Review: Queens of the Crusades – by Alison Weir

I had previously read Alison Weir’s most excellent book specifically on Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine many years ago so the author was familiar to me. I chanced upon this title in my local library (Caldicot) and thought I’d give it a go. It covers the lives of several British Queens, or rather the historical period in England during which they lived. The period is one of the most interesting periods, in my opinion, in British History. During the early Plantagenet monarchs, the revolutionary changes of the early Norman invaders to our country had settled down and stability in government and the rule of these Isles meant that this period was most fruitful in terms of British power at home and abroad and may foundations were laid for the future greatness of the British Empire and the basis of our country’s modern, developed, civilised society.

The book does indeed contain a revisit of Weir’s previous work and the first part is dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine who was the wife of King Henry II. There are four other queens in the book, three of whom are ‘Eleanors’. Alienor of Provence, Queen of King Henry III and also Eleanor of Castile, Queen of King Edward I. The other two queens are Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of Richard I and Isabelle of Angoulême, Queen of King John. As you can see from the exotic titles of all five queens, the Plantagenets were keen on extending their ties to European Royal bloodlines.  

The whole period was rich in historic events. As the title suggests, this was the time of the crusades and many of the Kings went on crusade, most notably Richard I ‘The Lionheart’, who probably spent more time abroad during his reign, than at home in England. Wives were taken on crusade and although they were often kept safe in castles, sometimes danger could ensue, in particular during the arduous journeys to the Holy Land, usually by sea, where all sorts of perils arose.

This was a period were British dominions extended into continental Europe. One of the reasons why Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of my most favourite Queens is that during here reign, Britain was at its height in terms of land. Indeed the British crown held more territory in mainland France than the French King did. In addition to Normandy and Brittany the whole of the rich south western part of France that is Aquitaine became an integral part of our nation. Often the rulers had to spend a lot of time on the continent to deal with unruly tenants. Indeed the continental territories required more attention and management than the calmer more settled British Isles . As time passed these European dominions reverted back to French control. War, finance, marriages and deaths contributed to the erosion of British territory abroad. King John was known as ‘Lackland’ when he lost most of the European lands.

There were some very important occurrences during the Crusades period. King John was forced to acquiesce to his barons and sign Magna Carta in 1215. Magna Carta is one of the most quintessential pieces of legislation and is the cornerstone of constitutional rights in many modern Western societies, including the USA.

Some of the relationships between Kings and Queens were very lasting and very romantic. I particular King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile had a very close relationship that produced an amazing 18 children, most of whom unfortunately didn’t survive infancy. King Edward I constructed a series of huge crosses across the country to commemorate his beloved queen after her parting from this life. Religion played a crucial role in society, often the Pope was called upon to intervene in a lot of Royal matters, be it consanguinity in marriage, to taking the Cross for crusade or just settling land disputes with barons. A position in the Church was much sought after and we cross paths in the book with Geraldus Cambrensis  (Gerald of Wales) who was an ever-present in the Royal Courts and Vatican, on his ceaseless quest to obtain the hallowed Archbishopric of St. David’s in Wales.

In the later stages of the book I couldn’t believe encountering my little Welsh border home town in the text. Caldicot doesn’t get many mentions in any literature, although it does have a wonderful Castle which dates to around this period. King Edward I was very active beating back the Welsh who wouldn’t accept overlordship from London. Llywellyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, fought hard to preserve Welsh independence but ultimately died in battle against King Edward’s forces. King Edward established Caernarfon as his base in Wales with the castle there that he erected being modelled on the ancient walls of Constantinople. The Royal couple passed through Caldicot during one of the ‘progresses’ they made, visiting different parts of the country.

‘On 26 November (1284) the royal couple visited St. David’s. the Welsh capital, as guests of Bishop Thomas Bek, and attended a service in the cathedral. Then it was on to Cardiff, Caldicot and Chepstow.’ [Weir 2020:379]


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