5 GOLD stars
On Amazon UK
How I discovered this book: a favourite author, and I've read Books 1 and 2 in the series
In a Nutshell: The life of Empress Matilda, shortly before and after her disputed reign as monarch of England.
What a marvellous book this is - I loved every word. By far my favourite so far of this series.
'All stories begin with Water'.
In line with Gemma Lawrence's many other tales of English women of history, this begins with Matilda in old age, pondering the waters of life and death, God and free will, winter, youth and old age, power and the accumulation of wisdom. So beautifully written I highlighted far too many passages to add to this review; the two that follow are maybe not the most lyrical, but were some of the first to jump out at me.
We spend our lives trying to forget we are but temporary creatures, that Death will come one day. All things we accumulate, money, clothes, possessions, houses, even love are but loaned to us, we castellans of all that life provides. We are here to carry the story on, take it to another page, pass it to another ... what matters is the torch, the light we pass on, the shadows that light casts.
When fools ask why God, all powerful and of goodness made would allow sin and evil to exist, I shake my head...he granted free will so when and if we choose to do good, it is our goodness, worth all the more for we could have worked evil.
God wanted us to learn, and we learn more from making mistakes. Without free will there would be no mistakes, and so we, His children, would never grow.
Before reading this book I knew nothing about the fight between Matilda and Stephen for the throne of England, except that she gained recognition as rightful monarch but was never crowned, then the tables were turned and Stephen was crowned a second time. I was to learn about the part Stephen's wife, another Matilda, played in the strategy of this war; of course, as with the Wars of the Roses, the victories won by the women, away from the battle field, featured little in the history books until recently. Our Matilda talks much about the lot of women, throughout this book - and here's something I learned: long ago, the Queen in chess was all but useless, moving only as the King, sticking by his side. I wondered who changed her into the most powerful piece on the board, and when this happened; I suspected it was around the time of the Tudor women, so looked it up. The modern move began in Spain during the time of Queen Isabella I - Catherine of Aragon's mother.
The military strategies and ways of the 12th Century world are fascinating to read about; more than ever, in Ms Lawrence's books of these pre-Plantagenet times, I felt the atmosphere of those castles, could imagine myself in Matilda's shoes, every step of the way. From when she captures Stephen, the constant sense of foreboding made this such a page turner, as her older self warns the reader that she got so much wrong. Not least of all, she was not confident enough to be the Matilda that her supporters loved, but thought she must transform into, an almost sexless ruler, cold and hard as steel, rather than be criticised simply for being a woman.
We can't imagine the hardship people lived through in those days, though at times, when I read about Robert and her other friends fleeing cross country on foot, hiding from Stephen's armies, trading even their clothes for a place to stay or something to eat, I thought, maybe this is truly living—knowing danger and hunger and still waking up to walk another day, as opposed to the cossetted lives we live now. A romantic notion, I know.
I liked this: 'Heinrich once said to me that the appetite often feeds on eating, that when one has not eaten for a while the belly ceases to protest, for it assumes there is no food and there is no sense squalling like a child for what it cannot have'. Applicable to much.
The devastation that was wreaked on Winchester and Oxford during this war, in particular, made me contemplate how nothing changes or will ever change—those of money, born into power, set apart from the common man, see them as collateral damage when working or fighting to get what they want, even though the good amongst them might regret this. They send people out to fight and die, laying waste to their homes, food, livelihoods, so that they might wear the crown (metaphorical or otherwise) and gain what they consider to be their rightful seat of power. Matilda contemplates all this and more throughout the her lengthy and gradual downfall, when she learns so much and becomes, paradoxically, a woman worthy of a crown.
The book ends with the battle all but lost, in Oxford castle under siege and almost out of food, when Matilda and three loyal guards walk out into the snow to they know not what, so that those in the castle can safely surrender.
I can't wait for the next book, in which Matilda campaigns for England in the name of her son, Henry - who becomes, of course, Henry II. This book works as a stand alone, and I can't recommend too highly.