An exhilarating, accessible chronicle of the ruling families of France and England, showing how two dynasties formed one extraordinary story
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a time of personal monarchy, when the close friendship or petty feuding between kings and queens could determine the course of history. The Capetians of France and the Angevins of England waged war, made peace, and intermarried. The lands under the control of the English king once reached to within a few miles of Paris, and those ruled by the French house, at their apogee, crossed the Channel and encompassed London itself.
In this lively, engaging history, Catherine Hanley traces the great clashes, and occasional friendships, of the two dynasties. Along the way, she emphasizes the fascinating and influential women of the houses—including Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castille—and shows how personalities and familial bonds shaped the fate of two countries. This is a tale of two intertwined dynasties that shaped the present and the future of England and France, told through the stories of the people involved.
Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic Advance Uncorrected Proof of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.
As a child growing up in the United Kingdom, I was taught that William of Normandy (or “The Conqueror” or other derogatory describer) became England’s ruler in 1066 and heads the list of that country’s rulers. This was after he won the Battle of Hastings, which didn’t actually take place at Hastings but at a location several miles north. We came to associate Normandy as just a region of France, just as one might say Yorkshire is a region of England. What we forget is that Normandy was far more than that. It was a powerful location in its own right, part of a loose collection of feudal municipalities. Two Houses, Two Kingdoms is not only about the rivalry between two families in different parts of France; it is also about the creation of the centralized France we know today.
As other reviewers have stated, this is an “accessible chronicle” for all, despite it being almost 500 pages. I found it remarkably easy to read, with one exception which is not the fault of the author. I often state one way we can know the truth of a tale is by the number of repetitive names. (A fiction author will often go to great lengths to ensure their characters have unique names.) There’s a massive list of names at the start of the book. Some are distinctive, such as “Louis the Fat.” But thanks to naming traditions we end up with many people, in both England and France, with the same name or similar (Henry and Henri, for example). As Hanley points out, every king of France from 1060 to 1316 was either a Louis or a Philip. Women aren’t exempt from this confusion either. Henry I had four daughters, all named Matilda. Another dignitary gave each of his four daughters the first name of Mary.
Daughters seemed to have suffered the most in two hundred years of rivalry and upheaval. Often seen as little more than pawns in their fathers’ machinations, they were often betrothed to men much older than themselves as soon as they could crawl. Not all got to marry the man to whom they’d been betrothed at that time. Often the man died, or her father switched allegiances. We read the sad tale of Alys, daughter of Louis VII, who was sent to England at the age of eight as part of a contract that would see her married to Richard I. She was 30, and they were still officially engaged when he married someone else. Hanley repeatedly observes that we have little information about how the women felt regarding their positions and it’s due to their relative unimportance in the world back then. Their thoughts simply didn’t matter in a patriarchal society.
Two Houses, Two Kingdoms is a fascinating albeit a very detailed look at the two most important families of England and France, as well as their allies and enemies. These were people who lived full lives, and the author notes early on that the book only focuses on the dealings each family had with the other. I’ll add that although the first 70 per cent of the book is narrative, it also includes notes for each chapter with references to material on connected subjects. You’ll also find additional information and author opinions regarding some of the events described within the main text. Lastly, there are lists of primary and secondary sources, encyclopedias, and online sources, as well as an extensive index.
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: 09 August 2022
Catherine Hanley is a writer and researcher specializing in the Middle Ages. She is the author of Matilda, Louis, and War and Combat 1150–1270, and is a contributor to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology.