Women of the Anarchy with Sharon Bennett Connolly

Today on Some Sources I’m excited to announce a Q&A with the brilliant Sharon Bennett Connolly. As well as running her own fantastic blog History…the Interesting Bits! since 2014 she’s also written four books (and counting!) relating to medieval history: Heroines of the Medieval World, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, Ladies of the Magna Carter: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century Europe and Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey.

Sharon Bennett Connolly

Sharon is currently working on her next book Women of the Anarchy which is due to be published in 2022.

What made you decide to focus on women of the anarchy for your next book?

It was actually quite a natural progression. I had just finished writing a family biography of the Warenne earls of Surrey, Defenders of the Norman Crown, which is due out in a few months. The Warennes were quite prominent during the Anarchy, though they fought on the wrong side! They were staunch supporters of King Stephen and the 3rd earl fought (or, rather, was routed) in the defeat of the 1141 Battle of Lincoln, when Stephen was captured. He then redeemed himself later in the years at Winchester when he captured Empress Matilda’s brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, thus facilitating the release of King Stephen later in the year.

I was intrigued as to how the barons of the time decided which side to back, and what their motivations were in accepting Stephen as king, though they had sworn oaths to accept Empress Matilda. The Anarchy is the most famous war in which a woman was the figurehead of one of the warring sides. It is also the only war in England in which two women led opposing sides at the same time; in 1141, when Stephen was captured, his queen, Matilda of Boulogne, came to prominence as the leading figure on the king’s side. In fact, the year 1141 is often referred to as The War of the Two Matildas.

Which women will you be focusing on in this book?

The main focus of the book will be Empress Matilda and Matilda of Boulogne, Stephen’s queen. But there are other women who deserve highlighting, such as Ada de Warenne, who was married to the Scots king’s heir as part of the 1139 Treaty of Durham, Adeliza of Louvain, King Henry I’s widow, who supported Stephen, but managed to stay on friendly terms with Empress Matilda. There are a number of other women who played roles, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Anarchy story, such as Robert of Gloucester’s daughter, whose visit to the wife of the constable of Lincoln Castle was the ruse by which her husband, the earl of Chester, managed to capture the castle, thus forcing the confrontation with Stephen in early 1141, the Battle of Lincoln, which led to his capture.

Whose been your favourite to research?

Matilda of Boulogne has been the biggest surprise for me. She seems to have been largely overlooked in narratives of the conflict, whereas she played a major role, at least in the early years, in negotiating peace treaties and drawing nobles to her husband’s side. It was also through the resources that Stephen had to hand from Matilda’s vast county of Boulogne, which had substantial lands in England, that gave Stephen the support with which to pursue his claim to the throne. And it was Matilda who held Stephen’s forces together whilst the king was held in chains by Empress Matilda. She seems to have been the strength behind Stephen’s throne, a steadying hand not seeking the limelight, but working quietly in the background.

The contrast in the personalities and actions of the two Matildas, queen and empress, is the driving force behind the book. I want to show how and why they approached things so differently.

Have you located any interesting sources in the course of your research?

There are some great primary sources for the Anarchy period, including the Gesta Stephani (though it took me ages to find and English translation), William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis. My favourite, though, is Henry of Huntingdon. This may be because I live near Lincoln, and Henry is buried in the cathedral there. Henry lived and worked in the community at Lincoln Cathedral and is a fabulous source for the 1141 Battle of Lincoln – he probably saw most of it first-hand. His retelling of the pre-battle speeches and description of the battle itself are so vivid. Henry of Huntingdon does not mince words, either, he tells you exactly what he thinks of the leading players in the conflict, and none escape his criticism in one form or another. He does seem to have a soft spot for Henry II, though.

Another source, which is not exactly useful for the conflict, but which is fabulous for setting the scene is the Warenne (or Hyde) Chronicle. This ends with the best medieval cliffhanger ever, in 1120, with King Henry I and his family setting sail for England: ‘At last King Henry restored peace with his diligence and money and decided to come to England with much triumph and joy, but God omnipotent, who, just as the blessed Job says, ‘loosens the belt of kings, and girds their kidneys with a rope,’ out of his just judgement turned the king’s joy into grief and victory into sorrow. Having descended with his two sons, William and Richard, and with Theobald count of Blois, his nephew, and with many relatives and a crowd of nobles, to the seaport, called Barfleur, on the designated day he began to board his ship with favourable winds and a prosperous sea …’

Of course, that was the day that Henry’s heir, William, boarded the White Ship, which never made it back to England, the teenager’s death causing the succession crisis which sparked the Anarchy.

What do you think was the biggest reason Matilda never succeeded in becoming Queen of England?

She was a woman. If she had been a man, her succession would have been undisputed.

I can’t imagine how frustrating that must have been for her. She is described by contemporaries as ‘haughty’, but she was just being herself, an empress and the rightful queen of England. She was criticised for doing things that would have been expected of her rival – such as not standing when her uncle David I, king of Scots, entered. No one would have expected Stephen or Henry I to stand for David – not even King David – and yet observers expected Matilda to.

Your books so far have focused on medieval and women’s history, what sparked your interest in this area?

It found me, really. I was on Facebook and saw all these groups for the various kings of England, but very few dedicated to the queens – or any other women, for that matter. So, I decided to start a group called Medieval Queens and Heroines and started writing biographies of the various fascinating women I came across. When I got my blog, I just carried on in this vein. There was a real interest in it, from all around the world – women’s history is such an under-utilised resource and there is so much still to discover.

And I love the medieval era – it’s a different world.

What is your favourite part of writing historical non-fiction books?

I love to tell the story as it really was, to delve into the lives of these people – especially the women – and bring them into the limelight. There are so many of their stories still to be told. I love doing the research, finding one woman and following her trail, and that of her extended family, in so many different directions. It is amazing the stories you can uncover… lives that have been forgotten or ignored for generations.

Lastly…are you Team Stephen or Team Matilda?

Team Matilda, definitely.

She was robbed of her birth-right because she was a woman. And many of the things she was criticised for would have been perfectly acceptable, had she been a man! It really wasn’t fair.

Plus, the more I read of King Stephen, the more I dislike him. He had sworn two oaths to Henry I to support Matilda’s claim to the throne, but as soon as the king was dead, he made his move.

Thank you for joining us on Some Sources Say!

Thank you so much for inviting me! I have loved talking about my research into the Anarchy.

15th century image of Empress Matilda

You can find Sharon on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and her books are available to buy wherever you get your books including Blackwell’s, Waterstones & Amazon.

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