Book Review: “Clash of Crowns” by Mary McAuliffe


Found this book while browsing at the local bookstore. It looked pretty interesting. The subtitle is “William the Conqueror, Richard Lionheart, and Eleanor of Aquitaine” and at the top of the cover it says “A Story of Bloodshed, Betrayal, and Revenge”. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Well, it is. McAuliffe obviously has a great passion for this era of French and English history. The book was inspired by the great fortification Château-Gaillard in France which was built by Richard the Lionheart during his clashes and wars with Philip Augustus II, King of France. She uses this castle to tell the story of Richard, beginning with the Viking Rollo, the first count of Normandy. The story progresses down to Rollo’s descendant William the Conqueror who became King of England in 1066.

William’s grand-daughter, Empress Matilda should have been Queen of England when her father King Henry I of England died. But her cousin Stephen got to England first causing the period of strife called the Anarchy while Matilda and Stephen fought for the throne. Eventually, Matilda’s first born son by Geoffrey of Anjou became King Henry II. Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine and had several sons who rebelled against their father.

All of this is recounted in this book in the context of European medieval history. McAuliffe brings all of these historical characters to life with all their admirable qualities and their foibles. She gives a detailed description of the fighting between Lionheart and Philip Augustus. Lionheart built the magnificent and modern fortress of Château-Galliard to safeguard a crucial point of defense in an effort to maintain possession of the duchy of Normandy. The castle was called Richard’s “Proud Daughter”. The final attack and siege of the castle by Philip is described in detail. It makes for fascinating reading.

Anyone who loves English and French medieval history will enjoy this book. It is well organized, and researched and well written. It includes a bibliography, illustrations, maps, a chronology and a list of key people in the story. Even if you know the history it’s a fun read and if you don’t, it’s a great introduction.

Book Review: “The Sister Queens: Isabella & Catherine de Valois” by Mary McGrigor


There is very little existing historical information on Isabella and Catherine de Valois. Both were the daughters of King Charles VI and Queen Isabeau of France and both women were Queens of England. This book reflects this sparsity of information.

If you are expecting lots of detail of the lives of these two women, you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you are looking for compelling medieval French and English history, this book fits the bill. McGrigor puts these women into their context and fills in the blanks with good storytelling about the early lives of Isabella and Catherine. Isabella’s husband Richard II lost control of his government and was forced to abdicate the throne to his cousin Henry IV. It took some time but Isabella was finally allowed to return to France and was married to her cousin Charles of Orleans who was much younger than Isabella. This may have turned out to be a successful marriage according to McGrigor. Isabella had a daughter Jane and then died shortly after giving birth. McGrigor continues the story of Jane in this book.

Catherine was the youngest daughter of Charles and Isabeau. Her story is woven within the context of the Hundred Years War and the aggression of King Henry V of England who she eventually married. McGrigor gives us a good accounting of the life of Catherine in England and also of the politics in France during the reign of Catherine’s son Henry VI who was King of France as well as King of England. These details give the reader a good understanding into what led up to the Wars of the Roses in England.

However, I do have a few issues with this book. McGrigor is perpetuating the myth of the bad reputation of Isabeau of Bavaria of being a bad mother, having many lovers and being dissolute. This has all been debunked by several historians. The other issue that is a problem is the many grammatical and typographical errors in this book. I would venture to guess about a third of the dates are transposed and incorrect. For example, a date which should read 1422 reads 1522 or 1322. The History Press is doing a disservice by either not hiring editors to correct these errors or if they do hire editors, they do a terrible job. These issues aside, I would recommend this book for those who are interested in English and French medieval history.

Book Review: “Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England” by Helen E. Maurer

Margaret of Anjou Maurer book cover

In the course of my research on English queens, I searched for a biography of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI. There appears to be no contemporary biography of her which in itself is interesting but I did find this book. It’s not a recounting of her life in a biographical sense however but a thought provoking examination of Queenship and power in medieval England.

The author says she was introduced to Margaret of Anjou by seeing a performance of a Shakespearean play in Central Park in New York City. Later, while studying in school for a doctorate, she found an article where an historian called for an examination of Margaret’s role in the political upheaval in England now known as the Wars of the Roses. She ended up writing this book.

This is not an easy read as it is definitely an academic exercise. She describes the role of a medieval queen in many different spheres such as motherhood, intervention and mediation, and aiding her retainers. A medieval queen, especially one of foreign origin, could never rule directly. Any influence she had would be through her husband the king.

Maurer tells us about Margaret’s upbringing which in many ways was extraordinary. She was highly educated and due to the influence of her formidable grandmother Yolande of Aragon, learned statecraft. Her marriage to King Henry VI came with great expectations of peace between England and France after the devastation of the Hundred Years War. When Margaret came to England as a teenager, her entrance into was celebrated with hopeful allegory. Maurer gives us a long description of these celebrations.

It was only after Margaret bore a son that she started to come into her own. At the same time of her pregnancy, her husband succumbed to madness throwing the government of the realm into chaos. Margaret did what she could to preserve the power of her husband and secure the interests of him, herself and her son, working within the boundaries of a medieval queen. Despite her best efforts, there was infighting and backstabbing among the nobility who were doing the best they could to preserve their own self interests.

In the end, Margaret became the figurehead of the House of Lancaster and even led her own troops. This was not really within the realm of the powers of a medieval queen as Maurer argues here. For better or worse, Margaret did the best she could and ended up losing everything. She just couldn’t overcome the restrictions placed on her as a medieval queen.

Maurer makes some very cogent and logical arguments here. She has some insight into the men Margaret was up against in her fight to preserve the power and prestige of her family. As stated, if you are looking for a conventional biography, this book isn’t it. But I would still recommend it if you have an interest in medieval royal women’s position, function and responsibility in history.

Book Review: “France in the Sixteenth Century” by Frederic J. Baumgartner

france in the sixteenth century book cover

I’ve been reading a lot of French history since the first of the year. The selections included a general survey, a secret history of Paris, medieval Paris and the Norman Conquest among others. But I have to say, sixteenth century France really intrigues me the most for several reasons. The characters of this period are really compelling and they are contemporaries of Tudor England, another of my favorite eras.

The author made a concerted choice to cover the era from the calling of the Estates General in 1484 after the death of King Louis XI up until the meeting of the Estates General in 1614, the era of the Renaissance and Reformation. Themes for the chapters of the book include the fundamental components of the Estates General: the monarch, the clergy, the nobles and the commoners. The chapters on the monarch cover the personalities of the kings, the organization of the court, the collection and spending of revenues and a summary of political events during the monarch’s reign.

The chapters on the clergy cover the challenges created by the spread of Calvinism in France and the Catholic response. For the nobility, he examines the developments in the military and under the commoner chapters, he discusses economics in the cities and the countryside. There is extensive information about the judicial system in France. He also gives an overview of cultural and intellectual changes during the century. This book really covers a great deal of social history.

Baumgartner is a professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He states in the introduction that this book is intended for upper level undergraduate and graduate students and advanced scholars looking for detailed information about the era. While the book is intended for academics, I really found it to be a fun read. There were a few sections that were dry and uninteresting but for the most part it was completely absorbing. Information I enjoyed included how revenues were collected, how food was distributed, how the judicial system worked, the lives of the nobles and the clergy and the monarchs, and the rise of Calvinism in France. Perhaps the best section for me was a succinct description of the Wars of Religion. I always wondered why there were so many petty nobles in France. I learned from this book that people could buy their way into the nobility!

The sections on intellectual and cultural pursuits were fascinating too. Baumgartner convincingly includes a lot of information on women during this era which I find refreshing. There are photos, maps and genealogical tables in the book as well as a glossary of terms which I will definitely refer to again. This book really delivers on its topic and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “The Norman Conquest” by Marc Morris

Norman Conquest Book Cover

I have several books written by Marc Morris on my “to read” shelf and hadn’t managed to read any of them until now. In my quest to read French history this summer I picked up this book. The subject is all the more interesting because it combines French history with English history and what could be better than that? Another reason I was interested is I’ve always wondered how William Duke of Normandy prepared for the conquest. What actually went into the planning of the expedition?

I have to start out by saying Morris’ writing style is really tremendous. His prose is fluid and easily understandable. He has closely studied all the conflicting sources and made comparisons to arrive at this own conclusions. This is historical detective work at its best.

The early chapters cover the period of Anglo-Saxon history before William arrives. Here we meet Aethelred the Unready, Queen of Emma of Normandy, King Cnut, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot, Edward the Confessor, Queen Edith of Wessex and the powerful Earl Godwine and King Harold. These historical characters are so compelling I just can’t read enough about them. Morris sets up the scene here for the big battle.

My search for William’s preparation plans has been fulfilled. Morris goes into great detail on how William persuaded the Pope to back his mission, how he gathered an army of followers with promises of great rewards, his search for a naval flotilla to take the army to England and how he provisioned the troops. Morris also describes how King Harold kept vigil awaiting the invasion, then stood down only being forced to gather his army again to fight against an invasion by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and his own brother Tostig Godwineson. Three weeks later William invaded and King Harold was defeated at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066.

Based on what little information there is on Hastings, Morris does an excellent job of describing the battle itself. The rest of the book recounts the reign of the Conqueror and how it affected England on a political and social level. Morris tells of the rebellions William had to suppress in England and in Normandy along with the dysfunctional dynamics of his own family. Morris is very fair in describing the good points and the bad points of William’s personality and style of medieval government and how devastating and transformative his conquest was on Anglo-Saxon England.

I really enjoyed the description of how William ordered the Domesday Survey in England, how writing it was accomplished and what the purpose of the survey entailed. This was new information for me and very informative. I cannot recommend this book enough. And now I must read more of Morris’ work!

Book Review: “Golden Age Ladies” by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Golden Age ladies book cover

The subtitle of this book is “Women Who Shaped the Courts of Henry VIII and Francis I”. Since I’m interested in women and Tudor and French history, I had to read it! England and France have a significantly entwined history. The book doesn’t disappoint as it has a panoply of women, explaining how their stories are all interrelated.

All the important women of these two courts make an appearance. Soberton gives us a list of characters for France and England along with genealogical tables. Interestingly, she starts out with Louise of Savoy, mother of King Francis I who learned statecraft from the formidable Anne de Beaujeu. Now here is a woman who witnessed so much history. The devoted mother of King Francis and his sister Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, Louise virtually ran the government of France while her son whiled away his time pursuing pleasures such as the hunt, women and warfare. Louise’s shining moment came when the Ladies Peace of Cambrai was negotiated in 1529 between her and her sister-in-law Margaret of Savoy, Regent of the Netherlands. The two women single-handedly brokered peace between France and the Habsburg Empire and Louise secured the release of her grandsons who had been held hostage. A marriage between King Francis and the Holy Roman Emperor’s sister Eleanor was part of the Ladies Peace. Her sad story is also included here.

Along with Louise and her daughter, we meet Queen Anne of Brittany and Claude de Valois and her many daughters, some of whom died and some who became Queen’s themselves, such as Madeleine de Valois. Interwoven with the lives of these French women are those from the court of King Henry VIII of England. Henry’s sister Mary married King Louis XII of France. Although she was queen for a few months, she went on to make a love match with her brother’s best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Soberton gives us a description of the grand summit of The Field of the Cloth of Gold where Queen Catherine of Aragon met Queen Claude. Of course Anne Boleyn plays a significant role in the book as she spent time with Margaret of Savoy at her court in Mechelen and also worked as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Claude. In fact, Soberton gives us an economical description of all of Henry’s wives.

Soberton gives us many descriptions and small glimpses of personal moments in these women’s lives. This is what I liked best about the book. She has obviously done her research. There are photographs and a nice select bibliography if you are interested in more information. I found this book fun to read and enjoyed all the interconnecting stories. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “The Cambridge Illustrated History of France” by Colin Jones

illustrated history of France book cover

Based on the recommendation of a friend, I found a used copy of this book and ordered it. In my quest to read as much French history as possible before my trip to France, I had read “La Belle France”, another overall survey and wondered if this book would cover the same ground. I was pleased this author takes an entirely different course.

Jones writes more from a social history standpoint in this book. I very much enjoyed the chapters on France before the Romans and Roman Gaul. His chapters on the Franks and the Middle Ages cover a lot more ground than the other histories I’ve read so far. The later chapters covering the Revolution, Enlightenment, World Wars I and II and modern times have less detail but are still erudite and interesting. Occasionally Jones gets a little technical and wandering when discussing certain political situations. One thing I admire in his writing is his attention to the status of women in France throughout the ages.

I can’t say enough about the illustrations. This is what the Cambridge Illustrated Histories are known for. There are numerous maps illustrating different elements of France and its history. The maps clarify countless aspects such as where French dialects were spoken, delineating where Roman law and customary law were practiced, gene pools, agricultural and urban areas, different political boundaries, kingdoms and regions of France, where barbarian tribes invaded, etc.

There are photos of art and architecture, illuminated manuscripts, engravings, paintings, drawings and photographs of key points in French history, all with excellent, well written captions. In every chapter there are also insets with more details about select people and events. Some examples are on Blanche of Castile, the troubadours, the court of the Dukes of Burgundy and so on. All of these images really enhance the text. This is another well-written, informative history of France and I highly recommend it.