I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Sharon Bennett Connolly is a historian who I admire, and I was not disappointed by this book in the least. Magna Carta is a massive topic to take on, especially when battling the myths and misinterpretations of it that have held on over the centuries. First of all, it was not this beautiful document that liberated anyone and set the foundation for democracy. The barons wanted more power. That's it. And Magna Carta was practically torn up by John before his signature was even dry, so there's that too.
Yet, there are still so many aspects of the document, the people, and the period to explore, and Connolly has done so masterfully in this new text relating directly to how it impacted several women who lived through the tumult that was the medieval period.
A fair warning first - Magna Carta is complex. The period as it relates to Magna Carta is complex. This is not just a light reading that one might pick up and speed through in a few hours. I don't say this to discourage anyone, because it is well worth reading. I just want people to know what to expect.
If you have an interest in Medieval England and the Plantagenets, then you likely know the story of Matilda de Braose. She and one of her young sons were held captive by John and starved to death. Upon discovery of the bodies, there was evidence that Matilda had eaten parts of her son's face in a desperate attempt to survive. Because of this horrific event, Magna Carta contained the following clause (number 39):
No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, no will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land
To say that John pissed some people off might well be the understatement of the millenniums.
Yet, as Connolly skillfully shows us throughout the entire text, Matilda de Braose is not the only woman to have impacted this document, or been impacted by it. Women from all over the entirety of the kingdom, from only the wealthy families of course, were to be touched by Magna Carta in one way or another. Women used the charter to protect themselves just as any man would have done in the same period, and many were successful in doing so.
Aside from an in-depth look at the de Braose family, Connolly has meticulously scoured historical records and come away with a wealth of information not only relating to the royal families of England and Scotland, but also the Marshals (my favorites!), the Warennes (she's also working on a new book about this family), the de la Hayes (definitely bad-asses), and so many others.
Women in history is a complex topic. The major problem is that up until recently, women were not considered worth writing about and so much information has been lost. There will be so much we can never know - even about some of history's most famous women, like my girl Eleanor of Aquitaine for example. She was held prisoner by Henry for FIFTEEN YEARS and we have hardly any scraps of information about that time. We know where she was at times based on the Pipe Rolls, but not nearly as much as I wish for.
The book opens with an introduction into who John was and how Magna Carta came to even exist. We are given much background on him, which will be useful for those who are not familiar with my favorite dysfunctional family. Connolly also writes of Eleanor of Aquitaine, as well as the situations involving John and both of his wives. Even in a book titled 'Ladies of Magna Carta', it is crucial to explain John, because he is entirely why the barons felt this document even needed to exist. One must also remember as I mentioned earlier, women were not written about in their own right at that time. Anything recorded about them was usually in some way connected to how they related to the men in their lives, whether that be their fathers, brothers, husbands, and/or sons. This is an unfortunate side effect of women's rights and feminism not existing 800 years ago, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do really do about that now, is there? To understand how and why these women were able to accomplish what they did in that period, we have to know about the men in their lives. In my opinion, this does not take away from the incredible feats they were able to achieve. It makes them all the more remarkable. Readers must have context to understand what made these women so successful, and that context involves the men as well.
Overall I found this book to be a well-organized and deeply-researched endeavor. Connolly has clearly spent much time and effort into providing readers as clear a picture as possible of some truly remarkable women. She brings the women to life and restores them to their rightful place in history.