SBD: Four Queens

So, for today’s SBD, I’m going to talk about four really smart bitches, the (theoretical) main characters of Four Queens.

From the backcover:

The story of the four beautiful daughters of the count of Provence whose brilliant marriages made them the queens of Franch, England, Germany, and Sicily — and a sumptuous buffet of glamour, intrigue, and feminine power.

There are also a bunch of very nice review quotes from sources ranging from Booklist to The Economist.

The book was lent to me by a colleague who loves historical fiction.  She told me that this nonfiction book read like fiction and she LOVED it, so I must read it.

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Provence was a center for arts, full of poets and troubadours.  Raymond Berenger V was married to Beatrice of Savoy, and the two of them managed to keep the finances of the county afloat through what appears to be the medieval equivalent of CDOs and questionable lending/borrowing practices, while fending off the neighbors.  England was suffering an extended low with the disaster of King John’s reign and the loss of its continental properties.  France was in a fairly good position, geopolitically speaking.  The Holy Roman Empire was still hanging on, despite the fall of Rome centuries before.  Crusading was big business and the Catholic Church was a megalith that seemed more interested in the worldly than the metaphysical. 

Raymond and Beatrice were politically savvy, and managed to get their eldest daughter married to the king of France.  Marguerite, their oldest daughter, was no heiress, but marriage to her gave the king of France (and his politically astute mother, Blanche, who’d ruled in her own right and not as regent until her son reached his majority) a power base in southwestern France, where Raymond of Toulouse and Simon de Montfort the elder were causing problems.  And then there was the second daughter, Eleanor.  The king of England chose her as a bride in part to secure a foothold in the region and maintain parity with the king of France.  Years later, the third daughter Sanchia was married to Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the younger brother of the king of England.  He was older, worldly, sophisticated, and the wealthiest private individual in Europe (perhaps the world) at the time.  The political upside to their marriage wasn’t really clear to me in the book; it wasn’t a love match either, since Cornwall seemed to have ignored Sanchia for most of their marriage and was reportedly disappointed by her lack of political acumen and drive.   This left Beatrice, the youngest child, who married a younger brother of the French king, and was more or less screwed by her older sisters and her mother as they jockeyed for power, money and position.  Eleanor and Marguerite were queens outright upon their marriages; Sanchia and Beatrice became queens later in their lives as lands were conquered and titles earned or bought outright; the two older sisters seem to have had signficiantly more input on the policies and governance.

The book read quickly and never bogged down in historical minutia.  (Caveat: due to a teenaged fascination with medieval european history, I was familiar with the general outline of what happened, although not so specifically as it related to the Provencal sisters.)   Although the book is ostensibly about the four sisters, they aren’t the major players.  It’s more that they are the framework or filter for a piece of european history.  Other historical characters (? are they characters if they were real people?) get considerably more page space, like Simon de Montfort, Beatrice of Savoy and her relations, and Blanche the White Queen. 

The book left me wondering if I’ve spoiled myself for historical nonfiction by all of the historical fiction I’ve read.  Because as much as I enjoyed the larger picture that was painted, I found myself wishing for a more intimate portrait of the four queens.  There are sources of information available about them; they were politically important after all.  But there is only so much speculation, psychoanalysis and inference that a historian can draw from letters and chronicles of the time.

This book gets a solid B from me.  Enjoyable, but not a keeper.

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