I’m not very good at blogging. You can tell because I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m so bad at it that I was actually about to write a blog on why I’m not good at blogging (future post coming soon!) when it occurred to me that I have a book out this week and if I don’t say something about it now then I might not get another opportunity.
The problem is that once I’ve finished a story, I like to move straight on to the next and then forget all about it (that way when I do finally read it again it all seems new to me too), but the main thing I remember about writing Besieged and Betrothed, besides the overwhelming chocolate truffle addiction that gripped me during editing, was the inspiration behind it – Empress Matilda.
I’ve always been fascinated by this incredible woman and Queen-we-never-had, the daughter of Henry I and grand-daughter of William the Conqueror. She was already an Empress, having been sent abroad at the age of eight to marry the German Emperor Heinrich V, but when she returned to England – widowed and childless at the age of twenty-six – she found herself heir to the English throne and a political commodity as well, married off quickly and unwillingly to Geoffrey, the teenage Count of Anjou.
This was essentially a political marriage, intended to bolster English lands in France and reinforce Matilda’s claim to the throne, but it was also a stormy one. Matilda wasn’t exactly known for her calm demeanour (Elizabeth Chadwick, who wrote the excellent ‘Lady of the English’ about her, believes that she suffered from an acute form of PMT) whilst Geoffrey had a notoriously violent temper, a trait which his Angevin descendants, the Plantagenet dynasty, famously shared.
When Henry I died in 1135, however, Matilda was in the wrong country and pregnant with the third of her three sons, leaving a power vacuum that allowed her cousin Stephen to usurp the throne. By the time she finally arrived in England to pursue her claim, his grip on the country was too strong to be broken, leading to an 18-year Civil War now referred to as The Anarchy.
The most interesting thing about this story, for me, is the fact that Stephen got away with it largely because Matilda was a woman. After her brother’s drowning in the White Ship disaster of 1121, she was the direct heir, but many of the barons were unable to countenance the idea of a woman in power, despite having sworn repeated oaths to her father. Women at the time were supposed to be modest and quietly virtuous – traits that Matilda definitely didn’t share. Contemporary accounts call her rude and arrogant whenever she acts in any way that would have been applauded in a man (in stark contrast to Stephen’s wife Maud).
Because of this, I wanted to write a story not about Matilda directly (although she does make an appearance), but about a woman in a similar position. I also wanted the siege to reflect the idea of female entrapment in the twelfth century – literal walls for metaphorical imprisonment. We often think of feminism as a modern-day phenomenon, but you could argue that women’s rights took a backwards step with the Normans (the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, after all, had several famous Queens) and that women like Matilda were early feminists arguing for equal rights.
The heroine of Besieged and Betrothed, Juliana, is also desperate to break out of the female role expected of her. She wants to be a chatelaine in her own right without having to marry, but I thought it was too simplistic to have her on Matilda’s side and my hero on Stephen’s (I also didn’t want to make him too much of a villain since he was, by Medieval standards, a well-liked and merciful King). So I’ve tried to mix things up a little without taking sides. Almost nine hundred years later, it’s impossible to choose anyway, but I like to think of this book as my tribute to all the women who’ve resisted their prescribed roles over the centuries.
And by the way, Matilda may have lost the battle (leaving her son, the future Henry II, to take over the fight in 1148) but she ultimately won the war, founding the dynasty that was to rule England for the next 300 years.