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: “Queen’s Mate” by Pauline Matarasso

blue queens mate book cover

The full title of this book is “Queen’s Mate: Three women of power in France on the eve of the Renaissance”. I have to confess I almost didn’t buy this book. My research in to Anne of France, the unofficial regent of her brother King Charles VIII led me to this title. There is no full biography of her in English, however every source I did have for her mentioned this book. The other two women Matarasso writes about are Anne of Brittany and Louise of Savoy.

This work intrigued me but in looking for a copy of the book, it appeared it was out of print and the only copies available were used and very expensive. But I came into possession of some gift cards for Barnes and Noble and decided to use them to purchase the book. Boy am I glad I did! This is one of the best women’s biographies I’ve read in a long time. The book is so rich in detail on the lives of Anne of France and Anne of Brittany. Matarasso obviously did her research.

The first quarter of the book is dedicated to Anne of France. There is a lot of good detail about her reign as regent, especially about the “Mad War” and the War of the Breton Succession. Matarasso explains how Anne of France skillfully and diplomatically managed these conflicts which ended with the marriage of Anne of Brittany to King Charles VIII. Anne of France then retired from public life but still kept her hand in the government of the kingdom as well as her own duchy of Bourbon. I found a lot of good material here to write an article about her.

The majority of the book is about Anne of Brittany. I love all the details about Anne of Brittany’s chaotic childhood and her three marriages. Matarasso’s description of Anne’s two husband’s exploits in trying to conquer Italy are great. There is a great description of the scene of a visit to the French court by Juana of Castile and her husband Philip of Burgundy. Matarasso tells us about the castles Anne lived in, about her many pregnancies and all of her virtues as well as her faults.

There is really only a passing mention of Louise of Savoy here. Matarasso gives us some detail about her childhood. She was brought up under the guardianship of Anne of France and married a minor nobleman. The book ends with the accession of her son to the throne of France as King Francis I and Louise had a huge role in her son’s government so that piece is missing from this book. Matarasso explains there really is no complete biography of Louise. That may have changed since this book was written in 2001 but I know of no biography of her in English.  (I have since found a biography of her written by Dorothy Moulton Mayer.  See the review here.)

Since I received my copy of the book I found out it was published by Ashgate Publishing Company and the book is available from them on their website, although it is still expensive. But if you have an interest in these women and the period and you have the funds, I strongly recommend it. The writing is breezy, fun and keeps your interest. I couldn’t put it down.