Book Review: “Isabel of Burgundy” by Aline Taylor

The subtitle of this book is “The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471”. I have to confess, I read this book a few years ago while doing some research. Recently, in reading the four volume series of books on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy by Richard Vaughan, I completed the one on Philip the Good and felt like I needed to revisit the life of Isabel in the context of her husband’s life and decided to re-read it.

It is unfortunate there is no definitive biography of Isabel and this book is not meant to be an academic recounting of Isabel’s life. It is a combination of historical fact with a bit of fiction. This is really unfortunate as the author has an academic background and is the former editor of three academic journals and could obviously have done better. Despite the unorthodox style, I found the book enjoyable because Taylor highlights the personal side of Isabel’s life.

Isabel is somewhat exceptional for a medieval woman of royalty. She was the daughter of King John I of Portugal, the first king of the House of Aviz. Her mother was Philippa, the eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and son of King Edward III of England. Although there were many possible marriages discussed for her, she didn’t marry until she was in her early thirties. She would be the third wife of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Philip married her for her royal birth, ties to England and Portugal and for her ability to have children.

Isabel fulfilled her childbearing duty and would have three sons, of which only one, Charles, survived. However, Philip got a lot more than he bargained for with Isabel. She was highly intelligent. Her parents had educated her along with her numerous brothers and she was especially adept at accounting and negotiating and arbitration. These excellent skills were put to good use by Philip. He allowed her to negotiate peace and trade treaties for the duration of their marriage. Isabel’s English and Portuguese background would influence her efforts at mediation and facilitate good relations between Burgundy, England and France. Her greatest accomplishment may have been the triumphant marriage of her son Charles with the sister of King Edward IV of England, Margaret of York.

Taylor’s narrative in this book emphasizes Isabel’s accomplishments. There are many twists and turns to this era in Burgundian history, the most significant being the fact that Isabel’s husband sent her on many missions while working behind her back to make alliances and war with France. It’s hard to imagine what kind of tension this brought to Isabel’s marriage but it certainly makes an appealing story. The book is not written in chronological order. There are some footnotes which appear at the end of each chapter but there is no bibliography which is disappointing. Although this is an interesting read, a well written and researched biography remains to be written about this fascinating medieval princess.

Book Review: “Philip the Good” by Richard Vaughan

Once again, Vaughan delivers with this biography of Philip the Good, third volume of the four volumes series on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. The subtitle of this book is “The Apogee of Burgundy”. It was during Philip’s reign that Burgundy was at its highest point as a powerful European state and he ruled the longest of any of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Philip was Duke during the end of the struggles between England and France, known as the Hundred Years War. Burgundy played an integral part, sometimes on the side of England, sometimes on the side of France. While these three entities fought and made peace among themselves, Philip was conquering and annexing various part of Northern Europe. Philip fought with Jacqueline of Hainault for several years and finally broke her resolve. She named Philip as her successor and when she died in 1436, he was ruler of Holland, Zeeland and Hainault. He managed to annex Luxembourg into his territories also.

Philip would have to contend with several rebellions in some of his principal cities. He dealt with artisan rebels in Liège and Ghent along with others. King Charles VII of France was a real thorn in Philip’s side. Even though Charles was guilty of murdering Philip’s father John the Fearless, and despite Charles’ many attempts to frustrate and even annex parts of Philip’s empire, the Duke was deferential. He thought of himself as the premier nobleman in France and took his chivalric duties to heart. In fact, Charles VII and his son Louis XI were dead set on taking Burgundy into the royal domain and this would actually come to fruition in 1477.

This book is packed with great information. Vaughan recounts some of the many marriage alliances Philip made with his immediate family and with his nieces and nephews. There is chapter on the Duke and his court which explains how Philip loved pomp and circumstance and would great pageants and spectacles and massive jousting tournaments. He started the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece and collected medieval manuscripts. Philip was married three times with his final wife, Isabel of Portugal being his best and most helpful wife. She would act in his name many times and was instrumental in negotiating many alliances and trade agreements.

Other chapters in the book deal with the economics and trade of Burgundy, financial affairs, his relations with the Church, Philip’s attempts to gain a crown for some of his territories and his attempt to mount a religious crusade for the relief of Constantinople. One of the most fascinating sections of the book is a long list drawn up by one of Philip’s administrators listing what would be needed for the crusade in the way of people, supplies, transportation and how much it would all cost. Like the other two volumes in this series, this one is a great read. Looking forward to the next chapter, the son of Philip the Good, Charles the Bold.

Book Review: “John the Fearless” by Richard Vaughan

This book is the second in the series of four by Richard Vaughan on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. The subtitle for this volume is “The Growth of Burgundian Power”. In the first book about John’s father Philip the Bold, Vaughan recounts how the Valois gained ownership of the duchy and county of Burgundy as well as other properties and the formation of the Burgundian state. This book details how John the Fearless enlarged that state.

John the Fearless is the most fascinating of the Burgundian dukes for me so far. It was during his tenure as duke that much of what is now the Low Countries came under Burgundian control. John was also a major player in the conflicts of the kingdom of France under the mad King Charles VI. John believed he had the right to act as regent during the king’s illnesses and he wasn’t about to let anyone stand in his way. He even went so far as to have the king’s brother Louis, Duke of Orleans murdered in the streets of Paris at night in 1407. This was considered a most shocking act. Most importantly, he never was forced to officially pay for the crime.

John’s reign as duke is filled with warfare, treachery, murder, mayhem, mistresses and illegitimate children. John gained his soubriquet “the Fearless” after a murderous battle he won over the rebellious subjects of the city of Liège on the field of Othée in what is now Belgium. In a chapter entitled “The Means to Power”, Vaughan goes into meticulous detail about the finances, the civil service and the Burgundian army. Some may find this dry material but I found it to be intriguing. There is even a chapter on how John’s wife Margaret of Bavaria ruled Burgundy on his behalf while he engaged in empire building elsewhere.

The last chapter concerns the assassination of John the Fearless on the bridge of Montereau in 1419. This came about due to John’s active interference in the government of France. He made many enemies due to his calculated murder of the Duke of Orleans. And the Dauphin Charles (the future King Charles VII) sided with the Duke’s enemies, the Armagnacs from the French civil war. Vaughan states there are many versions of the assassination on the bridge that create much confusion. But he has scrutinized all the sources and come up with common themes and consistencies to figure out the true course of events. For him, there is no doubt the murder was meticulously planned and the Dauphin, whether he delivered any real blows or not, was responsible for the outcome.

I find there is nothing better than French medieval history. This book is easy to read and jam-packed with detail and absorbing stories about an eccentric if not deranged personality. Moving on to read about John the Fearless’ son Philip the Good.

Book Review: “Philip the Bold” by Richard Vaughan

It really was not my intention to read the four volume series on the Dukes of Burgundy by Richard Vaughan. However, I was looking at the first volume on Philip the Bold for some research on an article and found it to be quite interesting. It seemed worthwhile so I started reading it. The subtitle for this one is “The Formation of the Burgundian State”.

Richard Vaughan did extensive research on the four Valois Dukes of Burgundy in the late fifties and the four volumes were published in the early sixties. They were republished in paperback in 1979 and again in 2002 with reprints three more times since then. They are readily available from any bookseller and some will even give a discount for buying all four. There are copious sources for the history of this time period as the Burgundian dukes and the Flemish state kept meticulous records, many of which still exist. It is obvious Vaughan methodically pored over these primary sources and studied secondary sources as well.

Vaughan clearly states in his introduction this is not meant to be a standard biography of Philip the Bold. He was more interested in describing Philip’s policies, his administration, his court and his finances and to depict Burgundy as a European power. Vaughan begins with the backstory of how the original Duke of Burgundy’s dynasty died out and how King John the Good of France, for all intents and purposes, gave the duchy and county of Burgundy to his younger son Philip. This is the beginning of the Burgundian state as defined by Vaughan. Philip used different methods and processes to increase his power and territories. These include marriage alliances, expansion, diplomacy and inheritance.

The author addresses how Philip added Flanders and other counties and cities to his territories, how he administered them and his finances. There are many charts and spreadsheets in the book about the finances of the duke. Some may find this tough going and dry material but I actually found it fascinating. Vaughan argues Philip couldn’t have expanded his territories without the help of the French crown and these tables illustrate that vividly. The book includes several maps exemplifying Philip’s holdings and an extensive bibliography.

Vaughan’s writing is fast-flowing and easy to read. Even though it is not a conventional biography, it is possible for the reader to clearly grasp the personality of the duke. The book is a pleasure to read and I learned a lot. Looking forward to volume two, John the Fearless.

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.