Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood - review by Anne Somerset

Anne Somerset

Iron Ladies

Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe


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Sarah Gristwood’s sweeping survey of the careers of numerous royal women in 16th-century Europe amply justifies the nod to Game of Thrones in the title: it features enough dynastic conflict, violence and sexual intrigue to satisfy the most hardened addicts of the series. Rather than make the link explicit, Gristwood maintains that the game she has in mind is chess, at which many of the book’s female protagonists excelled. It was in the late 15th century, perhaps as a compliment to Queen Isabella of Castile, that its rules were modified so that the queen could move freely about the board. The development foreshadowed the influential role soon to be played by women in many European courts. Gristwood further points out that in chess a humble pawn that reaches the far side of the chessboard can be transformed into a queen: the parallel with Anne Boleyn, a commoner who became Henry VIII’s second wife, is clear. However, as Anne learned to her cost, a mistake could still result in the queen being swept from the board. In theory 16th-century Europe was resolutely patriarchal. In his denunciation of ‘the Monstrous Regiment of Women’, the Scottish preacher John Knox said that crowning a woman was akin to putting ‘a saddle upon the back of an unruly cow’. Yet as the French poet Ronsard observed, in this period much of Christendom was ‘governed by princesses whose natural intelligence, seasoned by long experience … put a great many kings to shame’.

Within the British Isles, a lack of male heirs resulted in the accession of one Scottish and two English queens regnant. In France, Salic Law debarred women from inheriting the throne, but this meant that during a child king’s minority it was sometimes thought best to entrust the regency to a female relative, who would not be tempted to usurp the throne herself. The Habsburgs routinely delegated control of portions of their vast dominions to female family members, with Emperor Charles V successively placing his aunt, his sister and his illegitimate daughter in charge of the Netherlands.

A princess’s destiny generally revolved around a marriage settled without regard to her wishes. Political necessity could entail a child bride having to consummate a marriage at an age when sexual relations might endanger her health. The father of Louise of Savoy thought it hilarious when, on the eve of her marriage, his eleven-year-old daughter expressed concern that she was ‘still too narrow and … might die of it’. ‘She asks every day how big and long his thing is’, he chortled, interpreting this to mean she was ‘already itching to be at the business’. Rejecting the husband chosen was rarely an option. When the Navarrese princess Jeanne d’Albret objected to an arranged match, she was told that if she persisted, ‘I would be so beaten and maltreated that I would die’. Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter Margot refused to pronounce her vows at her wedding in 1572 to Henri of Navarre, whereupon her brother, King Charles IX of France, pressed her head down so it seemed she was nodding assent. Only on being widowed did some of these royal women obtain a measure of independence. They could then withstand pressure to remarry, as Christina of Denmark sensibly did when Henry VIII sought to make her his fourth wife. She perhaps recalled that one of her female relations had commented, when Henry beheaded Anne Boleyn, ‘most women would not appreciate it … if this kind of habit becomes general’.

Royal brides often found themselves torn between conflicting loyalties for their adopted homelands and the countries of their birth. Marriage alliances designed to bring about friendship between enemy nations rarely had the desired effect. The match between Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and James IV of Scotland in 1503 was supposed to inaugurate an era of ‘perpetual peace’, but ten years later James invaded England and was killed. If queens regnant married a foreigner, the husband could force the wife to subordinate her kingdom’s interests to further his own ambitions. When Queen Mary I of England married Philip of Spain in 1554 a treaty specified that she would remain ‘sole and solely queen’, but Philip still managed to embroil her in a disastrous war with France.

In a militaristic age, women’s leadership was undermined by their inability to be at the head of troops in battle; conversely, they enjoyed certain advantages when conducting peace talks. In 1529 the French king Francis I’s influential mother, Louise of Savoy, negotiated the so-called ‘ladies’ peace’ with Charles V’s aunt, Margaret of Austria, bringing about a respite in the Habsburg–Valois conflict that had convulsed Europe for decades. Margaret commented that it was easier for ladies ‘to make the first advance’ and to prioritise the welfare of nations over ‘the gratification of private hatred and revenge’.

Nevertheless, as Charles V’s sister, Mary of Hungary, remarked, this was a time when a woman was ‘never so much respected and feared as a man, whatever her position’. Mary Queen of Scots decided she could not govern a country ‘divided into factions as it is … unless our authority be assisted and set forth by the fortification of a man’. Her disastrous decision to seek to remedy this by marrying the Earl of Bothwell, the probable murderer of her previous husband, Lord Darnley, resulted in her own deposition. Religious divisions arising from the Reformation added to the challenges faced by female rulers, and they sometimes responded ferociously. Margaret of Austria was said to take the ‘greatest pleasure’, extirpating Netherlandish Lutherans, while in France, Catherine de’ Medici precipitated a terrifying bloodbath when in 1572 she ordered the eradication of the nation’s Protestant elite.

Gristwood handles multiple narrative strands with tremendous finesse, dexterously synthesising the stories of women who, in many cases, never met but whose lives intertwined in manifold ways. By presenting the triumphs and tribulations of Henry VIII’s womenfolk within a wider European context, she tackles the subject in a fresher way than would be permitted by a purely Anglocentric approach. Densely packed with fascinating material, this immensely ambitious undertaking succeeds triumphantly.

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