The Rival Queens: Catherine de Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom
by Nancy Goldstone
Back Bay Books, 2015
Goldstone’s casual and vivacious writing style, with the occasional quips, must be very appealing to both the general reading public and those more versed in the era presented in Rival Queens. Although the emphasis is on Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, it was not misguided because of the extensive use of the primary source of her own memoirs. Obviously, first-hand accounts are usually biased to some extent, and autobiographies more so, but that does not make them less valuable and it certainly makes them more entertaining.
Catherine de Medici’s treatment was a bit difficult for me to accept as the writer’s conclusions were quite the opposite of what I had been exposed to as an undergraduate. Goldstone’s “Epilogue” shared her belief in how the reputations of both women had reversed from their contemporaries’ views. Here, the formidable Catherine seemed much less in charge and less central to events during the reign of Henri III and more of a minion herself—doing the King’s bidding–than previous scholarship has presented. Gladstone would have the reader believe that all she did (and for that matter Marguerite—lost count of the number of times she had to pull herself out of bed in the middle of winter) was arise from her bed to deal with pacifying the major players in the conflicts. Also, the writer implies that most of Catherine’s matrimonial plans for her children were to ensure peace or postpone aggression, when many times it was to advance their positions.
This reviewer did find frustrating Goldstone’s lack of identifying the people she quoted such as ambassadors. Placing a name to the quote is important especially for those versed in the time period since ambassadors, courtiers and others had their own objectives and connections. Knowing which person was the ‘speaker’ would have added considerably to the text immediately rather than having to keep checking the notes (which were admirable by the way).
Obviously, this text is meant to be an approachable introduction to these two women because of the more modern parlance (such as referring to a country Germany), and foreshadowing of events, with plenty of tantalizing tidbits such as Henri III’s homosexuality, Henri II and Henry IV affairs and the dysfunctional family (continually referring to Margot’s need for love to counter her mother’s neglect seemed very modern). Historians must use caution when writing to eliminate or reduce their own social and political mores from intruding on the historical fact. Yes, contemporary lives must interpret (that also means judge) the past in order to learn from it; yet, it must be done without casting too deep a shadow on the actions historic figures take remembering the constraints which the attitudes of their time produced. A rather superficial example of this would be when Goldstone seems to relay the message that Marguerite could identify her nephew as from royal stock quite easily by his stature but is shocked that one of the Queen’s intimates would suffer a death below his station. This would be the equivalent of people thinking today that royal personages actually do have blue blood. Apparently, I need to take my own advice and stop myself from criticizing people today who have met a member of a royal family and always seem to exclaim that so-and-so “was so down-to-earth, so natural.” As if the royal personage was truly of a different creation of humanity.
As always any mention of Elizabeth I draws my close attention and she was bandied out several times to the aid of the Protestants and as a prospective bride to Francios, Duke of Anjou. The age was remarkable in the number of women who held prominence, who wielded power (often unapologetically) and turned the course of history. Reading any materials about them, including this acceptable work, is gratifying.