Nancy Goldstone’s The Rival Queens: Catherine de Medici, Marguerite de Valois and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom takes the form of a dual biography of Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. In tracing the lives of these two sixteenth-century monarchs, Goldstone vividly and painstakingly recreates the immensely complicated twists and turns of the Wars of Religion, one of the bloodiest and most confusing periods in French history.
Over the course of 448 pages, we are taken from Catherine’s inauspicious birth in 1519 to her daughter Marguerite’s much-grieved death in 1615 and, with it, the fall of the House of Valois. Goldstone has two aims: to soften images of Catherine de Medici, famed for her Machiavellian statesmanship and her murderous machinations, and, at the same time, to harden images of Marguerite, who is chiefly remembered for her silly romantic intrigues and rumours of her incestuous relationships with her brothers. In the second of these two aims Goldstone is particularly successful, as, through careful analysis of a wide range of contemporary sources, she places Marguerite back at the heart of sixteenth-century politics with a crucial role to play in the crossings and double-crossings that defined these intensely violent decades.
But, in fact, this book is much more than a dual biography of these two women. The title is a little misleading in that mother and daughter were rarely rivals, and that their tempestuous and fraught relationship was merely one small facet of a family defined by dysfunction. The Rival Queens is in fact a masterful biography of the House of Valois in its entirety, and the complicated relationships that existed between Catherine’s seven children who made it to adulthood, of whom all but two would become European sovereigns. Indeed, at several points in the text Catherine and Marguerite disappear from the proceedings entirely to make way for the dramatic and scandalous intrigues that existed between brothers Charles, Henri and François as they vied for positions of power within the kingdom, appropriating the religious divides between Catholic and Huguenot factions at court and across the country into their various plots and alliances. In the same way, although the ‘betrayal that ignited a kingdom’ of the title probably refers to the St Bartholomew’s Massacre, the dramatic denouement of which opens the book, it could in fact refer to any of the decades-long betrayals that the Valois siblings perpetrated against one another.
Goldstone’s greatest achievement is in her recreation of one of the most complex periods in French history in a way that it at once easy to follow and also entertaining. Goldstone’s jovial, light-hearted style gets the reader on-side early on, and makes the intricate allegiances and betrayals of a group of French aristocrats, almost all of whom are called Henri, appear fun and compelling. Alongside all the tragedy and violence there is more than a faint air of the ridiculous about the Wars of Religion, and Goldstone captures this well. There are moments when Goldstone does get a little bogged down in the detail, and there are a few sections that could perhaps have done with a bit of cutting (I’m not sure, for example, that we really needed a four page tangential biography on Nostradamus) but, given the complexity of the subject matter, it is impressive that this doesn’t happen more often.
One of the most effective methods Goldstone uses is to pause at particular moments of the text, to remind the reader of the strategic positions of each of the Valois siblings at that moment in time and set up the decisions that each took in their pursuit of power. There are points where Goldstone pushes this a bit far, projecting psychological readings onto her cast of characters that she has not definitively proved, and using such readings to make historical judgements in a way that does not always ring true. Goldstone appears to feel a need to provide definitive answers on aspects of the Valois relationships that remain murky and uncertain. This is seen, for example, in her assertions that Marguerite de Valois had aesthetic expectations of romance which, Goldstone argues, disproves rumours of Marguerite’s various sexual intrigues, although there is little evidence of this. At other points, however, the humanising of her subject matter brings the complex machinations of the Valois court to life- particularly in her ridiculing of the hapless François Duc of Anjou, youngest of the Valois siblings, whose plans almost always failed in execution due to his own inadequacies. This is not the dry exposition of plot and counter-plot implied by the use of Machiavelli quotes at the beginning of each chapter, but instead a rich human drama in which the best laid plans were overthrown by personal weakness.
In short, this is a vivid and compelling family drama, which, with the exception of occasional weak points, serves as an excellent introduction to a lesser known but fascinating period in French history.
Anna Jenkin is a PhD student in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French and British History at the University of Sheffield. You can follow her on twitter at @acjenkin
Nancy Goldstone’s The Rival Queens: Catherine de Medici, Marguerite de Valois and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom is published by Little, Brown and is available now.
Image Source: Frans Hogenberg, The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, 1572 via Wiki commons