REVIEW: Daughters of Edward I by Kathryn Warner
In 1254 the teenage heir to the English throne married a Spanish bride, the sister of the king of Castile, in Burgos, and their marriage of thirty-six years proved to be one of the great royal romances of the Middle Ages. Edward I of England and Leonor of Castile had at least fourteen children together, though only six survived into adulthood, five of them daughters.
Daughters of Edward I traces the lives of these five capable, independent women, including Joan of Acre, born in the Holy Land, who defied her father by marrying a second husband of her own choice, and Mary, who did not let her forced veiling as a nun stand in the way of the life she really wanted to live. The women’s stories span the decades from the 1260s to the 1330s, through the long reign of their father, the turbulent reign of their brother Edward II, and into the reign of their nephew, the child-king Edward III.
It was the cover that snagged my attention and made me realize that I didn’t know much (beyond Edward II’s disastrous reign) about the family of the “Hammer of the Scots.” After reading this book I can say I learned some things but upon reflection, not nearly what I’d hoped.
First we started off with Edward I’s marriage to his Spanish bride Leonor (or Eleanore or any number of medieval versions of her name, all of which we’ll be shown). In order to understand how significant it was, three or four pages of European royal lineages, marriage, intermarriage, etc. are covered. This should have been my warning as after two or three pages, my eyes were crossing. Soooooo many royals with the same first names from countries and duchies that no longer exist. I pity any clerk who had to try and keep track of it all or the Pope who was (often) called upon to hand out dispensations before marriages. It’s six degrees of separation, medieval style.
As I kept reading, it began to become clear that as these people lived 700+ years ago, when women weren’t considered very important anyway, there wasn’t a whole lot of information about them beyond birth, marriage, pregnancies, and death. The lists of children along with their birth – and all too often early – death dates showed the horrific infant mortality rates then, even for royalty.
Royal marriages were important chess moves of alliances and counter alliances. These were often contracted while the bride and groom in question were still infants. The various ones that Edward I was considering for his children were discussed complete with the family history of the proposed groom (which was most often the case as more of his daughters survived to marriageable age) along with the clauses of the marriage contracts. After slogging through a few of these, I realized that in many cases there was no need for me to try and remember these people or why this alliance might be important as in many cases it would then be revealed that said potential bride or groom (or in some cases both of them) died as infants, toddlers, or children. With macabre humor I began to wonder out loud, “Will this one survive to the altar?”
Once Edward’s children actually did exchange vows, for the daughters it became one pregnancy after another with the exception of the daughter (Margaret) and her husband who apparently disliked each other enough that only one child was born and no other pregnancies were recorded. She’s also the one who survived longest. Trying to keep up with all the babies was hopeless as many were named after parents and grandparents with the result that they all began to blur in my memory.
Yet there were a few instances when the personalities of Edward’s and Leonor’s daughters came through. Mainly this was Joan as she seemed to be a firecracker of a woman, unafraid to stand up to her father’s temper. There were also signs of how much Edward genuinely appeared to love his daughters as well as that he thought highly of their abilities. Before one marriage (actually Joan’s first one) the groom was required to swear an oath that basically meant that should Edward not be survived by any sons, his daughters were – in order of birth – to inherit the kingdom (something that was by no means a done deal then) and this powerful son-in-law would support this. Edward I had a younger brother who had sons. Edward could have said, “Nope, Edmund’s gonna get the crown” but he didn’t.
I so wished that there was more detail known about these women than has been recorded or survived. They sound as if they were intelligent, strong, determined people who didn’t always cave to authority. Joan was definitely a “pedal to the floor and damn the brakes” woman. It is, however, what it is. The book is obviously well researched but at times fairly dry and after a while, reading essentially the same things over and over, along with some pointless inclusions of information about people who then played no lasting role in these women’s lives, got tiring. C