“In the period between the Norman Conquest and the accession of Mary Tudor in the sixteenth century, no woman ruled England as queen in her own right. The role and status of king were constantly in the process of redefinition, an ongoing negotiation between royal, ecclesiastical and aristocratic powers, but they remained throughout essentially constitutional, their authority enshrined in and upheld by law. No equivalent constitutional role existed for the king’s consort. Yet between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, English queenship evolved an identity of its own, an identity predicated on, but not limited to marriage to the king. The story of England’s medieval queens is composed of two entwined narrative strands: the first the development of queenly tradition and practice, the second the diverse lives of the very individual women who controlled, enlarged and manipulated their customary heritage.”
As stated in the introduction, Lisa Hilton’s purpose is to present individual portraits of twenty English queens, from Matilda of Flanders to Elizabeth of York, while also examining the changing role of the queen and the monarchy in general. The queens are divided into individual chapters (except for Anne of Bohemia and Isabelle of France, who have to share one) that vary in length depending on how much information we have about a given queen and how much she actually did – Eleanor of Aquitaine and the York princesses, obviously, get the highest page counts. Hilton gives a brief biographical sketch of each queen, and then examines the circumstances surrounding her marriage, the political climate of the time, and the overreaching effects of that king’s rule. The changing face of the monarchy from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the Tudor dynasty was interesting, especially the details Hilton digs up about the queen’s role in the coronation ceremony and how it changed over the years.
The main problem with this book, however, lies in the format: with only twenty to thirty pages being spent on each queen, there isn’t nearly enough time to fully explore who these women were, much less understand the complex political climate of their time. After a few chapters the queens start to sort of blend together, with no one really distinguishing herself from the pack. It doesn’t help that we have three queens in rapid succession named Matilda, and later on there are at least three Elizabeths running around during the Wars of the Roses and Hilton will often refer to them by just their first name, so I have no idea if she’s talking about Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth York, or Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter Elizabeth (seriously though, can all of the Wars of the Roses scholars hold a symposium and decide on some universal nicknames for all the Elizabeths, Margarets, Edwards, Henrys, and Richards that keep popping up in this period?). Another factor that makes the queens hard to distinguish is that Hilton, for all her enthusiasm, cannot escape the fact that the majority of these women didn’t do much of anything. Complicated marriage negotiations, mild warfare that she wasn’t involved in, unhappy marriage, lots of stillborn babies, death: that summarizes the life story of about two thirds of the queens featured in this book. In her concluding lines for each chapter, you can often see Hilton grasping at straws to make her subject seem more interesting (like Berengaria of Navarre, whose chapter ends, “The glory of the Third Crusade is Richard’s, but it is worth recalling that had it not been for his last-minute wedding to Berengaria, it might not have happened at all.”) or just throwing up her hands and admitting that there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the woman she’s just spent twenty pages telling us about (like poor Isabelle of France, who gets this ending line: “Perhaps the most that can be said of Isabelle is that, like so many of Richard’s grandiose gestures, her symbolic value was huge. But as a means of retaining and governing a kingdom, she had been virtually pointless.”)
Hilton’s tone is also weird, veering from dry and scholarly to bizarrely informal and almost snarky (“John was twenty and the Duchess a spring chicken of anywhere between sixty and eighty, depending on the bitchiness of the chronicler.”) There are numerous typos throughout the text, and Hilton apparently had a stroke and forgot what her book was supposed to be about when she was writing the conclusion, because she spends six pages comparing the queens in Beowulf and Le Morte d’Arthur, having never mentioned either of those texts before. It reads almost like someone at the printer accidentally inserted pages from a completely different book, and no one realized what had happened until it was too late.
Ultimately, Hilton accomplishes her goal – giving a brief biography of women that have been largely ignored by history, and showing how the English monarchy has changed since the Norman conquest – but none of the women featured manage to distinguish themselves from the larger horde, despite Hilton’s best efforts to convince us that they’re interesting.
Verdict: two out of five stars