Book Review: “Golden Age Ladies” by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Golden Age ladies book cover

The subtitle of this book is “Women Who Shaped the Courts of Henry VIII and Francis I”. Since I’m interested in women and Tudor and French history, I had to read it! England and France have a significantly entwined history. The book doesn’t disappoint as it has a panoply of women, explaining how their stories are all interrelated.

All the important women of these two courts make an appearance. Soberton gives us a list of characters for France and England along with genealogical tables. Interestingly, she starts out with Louise of Savoy, mother of King Francis I who learned statecraft from the formidable Anne de Beaujeu. Now here is a woman who witnessed so much history. The devoted mother of King Francis and his sister Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, Louise virtually ran the government of France while her son whiled away his time pursuing pleasures such as the hunt, women and warfare. Louise’s shining moment came when the Ladies Peace of Cambrai was negotiated in 1529 between her and her sister-in-law Margaret of Savoy, Regent of the Netherlands. The two women single-handedly brokered peace between France and the Habsburg Empire and Louise secured the release of her grandsons who had been held hostage. A marriage between King Francis and the Holy Roman Emperor’s sister Eleanor was part of the Ladies Peace. Her sad story is also included here.

Along with Louise and her daughter, we meet Queen Anne of Brittany and Claude de Valois and her many daughters, some of whom died and some who became Queen’s themselves, such as Madeleine de Valois. Interwoven with the lives of these French women are those from the court of King Henry VIII of England. Henry’s sister Mary married King Louis XII of France. Although she was queen for a few months, she went on to make a love match with her brother’s best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Soberton gives us a description of the grand summit of The Field of the Cloth of Gold where Queen Catherine of Aragon met Queen Claude. Of course Anne Boleyn plays a significant role in the book as she spent time with Margaret of Savoy at her court in Mechelen and also worked as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Claude. In fact, Soberton gives us an economical description of all of Henry’s wives.

Soberton gives us many descriptions and small glimpses of personal moments in these women’s lives. This is what I liked best about the book. She has obviously done her research. There are photographs and a nice select bibliography if you are interested in more information. I found this book fun to read and enjoyed all the interconnecting stories. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “The Cambridge Illustrated History of France” by Colin Jones

illustrated history of France book cover

Based on the recommendation of a friend, I found a used copy of this book and ordered it. In my quest to read as much French history as possible before my trip to France, I had read “La Belle France”, another overall survey and wondered if this book would cover the same ground. I was pleased this author takes an entirely different course.

Jones writes more from a social history standpoint in this book. I very much enjoyed the chapters on France before the Romans and Roman Gaul. His chapters on the Franks and the Middle Ages cover a lot more ground than the other histories I’ve read so far. The later chapters covering the Revolution, Enlightenment, World Wars I and II and modern times have less detail but are still erudite and interesting. Occasionally Jones gets a little technical and wandering when discussing certain political situations. One thing I admire in his writing is his attention to the status of women in France throughout the ages.

I can’t say enough about the illustrations. This is what the Cambridge Illustrated Histories are known for. There are numerous maps illustrating different elements of France and its history. The maps clarify countless aspects such as where French dialects were spoken, delineating where Roman law and customary law were practiced, gene pools, agricultural and urban areas, different political boundaries, kingdoms and regions of France, where barbarian tribes invaded, etc.

There are photos of art and architecture, illuminated manuscripts, engravings, paintings, drawings and photographs of key points in French history, all with excellent, well written captions. In every chapter there are also insets with more details about select people and events. Some examples are on Blanche of Castile, the troubadours, the court of the Dukes of Burgundy and so on. All of these images really enhance the text. This is another well-written, informative history of France and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Paris: The Secret History” by Andrew Hussey

Paris the Secret History book cover

This title really intrigued me. Paris is a magnetic city just in its own right. To imagine there was a secret history was too tempting to pass up. In my ongoing effort to refresh my French history knowledge before my trip to France, I began reading.

Hussey mentions in the introduction his intention in writing this book is to emulate the work of Peter Ackroyd’s “London: A Biography”. Ackroyd’s book is splendid so this was a good sign. The first chapter covers Prehistory to the year 987 AD. I found this section most interesting. Paris was started basically on the small, swampy islands in the Seine. He talks about how the city, then known as Lutetia, was inhabited by the Franks and the Romans. The Romans built a wall around the city and it became a trading center. Next, in this chapter and in every one after, Hussey gives small tidbits of history that might not be as well known by the average reader, the so-called secrets of the city. One of the highlights in this first chapter is the death by beheading of St. Denis on Montmartre, making the name of the hill self-explanatory.

In the medieval section, Hussey give us a colorful array of characters, talking about the ordinary people. Sections include, lovers and scholars, students and streetfighters, poets, saints and thieves. In fact, the entire book is filled with details about average everyday people down to the present day. The history of Paris is filled with robbers, gypsies, drunkards, beggars as well as the nobility, merchants and the bourgeoisie. There’s a lot of information on artists, writers, poets and students and how they shaped the politics of the city over the millennia. If social history is your cup of tea, you will enjoy this aspect of the book.

Hussey obviously knows and loves the city well. He gives us details about many of the neighborhoods, even down to who and what kind of people lived on certain streets. The book has many drawings, maps and photos showing us the boundaries of the city over the years. One of the first things that struck me as I began reading this book is that it is really well written. Everything he writes is very clear with no grammatical or typographical errors. It was just a joy to read. If you are interested in French history and Paris in particular, I can heartily recommend this book.

Book Review: “La Belle France: A Short History” by Alistair Horne

La Belle France book cover

In my quest to read as much French history as possible before my trip later this summer, I picked up this book with the express purpose of having an overview. I wasn’t disappointed. The book starts with the invasion and conquest of Julius Caesar and ends with the presidency of Francois Mitterrand.

The book was published in 2004 and written by a British historian who specializes in early modern French history. He has written books on topics ranging from the age of Napoleon to the war in Algeria in the 1960’s. “La Belle France” is a sweeping narrative where Horne gives an overall view of the history along with a special look at particular details which I assume he finds to be of noteworthy interest. The early chapters are a little dismissive. He doesn’t tell us a lot about the Franks and the chapters on medieval history are sparse on detail. By the time of the Renaissance he gets into full swing.

I was a little disappointed in Horne’s attitude toward women in this book. He calls Eleanor of Aquitaine “oversexed” and refers to Marie de ’Medici as fat, blond and stupid. However, a little later he does give some examples of important women in French history so I’m not really sure where he is coming from in regards to this topic.

I really enjoyed the sections on King Henri IV and his extended siege of Paris, Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII, the age of Napoleon, the reign of Napoleon III and the First World War. Horne’s writing really shines here. He also has insightful comments in the section on WWII with the occupation of France by the Nazis and Vichy France, the collaborators and the Resistance and also on the modern era under the presidents Pompidou and Mitterrand.

Nothing really is black and white about French history and this book illustrates that very well. Other than the comments on women, Horne is really balanced in his approach to the subject and well versed on the sections where he has expertise. I sought a review of two thousand years of French history and this book delivered. I recommend it.

Book Review: “Before France and Germany: The Creation & Transformation of the Merovingian World” by Patrick J. Geary

before france and germany book cover

In anticipation of a trip to France, I’ve been on a mission to read as many of the books in my library as I can related to French history. Starting with the earliest in the timeline is this book on the Merovingian era of France. My personal knowledge of this time period is spotty so I was very interested in what this book had to say.

I was not disappointed. Geary starts by outlining some basic information on the Roman Empire and how it affected France and western Germany. He talks about the many “barbarian tribes” and their movements within the empire and just outside it. Caesar conquers Gaul and begins to incorporate the Roman style of government. Then various tribes settle in the same area. Geary explains how some tribes maintained the Roman way of governing and some didn’t.

Eventually a confederation of tribes commingled and become the Franks. The Franks have their own style of governing along with adopting some elements of Roman government. This is the birth of Merovingian Empire. He then recounts the reigns of some of the Merovingian kings such as Clovis, Chlothar II and Dagobert I. In addition to the kings and their government, Geary relates the history of the church in France which is most fascinating. The beginnings of Christianity started with the missions of Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks. The Merovingian kings and other nobles started the building of monasteries in France, the most recognizable being Saint-Denis where the French kings are buried.

This book details the fifth to the eighth centuries and recounts the start of the Merovingian government down through its demise, giving the reasons for its fall and the final chapter summarizes the legacy of Merovingian Europe. I found this book to be very revealing about this era and enjoyed it very much. I recommend it.

Book Review: “The Great Regent: Louise of Savoy, 1476-1531” by Dorothy Moulton Mayer

The Great Regent book cover

The difficult thing about researching and writing about French history can sometimes be finding sources when you don’t read the language. Completely by chance, I found this biography of Louise of Savoy in English and was thrilled. This book was written in 1966 and published by Funk and Wagnalls. The author herself has an interesting story.

Dorothy Moulton Mayer was an accomplished English singer. She married a German born philanthropist, Robert Mayer who was one of the founders of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. From the 1950’s on, Dorothy wrote several biographies including on Queen Marie Antoinette, painter Angelica Kaufman, violinist and composer Louis Spohr and this one on Louise of Savoy. I really have to admire her determination in writing these biographies.

Louise of Savoy was the mother of King François I of France. This in and of itself is not remarkable. What is significant is the fact that François trusted and relied on his mother so much that she basically ruled France from the time he took the throne in 1515 until her death in 1531. This served two purposes. François could continue to pursue his passions and pleasures such as hunting, conquering Italy and women. And secondly, Louise did an outstanding job when she was in charge of the government.

This can particularly be seen when François and his troops lost the Battle of Pavia in 1525 to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during the Italian Wars. François was taken prisoner and kept incarcerated in Spain until March of 1526. Louise was completely in charge in France and worked diligently to release the King. The Treaty of Madrid was brokered and François was released. However, in return he had to give up his two sons as hostages to Charles. Thereafter, Louise had to work even harder to get her grandsons released. She brokered the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529 along with her sister-in-law, Margaret of Austria who was acting on behalf of her nephew Charles V. This was called the Ladies Peace and Mayer gives a detailed description of the proceedings which is fascinating.

I really loved this book. Mayer’s writing is fluid and comprehensive. She gives lots of detail about the life of this remarkable lady including her upbringing under Anne de Beaujeu where she learned her craft and tidbits about her health. Her descriptions of her accomplishments are fair and balanced. Mayer talks about how historians have denigrated Louise’s actions and reputation. Mayer gives her own interpretations.

The book has a comprehensive bibliography of primary sources and there are some outstanding photos of contemporary art depicting Louise. And in the end there is a fascinating appendix. Mayer sent Louise’s handwritten letter to the Emperor Charles V after her beloved son King François was taken prisoner to a handwriting expert. She includes the expert’s interpretation of the writer’s personality. I think you will find the essence of Louise’s character it what he has written. Louise is a lady to admire and I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: “French Musketeer 1622-1775” by René Chartrand

French Musketeers book cover

Who doesn’t love the Musketeers? Ever since the French writer Alexandre Dumas, père wrote his series of historical novels in the 19th Century, people have followed the adventures of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis and their intrepid valets in books and movies. But were these men just characters in a book or did they really exist? Did the Musketeers really duel and fight amongst themselves? Did they actually fight in wars? And what were their uniforms really like? What sort of equipment was issued to them?

This book from Osprey Publishing answers this and many more questions. Chartrand gives an overall history of the various units of the Musketeers. They fought on horseback and on foot in numerous wars as well as fulfilling their duty as bodyguards for the King. The chief ministers of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin had their own companies of Musketeers. Chartrand says there were many instances of duels being fought between the Kings’ and the Cardinals’ Musketeers. So the duel scenes in the stories have a basis in fact.

There is a chapter in the book regarding the fighting of the Musketeers in sieges, battles and wars. They also performed secret missions for the king. The book is filled with colorful illustrations by Graham Turner as well as copies of various prints and paintings depicting Musketeers from the different eras of their existence. A great deal of the book explains the costume and the equipment of the soldiers and how it changed over time. Also included are a chronology, a list of ranks, a glossary of terms and a bibliography.

The information I found most interesting is the historical basis for the characters in Dumas’ novels. Dumas found a copy of a book which was the basis for all of his stories. It was published in 1700 and called “Memoirs of Mr. D’Artagnan, Captain-Lieutenant of the First Company of the King’s Musketeers, concerning a quantity of private and secret events that occurred during the reign of Louis the Great”, written by Gatien de Courtiz de Sandras. Sandras had been a King’s Musketeer for eighteen years. Chartrand explains that Dumas’ characters of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are actually based on real men who served in some form or another as Musketeers or soldiers in other units. Sandras may have met the “real” D’Artagnan at some point so his memoirs possibly contain some actual facts of his life. Of course Dumas used artistic license and fictionalized many aspects of their lives.

I distinctly remember seeing the movie version of “The Three Musketeers” from 1973. My college library had a fabulous collection of most of Dumas’ work in old volumes that had been bound in new covers. I read every book I could get my hands on, devouring them. Not only are they entertaining reading but they give the basic outline of French history during the Renaissance and early modern period. So reading this book was a lot of fun and brought back good memories and I enjoyed the illustrations.