I was captivated by the tragic story of Matilda (“Maud”) of Flanders, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, told by Ellen Jones in her debut novel, The Fatal Crown. The book is the first in a trilogy about the Norman and Angevin dynasties, and the founders of the Plantagenet dynasty. The title led me to think someone had either killed Maud or attempted to kill her to prevent her from being crowned, and they very likely tried. Maud was one of the first women to encounter the glass ceiling when, following her only legitimate brother’s death, her father, King Henry I, named her as his successor.
Kings were allowed mistresses and illegitimate offspring, but queens were expected to be faithful. It was the only way to ensure the “purity” of the royal bloodline. “Royalty” is questionable, as this was a time in which crowns were often won in battle rather than inherited. The book contains a little sex, a lot of romance, and is rife with political intrigue.
Until that time, there had been no women who were queens in their own right, only queen consorts. That is, women who were crowned queen simply because they were married to a king. Although one of Maud’s granddaughters became Queen of Sicily, and another Queen of Castile, no woman would inherit the throne of England until Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was crowned, 582 years after the death of Maud’s father.
Married against her will at age 9 to the Holy Roman Emperor of Germany, a man her father’s age, Maud begged not to be sent away from home. As she was taken away to Germany, she met eyes with her cousin, Stephen of Blois. Fourteen years later, after the death of the Emperor, Maud was summoned home by her father. On seeing each other again, both Maud and the married Stephen felt the pull of attraction.
At a time when political alliances dictated royal marriages, no matter the wishes of the two people involved, the 23-year-old Maud was again forced into marriage to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. At age 15, Geoffrey was rude, arrogant, and unable to consummate the marriage. After becoming pregnant with Stephen’s child, Maud felt forced to seduce Geoffrey, and convince him the baby was his own premature child.
Unfortunately, the political situation between England, France, Flanders, Anjou, Maine, and Normandy; and the meddling of the Catholic church in political affairs forced a wedge between Maud and Stephen. Stephen’s brother, a bishop who wanted to become Archbishop of Canterbury, was instrumental in pitting the lovers against each other in seeking the crown for his brother.
Stephen eventually was crowned king, but was ineffective and a poor manager of money, almost breaking the kingdom. After the death of his son, Eustace, Maud revealed to Stephen that her son, Henry, was also his son. It was then that Stephen named Henry his successor, and Henry was crowned King Henry II. This was the Norman-Angevin dynasty.
This was also a time when people did not have surnames. Geoffrey had a love for the bright yellow flower, yellow broom or golden broom, whose botanical name was plantagenesta. From this flower he chose a surname, Plantagenet. Geoffrey’s grandson, Henry III, believed by most at the time to be his direct descendant, was the first king of the Plantagenet dynasty.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and am anxious to read more by this author. Ms. Jones admits to taking a bit of license with the calendar to fit it to her story, but the book is otherwise true to history.