Cover Image: The Two Isabellas of King John

The Two Isabellas of King John

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I am sorry but this just did not sit well with me - hence I cannot in all honesty pen my actual thoughts here..

Kudos for taking on the subject matter but I found the blurb to be incongruous with the actual content, and suffice to say, not overly impressed.

Note: this only received a one star rating because I have to put something there.
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Ms. McQuinn tackles a tough job: writing a biography about two medieval women about whom so little is written, one is nearly invisible. King John of England, brother of Richard the Lionheart, he of Magna Carta fame and fictional Robot Hood infamy, was married to two women: Isabella of Gloucester and Isabelle of Angouleme.  It is hard to tackle even well-known historical figures who lived 900 years ago, but to try to research two nearly invisible people is an enormous task, and sadly, Ms. McQuinn stumbles at it. There are only a few facts known about Isabella: she was an only child who brought a substantial wealth to Henry II, John's father, when she was his ward after her father died; she and John were engaged for more than 10 years and only married after Richard became king and insisted; John annulled their marriage just before he became king; Isabelle was actually sent to live with her for a short period; she was childless and she died. That's it--those are the facts we know about her. There is more information on Isabelle in the historical record, and even a handful of letters she wrote herself. She was anointed John's queen and bore his heir to the throne, Henry III. Unlike Isabella, Isabelle was mentioned in several contemporary chronicles, although these historical chroniclers appear to have disliked her a great deal and do not record her in a flattering manner. It's a herculean task to try to and write biographies for women about whom so little is known. Ms. McQuinn attempts to get around that by talking about how medieval noblewomen in general were educated, their general expectations from life, general information about what other medieval queens knew and did, especially their mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and interpreting what their childhoods, education, and expectations likely were. But because of the dearth of material, Ms. McQuinn begins repeating the same facts after just a couple of chapters, albeit attempting to use them to talk about different topics. We read about Isabella's childlessness and the possible reasons for it in several different chapters (her life, her marriage, life with John, medieval fertility), and sometimes the sentences are virtually identical. There is  much repetition of ideas, actions, and arguments, and no original scholarship by Ms. McQuinn. She makes statements such as "by disposition a proud woman," but then does not offer real substantive proof of that characterization. In Chapter 6, Ms. McQuinn loses the impartiality that biographers and historians must maintain to lend any credence to their work with statements such as "it is sad she had no friends," an interpretation without any merit. There is barely a mention of these woman and none about their courtiers; how can we possibly infer she had no friends? The final chapter is an interesting idea: Ms. McQuinn looks at how works of fiction have recreated the two Isabelles because she argues that these fictional representations can shed light on the historical character. No, Ms. McQuinn, they don't. Fictional characterizations are just that, fiction, and in these two instances, there is not even enough material to say that these were somewhat rooted in historical fact. I might have accepted this as first draft of a lower level college report, but I would have returned it to my student marked up with a lot of red comments and things that needed to be fixed or addressed. There is not really enough material here for a book. Heavy editing might have saved and improved parts of it, but this cannot be considered a scholarly contribution to medieval studies or women's studies. But I do now know that dozen or fewer facts about these two queens, which is all that history knows about them. This book does nothing to bring them to life.
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“While we may lack concrete evidence for many events in the lives of Isabella of Gloucester and Isabelle of Angoulême, making the best effort to understand their life and times can be a rewarding, if sometimes, frustrating experience.” 

I think this quote from the last chapter encapsulates most of my issues with this book. When I first came across it, I was surprised by how short it was. As someone who reads a lot of English history books, rarely do I find one that’s less than 500 pages. The reason for the length is that we simply don’t know that much about the two women the text focuses on. Despite this, I do think it was a unique and interesting way of approaching King John, a controversial figure in English history and the sitting monarch when the Magna Carta was signed. There are many historical figures we know little about and there is a strong history of extrapolation on such people (e.g. Cleopatra or Alfred the Great). But the length of the book and the inability to dive deep into these women’s lives proved too much of an impediment to truly appreciate what the author was trying to do. That being said, I did enjoy many parts of it and I am always happy to read books which flip the gendered narrative of history. It reminded me a lot of the book Jane Boleyn by Julia Fox.
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At first, I imagined <i>The Two Isabellas of King John</i> might be a heavyweight academic read, reserved exclusively for students of history. So, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how ‘readable’ it was for those of us who have, but a passing interest in history and whose knowledge of King John may have been restricted to Shakespeare. Although this book is quite long, it was certainly not a challenge to read, and my interest didn’t wain at all. 

Personally, I found it a fascinating insight into King John’s life and loves, that also offered a detailed exposé of his pettiness, his whims and of the callous, self-centred character I had previously assumed him to be. This really is a very enjoyable and well-researched book that throws <i>some</i> light on the two Isabellas, yet perhaps more on the power, politics and scheming, religion, superstition, prejudice, naivety/ignorance and popular culture of the medieval period. 

It’s clear that the author Kristen McQuinn went to town on her research. She has done an excellent job in highlighting just how ruthless leaders could be in their quest for power, how appalling they subsequently were at practising leadership and how women were treated with contempt in a male-oriented society. I loved the frequent descriptions of Eleanor of Aquitaine – cultured, enlightened, as power-hungry as any of her male counterparts, and a real firebrand with a biting wit that could put anyone in their place.    

My thanks to NetGalley and Pen & Sword for the e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Since there is so little information known about these two women, there really wasn't a whole lot of light shined onto their lives. It was a tough read, one that I considered not finishing many times. It was on the dry side for me, and there were just too many suppositions about what their lives may have been like to be an enjoyable read. I knew little about the two wives of King John, and after reading this, I don't really know much more.

Thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy in exchange for my honest opinion.
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I received The Two Isabellas of King John as part of a NetGalley giveaway.

King John, one of the most infamous English kings, was married twice: first to Isabella of Gloucester, then to Isabelle of Angoulême. Like most medieval women (even noble ones), little is known about either woman, particularly the former, and what is known is very much colored by the prejudices and misogyny of the time. McQuinn tries to cut through popular attitudes and reconsider them in light of the few facts we know.

I enjoyed this--the author has a gift for making the often sparse and vague medieval source material very engaging and readable. However, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that there were at least a couple genealogical errors that even I could point out. Both were towards the beginning, the one in particular I remember referred to Marie of France as Henry II's niece. In fact, he was her stepfather, being married to her mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It did call into question the accuracy the rest of the text. Additionally, I found the final chapter about modern portrayals of the two women to be a bit out of place. A promising book, but I wish the execution had been a bit better.
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This is not quite the book I was hoping for. 

Partly this is a factor of the subject matter: according to McQuinn, there's a serious lack of documentary evidence about either Isabelle of Gloucester or Isabelle of Angouleme; and what does exist in the latter case is often dreadfully prejudiced. So clearly that's a problem.

Partly, for me at least, it was the writing style. Because of that dearth of information, there's a HUGE whack of "maybe"s and "probably"s throughout. In order to make it a book at all, the first two chapters - on Childhood and Education, and The Role of Women and Queens - is a long, meandering discourse on "some of what we know about medieval women" and then occasional reference back to how this may possibly have impacted on either or both of the Isabelles. This vagueness really irked me. For me personally, it was also boring: in part because I already knew most of it (which I know isn't the case with every reader... but also, are your general reader going to pick up a book about John's wives? He's one of the least interesting of the English kings, surely). 

Then there were phrases like "Romantic fantasies of teenage girls cannot truly have changed much over time" (p23) when part of of the book has been addressing both how we can't know exact details of their education, and also how noble girls were brought up to expect political marriages so... you can't have it both ways. I'm also going to say that claiming anything about your expectations of marriage as "entirely natural" is a problem. And "assuming that teenagers across time periods are at least a little bit similar" (p116) is just a big nope from me. 

The sections where there's actual evidence about the two women were quite interesting, and McQuinn compared different perspectives in useful ways. I was particularly intrigued to learn that when the second Isabelle was quite young and early in her marriage to John, she was placed in the care of the first Isabelle - that is,  the new wife is in the care of the previous wife. Which would just have been weird. Perhaps less so than you might expect for the women, though, given that there's a large age difference and that neither of them actually picked John. 

I'll admit that I ignored the final chapter on literary representations of the two women.
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Finally! A marvellous look at two forgotten English queens and an interesting account of King John's marital life. 
Isabella of Gloucester was his first wife, a union that remained childless after it was annulled early on for reasons of consanguinity. 
Not too much is known about this English bride but the author manages  with brio to open a small window into her life. 
Isabelle of Angoulême is my favorite and her union to John owes a lot to the very complex geopolitical issues prevalent at the time on the continent and  the difficult management of the vast Plantagenets Empire. 
Isabelle deserves today her full biography. As resilient and strong minded as her formidable mother in law, Alienor of Aquitaine, Isabelle was married twice and gave birth to 14 children who managed to reach adulthood. No small feat at the beginning of the 13th century! She was also the matriarch of the clan of the Lusignans whose subsequent move to England will prove to be a godsend for their half brother Henry III when it came later to destroy the Montforts' unquenchable quest to grab the crown.
Kristen McQuinn gives us delightful dual portrait of 2 medieval consorts during a troublesome period of English history. Highly recommended to anyone interested in Medieval history, women conditions and their history during the Middle Ages and the place of royalty in English and French societies at the time.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Pen&Sword for giving me the opportunity to read this terrific ARC prior to its release date
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An interesting read about medieval life and king John’s reign. Sometimes history books can be a bit dense, but this book was well written. And for a non-native speaker as myself easy to read. The title is a bit misleading. The two Isabelles are not as you would expect the main characters. The first half of the book is more about medieval life and the second about king John. Because the information about the two Isabellas is (understandably) scarce so the writer uses a lot of could have, would have, very likely when she mentions them and that gets a bit annoying after a while.
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understand that there's a lack of information about both Isabella of Gloucester and Isabella of Angoueleme in historical records and I admire how the author has tried to work past that. However, the constant wonderings on certain topics grew tiring after a while. With the lack of information, whole chapters revolved around other things that may have related to the two wives, but also may have not. Still, I did ended up learning a lot from this book about medieval life and about King John's family and I clearly see that this is very well researched. Would definitely be interested to read more about the author's work.
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