One year ago, on Valentine’s Day 2020, in the Oxfam bookshop near the British Museum in Bloomsbury, I found a copy of Alison Weir’s book Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, which hurtled me down a rabbit hole about English queens. I then read Uncrowned Queen: The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort by Nicola Talis. There was so much I didn’t know!
A few months later, my favorite podcast, Rex Factor, shared a photo of Norton’s book on IG. My quest for information could continue! Thank goodness I picked it up, because my knowledge of English history pre-1066 is woefully inadequate. I only recently learned that the Normans were actually descended from Vikings.
I was fascinated to learn that “England in the early eleventh century was a stable and wealthy country,” and that Emma of Normandy, born in about 980 to Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and Gunnor, the daughter of “two noble Danes,” was making an excellent match with Ethelred II (Norton 2012, 35).
(Side note: as a student, I never understood why Shakespeare sent Hamlet to Denmark. I hadn’t realized just how close, geographically speaking, the countries are, and that they shared this long and ancient history. You never stop learning! Norton has reshaped my understanding of life in early medieval England, formerly known as the Dark Ages.)
Emma married King Ethelred II (the Unready) in 1002 but he died in 1016. The invading Vikings had taken over the country and she was forced to marry Cnut, who had defeated her stepson, Edmund, for the throne.
Apparently, Emma had more power under King Cnut than she had under Ethelred II—her name appears on many charters, which is unusual for the time.
Much of what we know about Emma comes from The Encomium Emmae Reginae, (Latin for Praise of Queen Emma) written around 1041 or 1042. It compliments Emma enough for modern readers to look at the text with a critical eye: how much of this was Emma’s own PR at work?
Cnut died in 1035, and after some fighting, Harold Godwinson was proclaimed king in 1037 and Emma fled to exile in Flanders. In 1040 Emma’s son Harthacnut sailed from Denmark, where he was king, to rescue Emma. In a too-good-to-be-true scenario, Harold died that year, so Harthacnut became king. But he died in 1042.
So Emma’s other son, whose father was Ethelred II, was declared king. That was Edward the Confessor. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.
My first question was: why doesn’t this woman have a Netflix show? Did you know any of this? I’m a hardcore English-history nerd, and I knew none of it!
In addition to Emma, I discovered the lives of Berengaria of Navarre, Henrietta Maria of France, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Their husbands (Richard I, Charles I and George III) have all the renown (or infamy, as it may be), and Norton has done an amazing job of bringing these women out of the shadows. With few exceptions, queens rarely get the same examination or scholarship that kings do. Norton reveals the hidden, forgotten, or disregarded lives of the queens.
Readers, this book is perfect if you want to get titbits of information on the queen of your choice. Though each queen’s entry is brief, they are thorough enough to give readers and researchers a well-informed starting point. This book is an excellent choice for readers interested in history and who want to know about more than just one queen or are looking for an overview of the lives of English queens.
Writers, read this book if you want a brief introduction to the queen, dynasty or era of your interest. If you’re researching a specific historical era, it gives a nice background for each period, and this book is especially good for information of the lives of the lesser-known queens.
Warning: it’s longer than it looks.
Norton, Elizabeth. 2012. England’s Queens: The Biography. Stroud: Amberley Publishing.
Daughter of Queen Elizabeth Wydeville. Granddaughter of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, and Jacquetta of Luxemburg, Duchess of Bedford.
If that doesn’t tell you who she is, see also, wife of King Henry VII, mother of King Henry VIII, sister of the lost princes Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York, daughter of Edward IV and niece to Richard III.
When writing about Margaret Beaufort a few months ago, I realized how frequently women are referred to in relation to men—and not just in the distant past. Many people have no idea who Elizabeth of York was until I start listing her male relatives.
Authors, read this book if you need help with understanding what kind of research goes into a history book. It’s also reveals the rich background material available for historical fiction novels. I’m grateful for the painstaking research Weir must have suffered through to bring this woman’s story back to life. Reading the cryptic, chaotically spelled letters and ledgers from the sixteenth century is not easy. By digging deep into the surviving primary sources—Weir pored over account books to learn who the Queen paid for what and when—it is the one of the few ways to learn what life was actually like in the middle ages. It makes me think twice about tossing my shopping list and receipts.
Readers, read this book if you want to see a person struggle to survive through a heck of a lot of ups and downs. Elizabeth was pushed and pulled through a myriad of different roles: from a princess at court to an exile hiding in sanctuary, from a brief moment as niece to the King nearly restored to her former position, to bride of the victor of the Battle of Bosworth.
If there had been reality TV in the 1460s, I imagined it would have run along the lines of Who Will the Princess Marry? She was at one time engaged to the Dauphin of France. There were rumours she was set to marry her uncle, Richard III. Richard, however, entered negotiations for her to marry the future King of Portugal. It’s a bit like Russian roulette.
What I want to tell people about this book is this book gives women of the past a seat at the table. Weir’s account makes a solid claim that Elizabeth was Edward IV’s heiress and should have been crowned Queen in her own right, not just Queen consort to King Henry VII. Sadly this never happened in her lifetime.
I think Elizabeth is often forgotten because she sandwiched between generations of notorious and badly behaving relatives: her uncle Richard, her son Henry VIII and his six wives, and even her own mother, Elizabeth Wydville. Still, Elizabeth paved the way for her descendants to become the most famous Queens in history, and in their own right, so always look on the bright side?
Though Margaret Beaufort lived through the Wars of the Roses, one of England’s most violent and turbulent eras, she has been given little credit for triumphing in a time when life was unkind to women in terms of rights and power.
Many of you are wondering, Who the heck is Margaret Beaufort? The easy answer is King Henry VII’s mother and King Henry VIII’s grandmother. Isn’t it sad she has to be remembered in terms of the men she gave life to? Isn’t it unfair? It’s far more common than you think.
The more rich and fulfilling answer is Margaret Beaufort was a woman who successfully navigated the instabilities of the power-struggles in her lifetime, working hard for the survival of her family. Margaret’s life is actually an incredible testament to what a woman could achieve in the late 1400s.
She was a major landowner, a behind-the-scenes diplomat before her son became king, she was the first woman to be given the power to settle disputes in court, she was a negotiator, she was briefly regent for Henry VIII, she was a founder of colleges at Cambridge and Oxford, she commissioned books, and she even declared a la femme sole—she had complete control over her own estates—and thus was completely independent in terms managing of her lands and income.
It’s difficult to imagine it now, but this was a momentous step for women in the middle ages. In a time when women had no say in the major decisions of their lives (she had been married three times by the time she was fifteen), Margaret must have been incredibly resourceful and smart not only to get by but also to thrive.
I was disturbed by Margaret’s portrayal in the fictionalized accounts of her I came across—reduced to the role of villain—she wasn’t a well-rounded character, instead depicted as a conniving and ruthless woman.
Although I believe there’s some truth behind every rumor, Tallis’s well-researched biography (read the notes, they’re incredible!) fills in major gaps and brings Margaret and her life into sharper focus. She’s more than a villain and also more than a religious woman in a wimple. I wonder if she was seen as the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of her time—why are there no medieval women action figures?
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