😀 😀 😀 😀
It’s little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame.
Goldstone sets the scene well by beginning with Marguerite’s wedding to Henry of Navarre, a marriage she didn’t want since she was a devout Catholic and Henry was one of the leaders of the Protestant Huguenots. But Catherine didn’t much care for what her children wanted, on the whole – especially her daughters. From her perspective, they were simply pawns to be pushed around on the dynastic chessboard of Europe. To be fair, that was how she had been treated herself, so hardly surprising that she dealt with her own children’s wishes as cavalierly. But to then massacre the bridegroom’s friends and relatives during the wedding celebrations might have been a little over the top even for Renaissance royalty!
Goldstone then takes us back to Catherine’s early life as Queen to Henri II of France. Throughout, the tone of this hugely readable history is light. This early section in particular is full of some fairly ribald humour, as we learn of Catherine’s difficulties in becoming pregnant, and the helpful bedroom tips she is offered by Henri’s long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In truth, by page 25 I had tears of laughter streaming down my face and my only regret is that if I were to quote the passages that made me howl so much I’d have to re-rate my blog as ‘explicit content’! Suffice to say, this book has the honour of containing the funniest footnote of all time and my Google search recommendations may never recover…
After this rocky start, Catherine managed to produce ten children (Diane’s advice must have been spectacular!) before Henri’s death left her poised to become regent for her young son Charles IX. After years of playing second fiddle to Diane and being sidelined as Queen, there might be some slight justification for Catherine’s desire to grab power when the chance arose. And she soon proved there was nothing that she wouldn’t consider, including murder and war, to hold onto it. Unfortunate for her that this was the time of the Reformation, meaning that the country was almost constantly either in civil war or in danger of it. The Huguenots were numerically hugely outnumbered in the general population, but had some influential people at their head, while the Catholic Guises were constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities to gain control over the throne for themselves.
Catherine started out willing to conciliate the Huguenots, hence the betrothal of her young daughter to Henry of Navarre. But by the time of the marriage, Catherine’s attitude had changed, not for reasons of religious conviction (of which she had none, it would seem), but mainly to try to get in the good books of Philip of Spain. Having gone through with the marriage and then been horrified by the massacre which followed, Marguerite found herself in an uneasy alignment with the Huguenot husband she didn’t love and the brother, Francis, whom she did, and at odds with her mother and the King. From there on, the story is one of plot and counter-plot, shifting allegiances, betrayals and lots and lots of romping! Unloved by her husband, Marguerite took comfort in a succession of affairs throughout her life, seeming to be fairly indiscriminate on whom she bestowed her favours. In and out of her mother’s favour at different times, always for reasons of politics rather than any kind of familial love, the rivalry was finally resolved only by Catherine’s eventual unlamented death. Marguerite’s husband later ascended to the throne of France, at which point he promptly divorced the childless Marguerite (if only Diane had still been around to advise, eh?). But they got on better after that, and Marguerite ended her days as a sort of favoured aunt to Henry’s children with his second wife, and loved by the populace for her charitable works.
Despite the light tone, the book feels well-researched, although I give my usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified to judge its historical accuracy. Goldstone handles all the personalities well, making it easy for the reader to keep up, despite the fact that almost everyone is called either Henri or Henry. I felt that she was very biased in Marguerite’s favour and against Catherine. As often as not, the source material that she quotes is Marguerite’s own memoirs – again, I can’t judge, but I’d have assumed these would not be an unbiased account of the period. My own view was that Catherine was indeed not a shining example of motherhood, or Queenhood for that matter, but that Marguerite wasn’t exactly blameless either. Both women seemed willing to use their subjects as dispensable pawns in their own struggle for power and wealth and both seemed to have a pretty superficial view of what was important in life – money, sex, money, power and money. Goldstone remarks on Marguerite’s devotion to Catholicism frequently, but her moral behaviour suggests she was pretty relaxed about following the Church’s teachings only when it suited her.
Goldstone just stops short of claiming that Marguerite’s sexual adventures showed her to be an early feminist, demanding the same sexual freedom as the men. This seemed like a fairly ridiculous leap to me – historical characters must surely be judged by the standards of the society in which they lived rather than by those of today, and there seems little doubt that Marguerite was more promiscuous, or at least less discreet, than was considered acceptable at the time. And Goldstone is fairly harsh on Catherine for remaining in control (emotionally and politically) each time one of her children died – again I felt this was projecting today’s sensibilities backwards. Early death was much commoner then and therefore something that had to be coped with. I wondered if Goldstone would have expected a King to fall apart in similar circumstances. It seemed a bit unbalanced that Marguerite’s behaviour was a sign of feminism while Catherine’s was a sign of unwomanliness.
A biased history then, I think, but a highly readable one. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela. It concentrates entirely on the machinations of those in power, so there is no feeling for the social history of the time beyond mentions of the disruption caused by the religious wars. For me, this was a limitation although clearly an intentional one, and it undoubtedly made the book easier to read and more enjoyable. However sometimes I felt the subject matter perhaps deserved a rather more serious treatment – one feels somehow that the French people probably didn’t have as much fun living under these awful monarchs as I had reading about them. A great starter book though for someone who, like me, knows very little of that period of French and European history – a very palatable way to learn some history.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfield & Nicolson.