The religious upheaval of Tudor England is well known. The French Wars of Religion, which occurred while Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne, have received much less attention in popular histories and culture. At the centre of this conflict were two powerful royal women: Catherine de Medici, an Italian noblewoman who married King Henri II of France and served as regent for her son Charles IX, and Catherine’s daughter Marguerite “Margot” de Valois who was compelled to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarre. Both queens shaped the religious and political climate of sixteenth century France. In The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom, Nancy Goldstone, author of The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc and Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe brings these two influential women to life.
The Rival Queens begins powerfully with the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, the event that defined the lives and reputations of both Catherine and Marguerite. In the days following Marguerite’s wedding, thousands of Protestants were murdered by Catholics. Catherine de Medici appeared to be the instigator of the violence with Marguerite caught between the two factions. In popular culture, such as Alexander Dumas’s novel La Reine Margot and the film of the same name, Marguerite’s romances are the focus but Goldstone reveals her sincere Roman Catholic religious faith, intellectual interests and political acumen. Her life was filled with narrow escapes, quick thinking and daring rescues and the The Rival Queens is most engaging when it is describing her adventures in France and Navarre during the Wars of Religion.
While Marguerite emerges as a fully realized figure in The Rival Queens, Catherine de Medici does not receive the same nuanced treatment. Her childhood and decades of marriage to Henri II are summarized in a single chapter. This approach not only results in a hurried description of a fascinating period of Catherine’s life – the young Mary, Queen of Scots was raised alongside her children – but her complex motivations are simplified to resentment alone. While Goldstone is critical of how historians have reduced Marguerite to her personal life, she accepts much of the traditional depiction of Catherine de Medici as an unambiguous villain. For example, she describes Catherine’s “Flying Squadron” of beautiful ladies-in-waiting as her spies, encouraged to seduce unsuspecting male courtiers even though there is recent scholarship arguing that this interpretation is a legend that reflected male discomfort at the prominence of women at Catherine’s court.
The dramatic circumstances of Catherine’s and Marguerite’s lives unfolded in Renaissance France, amidst the Chateaux of the Loire Valley and the Louvre in Paris. Catherine de Medici seized the Chateau de Chenonceau from Henri II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers upon his death and it became a favoured royal residence. The images at the centre of the book, however, are all of historical figures and there only scattered descriptions of the opulent surroundings where royal events unfolded. More attention to the setting would have added depth and cultural context to the book.
The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom is an engaging introduction to the two most influential women of the French Wars of Religion. Marguerite de Valois emerges as a survivor and an unlikely heroine, saving her husband’s life multiple times then accepting an amicable annulment and settling down as an elder stateswoman in Henry IV’s Paris. In contrast, Catherine reached the zenith of her power as Charles IX’s regent then found herself unable to control her his successor, Henri III. Mother and daughter struggled for power in one the most tumultuous periods in France’s history and emerged as The Rival Queens.
Next Week: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas (historical fiction)