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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.


Perfect for all the backstabbers on your list!
Volume discounts available!

Matilda Necklace
© Wendy Brandes 2007-2010

Photography by SquareMoose

Even after Matilda fumbled her best chance at the crown in 1141, she didn’t give up the fight. My favorite act of chutzpah took place in Oxford in 1142 when Matilda was under siege by Stephen’s forces. The empress climbed out a window, threw on a white cloak and escaped through a blizzard. There’s a similar (possibly apocryphal) story from 1141, when she supposedly escaped a siege disguised as a corpse on a funeral bier. Stephen must have been humiliated whenever he seized a castle only to find out that Matilda wasn’t home. All her people who stayed behind were totally unhelpful, I’m sure. They were all like, “Um. We don’t know when she’ll be back. Can we take a message?” And then they would pretend to write down Stephen’s message but they wouldn’t really write it down! Oh, yeah, they played dirty in the 12th century.
“Drat! Foiled again!”
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.

So there.

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.

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28 Responses to “Book Club: Empress Matilda, Part III”

  1. The Clothes Horse says:

    Okay, that necklace is just about the coolest thing ever. I’ve been hunting for a signature necklace. This is going on my wishlist!

  2. AsianCajuns says:

    I completely agree with the clothes horse. The necklace is fantastic!

  3. SICK. says:

    i. love. this. necklace.
    it’s soo amazing.
    45935957x better than any alex+chloe sword necklace.

    x.
    jessica

  4. ellastica says:

    totally envious of your talent and career!

  5. roxanne says:

    that necklace is amazing.

    which reminds me, i used your isabella wolf-fang earrings in a post on channeling beauty and the beast’s belle!

  6. Sharon Rose says:

    Excellent post, Wendy!!

  7. Imelda Matt says:

    I couldn’t get past the ‘Karen Black’ cross eye’d action…sorryxx

  8. Susie Bubble says:

    What larks, what larks! Fantastic post…. you made medieval dynastical history a whole lore more fun than my professor Sophie Page did…. bless her…

  9. enc says:

    I’ll never read another book again. I’d rather read your reviews!

  10. Pamcasso says:

    The cross eyed picture really got me, LOL. Wendy, you need your own feminist history channel!

    The first link (to part 1) wasn’t working for me, but it could be just me, you might want to check.

  11. WendyB says:

    ENC, I read movie reviews and then feel like I don’t have to see the movie.
    Pamcasso, thanks so much about the link. I fixed it. An extra “http” had wandered into it somehow.

  12. retifism says:

    This is ingenious. . I love it! And your reviews are succinct and witty. Awesome

  13. pistols at dawn says:

    It is about time that we got some jewelry that can kill as well. Except I can’t trust any woman in my life with a sharp edged implement.

  14. CDP says:

    awesome! And I love the necklace, but must admire it from afar. Incidentally, I wonder about the fate of the artist who painted Stephen’s portrait…not flattering.

  15. pretty face says:

    Wow, I mentioned I loved it in that picture with Fernando, but now I can see it in detail I love it even more!

    My favourite Wendy necklace… would so be BOUGHT if I had a spare 7k lying around.

  16. Miss Janey says:

    Miss J wishes WendyN was her history teacher.

    That necklace is a truly fabulous piece. No wonder everyone wants it in silver.

  17. the iron chic says:

    White sheet in a blizzard? Now THAT’S a French Exit! I could learn a thing or two here!

    Love the mini scabbard for mini-betrayals…..

  18. Material Girl says:

    Ohmigosh, that really is the best epitaph EVERRRR. I almost want to structure my life plan in order to justify an equally brilliant one for myself.

  19. the likkle girl who wurves pwetty things says:

    At first glance, I thought, “Ooooh, some careless person is going to lose the scabbarb on a mad night out on the dancefloor.” On closer inspection, I saw the discreet little hooky locking device – function without destroying the form. Very clever design, Ms B!

  20. Carolina Lange says:

    So beautiful necklace!

  21. Prunella Jones says:

    King Stephen looks like he enjoyed the barley mead a little too much, methinks.

    Great writing, Wendy, you make history fun. And you design gorgeous jewelry. And you’re adorably cute! Wanna trade lives?

  22. WendyB says:

    Likkle Girl, that exterior catch is just a backup. There’s a device in the scabbard that the sword clicks into in order to be held securely.
    Prunella, if you’re volunteering to deal with my bookkeeping and laundry, sure!

  23. Winn says:

    Gorgeous!! So so unique, I love it.

  24. jennifer says:

    i think this is my favorite design of yours (at least from what i’ve seen you post here on your blog). tough and delicate at the same time… i love it.

  25. Micgar says:

    He was a damn eye twirler!

  26. Diabolina says:

    one of my besties is going to LOVE this. will buy it for sure.

    sending it…

  27. Read them all. Loved it.

    “Not much has changed in the name-calling business in the past 900 years.” So, uh, here’s to change in the next 900? Shit.

  28. WendyB
    Twitter: WendyBrandes
    says:

    Nah, Denise, why change now? ;-)