I am absolutely delighted to be part of Sharon Bennett Connolly’s amazing blog tour for a superb book of non-fiction The Ladies of the Magna Carta. I interviewed her and you must read her answers which follow my review of Sharon’s book.
I loved this book. Here is why.
Ladies of the Magna Carta is an exceptionally accomplished work, so readable and gripping, it was unputdownable, a great accolade for a work of Historical Non-Fiction. Why was it so gripping? Firstly, it links the lives of a number of well-connected twelfth and thirteenth century women to the Magna Carta of 1215. The Charter of Liberties as the Magna Carta was then known was intended to be a peace treaty between rebellious barons and King John. That the Magna Carta was subsequently broken by the King, an armed rebellion led to certain barons offering the English throne to a French prince who occupied parts of England and, in addition, had taken Normandy into French control earlier. The Charter reflects the needs and events of those times and as Sharon Bennett Connolly states in her excellent introduction only one clause specifically used the word ‘femina’. Most clauses did refer to people in general. She argues convincingly that women had significance in the Magna Carta story ‘not just because of their limited inclusion in the charter itself but also in their experiences of the unsettled times in which they lived, in their influence on the charter and in their use of its clauses to extract recompense for injustices they have experienced.’ And they certainly experienced injustice.
Secondly, I was entranced by the women’s stories. Not all women whose stories are related here were successful in using the Magna Carta to safeguard any rights and freedoms. The importance of this book is how Connolly tells these often lost and forgotten lives and explains why this is so. Some of the personalities are well known to History, Nicholaa de La Haye, Maud Braose and Mahelt Marshall are familiar. However, others are not. We are introduced to them within the context of their twelfth and thirteenth century families such as the Warennes, Braoses and the Marshals. Many lesser known noble women struggled to assert their marriage rights, land rights, and their freedom from wardship with huge difficulty. I was particularly drawn to the two princesses of Scotland given over to King John by their father, William the Lion, and how they were kept as hostages from 1209 until their marriages later with suitable English earls. Connolly explores what happens to various heiresses when their husbands died and the widows are remarried by relatives to forge alliances and/or provide lands to powerful suitors. The commoditization of women was rife, despite rights they should have enjoyed as widows. Another fascinating story is that of Isabella of Gloucester set aside by King John, a story that illustrates the laws of consanguinity and how they could be used for political purpose, and, in this case, male power over women.
These women, and there are many fabulous stories here, were pawns. Some were courageous such as Nicholaa de la Haye who held her castle when it was besieged, others were patient in life-time captivity such as Eleanor, the Pearl of Brittany, a few such as Eleanor, King John’s youngest daughter romantically did marry for love, and many found intriguing ways around situations, managing their lives, fighting their corners against all odds. Others, like Isabella of Angouleme, had to be very clever to safeguard new freedom after her husband, King John, died. It’s a scholarly book, thoroughly researched, detailed, beautifully written, empathetic, and accessible. If you read no other nonfiction this summer, read this one. Highly recommended.
Now, please meet Sharon whom I consider an excellent writer and Historian.
I asked her a few questions and love her responses.
What inspired your interest in becoming an Historian?
I have loved history for as long as I can remember. I have always loved the stories and characters of history. When I was 9 I got a copy of Joyce Marlow’s Kings and Queens of Britain for Christmas – it is still one of my most treasured possession, though it is rather battered these days. I would spend hours, flicking from one king to another, trying to learn all their stories. I think that’s what started me on my insatiable need to research!
When I was at university, I did a Combined Studies degree, Law, Business Administration and History, I was only supposed to study History for 2 years, but when it came to the time to give it up, I realised I couldn’t. So, I dropped Law instead and I have never regretted it. After graduating university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I volunteered at my local castle, Conisbrough Castle, giving guided tours to school groups. I loved telling the children about the castle’s inhabitants and what life was like 800 years ago, even the gruesome bits. I love the way the children absorbed the stories. And I love to tell these stories
Are the any Historical books that especially grabbed your interest when a teenager or at Uni?
My parents had the Life and Times books of the King and Queens of England series, edited by Antonia Fraser. They are a fabulous collection – I read and devoured every one, time and again. When I left home, they found their way into my packing boxes – I’m not sure mum and dad even know I have them! They are very old now – the copies I have were published in 1984, but I still use them for my research. They are great as an overview of particular monarchs.
At university I was fascinated by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. I even did my dissertation on the British soldiers in the Peninsular War, titled, For King, Country and Glory. I loved reading the memoirs of the British soldiers, such as The Recollections of Rifleman Harris and Robert Blakeney’s A Boy in the Peninsular War. I was intrigued as to how these men could go into battle time after time, knowing that death was a possibility, as were horrendous injuries. It was a privilege to read the memoirs of men who were actually there!
Do you enjoy reading fiction? Have you a favourite novel?
I love reading fiction, I find it a great escape. My all-time favourite book is The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I have the French and English editions, and I actually prefer to read it in French, which I know sounds a little pretentious, but something does get lost in translation and the original French version has a humour in it that does not translate into the English. I also loved Bernard Cornwell, I have been reading his books since I was about 13, when I read a Readers Digest condensed version of Sharpe’s Gold. I was hooked and spent hours at the library, getting my hands on the entire Sharpe series, in order. Nowadays, I have my own copies of all his books, and my son has just started his own collection. Luckily, Bernard Cornwell publishes a book every October, just in time for my birthday.
Do you have a favourite lady from the Magna Carta Ladies collection? And why?
My favourite historical lady of all time is in Ladies of Magna Carta, and that’s Nicholaa de la Haye. She must have been a formidable woman, successfully defending Lincoln Castle in no less than 3 sieges in 1191, 1216 and 1217. In the last siege, she was a widow in her 60s and held the castle for 6 weeks, until it was relieved by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for Henry III, after the Second battle of Lincoln. She was also the first woman to ever be appointed sheriff in England; an appointment made by King John just hours before his death. When she was relieved of her posts as castellan and sheriff, just 4 days after the Battle of Lincoln, Nicholaa personally attended court to protest her treatment. She got her castle back!
What is your writing day like? Do you have particular rhythms or habits for it?
I have to get any housework or shopping out of the day before I start writing – if I know I have things to do, I cannot concentrate on writing. Luckily, my son is in secondary school and is out of the house at 7.40 in a morning; so, I’m always up early. Once I have sent him off to the school bus, I have breakfast, go a walk, get my chores done and then sit down to write. I will write, or research, until he gets home at 4.30.
When I am writing or researching, I have to have music or the radio on in the background – something that can just be white noise. I cannot write in silence, for some reason. And when I am writing a book, I have to have the majority of the research done before I start writing. Most people, it seems, research a chapter and then write it up, but I have to research the entire book before I can start writing. Although I know what I am going to write about, I don’t generally know how the book will be laid out until I have done all the research. As a result, when I am writing a book, I tend to do 9 months of solid research, followed by 3 months of intense writing.
Have you a couple of tips for any inspiring writers of Historical non-fiction?
Research as much as you can, and make sure you reference everything as you go along – it is very hard to find things further down the line, if you don’t have the book and page number where you found the information.
Don’t be afraid to start writing – it is the hardest thing, but it has to be done, and you can always change the words later. I speak to many people who are writing a book but are still in research mode after several years. You have to accept that you are not going to find every piece of information on your subject, but so long as you have the various viewpoints, and enough information to write 100,000 words, you have enough to start the book. To be honest, you do not stop researching, even after you have sent the book to your editor – and you will have the opportunity to add extra bits in when you get the copy edits back.
Oh, and build your index as you go along. I really wish someone had told me that when I was writing my first book. Most publishers expect authors to produce their own indexes, and they can be a pain to do, but if you do it as you’re writing – -just writing the people, places and events you want in an index in a separate document – it is easier to do when it comes to building your index and then you just have to find the page numbers when your publisher asks for an index..
If you had an afternoon tea with four Historical ladies who would you invite?
Only 4? That is tough one!
The first would have to be Nicholaa de la Haye, though I think I would be slightly scared of her. I would love to hear of her experiences, as a woman in the time of Magna Carta and in charge of her own castle. I would also like to know why she stayed loyal to King John when everyone else deserted him.
Matilda de Braose, a strong, feisty woman who defied King John but died of starvation in his dungeons. She stood up for herself and her family, and I would love to hear what she thought of King John, though I can guess!
Another would be Joan, Lady of Wales, illegitimate daughter of King John and wife of Llywelyn the Great, so I could find out what exactly went on between her and William de Braose – the grandson of Matilda de Braose.
And the last would be Eleanor of England, youngest daughter of King John and wife of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. It was Eleanor and Simon who led the baronial revolt during the reign of Eleanor’s brother, Henry III, as the next step in the Magna carta story. I would love to know what she thought of the times she lived in, and whether she regrets how she and Simon set themselves up against the king, given the terrible price they paid.
Do you spend much time on marketing? Top suggestion for visibility of books? What works best?
My publisher does most of it, but I do spend some time on marketing, yes, I sometimes share the Amazon links to my books on Facebook and Twitter. I try to get my name out there, get myself known as a historian and author. I also regularly share articles from my blog that are related to my books. I don’t get as much time to write for the blog these days, but I have a library of articles that I can share and try to write at least one new article a month.
I do public talks where and when I can, which hasn’t been easy during Coronavirus, though I managed to present a Zoom talk for Selby Library, which turned into the book launch for Ladies of Magna Carta, seeing as I couldn’t do a physical launch. I also presented a pre-recorded YouTube talk for the Doncaster Heritage Festival, which was a great experience. I have a couple of talks booked in Lincoln in September and October, one about Ladies of Magna Carta for Lindum books, who have always supported me, and one specifically on Nicholaa de la Haye for the Lincoln Civic Trust – so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they will go ahead.
Mostly, though, I talk with people, on Twitter and Facebook, and engage with readers whenever I can. History is my passion, so I am always happy to talk with anyone who will listen!
Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘