Book Review: “The Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family: The Despensers” by Kathryn Warner

55182670._SY475_In the times of medieval kings, the power of the crown was dependent on the support that they maintained with noble families. One of the most notorious noble families in England was the baronial family known as the Despensers. Between the 13th and the 15th centuries, the Despensers were at the heart of royal politics and some of the biggest power plays during the reign of the Plantagenets. We know about the few members who truly made waves during this time, especially Hugh Despenser the Elder and Hugh Despenser the Younger, but this family’s story is much more than a few members. In Kathryn Warner’s latest book, “The Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family: The Despensers”, she takes on the challenge of explaining the entire family story of this infamous baron clan.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. I have enjoyed Kathryn Warner’s writing style in the past and when I heard about this book, I was intrigued. I will be honest and say that I only knew about Hugh the Elder and Hugh the Younger when they were mentioned in other history books that I had read in the past. I was excited to learn more about this family.

To understand this book, it should be noted that this is unlike any other modern medieval history book. It is a bit different than what Kathryn Warner has written in the past. In truth, this book feels like a modern-day chronicle of the Despenser family. Warner begins with the reign of King Henry III in 1265 with the execution of the Despenser’s patriarch, Hugh the justiciar, and concludes with Isabella Despenser, who was the grandmother of Anne Neville, the wife of King Richard III. Warner includes the more scandalous tales of love and betrayal that encapsulate the fascination that historians have had with this family for centuries.

What was compelling to me about this book is the stories of those who were in the background of the more sensationalized figures. The tales of triumph and sorrow that the family had to endure are remarkable. For the family to survive, they needed to make waves in the medieval marriage market, which they did spectacularly. It is these marriages and their impacts that Warner focuses heavily on to show that even in disgrace, the Despensers continued to rise from the ashes.

If I did have a problem with this book, there were points where it was a tad dry to read. This book is very academic and is directed towards those who know the history of the Despensers. Warner takes her readers on a deeper dive into this infamous family. You can tell from Warner’s dedication to this task that she truly enjoyed studying about the Despensers. As someone who was not familiar with this family and its numerous family members named “Hugh”, I found myself going back to try and figure out who was who.

If you want to tackle this book, my advice would be to take your time to truly understand this complex family. This book is exceptionally well researched and a true chronological treat for those who love to dive into the intricacies of medieval families. If this sounds like you, check out, “The Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family: The Despensers” by Kathryn Warner.

Book Review: “Edward II’s Nieces The Clare Sisters: Powerful Pawns of the Crown” by Kathryn Warner

50021431Being part of a royal family has its perks, like power and prestige. However, especially in medieval Europe, it meant that you could not marry the person you loved. Marriage was used as a tool to create strong alliances and the women from royal families were used as extremely powerful pawns to strengthen these connections. During the reigns of King Edward II and Edward III, three sisters proved to be very valuable pawns in the marriage market. They were the Clare sisters, Eleanor, Margaret, and Elizabeth. Their stories of their numerous marriages and abductions help to tell the tale of English politics during the reigns of their uncle King Edward II and his son Edward III. Kathryn Warner’s latest book, “Edward II’s Nieces The Clare Sisters: Powerful Pawns of the Crown” explores how these sisters and their families helped transform England during this transformative time in history.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I was not familiar with these three sisters before I read this book and I wanted to learn about them. This is the second book that I have read by Kathryn Warner and it was just as enjoyable and informative as the first one.

To understand why these three sisters were important pawns in the marriage market, Warner explains who their parents were. Their mother, Joan of Acre, was the daughter of King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. Joan of Acre married one of the most powerful noblemen in England, Gilbert “the Red” de Clare, earl of Gloucester. The couple had four children; Gilbert, Eleanor, Margaret, and Elizabeth. The massive de Clare estate would have gone to Gilbert (since he was the only son and women could not inherit under normal circumstances), however, he died at a young age, which meant that the estate was divided amongst his sisters, making them extremely valuable as wives to whoever the king wished.

Between the three sisters, there were seven husbands. Some of the marriages were relatively traditional and others were abductions in which the sisters had no choice but to marry their kidnappers. Some of the husbands, Hugh Despenser the Younger, Piers Gaveston, and Hugh Audley, were favorites (and, in the cases of Hugh and Piers, lovers) of King Edward II, allowing for their wives to have rather a unique position in history. All three of the sisters enjoyed times when they were in good favor of King Edward II and Isabella of France, but they all would experience times when they were placed under arrest in the 1320s. Each sister left a lasting legacy, especially Elizabeth who founded Clare College at the University of Cambridge.

Warner could have easily written three short biographies about each sister, but by combining their stories into one biography, the readers can understand the complex story of the Clare inheritance and how marriage, money, and power truly played a role in the reign of King Edward II. My only concern with this book is that I wish Warner included some sort of family tree/ trees to show how everyone was connected. Warner did include lists of the sisters’ husbands and children in the back, but when I was reading, I was getting slightly confused about how they related to one another and I think that family trees might have helped clear up the confusion that I had.

Overall, I found this book intriguing and complex. By telling the story of Eleanor, Margaret, and Elizabeth de Clare as three biographies in one book, Warner presents a new perspective into the life and reign of Edward II. The Plantagenet family during this time was a closely knit web of power that had to rely on each other to survive or to fall. If you want a great book to introduce you to three fascinating sisters whose marriages during the reign of the infamous Edward II transformed England then, “Edward II’s Nieces The Clare Sisters: Powerful Pawns of the Crown” by Kathryn Warner is a wonderful place to start.

Book Review: “Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance” by Stephen Spinks

34411942._SX318_ (1)When we think of medieval kings of England, we tend to think about strong warriors who did things their own way. Men like Edward I and Edward III often come to mind. Yet, there was a king in between these two legendary warriors whose name lives on in infamy, King Edward II. He is known for his numerous favorites, his relationships with men like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger, his disagreements with the barons who were trying to help him run the country, his relationship with his equally famous wife and son, Isabella of France and Edward III, and his dramatic death. But who was the man known as King Edward II? What was he really like? Stephen Spinks explores these questions in his latest biography, “Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance”.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. I remember hearing briefly about Edward II’s story in different documentaries that I have watched, but I have never read a biography about him before. This book was rather enlightening.

Spinks naturally begins with the birth of Edward of Caernarfon (the future King Edward II) to his parents, King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. What is interesting is that Edward was their only son who survived long enough to become king, since his elder brothers would all pass away. His father, Edward I, was truly a warrior king, fighting against Wales and Scotland, yet he accumulated absolutely staggering debts which Edward II had to deal with when he was king. With his father’s victory in Wales, Edward of Caernarfon was made the first English Prince of Wales.

When Edward I died, Edward became King Edward II, with an inheritance filled with issues that would come to define his reign. Edward II had to deal with the crippling debt, war from numerous countries, and barons that were constantly trying to control how he ran the country. On top of all of this, Edward decided to rely heavily on men like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger, his “favorites”, which really did not sit well with the barons or his wife, Isabella of France. It is the belief of Spinks that Edward’s relationships with Gaveston and Despenser were more than platonic, that they were Edward’s lovers and that is why he always took their advice above his barons and gave them massive rewards. Personally, I am not sure how I feel about this theory since this was the first biography I read about Edward II, and I think I would need to study a bit more before I settle on a theory about this topic.

Another huge topic that Spinks addresses in his book is the split between Edward and Isabella that ultimately led to his downfall and his death. It was interesting to see how even though they did split up, Edward did indeed cared for his family, although he did have a rather unusual way of showing it. His abdication, death, and the stories of how he survived are really compelling and makes you wonder what happened to Edward II after his son became King Edward III.

Overall, I found this book extremely informative. Spinks was able to combine the complex nature of the government that was run by the barons with an easy to understand writing style. Spinks also discusses other theories written by other historians to allow readers to understand why he believes what he believes. After reading this book, I do want to learn more about King Edward II and his reign. If you want a great introductory book into the reign of King Edward II, I highly recommend you read, “Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance” by Stephen Spinks.