Reading the French Renaissance: Game of Queens, a book review

Of all the books I picked up during my last trip to France, this was the only one I started reading immediately on the bus. As we rolled across the Loire Valley, I wanted to get as much information into my head before we got to another chateau. I can still see where he hit bumps on the highway and my underlining went a little wonky.

Obviously, Sarah Gristwood’s book title is a take on Game of Thrones, which I thought was pretty clever. Since I picked it up in Europe (I think at Chenonceau, but I’m not completely sure), I got the beautiful cover above. I’ve seen the alternate one with the globe in stores in the States, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with it.

Let me get my one criticism out of the way before I go any further, and that’s the fact that there was little that directly addressed the women of late Sixteenth-Century France. Chapter 42 is devoted to St Bartholomew’s day, and Chapter 43 does address some events afterward, but for the rest of the book, Gristwood focuses on the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Given the fact that the subtitle of the book is The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe, I’d have switched my focus on the two queens myself. Still, the book is a fascinating read.

First off, the scope and completeness of all of Western Europe are what makes this book a great reference. Gristwood focuses on the interwoven Hapsburgs of both Austria and Span, France, England, and Scotland. There’s a short but concise Who’s Who at the beginning of the book, which I found handy when doing research. She’s also provided handy genealogies, detailing where the various royal families intermarried during the Sixteenth Century. Since the Protestant Reformation kicked into high gear during this period, Gristwood was kind enough to even give a brief overview of the main Reformation figures.

In my case, this was a learning experience, since there’s much about the Hapsburg lands in the Netherlands that as a French focused historian I’d only known about in the most general terms. For Tudor fans, there’s plenty of information about Katherine of Aragon and Margaret Tudor’s marriage to James V of Scotland. Again, the wide scope of most of western Europe makes the book a great read for someone who wants to learn about the changing rivalries between the countries, but from the perspectives of the women who helped shape them. There are enough broken betrothals to keep the reader turning the page.

All in all, I loved the book. It was outside of my era and my focus mainly, although there were some pieces that I was able to use when writing my own books. I’m glad it made it back with me from France, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about Sixteenth-Century European politics from a woman’s point of view.