448 pages, Back Bay Books, ISBN-13: 978-0316409667
Nancy Goldstone’s The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom takes the form of a dual biography of Catherine de’ Medici – Queen of France, an Italian noblewoman of the Florentine Medici family who married King Henri II of France and served as regent for her son Charles IX – and her daughter Marguerite de Valois – Queen Margot who was compelled to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarre. In tracing the lives of these two 16th Century monarchs, Goldstone vividly and painstakingly recreates the immensely complicated twists and turns of the French Wars of Religion, which occurred while Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne but have received much less attention in popular histories and culture in the English-speaking world. Over the course of 400+ pages, we are taken from Catherine’s inauspicious birth in 1519, to her daughter Marguerite’s much-grieved death in 1615 and, with it, the fall of the House of Valois. Goldstone has two aims: to soften images of Catherine de’ Medici, famed for her Machiavellian statesmanship and her murderous machinations, and, at the same time, to harden image of Marguerite, who is chiefly remembered for her silly romantic intrigues and rumors of her incestuous relationships with her brothers. In the second of these two aims Goldstone is particularly successful as, through careful analysis of a wide range of contemporary sources, she places Marguerite back at the heart of 16th Century French politics with a crucial role to play in the crossings and double-crossings that defined these intensely violent decades.
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’ 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 Rival Queens is most engaging when it is describing her adventures in France and Navarre during the Wars of Religion. All well and good, but 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.
But this book is much more than a dual biography of these two women; The Rival Queens is, in fact, a masterful biography of the House of Valois in its entirety and of the complicated relationships that existed between Catherine’s seven surviving children, all but two of whom would become European sovereigns( indeed, at several points in the book both Catherine and Marguerite disappear from the proceedings entirely to make way for the dramatic and scandalous intrigues that existed between brothers Charles, Henri and François as they vied for positions of power within the kingdom, appropriating the religious divides between Catholic and Huguenot factions at court and across the country into their various plots and alliances). The title is misleading in another way in that that mother and daughter were rarely rivals, for their tempestuous and fraught relationship was merely one small facet of a family defined by dysfunction. In the same way, although the “betrayal that ignited a kingdom” of the title refers to the St Bartholomew’s Massacre, it could in fact refer to any of the decades-long betrayals that the Valois siblings perpetrated against one another. But Goldstone’s greatest achievement is in her recreation of one of the most complex periods in French history in a way that it at once easy to follow and also entertaining. Her jovial, light-hearted style gets the reader on-side early on and makes the intricate allegiances and betrayals of a group of French aristocrats – almost all of whom are called Henri – appear compelling and even entertaining. Alongside all the tragedy and violence there is more than a faint air of the ridiculous about the Wars of Religion, and Goldstone captures this well. There are moments when Goldstone does get a little bogged down in the detail, and there are a few sections that could perhaps have done with a bit of cutting (I’m not sure, for example, that we really needed a four page tangential biography on Nostradamus), but given the complexity of the subject matter, it is impressive that this doesn’t happen more often.
The Rival Queens 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 de’ Medici 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 Rival Queens.