The Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone
In 13th century Europe, women were primarily seen as pawns, almost property that would bring riches or glory to their family by how they married; sons were prized over daughters as heirs to the family land or fortune. Into this climate, the Count and Countess of Provence delivered four daughters and no sons. Yes, they were probably very disappointed at the outset, but their four daughters ended up changing the history of Europe.
Each of the Count’s daughters ended their lives as European Queens. The oldest, Marguerite was married to French King Louis IX and the second oldest, Eleanor, married the English King, Henry III. Both of these kings had ambitious younger brothers, each of whom married another one of the sisters and won a kingdom, at least partially because of his wife’s family connections: England’s Richard of Cornwall married the third daughter, Sanchia, and got himself crowned Holy Roman Empire and France’s Charles of Anjou married the youngest daughter, Beatrice, and conquered Sicily.
Certainly the family of these women, particularly their maternal uncles, influenced their husbands and the policy in their kingdoms to varying degrees. What was slightly less convincing was how the women themselves influenced their kingdoms. Eleanor was certainly a strong queen who influenced her husband but some of the others, Sanchia in particular, seem to be more notable because of their family connections.
Goldstone did not use many citations – although she did often quote primary sources – so I’m not entirely sure how good her history is, since this is not a period I’ve ever studied. Whatever her biases may be, however, I am reasonably certain that she has her basic facts and timelines down. She writes a very readable narrative history book and it is fascinating to see how women could work within the context of their societal roles, even in the 13th century, to shape the fate of a continent.
If you’re interested in this book, check out Penguin’s Reader Guide.