Book Review: “Elizabeth De Valois, Queen of Spain, and the Court of Philip II” by Martha Walker Freer

The subtitle of this book is “From Numerous Unpublished Sources in the Archives of France, Italy and Spain” and it comes in two volumes. As I’ve said on this blog before, I enjoy reading old history books. This one was published in 1857 and is a complete revelation. I just happened to find the first volume electronically by doing a search on Google Books for Elizabeth de Valois. The second volume is available for purchase as a reprint from any reliable bookseller.

From the entry on Martha Walker Freer in the Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Volume 49 written by Elizabeth Lee:

Mrs. Martha Walker Robinson (1822–1888), writer on French history under her maiden name of Freer, daughter of John Booth Freer, M.D., was born at Leicester in 1822. Her first book, ‘Life of Marguerite d’Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, Duchesse d’Alençon, and De Berry, Sister of Francis I,’ appeared in 1854, in two volumes. In 1861 she married the Rev. John Robinson, rector of Widmerpool, near Nottingham, but all her works bear her maiden name. She continued publishing books dealing with French history until 1866. She died on 14 July 1888. Her works are mere compilations, although she claimed to have had access to manuscripts and other unpublished material. Although inferior in style and arrangement to the books of Julia Pardoe [q. v.] on similar subjects, they enjoyed for a time wide popularity. Two of them, ‘Marguerite d’Angoulême’ and ‘Jeanne d’Albret’ (1855), reached second editions. Mrs. Robinson died on 14 July 1888.
Her other works are: 1. ‘Elizabeth de Valois, Queen of Spain and the Court of Philip II,’ 2 vols. 1857. 2. ‘Henry III, King of France and Poland: his Court and Times,’ 3 vols. 1858. 3. ‘History of the Reign of Henry IV, King of France and Navarre,’ part i. 2 vols. 1860; part ii. 2 vols. 1861; part iii. 2 vols. 1863. 4. ‘The Married Life of Anne of Austria and Don Sebastian,’ 2 vols. 1864. 5. ‘The Regency of Anne of Austria,’ 2 vols. 1866.

I had never heard of Freer before this. The work is footnoted and is based on many different sources from different nations. Although this work has some suspect elements of fiction, I found it to be astounding as far as research and retelling of the story of Elizabeth de Valois. She basically recounts the entire life of this Queen of Spain who died too young at the age of 23. There are many anecdotes of important moments in her life such as her baptism which was attended by ambassadors from the court of King Henry VIII of England, her state entry into Toledo and an amusing, near calamitous accident involving her carriage and the long train of her dress. The description of her death and her funeral are very touching.

It seems Freer’s work was written with one main mission in mind. She wanted to dispel the myth of an affair between Queen Elizabeth and her husband’s mentally unstable son Don Carlos. The book goes into great detail about Don Carlos’ life and death. Freer manages to knock down any idea that there was impropriety or affair between these two. There is a great amount of information regarding Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother Queen Catherine de’Medici and she uses many of the letters written by the two women. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was stuck in the middle between her husband and her mother regarding diplomatic maneuvers but for the most part she followed the advice of her husband. The meeting at Bayonne involving the Queen and her mother is meticulously described.

I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. I have purchased the volumes by Freer on the life of King Henri III of France. Looking forward to reading more.

Book Review: “The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Michael R. Evans

inventing-eleanor-book-cover

Everybody loves Eleanor of Aquitaine. But did you know there are a lot of myths and legends that surround her story? Michael Evans has studied all the evidence from primary sources forward in an effort to find the real story of this popular Queen.

Evans begins by saying the actual evidence of Eleanor’s life is scarce and a lot of it is written by chroniclers hostile to her politically. He also argues that she is not any more extraordinary than any other medieval woman of her time based on the historical evidence. He then recounts the two categories of stories about her: the Black Legend and the Golden Myth.

The Black Legend myths include how she killed the fair Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II and the stories of her alleged incest with her uncle Raymond of Toulouse. He tells how the legend of the murder of Rosamund first appeared and then grew hugely out of proportion. The evidence of the incest is negligible but it was common practice to blacken a powerful woman’s name with tales of sexual misconduct.

The Golden Myth includes the stories of Eleanor dressing as an Amazon to go on Crusade and how she and her daughter Marie presided over scenes of courtly love in Poitou. Both of these myths were debunked a long time ago but he shows how they got started and continued to have life in books and literature. (For more on the legends surrounding Eleanor’s life, click here.)

There is quite a bit in the book about how Eleanor has appeared in literature, fiction and non-fiction, on stage, in the movies and on television. Katherine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter” is especially commended in her portrayal of Eleanor. Anyone who is interested in Eleanor will not be disappointed in this book. It sheds an eye-opening light on her story. It is my opinion that Eleanor’s life was remarkable even without the legends.

Book Review: “The Sister Queens: Isabella & Catherine de Valois” by Mary McGrigor

sister-queens-book-cover

There is very little existing historical information on Isabella and Catherine de Valois. Both were the daughters of King Charles VI and Queen Isabeau of France and both women were Queens of England. This book reflects this sparsity of information.

If you are expecting lots of detail of the lives of these two women, you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you are looking for compelling medieval French and English history, this book fits the bill. McGrigor puts these women into their context and fills in the blanks with good storytelling about the early lives of Isabella and Catherine. Isabella’s husband Richard II lost control of his government and was forced to abdicate the throne to his cousin Henry IV. It took some time but Isabella was finally allowed to return to France and was married to her cousin Charles of Orleans who was much younger than Isabella. This may have turned out to be a successful marriage according to McGrigor. Isabella had a daughter Jane and then died shortly after giving birth. McGrigor continues the story of Jane in this book.

Catherine was the youngest daughter of Charles and Isabeau. Her story is woven within the context of the Hundred Years War and the aggression of King Henry V of England who she eventually married. McGrigor gives us a good accounting of the life of Catherine in England and also of the politics in France during the reign of Catherine’s son Henry VI who was King of France as well as King of England. These details give the reader a good understanding into what led up to the Wars of the Roses in England.

However, I do have a few issues with this book. McGrigor is perpetuating the myth of the bad reputation of Isabeau of Bavaria of being a bad mother, having many lovers and being dissolute. This has all been debunked by several historians. The other issue that is a problem is the many grammatical and typographical errors in this book. I would venture to guess about a third of the dates are transposed and incorrect. For example, a date which should read 1422 reads 1522 or 1322. The History Press is doing a disservice by either not hiring editors to correct these errors or if they do hire editors, they do a terrible job. These issues aside, I would recommend this book for those who are interested in English and French medieval history.