About the Book
Virginal, chaste, humble, patiently waiting for rescue by brave knights and handsome princes: this idealised – and largely mythical – notion of the medieval noblewoman still lingers. Yet the reality was very different, as Kelcey Wilson-Lee shows in this vibrant account of the five daughters of the great English king, Edward I. The lives of these sisters – Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth – ran the full gamut of experiences open to royal women in the Middle Ages. Living as they did in a courtly culture founded on romantic longing and brilliant pageantry, they knew that a princess was to be chaste yet a mother to many children, preferably sons, meek yet able to influence a recalcitrant husband or even command a host of men-at-arms
Published on September 1, 2019
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This is one of those books I didn’t actually intend to read, but I read the excerpt portion of it on Amazon, and I couldn’t stop. I ended up buying the book, and absolutely devouring it. It was impossible to put down. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it.
The thing is, this book is about so much more than Edward I’s daughters. It’s about the life of a woman in the 1300’s, and, if you are like me, that’s really not something you knew a whole hell of a lot about.
Kelcey Wilson-Lee uses Edward I’s daughters—Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth—as a vehicle to show what life was like for high-status women in the 1300’s. His daughters were a fantastic vehicle to do this through, because their experiences and life stories really spanned the gamut of possibility for royal women in that day and age. Some of them ended up married, one of them was sent into church service at the age of six. Some stayed in the country, close to their home base. Some of them hated their husbands. Some left their country to go live in their husband’s native lands. One of them went with her husband to help put down a rebellion. And all of this is shown, and discussed, both the likely reasons for, and the likely reasons against any one action, and the political and personal reasons for all of the above, as could be inferred by both what is known to the period, and what is written in journals and various surviving records.
More than that, their lives were never dull. Bound by blood, each of these women, the daughters of England’s most famous warrior-king, had to navigate revolts, insurrections, battles, political power plays, childbirth, and life in a court that was always moving. (Literally. I had no idea that a royal court at that time was basically never in one place longer than a short span of time. Edward I, and his entire family and all their furniture, was always moving between palaces on a well-traveled circuit, and my god, that sounds exhausting.) Edward’s daughters all dealt with the difficulties of life differently, as per their personalities and the social norms and stations at the time, and that is addressed here.
Interesting tidbits of letters, journals, notes from those in the daughters’ service, and requests for things like clothes, shine a light on the daily lives of these women, and their struggles and personalities. It is known, for example, that some of the daughters preferred a certain color, or certain style of clothes above other styles from these letters. It is known, also, what kind of dresses they likely wore, based on documentation and what other women wore at the time. Education levels are also addressed, as some of the daughters took a keener interest in politics than others, and it appeared that some, if not all, knew how to read and write, and argue on their own behalf, and issue commands and decrees, which was rather abnormal for royal women at the time. And even feuds between sisters are examined, as jealousies are also catalogued here. These details were really interesting to me, as they worked toward making these women humans, who actually existed at one point in time, rather than just names on a page.
History isn’t usually fair to women, and that is, perhaps, one reason why this book surprised me so much. First of all, I doubt many people likely even know that Edward I had daughters, or what their names were. Secondly, the fact that this was so many years ago, in a time of poor record keeping, when women were important due to the men they married and the children they produced and little else, I was absolutely amazed by how much information Wilson-Lee found out about each of these daughters, and how she managed to absolutely pack this book full of information, not just about these five daughters, but about the wider world and cultural norms at the time. This wasn’t just a brief overview about each daughter, this was an in-depth portrait of women time forgot, and the author did a fantastic job of giving each woman equal coverage, slowly unrolling their stories as the book progressed, never really seeming to favor one over the others.
As a work of scholarship, I was honestly blown away.
It should be noted that these women aren’t particularly noteworthy against the backdrop of their time period. None of them really went on to move empires or forge nations. In the grand scheme of things, they were likely pretty average in comparison with other royal women of their time, and that fact may or may not disappoint some readers. If you like reading about women who change events and fundamentally impact history, you won’t really find it here. There is drama, yes, but it’s more personal and smaller scale than you may prefer. I, however, really enjoyed the fact that these were as close to your average royal woman of the times that you could get, and I think that was one of the strengths of the book. When you read about people who had a huge impact on their times, the book is often so focused on this particular person, and what makes this particular story so unique and impactful, that you lose scope of the wider world, and all of the other people in it. Their stories get drowned out. In this book, these women, while noteworthy, weren’t really more noteworthy than any other royal woman, and they all got overwhelmed by not just their father, but their brothers as well. In this book, Wilson-Lee peels away all the layers of their more famous family members, and exposes the life of the average (royal) woman in a detailed, nuanced way that you wouldn’t get otherwise.
Wilson-Lee alternates between the daughters rather fluidly, and her writing is skillful and engaging. She has an easy way about her, and seems to have a knack for boiling down and distilling complex European politics of the age, as well as showing how social and cultural norms would impact the day-to-day life of these women who are swept up in all these goings-on. I found the entire book to be fantastically engaging, and quite honestly, when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. I’m pretty flummoxed why more lovers of history haven’t read this book yet. You’re really missing out on a gem.
In the end, this book was a perfect balance between personal life stories, complex politics, and a life in the 1300’s that really made an impact on me. I learned a whole lot, not just about Edward I’s daughters, but about the time in which they lived. More than that, I learned the names of these women who have been forgotten to history, and internalized their stories. Under Kelcey Wilson-Lee’s deft hand, these women lost their anonymity and became living, breathing people, both on and off the page.
Highly, highly recommend to history lovers.