Book Review: “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings” by Michele Morrical

Pen & Sword Book Cover / Jacket artwork

In medieval Europe, to be considered a strong king, you must keep a firm grasp on your crown, or those who see you as weak will take advantage. These men were known as usurpers throughout history who steal the throne through combat or by illegal means. Some of the most well-known kings in English history have been categorized as usurpers, but is this a fair assessment of their mark in history, or is it a case of propaganda changing their legacy? In her debut nonfiction book, “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings,” Michele Morrical explores the lives of six English kings who bear that title to see if it makes sense with the facts of how they came into power.

I would like to thank Net Galley and Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. When I heard this book was published, I wanted to see how Morrical described a usurper and which king she considered usurpers. I have never heard of a book that focused solely on those who stole thrones in England, so I was excited to see how well it read.

Morrical breaks her book into six sections, with each part focusing on one specific king and his rise to power. She focuses on William the Conqueror, Stephen of Blois, Henry IV, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII as examples of rulers in English history known to be usurpers. Morrical writes biography vignettes to give her readers an understanding of how they came to power and who they had to remove from the throne to become the next monarch. In some cases, it meant starting a new dynasty, and in others, it was just a continuation of the family’s lineage, but it was a different branch of the family tree. The biographies tend to get repetitive, especially with the sections dedicated to the Wars of the Roses. If you are new to these kings and the events of their lifetimes, the repetitive nature will help you understand how everything is connected.

I think Morrical can improve if she writes another nonfiction book by using quotes from primary sources and other historians to strengthen her arguments. I wish she had included discussions from chronicles or other primary sources from around the times that these men became rulers to see the consensus of the time towards the new king. It would have added an extra layer to the stories, and readers could see how our definition of a usurper king would have compared or contrasted to the views of the past. I would have also liked Morrical to have discussed whether being a usurper king had a positive or negative connotation. Many kings on this list were considered game-changers when ruling England and transformed how England was viewed in the grander scheme of European politics.

I think for her first book, Morrical does a decent job of presenting her viewpoints about certain kings and presenting the facts about their lives. One can tell that Morrical is passionate about usurpers and understanding why they took the English throne from their predecessors. Overall, I think it is not bad for a book that combines the lives of six kings of England into one text. If you want a good introductory book into the lives of usurper kings, you should give “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings” by Michele Morrical a try.

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.