Nancy Goldstone’s Four Queens is the sort of non-fiction I enjoy tucking in to. I travelled last week and wanted a book to read at the airport and on the plane to decompress and scratch the same mental itch as my marathoning Time Team has done (a show which helped me recognize names and places in this book!) and am I ever so glad that I had thought ahead to pack this book as well as Last Night at the Telegraph Club for book club prep. This monograph leans towards the pop history side of the equation, and at just north of 300 pages cannot possibly contain all the information regarding the lives of its subjects, but it did the job I wanted it to do, introducing me to historical figures I did not know and helping elucidate some of the political, financial, and religious machinations of the late medieval period.
Four Queens shares a lot with another book I read this year, The Dark Queens. I read both for the Read Harder Challenge task 22, read a history about a period you know little about. The books share a point of view and cover some similar ground, and while both fall within the Middle Ages their time periods are separated by seven hundred years. This is an era I know little about but find endlessly interesting. The premise of Goldstone’s book is right in its title: in the thirteenth century there was a family of four sisters whom all ended up crowned queen at some point in their lives. They experienced this rare happening in vastly different ways, and being a queen affected them in a variety of ways, but most importantly their family politics ended up shaping major sections of Western European history for centuries. By taking the sisters as her subject, Goldstone shows the intricacy of thirteenth century international relations, highlighting the interpersonal connections that so strongly influence decisions and policies affecting people’s lives.
The titular four queens were the daughters of Raymond Berenger V, Count of Provence, and Beatrice of Savoy; Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice; whose improbable marriages made them the queens of France, England, Germany, and Sicily respectively. We are also introduced to the extended family members who become crucial to how the four queens (although mostly Marguerite and Eleanor) ruled, including their maternal uncles and Blanche of Castile who rules France for much of her son Louis IX’s reign. Goldstone walks her readers through Ineffectual monarchs and the younger siblings who wanted their jobs. A lot of time is spent discussing the ways in which Henry III and Louis IX were not necessarily born with the temperaments to be good leaders, Henry being ineffectual in armed conflicts and Louis’s piousness leading him to put his faith before his people. Henry and Louis each had a seemingly more effective younger brother (the cousins shared more than many realized, including probably themselves). Richard of Cornwall was widely regarded as a better leader than Henry and routinely outsmarted his brother and forced him to pay him off, and Charles of Anjou was more confident and ambitious than Louis. The union of Charles and Beatrice of Provence (the youngest Provencal sister) was a marriage of two jealous, younger siblings and Goldstone captures how that dictated their married life well.
I’ve seen complaints about the tone used by Goldstone in relation to the Crusades, specifically as relates to possible Islamophobia and anti-Asian sentiments re: the Mongols. I personally did not clock too much of that, mostly because I felt Goldstone was writing in the tone of the people she was chronicling, who were literally waging religious war against these groups, but I can see how I may have easily missed something as I did skim much of the Crusades section (there was only so much death and destruction I could handle). I did notice a few mistakes early on most of which were copyediting issues which weren’t caught (misspellings of Carcassonne, misnaming Edward the Confessor as Edmund, misplacing Flanders on the western coast of France) but overall, the research was strong as Goldstone incorporates a variety of different chroniclers’ views (though perhaps she didn’t interrogate their biases as thoroughly as she could have), as well as letters written by the queens, their husbands, and sons. But… she doesn’t actively cite them, and there is no Notes section, although there is a Bibliographical Note where she discusses her process and the main sources she relied on and a Selected bibliography which is comprehensive.