Four Queens: Not Just Pretty Faces

Nancy Goldstone’s book Four Queens was an interesting book to read on the heels of Herman’s Sex with the Queen.  Goldstone’s book examines the lives of Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia and Beatrice, daughters of the Count of Provence and the contribution they made to European politics in the 13th century by marrying extremely well, with each becoming a queen.  Marguerite married King Louis IX (later “Saint Louis”) of France.  Eleanor married Henry III of England.  Sanchia married Henry’s brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall who later became the King of Germany.  Beatrice inherited Provence after her father’s death (in accordance with Provencal tradition) and married Louis IX’s brother Charles who later became King of Sicily.   

These four women hailed from a fairly insignificant and less prosperous county in France that became strategically important due to international politics of the time:  it bordered Toulouse, long a thorn in the French king’s side as well as Saxony, a desirable neighbor.  These sisters were not only beautiful but also well-educated, a rarity for women in that time.  It was said that their mother referred to them as her “boys” and had them educated thusly.  As a result, these women were able to become major players on the world stage.

Goldstone has a deft touch with her material.  Biographies and histories can be a bit dry by nature, but Goldstone manages to imbue the sisters with personalities, making them come alive.  I appreciate that these women’s stories have been told.  Their story would be inspiring enough due to the fact these four women were politically active and strong rulers, but they were also surrounded by other very strong, in some cases domineering women.  Marguerite’s mother-in-law was Blanche of Castile, a woman who ruled France before and after her son came of age and most definitely did not want to cut the apron strings.  Eleanor’s mother-in-law Isabella, former Queen of England, married the son of an old lover (who was meant for her daughter) in France and continued to scheme against the French royal family for years (she had an ancient feud with Queen Blanche).  The sisters’ own mother was forceful and an able ruler of Provence.  

The women lived during a volatile period of time in Europe.  Henry III was the son of John, infamous for necessitating the creation of the Magna Carta.  Henry’s rule was marked by agitation and conflict with the barons and constant swearing and repealing of oaths governing his powers.  Louis IX would have made an excellent monk and spent enormous sums of money and the lives of thousands of men to fulfill his need to free Jerusalem with a crusade.  As a result, their stories are a wonderfully sudsy soap opera containing sibling rivalry, religous fervor, rebellion, nepotism, war and conspiracy.

While the women in Goldstone’s book were typically competent and strong, the men were not as impressive.  Louis tries hard but is more interested in religion than kingship.  Henry means well but has little aptitude for politics or governance. His brother Richard neglects his wife and believes HE would make a better king than his brother.  Charles, Beatrice’s husband, earns the dislike of his Provencal subjects and breaks promise after promise on his quest for power.   The popes are ridiculously corrupt.  The difference between the men and women is so pronounced that I wonder if Goldstone has exaggerated any of the characteristics in order to make the men seem as incompetent or undependable as possible while depicting the women as more competent and dependable. 

But that isn’t to say that the women were perfect.  Goldstone’s work doesn’t gloss over their defects or mistakes. Marguerite and Eleanor disapprove of Beatrice’s inheritance of Provence and pettily emphasize how they are queens and she is not, an insult Beatrice never forgets.  Eleanor, while strong, does not have the political aptitude she thinks she does and makes many mistakes, becoming hated by her subjects and estranged from her son.   Despite having so much power and influence, the sisters’ stories are sad in many ways.  They have this in common with Herman’s depiction of what life was like for a queen.

I liked this book.  I didn’t like it as much while I was reading it, but after I’ve reflected on it, it impresses me much more than I thought it did.  The telling of the story is great, but Goldstone had fantastic material with which to work:  Four sisters from a fairly insignificant family who all became queens and were literate and strong as well.  What a story!  Goldstone told each woman’s story in separate chapters, which worked well to allow the reader to focus on one woman at a time, but it occasinally frustrated me when periods of time overlapped and I had to remember who was doing what when.  Goldstone also had no footnotes and few citations in the book, making me wonder how many of the conclusions she drew and suppositions she made had any basis in fact.

Overall, though, it was an intersting book about a unique, interesting family.

Also recommended: 

  • The Queens of England (Norah Lofts)
  • Jean Plaidy’s Plantagenet series.  She also has series on the Tudors, Georgians, Stuarts and Queens of England.  Engrossing historical fiction.
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