I received a digital ARC free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
Rating: 3 Stars
When I first got back into reading a few years ago, I was at first quite taken by Weir's books. I loved them, and read as many as I could find at my library. But...
Frankly, as I have branched out and read works of the same period by different historians, I am not as impressed as I used to be. The biggest issue I have had with Weir is not the content, she is a skilled historian. But it is her lack of footnotes and citations that have really become apparent as I have become more aware.
On one hand I am glad that Weir has used this format - a biography of multiple queens instead of just one. There is simply not enough known information about these women to justify a full-length biography dedicated to each, and it was a wise decision on Weir's part to flow from one reign to the next. As one would expect, there is a far share of conjecture, as there is so much we simply don't know. I don't mind this when there is a basis for assuming something, some precedent set elsewhere that we know of. But I take a much bigger issue with it when it seems like author-bias. And that is the thing to be aware of with all historians, not just Weir. Historians often write about people they admire, so it is unsurprising that those such people would portrayed in as positive a light as possibly supported by the evidence. I am guilty of it myself when writing of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The book follows the lives of five queens of England - four of them named Matilda. So as to differentiate a bit, Empress Matilda (daughter of Henry I, mother of Henry II) is referred to as Maud. She is the final queen we meet, following Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Bastard), Matilda of Scotland (Henry I's first wife), Adeliza of Louvain (Henry I's second wife), and Matilda of Boulogne (usurper King Stephen's wife). Chronicles of the time are relied on quite a bit throughout the text, though readers must keep in mind the bias of those writers as well, in the period they lived and wrote in. This makes some of Weir's statements contradictory then. She addresses the issue of some of these hostile chroniclers and how we can not trust them 100%, but then goes on to state that Adeliza must have been truly beautiful, because the chroniclers all said so. Yeah, that's not really how this works, since nearly everyone queen was referred to this way at some point. No one went around calling queens ugly, so again, the trust/mistrust contradiction comes out at times.
While I do still have issues with Weir's citing, she does seem to include more than the usual amount of information in the Appendices and such. She also included many contemporary sources - letters and chronicles (that again, can not always be trusted with accuracy). Another issue regrading available info is the fact that when there was nothing to speak of for a queen at a certain point in her life, we are told her story through the connection to her (usually) husband, the king. That bothers me.
The most interesting aspect of the book for me were the chapters detailing The Anarchy, as the country descended into a terrible civil war between (usurper) King Stephen and Empress Maud/Matilda. Maud is easily my favorite queen of this bunch, and Weir honestly does not seem to care for her all that much. Stephen was not the rightful ruler; Henry I had made his barons (including that weasel, Henry's nephew, Stephen) swear and oath of loyalty to Maud on a few different occasions, when it became obvious he was going to die without a legitimate male heir - he had plenty of illegitimate male heirs, but his only legit son, William, died when the White Ship sank years earlier. I did not appreciate the obvious comparisons Weir made between Matilda of Boulogne (Stephen's wife) and Empress Maud (Stephen's cousin). One Matilda was 'good' and one was 'bad', even if those exact words were ever used. And see what I am doing right there, how I am also identifying the two in regards to their relationship to a male in their life? It happened a lot in the book too. And honestly, I would have much preferred a shorter book that ONLY focused on what we know about these women, instead of also filling the pages with what the men in their lives were up to also.