Drawing Anglo-Saxon and Viking Treasure: Guest Post by Gilli Allan

To tie in with the release of the gorgeous new cover for Buried Treasure, I'm delighted to hand the blog over to author Gilli Allan: ...

Monday, 22 June 2020

Review: Ladies of Magna Carta by Sharon Bennett Connolly

The perks of the writer's job include getting to read advance copies of new books and I recently had the absolute pleasure of reading Sharon Bennett Connolly's new release:

"Magna Carta clause 39: No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. This clause in Magna Carta was in response to the appalling imprisonment and starvation of Matilda de Braose, the wife of one of King John's barons. Matilda was not the only woman who influenced, or was influenced by, the 1215 Charter of Liberties, now known as Magna Carta. Women from many of the great families of England were affected by the far-reaching legacy of Magna Carta, from their experiences in the civil war and as hostages, to calling on its use to protect their property and rights as widows. _Ladies of Magna Carta_ looks into the relationships - through marriage and blood - of the various noble families and how they were affected by the Barons' Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. Including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Warennes, the Braoses and more, _Ladies of Magna Carta_ focuses on the roles played by the women of the great families whose influences and experiences have reached far beyond the thirteenth century."

I've read all three of the author's books and in this new one she has kept up her impeccable standard, examining the lives of the women who, largely, have been kept in the background of history. 

I've always thought of Magna Carta as being something which male barons imposed on a male king, and had not realised the implications for the women of the time, nor that some were directly responsible for certain clauses being included in the document.

The book begins with a potted but solid examination of John's journey to the throne, his place in the royal family and the ramifications thereof. Then it looks at the tumultuous times which led to the sealing of the influential charter.

We move then to the de Braose family and a particularly gruesome and tragic story. (I'll give no spoilers here for those who don't know what happened.) I was interested to learn of Matilda (Maud) de Braose's early life and I had completely forgotten that she is the Lady of Hay (for those who've read the Erskine novel of the same name). We also learn about Loretta, her daughter, and the fact that the fates of these women may may have inspired clauses in Magna Carta. Loretta became an anchoress and yet still retained influence.

Next, the author revisits the redoubtable Nicolaa de la Haye, defender of Lincoln, and her admiration for this courageous woman shines through. We then learn about Ela of Salisbury, the wife of John's half-brother. She also became a sheriff and then a powerful abbess.

Also included in this volume are the daughters of the 'greatest knight', William Marshal, who made good marriages:

Matilda (Mahelt) married Hugh Bigod of Norfolk;

Isabel's second husband was Henry III's half-brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall;

Sibyl married the earl of Derby;


Eva married a de Braose, the grandson of Lady of Hay.

After this we meet the princesses of Scotland, one of whom, Isabella, married Mahelt's son. As hostages at the English court, these princess were referred to in Magna Carta.

No study of this period would be complete without the inclusion of the de Warenne family, and here we meet Isabel d'Aubigny who fought for her tenant's rights against the king and won (albeit temporarily), using Magna Carta to assert her rights.

We also discover that Isabella of Gloucester, John's first wife, was remarried to a 'toyboy' 16 years her junior but managed to make the marriage work. Then, widowed, she revelled in her independence to an extent, although she was still subject to the whims of her first husband, King John. She had to play hostess to his new wife, too, Isabelle d'Angouleme, and here the author pauses to give insight: knowing what life was like as a wife of John, she may actually have felt protective of her. Even so, Bennett Connolly finds she has little sympathy for her, but this appraisal is evidence-based and even-handed.

The story of poor imprisoned Eleanor of Brittany, whose brother Arthur's murder ultimately caused Maud de Braose's downfall, brings us poignantly full circle. Throughout the book we are given a great view of what was going on in various parts of the country around the time of Magna Carta. Sadly there are many examples of how little say in affairs some of these women had, Magna Carta notwithstanding. The charter certainly didn't help poor Eleanor. 

Joan, illegitimate daughter of John, wife of Llewelyn Fawr of Gwynedd, is one of my favourite ladies and here we get fabulous detail of how she survived adultery, retaining her life and her married status. And then there is Eleanor Countess of Pembroke, Simon de Montford's wife, and her poor daughter who married Llewelyn Fawr's grandson, but not without years of  enforced separation and whose baby daughter had a tragic life.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I was aware of Magna Carta and I am familiar, too, with some of the women's stories. What I had not appreciated was that the suffering of Maud de Braose dictated a clause in the charter and the Scottish princesses who were hostages, are mentioned in it too.

The book is a well-researched and thorough examination of the lives of the people who were affected, directly or indirectly, by this great charter. Everything is laid out clearly and logically and the author has an easy, conversational style which really helps the book to flow. There's so much information here - the appendices are great and there is an extensive bibliography - but it all sinks in effortlessly because of her natural writing style.

A must-read for anyone interested in this pivotal moment in English and Scottish history.

Find Sharon at her Blog, and on Twitter

Buy Ladies of Magna Carta at Amazon  and at Pen & Sword Books