Book Review: “Game of Queens” by Sarah Gristwood

It isn’t very often you come across a book that is nearly perfect in execution but this one fits the bill. Gristwood had done her homework in researching the history of these women, creating a most enjoyable read. The subtitle of the book is “The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe”. Her premise is the game of chess and she relates a myriad of women to the game and how it played out in the politics of the sixteenth Europe.

There were several women who emerged to rule in Europe during this period, either as regents, queen consorts or outright queen regnant. Many of readers favorite women are portrayed here: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Margaret Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, Margaret of Austria, Queen Mary I and Elizabeth I of England, Louise of Savoy, Anne of Brittany, Queen Claude of France, Catherine de Medici, Marguerite of Valois, Queen of Navarre and her daughter Jeanne d’Albret, Margaret of Parma, Mary of Hungary and my personal favorite, Anne de Beaujeu. Many of the women are interconnected. Anne de Beaujeu schooled Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy in politics and government. She wrote a book for her own daughter, Suzanne de Bourbon called “Lessons for My Daughter” that Gristwood quotes from liberally and which carries a lot of good advice for all of these women. Anne Boleyn served at the court of Margaret of Austria. Gristwood recounts how all of these stories are interrelated.

While I am familiar with most of these women’s stories, there were a few that were new to me. I really enjoyed Gristwood’s take on Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots. She has some great insight into Margaret’s personality. Some new territory for me were the stories of Mary of Hungary and Margaret of Parma who succeeded Margaret of Austria as Regent of the Netherlands for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. These women had a very difficult task, especially after the enormous social upheaval created by the Reformation. The story of Jeanne d’Albret, daughter of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre is most intriguing with the twists and turns of her marriages and her feisty defense of Protestantism.

By quoting letters and chronicles, Gristwood gives us a glimpse of all these women’s personalities allowing them to come to life. In addition to being beautifully written, this book has some nice accompaniments. There are genealogical tables, a list of dramatis personae, a section of lovely color photos and a chronology of events. Gristwood gives a nicely chosen bibliography for more in-depth reading. I cannot recommend this book enough. This is Sarah’s best work yet.

Book Review: “Royal Intrigue: Crisis at the Court of Charles VI 1392-1420” by R.C. Famiglietti

Ever since I finished reading “Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300-1500)” by R. C. Famiglietti, I’ve been searching for a copy of “Royal Intrigue”. I wasn’t having any luck as no library near me had a copy and the rare copies I could find for sale were ridiculously expensive. With persistence, I kept checking various used book outlets and as luck would have it, I found an affordable used copy of this book.

Famiglietti’s approach to history and his writing style are very hard to resist. And the subject of the mental health of King Charles VI France intrigues me greatly. It stands to reason any insight into the illness of Charles VI would have a bearing on that of his grandson, King Henry VI of England who suffered a similar disorder. As I opened the book, it became clear I had hit the jackpot. The first chapter is titled “The Mental Disorder of Charles VI”.

While it is impossible for anyone to diagnose a subject that lived over six hundred years ago, Famiglietti gives a very convincing argument. He first recounts the historical records from the chroniclers who describe Charles VI’s behavior to come up with a list of symptoms. He then consults with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to see what illness matches these symptoms. His theory is some form of schizophrenia because he exhibited three out of the five defining factors for this illness. Within the diagnosis of schizophrenia, there are several different types. Charles exhibited symptoms that overlapped with these different types but Famiglietti recognizes an underlying theme: persecutory delusions.

After doing this detective work in psychiatry, Famiglietti gets to work writing about the different factions at the French court and how they schemed and plotted to take power while the king was incapacitated and how his persecutory delusions dictated the king’s reactions to these different schemes and events. Here we meet the major characters: Louis of Orléans and his son Charles, Duc d’Orléans, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, the Dauphin Louis, Duc de Guyenne, the king’s eldest son, King Henry V of England and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy to name only the most important.

The opening salvo is the first psychotic episode Charles suffered in the summer of 1392 when he went berserk and killed four or five people. While he never had another attack this severe, for the rest of his life he moved in and out of calm and manic bouts, all the while suffering from the persecutory delusions. Famiglietti knows his sources and is able to reconstruct the history day by day if not down to the hour. He can tell when the king was having a good and bad day with his illness. He mentions letters which were issued either only in the king’s name or with the king and the council or letters written by other parties in the fight. He sometimes tells us where the principal character ate dinner and when they left to travel elsewhere in the kingdom. He has such wonderful insight into the personalities of the main players and even corrects other historian’s work where he thinks they have been mistaken in their conclusions.

All of this is pretty fascinating stuff! He covers the murder of Louis of Orléans and the assassination of John the Fearless. He explains the circumstances that led to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Other than the first chapter on the mental illness of the king, the best chapter is the one in which he describes the Cabochien Uprising of 1413. The royal family must have been scared out of their wits when John the Fearless goaded the butchers and other merchants to revolt. They entered the actual palaces and even took prisoner some of the Dauphin’s servants and had them executed. The Dauphin would work against the Burgundians and the Armagnacs from that point forward until his untimely death shortly afterward.

I loved this book just as much as the “Tales of the Marriage Bed”. In doing some research into R.C. Famiglietti, I was unable to find out any information on the man himself. He was a professor at the City University of New York when he wrote these books in the 1980’s but I have no idea where is now. He is a very unique and innovative historian as well as a great writer. I plan on digging to see if he wrote any other books or articles and try to read more.

Book Review: “Margaret of Anjou: Queen of England” by Philippe Erlanger

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In my research into the queens of England, I’ve been looking for a conventional biography of Margaret of Anjou. A contemporary biography of her doesn’t exist. This one was first published in 1961 in French under the title of “Marguerite D’Anjou et La Guerre Des Deux Roses” (Margaret of Anjou and the War of the Two Roses). This English version was published in 1970 and translated by Edward Hyams. Erlanger was a well-known French biographer who wrote many historical books before passing away in 1987. Just as an aside, he was the originator of the idea of the Cannes Film Festival which began in 1939.

Erlanger says in his introduction: “Nearly five centuries after her death an impartial Frenchman, brought up in his country’s traditions, but who is a friend and admirer of England, has tried, using modern methods, to review the indictment whereby posterity tried Henry VI’s fascinating queen, and ultimately condemned her.” I have to say I enjoyed reading a French writer’s view of English history!

At times this book reads like a novel and at other times like true history. Because this book was written in the 1960’s, he pretty much condemns Margaret as having taken many lovers. This has largely been disproven by now as propaganda from her political enemies. If you can get past this, the narrative is enjoyable. The first part of the book covers Europe in 1430 and then describes Margaret’s upbringing by her grandmother Yolande of Aragon at the court of Anjou. This pretty much sets the stage for Margaret’s extraordinary knowledge of statecraft that should have served her well in England during the chaos of her husband’s reign. However, she was a woman and she was French so her tactics didn’t have too much influence over the warring nobles of her husband’s court.

The author goes into great detail about Margaret’s life and the politics of England. There are some photos in the book and some genealogical tables, a limited bibliography but no index. As mentioned, if you can get past some of the historical flaws and drawbacks in the book, I highly recommend it. It will give the reader a better understanding of the Wars of the Roses and the uncommon life of this queen.

Book Review: “Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300-1500) by R.C. Famiglietti

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This book was listed as a reference which I found while researching Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of King Charles VI of France. I happened to find a used copy of the book although it wasn’t cheap. There is an interesting section on her in which he describes her as the “perfect wife”. I decided to read the whole book.

Published in 1992, this is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I love French history. What makes this book unique is it delves into the lives of the people of France, from royalty down to ordinary people. It’s more of a social history. Most of the stories related deal with the nobility including the petty nobility. As it states on the book cover, “The vignettes, episodes in the lives of married couples, allow us to observe the vast panorama of life in medieval France and to explore the mores, attitudes, and concerns of the time.”

Sections of the book deal with the following topics: incest, choosing a mate, negotiating a marriage, weddings, elopements and abductions, mistresses and bastards, adultery, abuse, murdering a mate, the perfect husband and the perfect wife. Some of these tales are gruesome. In some of these instances, there were court cases brought to justice. This gives Famiglietti a chance to describe the workings of the justice system in medieval France. These stories definitely give us a glimpse of the status of women during this time period and it certainly isn’t pretty.

I especially liked the description of a wedding in Bordeaux in 1460. One episode relates a ghastly tale of a wife being murdered by her husband. There’s a long drawn out case of incest in the fourteenth century. There’s a description of a marriage where the husband beat his wife and one where the wife was kept locked up in a tower. All of these are true tales which Famiglietti found in historical sources.

This book has a map of medieval France, an extensive bibliography, sixty-eight black and white plates depicting some of the characters in the stories along with extensive explanations for the illustrations. This book is well researched, well written and fascinating to read. Famiglietti also wrote a book about royal intrigue during the reign of King Charles VI. I’m looking for a copy of that one for a reasonable price.

Book Review: “Clash of Crowns” by Mary McAuliffe

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Found this book while browsing at the local bookstore. It looked pretty interesting. The subtitle is “William the Conqueror, Richard Lionheart, and Eleanor of Aquitaine” and at the top of the cover it says “A Story of Bloodshed, Betrayal, and Revenge”. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Well, it is. McAuliffe obviously has a great passion for this era of French and English history. The book was inspired by the great fortification Château-Gaillard in France which was built by Richard the Lionheart during his clashes and wars with Philip Augustus II, King of France. She uses this castle to tell the story of Richard, beginning with the Viking Rollo, the first count of Normandy. The story progresses down to Rollo’s descendant William the Conqueror who became King of England in 1066.

William’s grand-daughter, Empress Matilda should have been Queen of England when her father King Henry I of England died. But her cousin Stephen got to England first causing the period of strife called the Anarchy while Matilda and Stephen fought for the throne. Eventually, Matilda’s first born son by Geoffrey of Anjou became King Henry II. Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine and had several sons who rebelled against their father.

All of this is recounted in this book in the context of European medieval history. McAuliffe brings all of these historical characters to life with all their admirable qualities and their foibles. She gives a detailed description of the fighting between Lionheart and Philip Augustus. Lionheart built the magnificent and modern fortress of Château-Galliard to safeguard a crucial point of defense in an effort to maintain possession of the duchy of Normandy. The castle was called Richard’s “Proud Daughter”. The final attack and siege of the castle by Philip is described in detail. It makes for fascinating reading.

Anyone who loves English and French medieval history will enjoy this book. It is well organized, and researched and well written. It includes a bibliography, illustrations, maps, a chronology and a list of key people in the story. Even if you know the history it’s a fun read and if you don’t, it’s a great introduction.

Book Review: “Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England” by Helen E. Maurer

Margaret of Anjou Maurer book cover

In the course of my research on English queens, I searched for a biography of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI. There appears to be no contemporary biography of her which in itself is interesting but I did find this book. It’s not a recounting of her life in a biographical sense however but a thought provoking examination of Queenship and power in medieval England.

The author says she was introduced to Margaret of Anjou by seeing a performance of a Shakespearean play in Central Park in New York City. Later, while studying in school for a doctorate, she found an article where an historian called for an examination of Margaret’s role in the political upheaval in England now known as the Wars of the Roses. She ended up writing this book.

This is not an easy read as it is definitely an academic exercise. She describes the role of a medieval queen in many different spheres such as motherhood, intervention and mediation, and aiding her retainers. A medieval queen, especially one of foreign origin, could never rule directly. Any influence she had would be through her husband the king.

Maurer tells us about Margaret’s upbringing which in many ways was extraordinary. She was highly educated and due to the influence of her formidable grandmother Yolande of Aragon, learned statecraft. Her marriage to King Henry VI came with great expectations of peace between England and France after the devastation of the Hundred Years War. When Margaret came to England as a teenager, her entrance into was celebrated with hopeful allegory. Maurer gives us a long description of these celebrations.

It was only after Margaret bore a son that she started to come into her own. At the same time of her pregnancy, her husband succumbed to madness throwing the government of the realm into chaos. Margaret did what she could to preserve the power of her husband and secure the interests of him, herself and her son, working within the boundaries of a medieval queen. Despite her best efforts, there was infighting and backstabbing among the nobility who were doing the best they could to preserve their own self interests.

In the end, Margaret became the figurehead of the House of Lancaster and even led her own troops. This was not really within the realm of the powers of a medieval queen as Maurer argues here. For better or worse, Margaret did the best she could and ended up losing everything. She just couldn’t overcome the restrictions placed on her as a medieval queen.

Maurer makes some very cogent and logical arguments here. She has some insight into the men Margaret was up against in her fight to preserve the power and prestige of her family. As stated, if you are looking for a conventional biography, this book isn’t it. But I would still recommend it if you have an interest in medieval royal women’s position, function and responsibility in history.

Book Review: “France in the Sixteenth Century” by Frederic J. Baumgartner

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I’ve been reading a lot of French history since the first of the year. The selections included a general survey, a secret history of Paris, medieval Paris and the Norman Conquest among others. But I have to say, sixteenth century France really intrigues me the most for several reasons. The characters of this period are really compelling and they are contemporaries of Tudor England, another of my favorite eras.

The author made a concerted choice to cover the era from the calling of the Estates General in 1484 after the death of King Louis XI up until the meeting of the Estates General in 1614, the era of the Renaissance and Reformation. Themes for the chapters of the book include the fundamental components of the Estates General: the monarch, the clergy, the nobles and the commoners. The chapters on the monarch cover the personalities of the kings, the organization of the court, the collection and spending of revenues and a summary of political events during the monarch’s reign.

The chapters on the clergy cover the challenges created by the spread of Calvinism in France and the Catholic response. For the nobility, he examines the developments in the military and under the commoner chapters, he discusses economics in the cities and the countryside. There is extensive information about the judicial system in France. He also gives an overview of cultural and intellectual changes during the century. This book really covers a great deal of social history.

Baumgartner is a professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He states in the introduction that this book is intended for upper level undergraduate and graduate students and advanced scholars looking for detailed information about the era. While the book is intended for academics, I really found it to be a fun read. There were a few sections that were dry and uninteresting but for the most part it was completely absorbing. Information I enjoyed included how revenues were collected, how food was distributed, how the judicial system worked, the lives of the nobles and the clergy and the monarchs, and the rise of Calvinism in France. Perhaps the best section for me was a succinct description of the Wars of Religion. I always wondered why there were so many petty nobles in France. I learned from this book that people could buy their way into the nobility!

The sections on intellectual and cultural pursuits were fascinating too. Baumgartner convincingly includes a lot of information on women during this era which I find refreshing. There are photos, maps and genealogical tables in the book as well as a glossary of terms which I will definitely refer to again. This book really delivers on its topic and I highly recommend it.