Sunday, January 23, 2011

#3 Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

I don't normally enjoy medieval history, it's not as interesting as ancient Roman to me, but Four Queens was a pretty good read.  Nancy Goldstone did what entirely too few historians can do-- she wrote a compelling account of French and English medieval politics. 

The book starts with a description of life in the Provencal court of Raymond Berger V.  He and his wife, Beatrice of Savoy, made their little section of the world a place for troubadours, intelligence, art, fun.  Their four daughters, Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice, benefited from this fro this environment and through luck and the exchange of a lot of money, each became a queen. 

The oldest, Marguerite, married Louis IX of France, a kind but insanely religious man with no real abilities.  Marguerite's intelligence and diplomacy helped her navigate a French court led by an antagonistic mother-in-law, Blanche of Castille, the real ruler of France.  Marguerite learned from Blanche and eventually became a well-respected queen in her own right.  The second sister, Eleanor, married Henry III of England, the son of the reviled King John, who was a well-meaning but largely ineffectual ruler.  Eleanor and Henry had success and failures: together they obtained peace with France, due in no small part to Marguerite, but they had large battles with the barons that led to civil war and almost cost them their lives.  Eleanor's determination and intelligence got her through the hard times and she eventually got to see her son Edward become a success.

The third sister, Sanchia, was quiet and devoted to her mother and son.  She married Henry's brother Richard, who eventually became the king of Germany.  Sanchia did not want or expect much from life but was embroiled in the politics of the day.  The youngest, Beatrice, inherited Provence after her father's death, infuriating her sisters.  She married Louis' brother Charles of Anjou, who was just as determined and entitled as Beatrice.  Together they often conspired against their siblings, eventually winning the titles of king and queen of Sicily. 

These four sisters had a large influence on western Europe at the time and they all tried to use it well.  They survived crusades, intrigues, civil war, and motherhood, just trying to do the best for their families and countries.  Goldstone tells an interesting piece of medieval history and does so without ever making it dry or letting up on the action.  No line is wasted with this story, requiring a thorough reading, but it is definitely worth it.

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