The Rival Queens is Nancy Goldstone’s biography of two fascinating women of 16th century France: Catherine de’ Medici, who ruled France for decades, during the reigns of three of her sons, and Marguerite de Valois, her youngest daughter, married to King Henry of Navarre, the leader of the Protestant faction. At this time, France was devastated by wars between the ruling Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots. Marguerite’s wedding to Henry in 1572 was the occasion for the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which thousands of Protestants were killed, including most of the groom’s entourage. Historians have debated Catherine de’ Medici’s responsibility for the massacre, but Goldstone thinks Catherine was the main instigator. She portrays Catherine as a ruthless manipulator who would stop at nothing to maintain her power. She took a dislike to her youngest daughter almost from the day Marguerite was born. Marguerite, by contrast, is a sympathetic figure, intelligent and courageous. Immediately after the massacre, when Catherine offered her a chance to divorce her Protestant husband a few days after the wedding, Marguerite refused, knowing that he would be killed if she divorced him.
But Marguerite and Henry never loved each other, and Marguerite was constantly set aside in favor of a series of mistresses. Everyone in Marguerite’s family, except her youngest brother François, treated her badly. In gratitude to François, Marguerite agreed to spy for him in Flanders, where he hoped to create a kingdom for himself. His attempt ultimately failed. People familiar with the Tudors will know that François was the French prince who was a suitor for Elizabeth I. Henri III, Catherine’s favorite son and the third to become king, was particularly cruel to Marguerite, eventually having her imprisoned in a fortress. She was freed only after her brother was assassinated and her husband became heir to the throne. But because Marguerite’s husband was a Protestant, there were many who would not accept him as king of France, and it was only after years of conflict that he was finally crowned king, as Henry IV, after converting to Catholicism. But Marguerite never had any children, and Henry divorced her in order to marry a younger woman. After the divorce, Henry and his new wife welcomed Marguerite at court, and she was much happier than she ever was when she was married to him.
Marguerite was a patron of poets and musicians, and she was an author herself. Her memoir is one of the main sources for the history of France in this period. Nancy Goldstone writes an entertaining biography of Marguerite and her ruthless mother. Even though this is non-fiction, Goldstone keeps you turning the pages as if it were a novel.
The Rival Queens is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library: http://mirlyn.lib.umich.edu/Record/013735249 .