Kelcey Wilson-Lee, who has a doctorate in medieval history from Royal Holloway and works in the development office at Cambridge University overseeing regional philanthropy, has an underlying agenda. But she also has the academic chops to execute it carefully, brushing off apocrypha and relying on contemporary records: wardrobe accounts, psalters, letters and seals. She imagines the experiences of the sisters who are the subject of Daughters of Chivalry with empathy and patience,as they jolt through endless wet horseback journeys while pregnant or recline on cushions in coaches, and ably manages to coax the few sparks of evidence into flames of personality.
Wilson-Lee is a diligent historian, a dogged researcher and an engaging writer. Unfortunately, she’s rather like a lawyer with a bad brief. She tries to make the story of these five sisters into a heroic one of womanly defiance when she would have been better off using it to demonstrate just how powerless women were in 13th-century England. There’s nothing wrong with being a victim at a time when sexual oppression was profound.
The intertwined lives of these five women are related in full, from birth to death. And what lives they were, covering almost the entire range of experiences that the daughters of a king might expect: packed into the pages are tales of early bereavement, childhood betrothal, rebellion against parental authority, marriage, religion, motherhood, widowhood, war, danger, regency, illicit liaison and political influence.
There are a few minor irritations for the reader. There are probably a few too many descriptions of lavish tournaments, fine gowns and jewels, and quantities of foodstuffs. Some of the claims that the contents of the book stand in complete contrast to what has gone before are certainly overblown... The danger with this sort of book is that the main subjects might blend into one another to become an indistinguishable mass of royal daughters, but Wilson-Lee proves adept at portraying them as individuals... Daughters of Chivalry does not, perhaps, offer much that is new to the specialist, but that is not the point. What the book sets out to do is to bring the stories of these five forgotten sisters to a new audience, and in this it succeeds admirably and engagingly.