Book Review: Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

Book Review: Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

Originally posted January 11, 2019

The momentous events of 1066, the story of invasion, battle and conquest, are well known. But what of the women?

Harold II of England had been with Edith Swanneck for twenty years but in 1066, in order to strengthen his hold on the throne, he married Ealdgyth, sister of two earls. William of Normandy’s Duchess, Matilda of Flanders, had supposedly only agreed to marry the Duke after he’d pulled her pigtails and thrown her in the mud. Harald Hardrada had two wives – apparently at the same time. So, who were these women? What was their real story? And what happened to them after 1066?

I was first introduced to the history of pre-Norman England through the fiction of Bernard Cornwell and his Saxon Stories series of novels. Very quickly I discovered other fantastic series set in post-Roman through Anglo-Saxon times. All of this has really only been within the last decade or so. Previously I hadn’t really been aware that there was much history before the Normans showed up at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

How ignorant I was! There is a richness of culture and history, and the resources available to writers who write in this period is also rich. The most famous of these sources, and the backbone upon which rests the most classic writing, is the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals from late in the 9th century. It probably originated in Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great. But chronicles like this and others like it only tell so much history. There are big gaps in the history this chronicle gives us, and perhaps the biggest gap is the history of the women of this period.

Enter Sharon Bennett Connolly who started writing about these women as a hobby.  “My husband gave me a blog for Christmas 2014, History…the Interesting Bits and I started writing articles about those bits of history I find really fascinating. I discovered that my posts about women in history were more successful, and so started focusing on their stories. I realised that all these women, whose stories just seemed to be bylines in the stories their fathers, husbands and sons, were just as fascinating – if not more so – as the stories of their menfolk.”

The essence of Sharon’s book explains the times, places, and events of the lives of the women living around the time of the Norman Conquest of England. It is not really a
narration but rather an enumeration. That being said, the strength of the book is in the repeated cross-referencing of the same people and events, examining the history from different geographic locations and perspectives. Each woman has a different story to tell, and each has a different viewpoint and motivation based on culture, politics, and family ties.

Other reviewers have observed that the book tends toward the repetitive (as I mentioned above), but honestly I found this compelling because the reader gains a richer and more developed understanding of the events swirling in the world at a given time. Each chapter is nuanced toward a different woman, but we see the same events from her perspective, making it easier to place her significance on the world stage more easily. And while Connolly didn’t discover any new source of research for her book necessarily, her work presents some interesting new scholarship because of the approach she takes in the book. Each chapter builds upon the previous, and by the end, a very complex picture has been created which might have been done had the book focuses only on one individual.

I believe this book is and should be an absolutely necessary reference for anyone interested in the period as well as for authors writing within this time period. Connolly has really filled a niche, and I think her books will continue to be an indispensible resource for years to come.

You can purchase Silk and the Sword here.

About Sharon Bennett Connolly

Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle.

Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London.

She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.

For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her her very own blog – History … the Interesting Bits (historytheinterestingbits.com), allowing her to indulge in that love of history. Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September
2017.
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