Four Queens, The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, by Nancy Goldstone
As the third book of my recent bookstore jaunt , this book proved to be an interesting one to read. It serves as a comparative biography of four sisters, looking at European women’s history (an area of some personal interest ) and a way that an ambitious family with four beautiful daughters managed to find itself at the center of European power, with far reaching consequences for history as a whole. This is all the more remarkable given that the women themselves seem to be somewhat obscure. One of the joys of reading a history like this is looking at history through different angles, through seeing that even at an age of supposed male domination there were women who were able regents and even more able at ruling than their husbands, and that women not only were used as bargaining chips in alliances and as mothers for future monarchs, but were essential elements in providing strength through their counsel and through helping to steel their menfolk with encouragement and strength.
What is almost as remarkable as four sisters (who had no brothers) reaching the pinnacle of European society as queens regnant is the fact that they did so not from a famous royal family themselves, but rather from a family of second-teir nobles, as the children of a somewhat impoverished count of Provence, a semi-independent territory that officially was a part of the Holy Roman Empire on the borders between the Italian Savoyard territories (to whom they were closely connected by marriage) and France. This land of troubadours and wine-growers sent its four heiresses across Western and Central Europe, where all four of them became queens. Resolute oldest daughter Marguerite married the pious but impractical King Louis of France, who was involved in two spectacularly unsuccessful crusades (one of which cost him his life in Tunis) and had a mean and bullying mother-in-law. Eleanor, immensely ambitious, married the somewhat incompetent Henry III of England, who nearly lost his life in civil warfare against powerful barons who were upset at the influence of Eleanor’s relatives and countrymen in English politics. Beautiful third sister Sanchia married Henry’s younger brother Richard of Cornwall, who was not militarily powerful (quite the opposite) but managed to get himself elected as King of the Romans (Germany) during a complicated period in the post-Guelph Holy Roman Empire, but was unable to live long, dying in her early 30’s. Youngest sister, the spoiled and headstrong Beatrice, managed to marry the younger brother of her brother-in-law the French king, Charles of Anjou, who became king of Sicily and the founder of the Anjou dynasty of Naples. Each of these women ended up involved in the rebellions and crusades and statecraft of some of the most powerful realms in Europe, tying together realms in a complicated network of interrelated realms.
This particular history is of reasonable length (about 300 pages) and manages to cover all of the sisters, although it spends more time on the “more interesting” three sisters and less time on Sanchia, who appears to be a less substantial figure as the pretty but not particularly bright or strong-willed much younger second wife of a man who had a son who was not that much younger than she was. Nevertheless, the role of marrying wisely and in using family relations and strategic marriage alliances to help encourage diplomacy is a classic behavior of monarchs. What is not remarkable is that this was practiced, what is remarkable is that a small and not particularly powerful area of Europe would manage to maneuver itself into the center of these efforts. This book attempts to explain the results of those alliances, and how they had unpredictable results, including the debut of the Hapsburg family at the center of German politics and the fall of the Crusader states. As a single man, I can honestly say, it would be a good thing to marry as well as the four men who married these sisters did. Not all people can be so fortunate, though, to have such loyal and lovely and intelligent wives, though.
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