Book Review: “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire” by Matthew Lewis

50419849If you go to Fontevrault Abbey in France, you will find two rather extraordinary tombs. These tombs belong to King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first King, Queen of the Plantagenet Dynasty, and the Angevin Empire. Their effigies tell us a lot about the couple that was buried side by side. The husband was restless; his model shows him ready to take action at any moment, with his crown upon his head and a scepter in his hand. His queen lays beside him, reading an unknown book. They seem to be prepared to watch over their kingdom and their family even beyond the grave. Those who know English history recognize their names and understand the family drama behind the scenes. We think we know the truth about Henry and Eleanor, but is there more to their story and their feuding family? In Matthew Lewis’s latest dual biography, “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire,” he explores the relationship between this dynamic king and queen and how it shaped European and English history forever.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. I have enjoyed Matthew Lewis’s previous books, and when I heard about this one, I was pleasantly surprised. There is just something so intriguing about the lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I could not wait to see how he would approach this famous couple.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a grand heiress of France who attracted the young French King Louis VII; they would eventually marry and take on the monumental task of protecting French territories and embark on the 2nd Crusade. Eleanor showed her strength and resilience during the Crusade as rumors tried hard to tarnish her good name. Unfortunately, her marriage did not last long as the couple realized that they would never have a male heir.

As soon as they divorced, Eleanor fell in love with a young noble who was the son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey Duke of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet. Empress Matilda fought hard against her cousin King Stephen for Henry to become Stephen’s heir during The Anarchy. Henry and Matilda would prevail, allowing Henry and Eleanor to become King and Queen of England after Stephen’s death.

It was when Henry became a father when troubles began to arise. His sons, Henry the Younger, Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, Richard, and John, would be a thorn at his side as they fought against each other and Henry for power. Eleanor was woefully caught in the middle as she strived to do what was best for her sons, even if it pitted her against her beloved husband. To top it all off, Henry had to deal with a man who he felt was right to help him reign in the power of the Church; Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The disastrous end to their friendship would be the lowest point in Henry’s reign.

Lewis gives his readers a brand new perspective on the relationship between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Although I knew this story rather well before reading this biography, I still found myself entranced by Lewis’s narrative with scrupulous attention to detail. I thought I knew the nature of their relationship, but I was wrong. If you want a biography that is elegant while it challenges your views on the first Plantaganet couple, I highly suggest you read “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire” by Matthew Lewis.

Book Review: “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream” by Charles Spencer

53604802._SY475_In the middle of the night on November 25, 1120, screams could be heard from the English Channel. A ship known as The White Ship hit a rock and began to sink. Those on board were the glamorous English elite, including the legitimate son of King Henry I, William Aetheling. In an era where people feared the sea and could not swim, those on board sank to their watery death on that cold winter night that began with such frivolity. No one knew that night that this one disaster at sea would cause a dynastic struggle that would lead to the founding of the infamous Plantagenet dynasty. In his latest book, “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream”, Charles Spencer takes his readers on a journey to fully understand the impact that this tragedy had on the English royal family.

Charles Spencer has written many nonfiction books in the past, but they have all been out of the time periods that I enjoy reading about. I might go back and read them in my own time, but when I saw that this particular title was going to be published and how much praise it had received from prominent historians, I decided to give it a try.

Spencer’s tale into this tragedy begins with a vivid account of the night of November 25th and then it jumps to the first part of the tale. To understand why this event was so horrific for Henry I, we have to understand what it took for Henry I to become King of England. Henry, I was one of three sons of William the Conqueror. After his father died in 1087, the third son, William Rufus became King William II, much to the chagrin of the eldest son, Robert Curthose, who remained Duke of Normandy, but he continued to be a thorn at his brother’s side. When William II died after a hunting accident, Henry knew that it was his chance to beat Robert to the throne, which he did, becoming Henry I, who fought hard to restore order to England.

His two legitimate children, William Aetheling and Matilda, allowed Henry I to breathe a sigh of relief, although he had numerous illegitimate children. This is why this tragedy hit me so hard. With William’s death, it meant that anyone could take the throne after Henry I’s death, which is exactly what happened. The period we know as The Anarchy was a battle between Matilda, who was Henry’s heir, and her cousin Stephen of Blois for the throne of England.

Spencer has painted a dramatically dark portrait of the fall of the Norman dynasty. The Normans were notorious for their cruelty towards those who opposed them, even their own family. What I thoroughly enjoyed with this book was Spencer’s tone. It is as if you are having a casual conversation with Spencer about Henry I’s reign and his family’s drama for the throne. I was impressed with how well researched this book was and the new information that Spencer provided to present the bigger picture of this catastrophe.

I found this book to be a thrilling read full of information and vivid descriptions. This may be Charles Spencer’s first dive into the world of medieval nonfiction, but I hope it is not the last. If you want a brilliant read about the aftermath of the Conquest, the rise and fall of Henry I, and the Anarchy, I highly recommend you read, “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream” by Charles Spencer.

Book Review: “Plantagenet Princes: The Sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II” by Douglas Boyd

55182667._SX318_One of the most infamous families in the history of England lasted for over three hundred years and it was filled with numerous princes that fought for their right to rule, much to the chagrin of the Tudor dynasty. The Plantagenet Dynasty was full of scandals and bloodshed, testing the core values of what it meant to be a family and rulers of an emerging country like England. This dynastic clash for power that came to define this dynasty began with Henry II and his sons by his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. When their father refused to give the boys any true power, which was to be excepted with all princes, his sons waged war against Henry II and their brothers. The stories of these bonds and what ultimately tore them asunder are told in Douglas Boyd’s latest collection of biographies aptly titled, “Plantagenet Princes: The Sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II”.

I would like to thank Net Galley and Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. When I read the description of this one, I was drawn in. I am always looking for more information about this fractured family, so I decided to give this book a try.

Boyd begins by describing the lifestyles of a knight and how they went into battle, which was essential for a medieval prince. He also dived into the complicated relationship between Eleanor of Aquitaine, her first husband Louis VII of France, and her second husband Henry II. Since Eleanor did not have any make children with Louis VII, she decided to divorce him to marry the soon-to-be King Henry II of England. It is Eleanor’s children with Henry II that are remembered for their feuds. Their sons; Henry the Young King, Richard I, Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, and King John fought against one another and their father to some extent for the throne of England. I found the chapters about the sons engaging albeit short.

The big problem that I had with this particular title is that it only spent a portion of the book on the actual princes of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. I was craving more depth, more information out of these chapters, but Boyd decided to go all the way through until the crowning of Henry IV. Once he started to go onto the descendants, I will be honest that I started to find the writing a bit dry.

It is fine as an overview, but I was hoping for a bit more. Boyd also used a lot of research that has been used numerous times. He did not present any new information and reused some myths about these figures. I wanted to hear Boyd’s voice and his opinions about these figures, but it felt lost in this book.

Overall, this book is just okay. I was looking for a bit more depth with the research that focused on the sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, not their descendants. Boyd knows a lot about the Plantagenet dynasty, but it just fell flat for me. If you want a book that gives an overview of the Plantagenets until the coronation of Henry IV, check out “Plantagenet Princes: The Sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II” by Douglas Boyd.

Book Review: “Queens of the Crusades: England’s Medieval Queens Book Two” by Alison Weir

52355570 (1)One of the most prominent royal families of English history was the Plantagenets, who reigned for over three hundred years. In the first one hundred years of this family’s infamous history, five kings ruled (the first two are considered kings of the Angevin dynasty): Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, and Edward I. These five kings saw England change drastically, but they also participated in the international political landscape of the day, which involved the series of wars that today we simply refer to as the Crusades. The early Plantagenet kings saw much bloodshed and war, but they were not alone in their struggle to keep the dynasty going. These men would not have gotten as far as they did without their wives who stood by their sides. In Alison Weir’s latest installment of England’s Medieval Queens series, “Queens of the Crusades”, she takes a deep dive into the lives of the first five Plantagenet queens to show how remarkable these women truly were to stand beside their husbands during the times of the Crusades in Europe.

I would like to thank Ballantine Books, Random House, and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. I have been a massive fan of Alison Weir’s nonfiction books for years now. To have an opportunity to read this title and review it is simply astounding. As soon as Weir announced this new installment of England’s Medieval Queens series, I knew I wanted to read it because I had enjoyed Queens of the Conquest immensely.

The five queens that Weir covers in this particular book are Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre, Isabella of Angouleme, Alienor of Provence, and Eleanor of Castile. Many are familiar with the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II and how it soured as their sons fought against their father, but it is worth noting that every queen in this book led a rather remarkable life. Eleanor of Aquitaine may have been alive during the time of Thomas Becket’s murder and Isabella of Angouleme witnessed her husband King John seal the Magna Carta, but some of these queens witnessed battles of the Crusades being fought as they traveled with their husbands to distant lands. There was also the matter of ruling two kingdoms, England and parts of France plus keeping the peace with Wales and Scotland, all while raising their children. There was never a dull moment for the lives of the early Plantagenet queens.

I found each queen in this book fascinating to read about, even though I did not know much about their lives. I obviously knew about Eleanor of Aquitaine, but the other queens have been briefly mentioned in other books that it felt like I was discovering their stories for the first time. The way they governed England and the way that they showed their love for their husbands and their children were different, but they each made a significant impact on the story of the Plantagenet dynasty. If I did have a problem with this book it would be that I found myself confused on which Eleanor was which, especially when Alienor of Provence and Eleanor of Castile were alive during the same time.

Overall, I found this book extremely informative and meticulously researched. Alison Weir has yet again made the lives of these queens that time seemed to have forgotten come to life. I believe that this is an excellent introductory book for anyone who wants to learn about the early queens of the Plantagenet dynasty. It is engaging, thought-provoking, and masterfully written. If this sounds like you, check out the second book in the England’s Medieval Queens series by Alison Weir, “Queens of the Crusades”.