Queens of the Crusades: England’s Medieval Queens, Book Two
Expected Publication Date: Feburary 23, 2021, from Ballantine Books
The Crusades have fascinated the Western world since they began in 1096, when Pope Urban II called on the leaders of Europe to raise armies in support of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos as well as urging militant Christians to go on an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was under Muslim control. Over the next 200 years, periodic battles would rage between the Christian and Muslim worlds as they vied for control of the Holy Land and altered the course of history.
Most history books, documentaries, and films about the Crusades focus on such figures as Richard I (called the Lionheart), Saladin, Balian of Ibelin, and other leaders of these wars. They are exciting people with fascinating stories, to be sure, but these books and films often overlook the women who stood behind those men, treating them like damsels (sometimes in distress) who quietly waited in faraway castles until the menfolk finished their little wars and headed home. The women Alison Weir documents in her new book, Queens of the Crusades, were not damsels in distress, though. They were dynamic people who fought for power and wealth with as much fervor as their royal husbands, and whose names still ring through history. It opens with the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitane, who once signed a letter to the Pope as “Eleanor, by the wrath of God, Queen of England”, and who is known for having plotted against her husband, Henry II, and who also held England together while her son, Richard I, was away invading parts of the Holy Land during the Second Crusade. The narrative then discusses (at a glance) the life of Berengaria of Navarre, who had the misfortune to be the rightful queen of England while Eleanor of Aquitaine yet lived, and who holds the dubious distinction of being the only English queen to never set foot on English soil. Isabella of Angoulême, the scheming wife of the infamous King John follows Berengaria, and is succeeded in turn by Alienor of Provence, the venal queen of Henry III. The book’s final chapters deal with Eleanor of Castille, the beloved if avaricious wife of Edward I.
If the old saying is true that ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’, then volumes upon volumes could be written about the women in Queens of the Crusades. There are already plenty of biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but her successors are often shrouded in mystery, their stories drowned out by dubious legends. As with her many other biographies of medieval women, Weir seeks to shed light on these half-forgotten women. She doesn’t paint them as saints, however. In the age of the Divine Right of Kings, that supposedly holy light also fell upon the queens, who lived it up as much as they could and did not shy away from extortion to get the money and other luxuries they wanted. Perhaps it was a good thing that some of them– such as Alienor of Provence– did not have the same sort of power as their husbands. If Alienor had had the same patience and force of will as her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had, who knows what sort of disasters she would have led England into?
This isn’t to say that Weir set out to tarnish the reputations of otherwise saintly women. She may be a ‘popular historian’, but Weir stays grounded in fact and relies on primary sources to separate truth from fiction. When dealing with the notion of Richard I’s supposed homosexuality, she states the source of the legends, what we know of the truth surrounding them, and points out that the first people to say that Richard I was gay actually lived in the nineteenth century. Modern popular culture might be interested in the tales of a gay king and his neglected wife, but if historical fact doesn’t support it, then we have to face facts and deal with the reality of it. And while revisionist history might want to paint the kings of the era as terrible men who had saintly wives, the historical reality doesn’t support that notion, either.
Queens of the Crusades covers nearly 150 years of tumultuous English and French history, beginning with the reign of Henry II and ending with that of Edward I. In that time, there were Crusades, the fall of an empire, uprisings, territorial disputes, and religious turmoil. But through it all, the English crown passed from one generation to the next, crowning kings and their queens in succession. They were far from saintly people, but that’s what makes them so interesting, no matter how many centuries have passed. Weir’s skill at showing historical figures’ humanity is showcased in this outing, and while the women she discusses are rarely well-behaved, they are always fascinating.
Thank you to NetGalley and Ballentine Books for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review.