For my last-but-one Women’s History Month post, I’m so excited to share my review of Erin Lawless’ book Forgotten Royal Women: The King and I, which Pen & Sword Books kindly sent me a copy of to review. A positive in the craziness that the world is going through right now (and I sincerely hope that you, your families and friends are all safe and well at this uncertain time) is that isolation has meant for me lots of reading time. The month of March became, more than I expected when I set myself a Women’s History Month theme of Reading Women, a month of reading women: about women’s history, female authors I hadn’t read before and women’s studies. And this included this lovely, entertaining book about the royal women you might not have heard of before, and a window into their stories.
Lawless opens with Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, complaining that studying history is boring,
“not least because ‘the men [are] all so good for nothing, and [there are] hardly any women at all’.”
Not only appealing to my obsession with Austen, this sets the tone for the book: moving beyond biographies of royal women with ‘big-ticket names’, Lawless has selected a variety of European royals that begin as far back as 1400 BC. It is interesting, quick and entertaining.
Lawless widens the definition of royal beyond queens consort and regnant to present a compendium of fascinating historical characters. Each biography is short but compelling, acting as a jumping off point for further research and reading. Her choices for inclusion in her book range from the Anglo-Saxon Æthelflæd (a personal favourite of mine as I grew up in Tamworth, her seat as the ancient capital of Mercia) to Joanna Plantagenet (princess of England, Queen of Sicily and Countess of Toulouse, and seventh child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine) to Grace O’Malley (Irish pirate queen) to Princess Charlotte (only child of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick), amongst others.
I loved Lawless’ tone throughout the book, which was conversational yet rich in historical detail. For example, in her discussion of Scota, a pseudohistorical woman of Irish and Scottish mythology, Lawless wrote of she and her Scythian husband travelling to Europe that eventually they stopped in Spain,
“where there seemingly wasn’t a terrible amount to do, as they soon had eight sons.”
Scottish Isabella MacDuff’s (cousin of Robert the Bruce and possibly his lover) unfortunate marriage to John Comyn, the Earl of Buchan, (three times her age, supporter of the English and enemy of the Bruces), is described as
“Hardly a match made in heaven.”
She breathes live into interesting stories of royal women and makes them easily accessible. Some of them I’d heard of before, others I hadn’t. All of them were strong, interesting women who had interesting parts to play in the succession of monarchies across Europe, but particularly in the UK.
And this means not shying away from the tragic as well as the inspirational. I was particularly struck by the story of Marjorie Bruce (c.1296-1316), who was the oldest daughter of Robert the Bruce. Not only was Marjorie named after her paternal grandmother, an interesting woman who kept captive a handsome messenger that came to tell her that her husband had died on Crusade until he agreed to marry her (which Lawless humorously comments “was certainly enterprising of her”). Marjorie became a princess at a young age when her father declared himself King of the Scots in 1306, which resulted in her having to escape north, eventually being captured by the English. Marjorie was separated from her family and kept in a convent in Yorkshire – which was supposedly comfortable but was in solitary confinement. She was released at the age of seventeen, when her father decided he had to sort out the succession and married her off to Walter, 6th High Steward of Scotland. Lawless comments that Marjorie’s sad and short life becomes particularly tragic after her marriage, which was what struck me, as I’d never heard of her before.
Marjorie became pregnant about a year after the wedding, and was thrown from her horse in March 1316 near Paisley Abbey whilst just on a ride. Her child was born there and then, by the side of the road, in what was probably a roadside caesarean which ultimately saved his life, but killed Marjorie. Lawless suggests that it is this incident – of the birth of the child who became Robert II – that Shakespeare alludes to in Macbeth with the apparently impossible declaration of the three witches that no man born of a woman can harm Macbeth. The place of Marjorie’s death and Robert II’s birth is marked by a cairn.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the life of Penelope Rich (1563-1607), daughter of Lettice Knollys and a woman who shone at court. Trapped in an unhappy marriage to Robert Rich (with whom she had seven children), she pursued an affair with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, with whom she had three children. Rich threw her out, and Penelope ended up living for all intents and purposes as Blount’s wife: the pair held much respect in the court of James I, with Penelope even becoming a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne. She was not even banned from court when she divorced her first husband and went back to living with Blount (after fully admitting to being adulterous), yet she was when she married him in secret, having been told she could never remarry. Publicly disgraced, it meant that they could live quietly together. Lawless evokes Penelope’s cheerfulness throughout her whole life, even when trapped in an unhappy marriage.
The whole book is full of sad, entertaining and hopeful stories of the experiences of women connected to the crown. They raise questions about the position and status of women in the royal court and do demonstrate that even with the restrictions placed upon women, they could achieve much and played a significant role in many parts of royal life. I love books that emphasise this: women played key parts in culture and politics that can be overlooked too much under the broad generalisation that they were not allowed to do anything important simply because they were women. Lawless proves this was not true in her book, and it is surely a royal romp through history that everyone can enjoy.
Thank you to Pen and Sword books for gifting me a copy of Forgotten Royal Women: The King and I.