This book attempts to explore the lives and personalities of the crowned queens of England from Matilda of Flanders (William the Conqueror’s wife) to Elizabeth of York (Henry VII’s). On the whole, I liked it. Some of the queens are fairly well-known or at least notorious – Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France (Edward II’s queen) instantly come to my mind – but a lot of them are typically overshadowed by their husbands or sons.
Unfortunately that’s a trap that this book also falls into by the end. It is, of course, always difficult to piece together personality from the limited records that survive, especially for women. Even noble women rarely appear in the records until their betrothals. So much of what survives is either financial or in connection with the king and/or princes.
The structure of the book works really well at first. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular queen, putting the story into a pretty clearly demarcated chronology. The problems naturally come when two are more queens are alive at the same time: when there are dowager queens along with their crowned daughters- or sisters-in-law. At the beginning of the book, the overlaps were pretty easy to keep clear: even when there were multiple queens (Eleanor of Aquitaine and Berengaria, for instance), the story of one queen was told fairly completely before going back a few years to start the story of the next.
Things start to fall apart a little bit by the end of the book. Focus on the queens themselves is subsumed into a description of events, especially in the last few chapters. And focus on a separate queen per chapter is almost non-existent. I think I learned more about the Elizabeths (Woodville and York) during the Anne Neville chapter than about Anne herself, and that doesn’t include the pages that don’t even mention Anne at all.
I don’t know how much of my dissatisfaction with the final chapters is due to my relative disinterest in the Wars of the Roses (and most things after 1400) and how much is the failure of the book to maintain its structure and stated purpose.
I did enjoy it, though. I learned more about a lot of the queens than I’d known before. My interest in the Anarchy was, if anything, increased. (That is one major omission: since the book is about crowned queens, Empress Matilda is not one of the subjects.) And my annoyance with the muddle of the last few chapters has somewhat increased my desire to finally make sense of the late 15th century.