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 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: “The Hundred Years War: A People’s History” by David Green

Green's hundred years war cover

As much as I love English and French medieval history, my knowledge of the Hundred Years War is minimal. I found this book in the bookstore and loved the concept of viewing the war from the people’s perspective. The book appears to be a selection of lectures Green has given regarding different aspects of the war and there is some repetition in some sections. But overall, I was pleasantly surprised.

The first chapter is an overview of the highlights of the war starting with the events leading up to King Edward III’s claim to the French throne. The war begins with raids and guerilla methods and then develops into battles (Poitiers, Crecy, and Agincourt), sieges and occupations. Other chapters address the mentality of the era such as chivalry and how it influenced the tactics of the conflict and the taking and ransoming of prisoners of war. There is some good information on how the introduction of artillery influenced military operations.

Green gives us great information on how the war affected different classes of people. Chapters are devoted to knights and nobles, the peasantry, the church and the clergy, soldiers and women. I especially enjoyed the section on women. One of the most interesting chapters is about the madness of kings. The proceedings of the war were influenced by the mental illness of two kings, Charles VI of France and Henry VI of England. There were also men who tried to broker peace which Green discusses.

In addition, Green tells us about the mechanics of occupation and how the war helped create national identities. I like how he explains what happened for both nations. The hardback edition of the book I have includes family trees for the Plantagenets, the Valois and the Lancastrians. There are maps of France denoting raids and occupied areas as well as a section of black and white photos depicting important people of the war. Green’s writing is a little academic but easy to read. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in medieval warfare and its history.

Book Review: “Edward the Elder 899-924” edited by N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill

Edward the Elder cover

There is a real dearth of primary sources for historians to work with regarding the reign of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Elder, first son of King Alfred the Great. This is a real shame because Edward did much to build the English state during his twenty-four year reign. He led many successful campaigns against the Vikings and had control over much of southern and middle of England. His influence also touched Wales and the north. He had three wives, a large family and prickly relations with the church. This book is an attempt to shed some light on the reign of this important and critical ruler.

This volume was published in 2001 and is a compendium of papers which were presented at a conference at the University of Manchester, organized by the Manchester Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies in 1999 in recognition of the eleventh centenary of Edward the Elders accession to the throne of Wessex upon his father’s death. A variety of scholars have written individual chapters using such diverse sources as coins and textiles, literature and archaeology. If the reader is familiar with Anglo-Saxon studies, some of these names will be very recognizable.

While some of the papers contained in this volume are well written and readable, some of them are not. A number of the subjects are interesting and some are esoteric and pedantic. It would depend on the reader’s preference and purpose in reading the book as to whether the chapters are useful or not. Regardless, the book brings awareness to many aspects of Edward’s reign. Personally, I enjoyed the introduction by Nick Higham on Edward’s reputation and the papers on Edward’s relationship with the church. Barbara Yorke’s chapter on Edward as Atheling was most interesting. She went into how his father worked to make him the candidate to succeed him and to protect Edward’s position. Simon Keynes has a great chapter which serves as a survey of Edward’s reign. There are specialty chapters on the coinage of Edward, how the Irish viewed West Saxon dynastic practices, the Danelaw, the shiring of Mercia, York, and an interesting chapter on the embroideries from the tomb of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. It is believed that Edward’s second wife Aelflaed commissioned these embroideries.

There are other interesting chapters here on Edward’s large family, his own marriages and how he married his daughters to men on the continent and a whole chapter on his niece Aelfwynn. Aelfwynn was the daughter of Edward’s elder sister Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia. When Aethelflaed died, Edward exiled Aelfwynn and basically took over the kingdom of Mercia. I found these chapters on the family relations the most interesting and in sync with my own personal research. Whether the reader of this volume is an advanced historian, undergraduate or a general reader, there is something of interest for everyone. This book will serve as the closest to a biography as we can expect until someone writes a definitive work on Edward.