Book Review: “Four Princes” by John Julius Norwich

The subtitle of this book is “Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe”. Whew! How about that for raising expectations? But I have to say, this book delivers.

There is a blurb inside the front cover that says this: “Never before had the world seen four such giants coexisting. Sometimes friends, more often enemies, always rivals, these four men together held Europe in the hollow of their hands.” This pretty much sums up the era and what a time it was. Europe was experiencing great upheaval. There was monumental transformations in matters of religion. The Renaissance began with new discoveries in science, mass printing of books and gorgeous art being produced.

Amidst all this upheaval, there were four princes who ruled Europe, all with monumental egos. This books introduces us to the four men, giving their backgrounds. The author explains their changing alliances along with their bellicose warfare. There were many different meetings between these men which are described here. Treaties were made and broken. Invasions were mounted. Suleiman the Magnificent was at the outskirts of Vienna but drew back twice. Francis I of France stunned Europe by forging ties with the Sultan in an effort to stave off having France taken over by Charles V. Because the author has written about the papacy, he includes a lot of papal history and how it relates to the other rulers. You just can’t make this stuff up.

I would classify this book as ‘popular history’, whatever that means. It is not meant to be an academic work and indeed, I found a few historical mistakes. These are just a few of the most glaring errors. Norwich states that King Francis I’s mother Louise of Savoy attended peace talks in Toledo in July of 1525. This is incorrect. Francis’ sister Marguerite was present and spoke directly to Charles V about the release of Francis from captivity after the devastating French loss at Pavia.

Norwich also states that Cardinal Compeggio had been sent to England in 1518 and that he remained there from that date until the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529 was convened to discuss the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon. This is not so. Compeggio had to travel from the continent to England for this trial. Norwich also has a footnote regarding Sir Thomas More where he states that Henry had More arrested after he refused to attend the King’s wedding to Anne Boleyn. I have no idea where he got this and it’s almost laughable.

But this does not detract from the overall joy of reading the fascinating history of early modern Europe. The book has a section of beautiful color photos and a limited bibliography. It’s a good starting point for those who are new to the era and a good vacation read for those who know the history.

Book Review: “Golden Age Ladies” by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Golden Age ladies book cover

The subtitle of this book is “Women Who Shaped the Courts of Henry VIII and Francis I”. Since I’m interested in women and Tudor and French history, I had to read it! England and France have a significantly entwined history. The book doesn’t disappoint as it has a panoply of women, explaining how their stories are all interrelated.

All the important women of these two courts make an appearance. Soberton gives us a list of characters for France and England along with genealogical tables. Interestingly, she starts out with Louise of Savoy, mother of King Francis I who learned statecraft from the formidable Anne de Beaujeu. Now here is a woman who witnessed so much history. The devoted mother of King Francis and his sister Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, Louise virtually ran the government of France while her son whiled away his time pursuing pleasures such as the hunt, women and warfare. Louise’s shining moment came when the Ladies Peace of Cambrai was negotiated in 1529 between her and her sister-in-law Margaret of Savoy, Regent of the Netherlands. The two women single-handedly brokered peace between France and the Habsburg Empire and Louise secured the release of her grandsons who had been held hostage. A marriage between King Francis and the Holy Roman Emperor’s sister Eleanor was part of the Ladies Peace. Her sad story is also included here.

Along with Louise and her daughter, we meet Queen Anne of Brittany and Claude de Valois and her many daughters, some of whom died and some who became Queen’s themselves, such as Madeleine de Valois. Interwoven with the lives of these French women are those from the court of King Henry VIII of England. Henry’s sister Mary married King Louis XII of France. Although she was queen for a few months, she went on to make a love match with her brother’s best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Soberton gives us a description of the grand summit of The Field of the Cloth of Gold where Queen Catherine of Aragon met Queen Claude. Of course Anne Boleyn plays a significant role in the book as she spent time with Margaret of Savoy at her court in Mechelen and also worked as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Claude. In fact, Soberton gives us an economical description of all of Henry’s wives.

Soberton gives us many descriptions and small glimpses of personal moments in these women’s lives. This is what I liked best about the book. She has obviously done her research. There are photographs and a nice select bibliography if you are interested in more information. I found this book fun to read and enjoyed all the interconnecting stories. I highly recommend it.

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: “French Musketeer 1622-1775” by René Chartrand

French Musketeers book cover

Who doesn’t love the Musketeers? Ever since the French writer Alexandre Dumas, père wrote his series of historical novels in the 19th Century, people have followed the adventures of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis and their intrepid valets in books and movies. But were these men just characters in a book or did they really exist? Did the Musketeers really duel and fight amongst themselves? Did they actually fight in wars? And what were their uniforms really like? What sort of equipment was issued to them?

This book from Osprey Publishing answers this and many more questions. Chartrand gives an overall history of the various units of the Musketeers. They fought on horseback and on foot in numerous wars as well as fulfilling their duty as bodyguards for the King. The chief ministers of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin had their own companies of Musketeers. Chartrand says there were many instances of duels being fought between the Kings’ and the Cardinals’ Musketeers. So the duel scenes in the stories have a basis in fact.

There is a chapter in the book regarding the fighting of the Musketeers in sieges, battles and wars. They also performed secret missions for the king. The book is filled with colorful illustrations by Graham Turner as well as copies of various prints and paintings depicting Musketeers from the different eras of their existence. A great deal of the book explains the costume and the equipment of the soldiers and how it changed over time. Also included are a chronology, a list of ranks, a glossary of terms and a bibliography.

The information I found most interesting is the historical basis for the characters in Dumas’ novels. Dumas found a copy of a book which was the basis for all of his stories. It was published in 1700 and called “Memoirs of Mr. D’Artagnan, Captain-Lieutenant of the First Company of the King’s Musketeers, concerning a quantity of private and secret events that occurred during the reign of Louis the Great”, written by Gatien de Courtiz de Sandras. Sandras had been a King’s Musketeer for eighteen years. Chartrand explains that Dumas’ characters of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are actually based on real men who served in some form or another as Musketeers or soldiers in other units. Sandras may have met the “real” D’Artagnan at some point so his memoirs possibly contain some actual facts of his life. Of course Dumas used artistic license and fictionalized many aspects of their lives.

I distinctly remember seeing the movie version of “The Three Musketeers” from 1973. My college library had a fabulous collection of most of Dumas’ work in old volumes that had been bound in new covers. I read every book I could get my hands on, devouring them. Not only are they entertaining reading but they give the basic outline of French history during the Renaissance and early modern period. So reading this book was a lot of fun and brought back good memories and I enjoyed the illustrations.

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.

Book Review: “Isabella: The Warrior Queen” by Kirstin Downey

Isabella the Warrior Queen book cover

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Spain recently! There were two biographies of Isabella of Castile on my book shelf and I’ve now completed reading both of them. My interest in Isabella is a result of my lifelong love of Tudor history and the fact that Isabella was the mother of Catherine of Aragon. I tackled Peggy Liss’ biography first which was very interesting. Downey’s book is also a worthy read.

Downey explains in her afterword that she has a lifelong fascination in the life of Isabella. When she was a young girl living in the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone, she was captivated by the ruins of Spanish buildings which have existed since the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Panama was a trade hub for the shipping of the treasures from the New World to Spain and beyond.

While Liss’ biography is an academic work with exceptional detail, Downey has a different, but still relevant approach to Isabella’s life. She writes about the life events of the Queen, sometimes giving a keen insight into her life and at other times giving an overall picture. There is a little more detail in Downey’s book about Christopher Columbus and his voyages and their impact on Spain as well as the entire world.

Downey covers some new material here as well. She describes the cannibalism the Europeans discovered in the Caribbean and tells us about the possible origin of the sexually transmitted disease of syphilis coming from the New World. She also believes, based on her own journalistic work, that there was a history of sexual abuse in Isabella’s family.

There is some good information about Isabella’s children, especially Prince Juan and her daughter Juana. I particularly enjoyed the details of the life of Juana. Personally, I go back and forth on whether Juana was actually mentally ill or a victim of the men around her. Downey makes the case that Juana was perfectly sane but was unprepared and untrained in how to rule. Juana just wasn’t up to the task. There are some great descriptions about how Juana’s husband, the Archduke Philip, basically abused Juana as well as accounts of how her father plotted to take the throne of Castile from her. This is some really intriguing information and I may have to look into the biographies of Juana listed in the bibliography.

Isabella was an accomplished administrator and a warrior. There are many things to admire about her. But there is also a dark side to her personality. Even taking into account the mindset of medieval and Renaissance Spain, Isabella’s personality is full of religious fervor and rigidity. This leads to some objectionable events during her reign such as the mistreatment and exile of Jews and Muslims as well as the evils of the Spanish Inquisition. Downey argues the Inquisition was mostly the brainchild of Isabella’s husband Ferdinand and he used it for his own purposes for political gains and to increase his personal wealth.

I don’t want to get into a comparison between Downey’s and Liss’ work as both books have their own merits. I will say that Downey’s work is an easier and more enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. Reading both books gives a complete historical rendering of the life of this extraordinary Queen.