Women, Medieval; Continent: Europe

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

  • Strictly chattel? This author says at least some royal women played an active role in governing
  • 403 pages (350 pages excluding the family trees and other appendices)

Just a few decades into the thirteenth century, the count and countess of Provence had a family of four daughters. Provence was a separate kingdom from France in those days, and the custom there (as it was in France at the time) was for a woman to inherit and to retain rights to her property following marriage. Consequently, the count and countess expected their girls to need an education and preparation to rule. Unlike many young women, therefore, they were literate, exposed not only to the artistic stylings of the troubadors at court, but also to the politics discussed privately by their parents – their father, Count Raymon Berengeur IV, valued their mother Beatrice’s considered opinions on a variety of matters.

All in the Family

Meanwhile, in France, the White Queen, Blanche of Castile, was ruling in her son Louis IX’s stead. Even after Louis’ coronation, she essentially ran France. Fortunately for France, she was a capable and educated woman who earned the respect of her male peers. She was also no fool militarily: she knew she needed to secure her country’s southern border, and Provence could prove a strategically important ally. Thus, eldest daughter Marguerite came to wed Louis. Although Marguerite was obliged to play it cool while Blanche held sway over Louis, the birth of their first child shifted power toward her, and she made sure to use it.

Not long after, now that the family had a royal sibling, the next sister, Eleanor, married Henry III of England. He was popular in his early reign – he could hardly fail to be, considering he was following his father’s act. His father, King John, had been such a disaster on the throne that his nobles forced him to sign Magna Carta. Henry, intelligent but prone to impulse and emotional display, found a stable counselor in analytical and farsighted Eleanor. Margeurite and Eleanor were especially close, and their sisterly affection drew France and England closer, culminating in the Treaty of Paris.

Daughters Three and Four Make Good, Too

The younger sisters came to power later. Third daughter Sanchia married Richard of Cornwall, Henry’s younger brother. Sanchia was his second wife, and he largely ignored her. She was quieter, and her main ambition was to create a family. Richard’s neglect must have been especially painful considering the marital partnerships her elder sisters enjoyed. Of the three sisters, she would be least involved in politics. Richard eventually became the in absentia King of the Romans (Holy Roman Empire, which basically meant Germany at that point) after already making himself probably the wealthiest private citizen in Europe.

Finally, youngest daughter Beatrice inherited Count Raymond’s holdings in Provence and married the younger brother of Louis, Charles of Anjou. Charles and Beatrice resented living in the shadow of their royal siblings and looked for any opportunity to prove themselves. They didn’t mind embarrassing the others in the process, either. When Beatrice complained about not being seated with her sisters at a banquet because she was not a queen, Charles laughed and told her not to worry. In fact, she did become his queen when he was made King of Sicily by the pope, who wanted to keep the guy with a better claim out of power.

Goldstone’s Girls

Goldstone writes in an engaging and witty narrative style. In fact, if Philippa Gregory’s fiction appeals to you, then this work offers a worthy foray into historical fact – not a bodice-ripper, but intriguing. Where Goldstone hypothesizes about emotions feeding a decision in this tale, she is probably right and can lead the reader to empathize. Plus, she makes sure the reader has enough backstory to get the significance of a point without becoming entirely sidetracked, a good skill for a writer attacking a topic as big as the lives of four queens.

The story of these four queens captures much of Europe’s thirteenth century. If this stretch of history appeals to you, then consider reading this author’s take even if you would normally discount it as “women’s studies”. The economics, the political intrigue, Crusade, and other forces shaping Europe at that time are all alive and part of the story. The only thing missing from this recount of medieval history, honestly, is bubonic plague, and I think that came along some decades later.

This book isn’t the only time Nancy Goldstone has offered a narrative focused on aristocratic or famous medieval women. Last October, I reviewed her The Maid and the Queen, her exceptional book about Joan of Arc and the aristocratic woman who brought her to fame, Yolande of Aragon. This author does seem to be making a career from women of prominence in Europe’s middle ages, but we are the better for it. I’ve always found it hard to believe that medieval women had zero influence over their environment and culture, even in the indisputably male-dominated society of that time and place, so I’m glad to have happened upon Nancy Goldstone’s work.

Image: Public domain image of Merguerite of Provence dating from the 15th century, Wikimedia.org.

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One thought on “Women, Medieval; Continent: Europe

  1. Thanks for suggesting another book for my to-read list! I always like to know if it’s worth it before I start reading.

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