Nancy Goldstone has made a career of telling the often forgotten and always dramatic stories of powerful women in medieval Europe.* In The Rival Queens: Catherine de’Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom, Goldstone turns her attention to Renaissance France and its role in the growing struggle between Catholics and Protestants across Europe.
The betrayal to which the title refers is the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Huguenots were killed when they gathered in Paris to attend the unwilling Marguerite’s wedding to her Protestant cousin, Henry of Navarre. In fact, the massacre is only the most extreme of the betrayals–personal and political alike–which Goldstone describes.
Goldstone overturns the ruling historical evaluation of Catherine as an able, if Machiavellian, ruler and Marguerite as a sensual dilettante. Instead, she shows Catherine manipulating her children in order to maintain her power in France. Marguerite stands in counterpoint to her, growing into a woman of courage and integrity. Goldstone makes a compelling case for both portrayals, using first-hand accounts from the period, including Marguerite’s memoir.
Firmly rooted in history, The Rival Queens combines the pageantry and passion of a Philippa Gregory novel with the Byzantine plot and violence of A Game of Thrones. It is a story of intra-family rivalry taken to the level of “scheming and conspiracy, treason and treachery”. Religion is its battlefield; sex, tale bearing and the withholding of maternal love its primary weapons.
*Including The Maid and the Queen, yet another contemporary retelling of Joan of Arc‘s story.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.