Book Review: “Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War 1139-1153” by Jim Bradbury

The story of the Empress Matilda is fascinating on so many levels. While I knew the basic outline of the civil strife in twelfth century England called the “Anarchy”, I didn’t know many details. I happened to find an affordable used copy of this book and it turned out to be worth every penny.

There is no doubt Bradbury knows the history. He quotes many sources in the narrative. The first two chapters are “The Causes of the Civil War” and “The Two Sides”. He gives thorough background on the family of King Henry I, the death of William Adelin and how Henry compelled the nobles, clergy and magnates to swear an oath to support Matilda as his heir. Bradbury believes, based on the chronicles, that Henry may have groomed Matilda to be a Queen Mother rather than a Queen Regnant and changed his mind on his deathbed, supporting his nephew Stephen as his successor. The author explains which nobles in England and Normandy fought for each side, describing a great cast of characters.

Once the lines were drawn in the sand, the nobles chose sides between the anointed King Stephen and his opponent Matilda. Matilda eventually arrived in England to press her case and the war starts. The Angevins, as Matilda’s party were called, managed to take control of some of the country. The height of Matilda’s success was the First Battle of Lincoln in February, 1141 which Bradbury recounts in great detail. After this, Matilda’s behavior and temper caused her to lose support and Stephen was released and ruled again.

Bradbury explains how both parties avoided all-out pitched battles throughout the whole conflict. There really were only two standout battles with noteworthy causalities. The rest of the fighting consisted of sieges and counter-sieges with the building of castles and counter-castles. No one managed to achieve a definitive victory because the nobles were adept at changing sides whenever it was to their advantage. Bradbury calls the era of the fight with the Empress the Matildine war and the era with her son Henry the Henrician war. Eventually, the nobles recognized Henry as Stephen’s heir and peace prevailed. The author also gives some background information on Matilda’s husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and his conquest of Normandy. It was interesting to learn how he wrested this duchy from King Stephen.

I especially liked the last chapter where Bradbury gives the historical arguments for whether this conflict should be christened the “Anarchy”. He ends with the effects of the civil war. There is a good bibliography listed. I have to say I now have a thorough understanding of this conflict and more insight into twelfth century England and how the Plantagenets came to power. I highly recommend this book.

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 Warrior Queens: The Legends and the Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations in War” by Antonia Fraser

The warrior Queens Fraser

Before there was Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory, and other contemporary women historians and writers, there was Antonia Fraser. Many years ago, in her heyday, I read everything she wrote that I could get my hands on. There was “Mary, Queen of Scots, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, “King Charles II” and a biography of Marie Antoinette, among others. Her non-fiction books were the gold standard of history. But somehow I missed “The Warrior Queens”.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Boudica, the Celtic queen of the Iceni tribe who rose up in rebellion against the occupying Romans in Britain in the mid-first century. I had heard she burned London to the ground! What an amazing story. I had to learn more. Apparently, Fraser felt the same way. The writing of this book was born out by her love of the story of Boudica. Most of the book is dedicated to Boudica’s story, relating it to the lives of other women who led their nations in war. Many of the women in this book I have heard of such as Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, the Empress Matilda of England and her cousin King Stephen’s wife Matilda of Boulogne, the twelfth century Georgian Queen Tamara, Isabella of Castile, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. These are some of my favorite women of history.

Fraser gives us the story of these women leading their troops into war in her inimitable intellectual manner which is very compelling. Her history is fair and balanced, engaging and fun. Her historical arguments make good sense. I especially found the story of the Rani of Jhansi to be captivating. She led her troops against the British during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. I knew nothing about her so it was refreshing to learn of her convictions and bravery.

Her final subjects are Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. It is interesting to see Fraser’s perspective on these modern women and their role in war. This book is women’s history at its finest. I can’t recommend it enough. I couldn’t put it down.