Wednesday 1 April 2015

Queens of England by Mary Hoffman

No April Fools here - this is no joking matter.

Here are two splendid volumes written by Elizabeth Norton and published by Amberley Press that will sort you out once and for all about English queens both regnant and consort. Read in conjunction with Helen Castor's splendid She-Wolves and Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters, they will earn a place on many a writer's reference shelves.

It was a bit of a surprise to find the first book's opening section containing Guinevere but it was headed The Early and Mythical Queens. We start properly with Boudica and the much less well-known Cartimandua. There is no pictorial representation of Boudica (though a subject beloved of 19th century painters and sculptors, there seem to be no contemporary images of her) but I can't guarantee you will never feel the same about her once you read what she did to the women of the Roman settlement in London.

Queen Bertha in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Norton.
Queen Bertha (539 - c. 612) was the wife of King Ethelbert of Kent and is important for being credited with bringing Christianity to England. She certainly had Pope Gregory's blessing to try and she managed to convince her husband to be baptised.
From a thirteenth-century English Manuscript. © Jonathan Reeve
This much later picture shows a medieval king and queen embracing and I'm hoping that Bertha and Ethelbert handled his conversion as affectionately.

From Liber Regalis (Coronation Book of Richard II) executed in 1377 or 1378. © Jonathan Reeve

There seems to be evidence that Richard ll was very attached to his first wife, Anne of Bohemia. She was a religious reformer too, ordering an English translation of the Gospels,  and the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. She died, like so many of the English queens consort, before the age of thirty, but not of childbirth. The teenage couple enjoyed a luxurious life together until her death from the plague in 1394 left Richard bereft. His second wife, Isabella of Valois, was a mere child but by all accounts the king was kind to her. The queen in Shakespeare's play is an amalgam of the two.
Elizabeth Woodville. (Ripon Cathedral portrait)                  

Shakespeare gave us other queen consorts, including Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward lV, later presented in the fiction of Philippa Gregory as the White Queen. It was a love match - or at least a lust match, with Elizabeth being a widow with two sons when Edward's roving eye lighted on her. She played her hand well, holding out for marriage but the marriage with someone other than an European Royal princess infuriated many of his entourage including the Earl of Warwick. And Elizabeth had a vast family, who gained influential titles and positions.

Elizabeth of York
(Ripon Cathedral portrait)

When the Cousins' War ended with the accession of Henry Tudor, he needed to bolster his claim to the throne by marrying the Lancastrian strain to that of York and he chose Elizabeth of York, oldest daughter of Edward lV and Elizabeth Woodville. She had narrowly escaped being married to her uncle, Richard lll. There have been rumours that she would not have minded this as much as you would think.

Mary Tudor
Image courtesy of Ripon Cathedral.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that the first queen regnant of England was Mary Tudor, so overshadowed is her reputation by that of her more charismatic younger sister, Elizabeth the First. The second volume begins with Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon - surely England's saddest queen. (Though her daughter runs her a close second).

The first section of the second book deals with all six of the wives of Henry Vlll, queens consort some of whom had that title for a very short time.

Victoria as queen from stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral. © Elizabeth Norton and the Amberley Archive.
The two Elizabeths and Queen Victoria vye with one another for the longest reigns. Elizabeth the First for 45 years, Victoria for  65 and our current queen for 63 and counting. The very touching photo below shows Elizabeth as an unaware baby, with her mother later to become a queen consort herself, to George Vl.
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon with her daughter, the future Elizabeth II. © Elizabeth Norton and the Amberley Archive.
Elizabeth Norton
I'm very grateful to Elizabeth Norton for putting in all the work that these two books represent. And now I'm going to file them on my bookshelves.

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