I thought it would be interesting to review these two histories together. They both cover the period of the Norman kings, flow chronologically, and are by non-academic historians, but there are differences in how they structure their narrative.
Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir
Queens of the Conquest is about the five Norman queens. Four of the five were called Matilda but Weir gives them each a different title, which avoids confusion – from Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, to Empress Maud (who is included although she was never crowned, as she was the heir to Henry I).
Inevitably the stories of the queens consort are dominated by the key events of their husband’s reigns but the book also highlights the roles the queens played in their own right. Each had her own household and financial means, granted charters, and was regent while the kings were away. This involved not only making political decisions but overseeing courts and adjudicating in disputes.
There is a wealth of detail in this book. It feels like Weir wants to tell us everything she has unearthed about the five women. This can lead to fascinating insights into areas often bypassed in ‘kings and queens’ histories – the layout of the royal apartments, the clothes they wore, their approach to child-rearing. I was fascinated that while Matilda of Flanders probably learnt to read, it was deemed unnecessary for high-born children to learn to write, as that was the responsibility of clerks. (It makes me think about when computers first appeared in offices and the only people who had them were secretaries!)
You sense the precarious nature of the lives of these women and their strength and ambition. Maud was married as a child to the future Holy Roman Emperor, leaving her home and all she knew. On his early death she was returned home, before being married to Geoffrey of Anjou, a much younger man and of a status which she felt beneath an ‘empress’ (she insisted on retaining the title throughout her life).
Sometimes, though, the detail intrudes to the detriment of the flow of the book. Since births, even of royal children, were not routinely recorded, there is some uncertainty about the ages and birth order. At one point Weir discusses the various possibilities at length, and cites the competing sources. Some letters are quoted in full, even though they are also in the appendices. An account of a dramatic buildup to battle is interrupted to explain that the queen witnessed another charter.
As a general reader, I’d prefer not to have this level of information in the text. I’d be happy to accept the author’s opinion on contested information and have the detail in the notes.
The White Ship by Charles Spencer
Charles Spencer takes as his starting point the sinking of the White Ship on a voyage from Normandy to England, carrying Henry I’s heir, William Ætheling, two of his illegitimate children and a number of the younger generation of courtiers. In a prologue he paints a vivid picture of the event itself and the terror of those who had to break the news to the king.
The book then tells the backstory, showing how Henry went from impoverished youngest son of William the Conqueror to a king at the height of his powers, having secured his kingdom and prepared his son to inherit. With the death of William Ætheling his plans are in disarray.
We see the aftermath of the disaster, his remarriage, his attempts to secure the kingdom for his daughter (in The White Ship she is called Matilda), and the way her cousin, Stephen of Blois, is able to take the throne at Henry’s death. (Ironically, Stephen should have been on the ship, but did not sail because he was ill with diarrhoea.)
Matilda fought bravely throughout her life to try and claim her inheritance and the battles and dramas of the period known as ‘the Anarchy’ are vividly told, ending with the death of Stephen and the crowning of Matilda’s son as Henry II.
The White Ship is, for me, more of an entertaining read. While it lacks some of the detail of Weir’s book, and is very much focused on the key characters in the drama, Spencer is a great storyteller and uses notes more sparingly in the text, including only what is relevant to the story he is telling.
The chapters immediately before and after the sinking of the ship have the feel of a disaster movie, as we’re introduced to the key characters, watch them party, oblivious, before boarding, and then learn what happens as the ship sinks (based on the eyewitness account of the one survivor).
Then we see the distraught king, and the relatives of the other victims. Seeing the chance events that led to that moment gives you that terrible feeling of ‘what if?’. Reading the same events in Weir’s book did not have that emotional impact.
Both books have their strengths. Queens of the Conquest covers the role of queens in a level of detail that make it a great resource for anyone researching the topic and gives a perspective that is often ignored. However, it can be challenging or a little dry at times. This is why I tend to prefer historical fiction to non-fiction.
The White Ship, however, humanises and dramatises the events in a way that brings the characters and their world to life. It’s a haunting story that not only tells you what happened but leaves you imagining how things could have been different. Even though I’d read about the sinking of the White Ship before, it gave it a new resonance.