The era of the French Wars of Religion is one of the most complex and confusing of post-medieval history. It is also one of the most depressing, as, over the space of more than a generation, Europe’s premier kingdom devoured itself in religious and factional hatreds. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572, when thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered with appalling ferocity by their Catholic neighbours, is the largest and best-known episode of violence, but there were countless others. (The word ‘massacre’ itself was a new coinage of the wars.) Through all the vicissitudes of French politics in the second half of the sixteenth century, one family was seldom far from the heart of the action: that of the dukes of Guise. The Guise are best known (if at all) to modern British readers as the maternal relatives of Mary, Queen of Scots. But to many of their contemporaries, and to numerous commentators after the demise of their power at the end of the sixteenth century, they were a byword for blood, ambition and tyranny. After the untimely death (in a jousting accident) of King Henry II in 1559, the Guise lust for power plunged the kingdom into political turmoil, and their religious bigotry unleashed itself in the violent persecution of Protestants. Worst of all, it was sometimes suggested, the Guise were not really French at all, but ‘Germans’ from the frontier region of Lorraine.
Stuart Carroll’s collective biography of the leading family members over three generations sets out systematically to deconstruct this ‘black legend’, and to rescue the Guise, not so much from obscurity, as from infamy. Carroll, a professor of history at York and a distinguished scholar of the politics and