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Queens of the Age of Chivalry: England's Medieval Queens, Volume Three

Review

Queens of the Age of Chivalry: England's Medieval Queens, Volume Three

At the very end of QUEENS OF THE AGE OF CHIVALRY, the third and concluding volume in her remarkable history of England’s medieval queen consorts, Alison Weir reflects that the end of the 14th century saw the role of royal women subdued back to the early Middle Ages ideal of pious passivity. But, she promises in her final sentence, “In the fifteenth century, it would be a different story.”

Hopefully, that means another literary foray into the often underappreciated and misunderstood world of female power (both subtle and overt) that helped to form good kings or compensate for the weak and cruel ones. And that, in a nutshell, is what QUEENS OF THE AGE OF CHIVALRY is all about. Rather than the end of a brilliant trilogy, it feels like the powerful “prequel” to an endlessly fascinating and ongoing story.

As in her previous QUEENS OF THE CONQUEST and QUEENS OF THE CRUSADES, Weir probes deep within English and European society from the late 13th century to the birth of the 15th. She reconstructs the private and public lives of five unique women who indelibly reshaped their geopolitical, social and economic worlds on both sides of the English Channel for more than 100 years.

"Like few nonfiction authors of our time, Alison Weir again shows that history, when done properly, can captivate the mind and heart as well as (or maybe even better than) the most creative fiction."

Marguerite of France (c. 1279-1318), second wife of Edward I (r. 1272-1307); Isabella of France (1292-1358), wife of Edward II (r. 1307-1327); Philippa of Hainault (c. 1315-1369), wife of Edward III (r. 1327-1377); Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394), first wife of Richard II (r. 1377-1399); and Richard’s second consort, Isabella of Valois (1389-1409), present a fascinating and often tragic diversity of lifespan, political influence and the all-important criterion of fertility.

As in previous ages, a queen consort’s primary role was to produce strong male heirs, preferably more than one, when infant mortality was horrifically high, even among the most privileged. Few of Britain’s queens could match the prolific and perennially popular Philippa of Hainault, who gave her adoring Edward III no fewer than 12 healthy offspring. And few were more pitiable than the pious and persevering Anne of Bohemia, who could not conceive with the ill-fated Richard II and died barren, or Richard’s second wife, Isabella of Valois, who had not even reached puberty when he was dethroned and executed, leaving her a widow at age 10.

Coming a close second to securing their husbands’ bloodlines was the importance of marital alliances to forge political ones, as seen in the title origins of all five women portrayed in QUEENS OF THE AGE OF CHIVALRY. None were born in England, although the period saw frequent movements among the nobility to advocate for domestic royal partners. But at a time when England’s claims to large parts of France were continually challenged and tested, ultimately leading to the Hundred Years’ War, arranged political marriages (often with vast transfers of money and real estate) were accepted as one of the few reliable means to broker periodic outbreaks of peace.

While English kings were no longer away for years at a time on crusades, they spent most of their reigns bickering, negotiating and battling back and forth with France, the Low Countries and Scotland. They also maintained frequent correspondence with double Popes, in Rome and Avignon, whose permission was required to marry someone too close to one’s immediate family, which happened a great deal.

In the absence or incompetence of their husbands, all five of these medieval queens exerted substantial influence, the most important of which was to help them “save face” by pleading on behalf of various causes or unjustly condemned individuals. The kings to whom they were wed could step back from unwise decisions or judgments by claiming to have given in to their beloved wives’ wishes. Isabella of France and Philippa of Hainault, the longest-lived at ages 66 and 55 respectively, were also the most influential as astute behind-the-scenes strategists.

Of the five queens Weir portrays, Isabella of France receives the lengthiest attention, and for good historical reasons. She became the most powerful out of necessity, when it became clear early in her marriage that Edward II’s political judgment was being dangerously manipulated by a sinister male court favorite, Hugh Le Despenser (he wasn’t the only king during this period whose sexual interests included men and women). Isabella finally raised an army with the help of her lover, Roger Mortimer, and they successfully overthrew Edward, becoming unofficial but effective co-regents until Edward III reached adulthood.

Among the great cataclysmic events of the time, including the Peasants’ Revolt, Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the overthrow of both Edward II and Richard II, QUEENS OF THE AGE OF CHIVALRY presents a panoramic yet minutely intimate account of real life in a time plagued by uncertainty and civil unrest. Weir draws on personal letters, royal chronicles, political treaties, bills and accounts (with jaw-dropping values in today’s money), poetry (including that of court favorite Geoffrey Chaucer), period biographies and narratives, architecture, sculpture and painting --- all of which humanizes the hundreds of historically essential dates, times and places that provide the structure for her energetic and imaginative prose.

Like few nonfiction authors of our time, Alison Weir again shows that history, when done properly, can captivate the mind and heart as well as (or maybe even better than) the most creative fiction.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 20, 2023

Queens of the Age of Chivalry: England's Medieval Queens, Volume Three
by Alison Weir

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2022
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 1101966726
  • ISBN-13: 9781101966723