteers. Alice has a storyline of her own, including a romance with a young knight, Sir Jacques, but she also fits seamlessly into Maud’s story, spying and carrying messages between the Empress and Brien FitzCount. Although I found Maud much more interesting to read about, Alice’s inclusion in the book gives us an insight into medieval life away from the royal courts.

The Anarchy is a fascinating part of English history, often overshadowed by later conflicts such as the Civil War and the Wars of the Roses, so I’m pleased that McGrath has chosen to give some attention to this period and to Maud. I’m looking forward to seeing who and what she writes about next.

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

This is book 19/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

17 thoughts on “The Stolen Crown by Carol McGrath

  1. margaret21 says:

    I see our library has any number of this author’s books with ‘rose’ in the title, but not this book – which of course lacks a rose anyway. I imagine there’s no need to read these books in order?

    • Helen says:

      Her books all work as standalones, even though some of them are connected. This one has just been published this week so your library might get it eventually.

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    Not a period of English history I’m familiar with. I have just ‘discovered’ the Penguin Monarchs series of short biographies though, so I’m hoping to be able to fill in the (many) blanks in my knowledge. Always good when an author chooses the lesser known parts of history to focus on. I’ll add it to my list!

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read any of the Penguin Monarchs books but they seem as if they should give a good overview of the monarchs and their reigns.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    This is a wonderfully intriguing period of history with larger than life characters, including Robert if Gloucester who was buried in St James’s Priory in Bristol after founding it and being responsible for Bristol Castle, sites I haunted when I was a teenager living in Bristol with an interest in the city’s history.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s a fascinating period. Bristol Castle is mentioned a lot in this book, both as the home of Robert of Gloucester and the place where King Stephen was imprisoned.

  4. mallikabooks15 says:

    My only acquaintance with this period is through Ellis Peters’ books where Stephen and Maud remain in the backgound. This seems an interesting way to get to finally get to learn Maud’s story.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, this is the perfect way to learn more about Maud. I’ve still only read the first Cadfael book – I must continue with that series soon!

  5. whatmeread says:

    I know I read a different book on this subject, although it focused mostly on the battle for the throne. I can’t remember the name, though. Oh well! This looks interesting.

  6. jessicabookworm says:

    This is an author and time period I have not read about before, although I did enjoy a non-fiction and a TV documentary about Maud/Matilda. I think I might need to check this out! 😁

  7. FictionFan says:

    All I know about this period is the little I gleaned from the Brother Cadfael books, so this sounds like it would be a great way to fill that gap in my knowledge!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, this book is the perfect way to learn more about Maud, Stephen and the Anarchy. I’ve still only read the first book in the Cadfael series, despite enjoying it – I really need to continue with the second one soon!

Please leave a comment. Thanks!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.