Thursday, May 15, 2008
Pretend you’re hearing that TV announcer voice: “Previously, on Wendy Brandes Jewelry….” Now go read these:
You’re finally ready for the last episode of the Empress Matilda chronicles.
As I’ve said, Matilda was a real fighter. That’s why the necklace I designed for her is a sword that can be pulled from a scabbard.
Volume discounts available!
Most villains twirl their mustaches while saying that; it appears King Stephen twirled his eyes.
Meanwhile, back at the French ranch, Matilda’s husband Geoffrey proved he wasn’t entirely a pain in the ass when he conquered Normandy on Matilda’s behalf in 1144. Stephen lost a lot of territory when he lost Normandy. It also must have been a terrible blow to his pride and his political standing, because this defeat came a mere 78 years after the Normans conquered England. He lost their native land! But he still clung to England, although Matilda continued that fight till 1147, when her half-brother and biggest supporter, Robert of Gloucester, died. Without Robert to lead her troops, Matilda was forced to leave for Normandy. Stephen had about half a second to heave a sigh of relief and then Matilda’s 16-year-old son, Henry, picked up where his mother left off. Henry and Stephen fought until 1153, when Henry forced Stephen to sign a treaty recognizing Henry as Stephen’s heir. Stephen was allowed to remain king till he died, which conveniently happened the following year. With Henry’s ascension to the throne in 1154 (as Henry II), The Anarchy officially ended — 19 horrible years after Stephen usurped the throne on the theory that any male would be better for the country than a gifted female ruler would be. You can hear that same theory now whenever you turn on talk radio.
I should note that Henry II married a woman just like Mom: the beautiful and powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine. I will leave that interesting couple for another day. For now, here are some Matilda books:
- I previously mentioned The Empress Matilda by Marjorie Chibnall. This is an excellent biography that’s an easy read. Buy it from the U.K.’s Amazon site; it will be delivered faster than it will through the U.S. site.
- When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman is THE novel about Stephen and Matilda. While sticking close to the facts, the author manages to make both sides sympathetic. Two things drive me crazy about this book. First there’s the “fictional character who falls in love with a poor but good person” subplot. They hand those out the first day you walk into Historical Fiction Writing 101: “Here, take a subplot and this class schedule.” But the names of the characters bother me more. As I said in Part I, a lot of people back then shared the same name. Matilda’s mother was also Matilda, and Stephen’s wife was Matilda. Or they might have all been Maud or Maude or Mahaut, because those were all versions of Matilda. Penman understandably decides to give the empress and Stephen’s wife distinct versions of the name, but she calls the EMPRESS Maude and Stephen’s wife Matilda! She does that even though she acknowledges that the empress herself would have signed official documents with the more formal “Matilda” and “Matilda” is what was stamped on her coins. So why call her Maude? This tortured me through the entire 768 pages.
- Foolish gossip is nothing new: Some chroniclers promoted the notion that Stephen and Matilda were really lovers and Henry II was their son. A civil war that left untold thousands dead would certainly be the worst breakup ever. Serious historians completely dismiss this story. When I picked up Fatal Crown by Ellen Jones, I didn’t realize it was a torrid, Stephen-ripping-Maud’s-bodice romance. But once I accepted that the plot was going to be 100% absurd, the book was enjoyable in a Harlequin romance kind of way. As you might have noticed, Ellen calls Matilda “Maud” but considering all the other foolishness going on here, the name isn’t a big issue.
- Historical fiction factory Jean Plaidy (really, I can’t believe one person churned out all the books published under that name — it’s like Joyce Carol Oates on steroids) also went for the Matilda-Stephen romance in The Passionate Enemies. I haven’t read this one. The quality of the Plaidy books is so iffy that I now find them only worth reading if there is absolutely no other fiction written about the queen I’m interested in. But, if you want it, you can get it used through Amazon.
- There are books that don’t deal directly with Matilda or Stephen, but that are set during The Anarchy. Two good ones are The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters.
- There’s a non-fiction book about the war that I haven’t read: Steven and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139 – 1153 by J. Bradbury. I’m more interested in the context of an entire life rather than military maneuvers. The focus on military maneuvers was what bored me in history classes in school. I felt like a lot of teachers focused on who was where at what date, rather than what led to the events in the first place. I’ll probably skip this one.
- Two books that you definitely can’t read are the ones on Stephen and Matilda in the Yale English Monarch Series. Why? Because they don’t exist. The series doesn’t cover all of the monarchs. Still, I was annoyed that they had William Rufus (Henry I’s predecessor), then Henry I, then skipped to Henry II. I’m going to give the nice people at Yale a call. For all I know, dozens of scholars could be diligently working on a Matilda book. I will report back.
Two final thoughts: Matilda was only reviled when she was a candidate for England’s top job. She was beloved as the child bride of the Holy Roman Emperor and later respected as a key political adviser to Henry II. I think that tells you all you need to know about the motivations of her detractors.
Matilda’s epitaph has always amused me. Whoever wrote it dealt brilliantly with the name problem: “Great by Birth, Greater by Marriage, Greatest in her Offspring: Here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry.” Remember, Henry I was her father; Henry V was her first husband, the Emperor; and Henry II was her son. While the epitaph defines her by the men in her life, it doesn’t totally rub me the wrong way. After all, the man she had the most influence over, her son, is the greatest (he may have paid for the tomb, but let me have my happiness). And that annoying Geoffrey? Written out of history altogether.
UPDATED TO ADD: A number of people have asked if I will do the Matilda Necklace in silver. If you have looked at it on my site, you’ve seen that this is an important piece that utilized the most highly skilled labor; it is priced accordingly. If I get enough serious requests, I’ll investigate doing the sword in silver, with different stones, as a stand-alone piece. The labor required to do the scabbard would, in my opinion, be excessive for silver.
UPDATED AGAIN TO ADD: The New York Times has two good articles (here and here) on the misogyny faced by a woman running for high office. Not much has changed in the name-calling business in the past 900 years.