(Book Review) Game of Queens… by Sarah Gristwood

Review by Lisa Folkmire

It starts with the game of chess. More specifically, the role of the queen within the game. The change of the queen’s role in the game of chess came with Queen Isabella of Castile, the queen who quite literally kept her own space, fought her own wars, and marked the change of the queen’s role within the European continent.

In her female heralding historical nonfiction book, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe, Sarah Gristwood recounts the networking of queens that held Europe’s reigns for upwards of 100 years. The generational passing of the rule, the friendships, the feuds, and the sons they ruled through along the way brings an entire new color to the Renaissance period.

Possibly the greatest aspect of Gristwood’s Game of Queens is that it is a history book written about a time period written through the female scope with male characters, where the norm is to have a time period book written through the male scope with female characters. This book serves as a testimony to one of the most written about periods in European history. It is a vindication for its leading women.

Gristwood pays homage to not only each of the women within the book, but the networks they formed and grew during this time period within Spain and the Habsburg Empire, France, England, and Scotland. She considers her readers, writing in short, often five page chapters, grouping characters within their networks, and including a brief synopsis of the 39 main characters she includes in her 324 page book.

If there is any narrating thread throughout the book, it’s Anne de Beaujeu (Anne of France), regent of France for Charles VIII, and author of Lessons for my Daughter, which would become the noblewomen’s version of Machiavelli’s The Prince during this time period. The first portion from de Beaujeu that Gristwood quotes is, “You should have eyes to notice everything yet to see nothing, ears to hear everything yet to know nothing, and a tongue to answer everyone yet to say nothing prejudicial to anyone” (13). In other words,  never let on how much you know as queen or regent.

Unlike prominent male historical writers, such as David Starkey in his well known Six Wives, Gristwood’s writing on women refrains from using terms such as “womanly” before describing a show of emotion or desire for pretty things. In fact, she paints women in a completely different picture.

In one instance, she recounts the time when Margaret of Austria was courted by the Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon (Henry VIII’s closest friend). In an attempt to court Margaret of Austria, he had slid a diamond ring of hers off of her finger and put it on herself. Gristwood uses Margaret’s recounting of the story, stating, “Margaret told Brandon he was a thief, a laron, and that she hadn’t thought the king had thieves in his company. Brandon couldn’t understand the word laron, so Margaret tried the Flemish word dieffe and begged him (once that evening, when he seemed not to understand her, and once next morning through the king) to give the ring back to her” (47). In using the woman’s recounting of the story, the often recounted capable Brandon becomes the lesser, unable to keep up with a regent queen’s intelligence.

This isn’t to say that all of the queens are painted as ruling masterminds. On the contrary, Gristwood calls out issues with the passing of the crown just as much as she gives credit where credit is due. She shows this most through the Scottish queens, Margaret Tudor and her granddaughter, Mary, Queen of Scots.

The two seem to mirror each other with their bad luck in multiple marriages. They were not mastermind female rulers, like their contemporaries, and were often blamed for showcasing weakness for European women.

For example, in the abrupt ending of Mary’s second marriage (which ended after her second husband was crushed in the explosion of a castle she had convinced him to move to that night), Gristwood critiques Mary’s calm reactions in the aftermath of his death, “Certainly, Mary did now act foolishly. Her very unpreparedness to deal with this crisis perhaps suggests that she had not anticipated it precisely. Instead of observing the strictest mourning as a wife, and as queen distancing herself from those suspected of the dead, she…vacillated, basically” (281). She later adds, “One would depict Mary herself as a mermaid, that notorious symbol of harlotry” (281).

With her ability to weave together the historical significance of so many mastermind female rulers, such as Margaret of Austria, Louise of Savoy, Mary of Hungary, and Marie de Guise, Gristwood can throw in the failures of women leaders as well, enforcing that they are the exception to the rule.

So when do we get this idea that a female ruler is an anomaly, something to be taken under consideration before acted upon? Why is it that in the year 2019, we have yet to see a world quite like that of 16th century Europe? A time when art was praised, intelligence honored, and women sat comfortably on the throne?

Gristwood hints at a sudden change on the small island nation of England, shortly after the powerhouse Elizabeth I died. Just after England officially made its mark as a leading country thanks to its “Virgin Queen” (something her father, Henry VIII worked on for years), King James VI, Mary, Queen of Scots son, took the throne. Not only did he come from a family of abusive men who often took the crown from their wives with royal blood, but he was also tutored by George Buchanan, who “wrote that it was unbecoming of a woman ‘to pronounce Judgement, levy Forces, to conduct an Army’ as it was for a man to spin wool or to perform ‘the other Services of the Weaker Sex'” (320). In one paragraph, Gristwood shows two key characters in the cease of female rule in Europe. She warns: timing, it would seem, is everything.

Game of Queens doesn’t rewrite history, but it tells history in a way that most of us have never been able to consider before. And it’s simple, really. A history told from the point of view by the people who were actually leading at the time. Rather than recounting Elizabeth I as a female force of her time, she explains how Elizabeth I entered the game. With this, Gristwood offers required reading, reading that makes us think what a world we could have if we didn’t have such a strong culture of gender prejudice.

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