HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘Defenders of the Norman Crown – Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto – by what warrant he held his lands – John de Warenne, the 6th earl of Surrey, is said to have drawn a rusty sword, claiming “My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them”

John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time. In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron. The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…

For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the highest circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal.

Defenders of the Norman Crown tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Purchase on Amazon here

It isn’t often I purchase books outside my main areas of interest (I just don’t have the time), but Sharon Bennett Connolly is an author worthy of an exception. After writing several other books focussing on women in the medieval era, all books I found really interesting, here was another opportunity to delve into a new period without feeling confused.

I knew absolutely nothing about the de Warenne family, had never bothered to glance past their names until this book was released, so I chose it solely based on the author’s previous books. The story of the de Warennes covers 300 years, spreads over England, Scotland and Normandy. It starts with William I de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, the fourth-wealthiest man under William the Conquerer, a title won by fighting in the 1066 Battle of Hastings to conquer England. William survived the battle and took a huge swathe of southern England for himself, founding Lewes Priory, only to die in battle soon after. While the story of William and his noble Flemish wife Gundrada could be a story on its own, the book spreads out its tentacles to show the lives and reach of the de Warenne family across several centuries.

The de Warenne family accomplished much and held power from one generation to the next. Apart from Lewes, the family built Castle Acre in Norfolk and Conisbrough in Yorkshire (a place the author is an expert on, as the book shows) and within a generation of the first Earl of Surrey, the family had power in England and Normandy. Isabel Warenne, 4th Countess Surrey and sole heir to the title married a son of King Stephen, and then Hamelin de Anjou (a Plantagenet and half-brother of King Henry II), who took the title of Earl of Warenne, and together they continued this powerful family line. This made Isabel aunt to two further English kings, among many aristocratic connections. The family also stretched their reach into Scotland, with Isabella’s aunt Ada de Warrenne giving birth to two Scottish kings, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, while her other children married powerfully into Scotland (as in such as the notorious Bruce family), Wales and Holland. The stories of these family members stretch out across countries, time and tales of legendary people and battles.

The de Warennes power in the period is so intertwined with power and royalty, it is interesting there are not many more works on these people. William de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey was a supporter of Edward II, only to switch to Simon Montfort’s camp, and then back again, (a story all on its own) that saw him given control of Scotland where he saw off William Wallace’s rebellion. By this time, the de Warennes were totally linked with so many of the highest noble houses across England and Scotland, right up in the royal lines of both countries.

I won’t add spoilers, but the details of William de Warenne, the would-be 7th Earl of Surrey are discussed, both the long-held assumptions and new theories of his death. The more dubious John de Warenne, the eventual 7th Earl of Surrey, married King Edward I’s granddaughter, his own cousin who was only ten at the time of the wedding. But John, after a colourful personal and professional life (like divorce, mistresses and battles against the Mortimers and Piers Gaveston), left only illegitimate children, giving the Surrey title his sister’s Arundel son (who himself married a le Despenser and then Eleanor of Lancaster!). The de Warenne name may have died after 300 years, but had spread into all the high nobility, represented in every single noble house (such as de Vere, FitzAlan, Holland, Percy, Howard, Mowbray, Beauchamp, Beaumont, Lancaster, later also spreading into the Nevilles, Parrs, Hungerfords, St Johns – have I missed any? probably), and while the Earl of Surrey title eventually settled into a role within the Duke of Norfolk’s rank, the de Warennes had already embedded themselves into every level of the noble rank right up into the royal line. The name of de Warenne spread so far and wide over 300 years, I drew a little tree for myself to keep up. While not called de Warenne today, their ancestors are still going strong.

Honestly, how the author managed to fit so much into one book is a true feat. None of those discussed is worthy of dismissal; every single person brought something to this extraordinary family. To hold power for 300 years over such a time shows how remarkable the de Warennes were, male and female. We need fewer shows about the same few characters over and over, especially when we have authors like Sharon Bennett Connolly preparing such dramatic and exciting stories like the de Warenne dynasty, who are just waiting for their moment in the sun once more.

Being an author who tends to work on the period of 1450 onwards, I knew precious little details about many of the non-royals mentioned in this book, and I feel truly better for reading Defenders of the Norman Crown. This book is one of insight, enthusiasm and careful diligence to the subject, and a true credit to its author.

no free book or money changed hands in return for this review

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy’ by Matthew Lewis

The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favourite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus.

Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

cover and text via Pen & Sword

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I must admit that the civil war of the 12th century is definitely not in my time period of expertise, but this book jumped out for two reasons – 1) that a kick-ass woman was trying to be a king, and 2) Matthew Lewis wrote it. I thought there was no way this book could fail.

In 1120, King Henry I lost his only legitimate male heir, William, in the disaster of the White Ship. The sole heir to the throne was being a moron, and drunkenly sank his ship off the coast of Normandy, killing hundreds. While the king had two dozen bastard children (though one bastard son also died aboard the White Ship), all Henry had to inherit his throne was William, and his older sister, Matilda. With the loss of William, Henry I had what all kings fear – the possibility to handing power to a woman.

Matilda was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, only to have him die in 1125, when Matilda was still young. Henry moved his daughter back to Normandy, and set about making her the heir to the English throne. Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, and the nobles of England and English-controlled France swore fealty to Matilda and Geoffrey. Matilda didn’t seem to like her husband, but in 1135, when King Henry died in Normandy, she was pregnant with her third child, and ready to march on cities and put down rebellions.

Enter Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, the Count of Boulogne and new Duke of Normandy. Stephen hastily made his way to England, and claimed the English throne for himself while Matilda battled Anglo-Norman nobles. This problem of multiple claimants to the throne started The Anarchy, which would last for almost 20 years. Both Matilda and Stephen were descendants of William the Conqueror, and Stephen had the backing of the church, developed ways to raise money, and was prepared to fight the Scottish, the Welsh and Geoffrey of Anjou for Normandy. While several years of fighting had moderate success, by 1138, the tide was turning on all fronts, and supporters were withdrawing support for Stephen in favour of Matilda.

Lewis’ book tells the story from both points of view. Stephen seems to have been a well-liked man, with his wife, Queen Matilda, a powerful ally at his side. On the other side, Matilda is also a strong woman, her half-brother Robert a loyal supporter, and her husband Geoffrey a tough man. Matilda landed in England in 1139, but Stephen was hesitant to lay siege on a castle harbouring a female enemy. But he had underestimated his cousin, for Matilda, alongside Robert, was ready to fight for the throne. By 1141, Matilda had captured Stephen.

Matilda was an incredible woman. She lived in a time where men simply couldn’t comprehend a woman in power. She couldn’t be a woman who ruled, she needed to be a king. The fine line Matilda needed to walk was one almost impossible; she was expected to be a woman, but act like a king. She needed to rule and control as a king, but all her nobles and commoners saw was a woman. Empress Matilda, Lady of England and Normandy, set forth to London to be coronated, only to have the population revolt against her just days before she wore the crown as king of England.

Matilda soon had to face another battle, from Stephen’s wife Queen Matilda, who overthrew Matilda and forced her into hiding. Matilda was forced to let Stephen go from prison, in return for her brother Robert, who was caught by Queen Matilda in battle (phew!).

Battles continued for several years with Stephen still the king, and Matilda on her own with husband Geoffrey taking Normandy across the channel. In 1147, Matilda’s brother Robert died, and her son Henry, aged only 14, took up the battle in his mother’s name. But the fresh fighting produced no winners, and young Henry wanted to bail out, but was broke. King Stephen paid for his enemy to leave the fighting, a strange gesture indeed, paying his cousin and enemy to safely leave. This left the people of England to make truces and find some peace at last, but Matilda wasn’t done yet.

By 1153, Henry was at it again, fighting Stephen for the crown. But instead of battles to the death, Stephen and Henry made peace, and decided Henry would be Stephen’s heir, in place of Stephen’s own son who was ruling in France. Stephen died only one year later, and Henry became King Henry II, leaving his mother Matilda to never rule England.

This book goes into fine detail about the battles that raged over this bloody period in English history, which gives The Anarchy context and fleshes out the realities of what happened to the country, and how the people suffered over the period of 1135 – 1154. With the book covering both Stephen and Matilda, it makes it hard to decide who you want to win. Matilda was an extraordinary woman in English history, so to hate Stephen for taking her throne should be an easy task. Instead, Stephen is a liked and capable man  who makes the right decision at crucial moments. Despite the 19 years in which the civil war spanned, there were times of peace in all areas of the country.  Neither Stephen nor Matilda made the battle for the crown personal, neither wished to kill the other, or at least it seemed. When it fell to Henry II to rebuild after the fighting, rebuilding the country and her finances took only around a decade, and went on to rule much of France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. To suggest England was in anarchy under Stephen isn’t the full picture, which Lewis details meticulously. However, with the coinage debased and law and order a mess, the battle had done much harm to the general population in the south, while northern areas were largely untouched. The fortunes of England raised and fell with every move Matilda and Stephen made.

I expected to read this book, cheering for Matilda’s success, despite knowing the ultimate outcome already, and yet that didn’t happen. Lewis has written the book in a way that the reader can see the battle from both points of view and I liked Stephen more than I wanted to. There is much to cover in The Anarchy, and yet the author fits it all in without wasting any time. While I was already a very big Matthew Lewis fan, this book has left me better for reading it, learning about a period I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if not for him.

 

 

 

 

 

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Women in Medieval England’ by Lynda Telford

This fascinating book explores the status of women in medieval England, both before and after the Norman Conquest.

The author starts by contrasting the differences in status between Anglo/Danish or Saxon women with those who fell under the burden of the feudal system imposed by the Normans. She covers such subjects as marriage and childbirth, the rights and responsibilities of wives, separation and divorce, safety and security and the challenges of widowhood. She also examines such issues as virginity and chastity and the pressures placed on women by religious groups.

At a time when women’s rights were minimal, the author charts their struggles against the sexual politics of the era, its inequalities and its hypocrisies. She also examines the problems of the woman alone, from forced marriage to prostitution. The lives of ordinary women are the centre of attention, painting a fascinating picture of their courage and resilience against the background of their times.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Resting on the theme of women in history is Women in Medieval England. My initial interest in this book was the pre-conquest women included. England and its rulers is so often detailed as post-1066, so someone like myself with limited knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon era found the overview and laws of the time useful. New leaders made for new husbands for noble women, who may not even be able to understand them, given language barriers. A nightmare of any woman, and to cap it off, not speaking your new husband/owner’s language is a scary thought.

What classified as marriage was quite different (as I’m sure everyone knows) which made for a messy history and difficult lives for the women traded to their husbands. The book even delves into what was birth control in the pots-1066 era, and lol-worthy concepts for cures for impotence. Life for women was exceptionally difficult, mostly due to the largely uncontrollable act of pregnancy, and the book shows just how damned awful it was for our predecessors to battle on creating a new generation.
Married life was all kinds of awful – as everyone knows the ‘rule of thumb,’ in that a man cannot beat his wife with anything thicker than his thumb. Though, in some ways, you read this and wonder how much life has altered for many women. This book digs through a realities of being a woman in the medieval period, where men are cast as sword-wielding heroes, women have been left standing in mud-floor huts. This shines a light on those women, who had the temperament of saints, strength tougher than any soldier, and bravery beyond that of a king. The world was a strange place for women; you could die of the plague, or you could survive an outbreak and clean up in the vacant jobs market.
This is no heavy book you will be reaching for when researching, it is a read on the lives of women in a world none of us would want to return to. There is plenty of information to be had in here, without feeling like you’re in a history lesson, a book for those who would like to read for pleasure, not study.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Queen of the North’ by Anne O’Brien

1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.

For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.

But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.

To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.

To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.

This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.

cover and blurb via amazon

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It’s 1399 and King Edward III’s descendant Elizabeth Mortimer is married to Henry Hotspur Percy, heir of the Earl of Northumberland. Richard II is king, and deposed by Henry Bolingbroke under dubious circumstances. Richard II had no heirs, but he did have someone ready to replace him until Henry IV takes his crown. That is where Elizabeth comes in.

Elizabeth expected her nephew Edmund Mortimer to take the throne, also a descendant of Edward III, a boy born of royal Plantagenet blood.  Elizabeth’s family has just as good a claim to the throne as the new Lancaster king. Whenever there are multiple claims to a throne, blood is certain to follow.

Elizabeth is not a man who can go into battle for the Mortimer claimant. She is not a beautiful young princess to be traded by families and launched into power. Elizabeth is a smart noble woman, who knows her family has a valid claim, who has given her husband the children he needs, and, to history, should be left on the sidelines. But Elizabeth is not a woman who should be cast aside in the battles of men and the throne, for she has the knowledge, skill and education to make a difference in the Mortimer claim to the crown.

 

All sides the early battles had legitimate claims to the throne, and we have a viewpoint in Elizabeth which is valid yet undemanding, unlike the men who surround her. Real life Elizabeth is not a well-known figure of history, so the author has had to use historical detail of others, and weave Elizabeth into the story, which gives new life to an old tale. Percy takes the Lancaster’s side of the war and Elizabeth is rich in the blood of the Mortimers, and nobler than her husband.  But what can a wife do in such challenges? Elizabeth is the wife of Percy, who holds the north. Whether it is from London or the Scots, the Percys have plenty of battles to face and Elizabeth is the northerners queen.
No sooner than choices are made, Elizabeth and Percy find they should be on the side of the Mortimer. Politics, treason and ambition are going to explode, and I am desperately trying not to write spoilers, but all I can say is you really need to read this book! Everyone knows what happened to Hotspur Percy at the Battle of Shrewsbury, part of a plot to overthrow Henry IV, but Elizabeth and her family’s claim carries on.  The Bolingbrokes and the Mortimers are going to need to be friends if civil wars for the throne are to end, and greed is as powerful as blood. This book has historical accuracy combined with beautiful storytelling. I adored this novel.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

cover and blurb viz amazon

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I have spent a long time with my head in academic history books, so to read something that reads more like a story was a welcome relief. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book hard to get here in NZ, so when a copy generously floated my way, I grabbed it with both hands. The first thing I thought was – do we still use the word ‘heroine?’ Should it not just be ‘heroes?’ But then people may purchase and then get their egos crushed by finding out all the heroes are women. That only made me like this book more.

The book is great, separated into chapters about women from all over Europe. The book writes about the women of England and France, but also from Spain (yay!) and even as far east as Kiev. There are Warrior Heroines, Literary Heroines, Religious Heroines and Scandalous Heroines. You can read them in order, or however you like depending on your mood. I enjoyed how The Pawns weren’t simply bartering gifts, but smart women in their own right, and the Medieval Mistresses were more fleshed out (excuse the pun) than the simply fallen women ideal.

You won’t be confused between your Eleanors, your Matildas or your Isabels, and while you will read about well-known heroines, they are also great forgotten women given fresh air. The women are not viewed as heroines through 21st century eyes, rather they are simply celebrated for their strength in the time period while on their own crusades. They are heroines for all centuries. Putting together such a thorough assembly of women must have taken considerable time and energy, so treat yourself to the author’s hard work and gain further insight to the women that came before us. Heroines have far more skills and techniques than any hero.