Several years ago, historian Sarah Gristwood’s Blood Sisters held me enrapt. She described the well-known events of the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudor dynasty through the lives of the Plantagenet women. It was women’s history at its best* in that it not only told the story of often forgotten or marginalized women** but enlarged the historical framework in the process.***
When Basic Books offered me a review copy of Gristwood’s newest book I said “yes, please.”****
Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth Century Europe considers the unprecedented explosion of powerful women in sixteenth century Europe that stretches from Isabella of Spain****** through Elizabeth I of England. Many of the women she discusses are not familiar to even well-read readers of the English-speaking world, because we tend to learn the history of Great Britain and its colonial descendants and not much else. The book would be interesting if all Gristwood did was tell the stories of women like Louise of Savoy, Marguerite of Navarre, Catherine de Medici, Margaret of Austria, et al.******* But in fact, she does more. She unravels the relationships that linked women across kingdoms and time. Mother and daughter, mentor and protégée, rival and ally, aunt and niece, sister and sister-in-law–linked by blood and marriage, separated by politics and the religious divides of the Reformation. An old girls’ network fueled, as such networks always are, by power.
The web of relationships she considers is complicated, made worse by the fact that several women were named Mary and various forms of Margaret. I tried to map them, first on the sheet of paper I was using as a book mark and later using mind mapping software. (Why yes, I am a nerd.) When my multi-family tree began to look more like a ball of yarn that a kitten had played with than an organizational chart, I abandoned it and decided to trust Griswold to keep me on top of who was who and where and when. I will admit that I confused Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549) with Marguerite of Valois (1553-1615), who became the queen consort of Navarre and the earlier Marquerite’s granddaughter-in-law. But that was my fault, not Gristwood’s. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
The resulting book, like Blood Sisters, enlarges our view of history. By looking at sixteenth century queens as a group, rather focusing on the individual stories of one or two powerful women, Gristwod is able to explore the nature of female power and the ways in which women were able to exercise power in a period in which that power was circumscribed by law and tradition. (The Habsburgs, in particular, relied on powerful women to serve as regents and local governors in the name of distant emperors.)
If you like historical tough broads, you’re going to love Game of Queens.
*A subject that I have more than a casual interest in these days.
**And you thought History in the Margins was just a clever title.
***It should go without saying that the picture gets bigger when you re-introduce half the population into the story. But it doesn’t always happen.
****It’s been a while since I’ve written a statement about the books I review. This seems as good a time as any. Shelf Awareness for Readers pays me to write reviews, which I occasionally re-post here–often in a modified form. I receive review copies from publishers for some of the books I write about. Other books I pull off my shelf or buy from my local independent bookstore. ***** No matter where the book comes from, I don’t review books I don’t like. (Just because I don’t review a book that I received a copy for doesn’t mean I don’t like it. It just means I receive more books in a given month than I can hope to read.–Have I mentioned how much I love this job?) In no case does a publisher pay me directly to write a review. Any questions?
*****A practice I strongly endorse.
******The book’s title is derived from a change in the rules of chess that occurred in Spain during Isabella’s reign. Prior to the fifteenth century, the queen could only move one diagonal square at a time. Under Spain’s warrior queen, the chess piece became the most powerful piece on the board. Coincidence? (Yes, Isabella was a warrior queen. It’s easy to underestimate her if the only thing you know about her is that she underwrote Christopher Columbus’s first voyage. Note to self: it’s time for a blog post on Isabella. And on chess.)
******* For example, I had never heard of the Ladies’ Peace, brokered in 1529 by Margaret of Austria, the Habsburg emperor’s aunt/regent and Louise of Savoy, mother to the King of France. Not my period and all that.