Hanley is far too experienced a reader of the medieval archive to suggest that she has somehow been able to tease out the “real” Matilda who lies hidden behind the fiercely partisan yet oddly smooth utterances of the chroniclers, for whom everyone is either very good or very bad, with little in between. All the same, within these tight constraints, she does a fine job of making the case for Matilda as a far more autonomous figure than historians have previously suggested. Laying aside the fairytale elements of the snowy escape from Oxford Castle, Hanley makes us see what a bold move it was for Matilda to claim the crown for herself. It would have been easier by far to insist on ruling as regent until baby Henry was old enough to succeed to his grandfather’s throne. But her conviction that she alone was the rightful “king” of England suggests a steeliness of purpose and self-belief that cannot be entirely contained by the flat, affectless language of the chroniclers, who insist on portraying her either as the patriotic saviour of her country or else as a pushy old dragon who should have been dispatched to a nunnery years ago.
Biographies of any premodern subject represent an evidential challenge that increases the further back in time one goes. In the case of Matilda, there are very few letters and no likenesses or detailed personal descriptions. Both chronology and character have to be inferred from the dry administrative record of grants and charters, and the often lapidary entries in partial (in both senses of the term) monastic chronicles. A certain amount of ‘must have been feeling’ is forgivable, and indeed necessary, if the result is to be readably persuasive. Cadfael notwithstanding, the imagination is as much an important historical tool as it is a dangerous temptation to anachronism. Catherine Hanley has written, in the best sense, an imaginative biography of a remarkable medieval woman.
This is all dramatic stuff, told with great vim by Hanley... This is excellent and reliable popular history, confidently relating the dramatic, compelling tale of a remarkable woman in remarkable times, even if her role as a ‘warrior’ was perforce limited. It is a shame that there are no endnotes, as one would normally expect from Yale, but this volume is designed for a wide readership and deserves to find one.