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: “Juana the Mad: Sovereignty & Dynasty in Renaissance Europe” by Bethany Aram

Juana the mad book cover

Earlier this year I read two biographies of Isabella of Castile by Liss and Downey. Liss doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Isabella’s children but Downey has a great chapter on her progeny, especially Juana. So the debate about Juana is whether she was insane or not and Downey writes quite a bit about Juana’s abominable treatment by her father and husband, basically saying Juana was not mad. I was intrigued and looked at the notes and bibliography section and found Downey referenced this book. So I purchased a copy.

Bethany Aram is a professor of Spanish and European history at the Institute of International Studies, Seville, Spain. This book is one in a series of the Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science. Aram spent many years in archival research and draws upon recent scholarship. Aram gives us a biography of Juana’s life along with a study in royal authority in the Renaissance.

Aram puts Juana’s life entirely in perspective for the times. The first section of the book explains several aspects of royal authority in Renaissance Europe. The sovereigns’ household was a microcosm of the government of the country. In this respect, Juana never had control of her own household. It was first controlled by her mother, then her husband, followed by her father and finally her son. Secondly, the sovereign was viewed as having two bodies: their personal bodies and their monarchical body. Juana was held as a virtual captive which didn’t allow her to bodily rule. Thirdly, a sovereign ruled by alternating fear and love. Aram gives a complete explanation of these concepts and how they applied to Juana’s situation.

Aram quotes all primary sources. Throughout the rest of the book, she weaves conventional biographical information along with putting Juana’s life into the context of the times. Juana was third in line for the throne and was not prepared to take the reins of government. When the time came, she was either unwilling or unable to take control. The political situation in Spain was not stable and would have taken a strong monarch to rule.

Aram gives us a jaw-dropping picture of Juana’s treatment by those who wished to control her and rule in her place. The descriptions of her life in Burgundy, her treatment by her husband Philip, her captivity in Tordesillas, Spain by her father and later her son are amazing to read. She had no say in who worked in her household her entire life. Philip was the epitome of the abusive husband, not allowing her enough money to even eat sometimes, let alone run her household.

Under the domination of her father after Philip died, she was a prisoner with no outlet. Some officials tried to get her to sign away her rights as queen but she always found an excuse not to sign. She complained loudly about those who had control of her household and greatly mistreated her. Aram gives an impressive explanation of why Juana held on to the body of Philip. She wanted to bury him in the family mausoleum of Granada for dynastic reasons and for political motivations, her father didn’t agree. Aram says there is only one chronicler who describes Juana opening Philip’s coffin. She explains this might have been to confirm his body was still there, not some kind of macabre obsession.

After the death of Ferdinand, Juana’s son Charles maintained her position in captivity. When a group of rebels gained access to her and tried to persuade her to rule in her own right, she basically signed no documents to that effect and kept her son in power. While her behavior may not have been royal and eccentric for the times, it doesn’t appear she was mentally ill. She either didn’t want to rule or was unprepared and chose not to rule.

I found this book fascinating and a real eye-opener. It’s not entirely an easy read as the academic explanations of Renaissance sovereignty are complex and deep. But it sets the backdrop and once the reader gets to the descriptions of Juana’s life, it’s a real page turner. If you want to know the true story of Juana of Castile, I recommend this book.