Can you imagine being a 14-year-old girl, sent to a foreign country to marry a prince who you have never met? On your wedding night, your father-in-law stays in the marital bedroom, to ensure that the marriage is consummated.
Such were the realities of life for Renaissance royals.
In Young Queens, Leah Redmond Chang tells the intertwined stories of three very different women living among the great powers of Renaissance Europe in France, Spain, and Scotland.
It begins with orphaned eleven year old Catherine de’ Medici hiding in a convent from soldiers intent on capturing her and thus seizing power in Florence. She is later married to the French king; after his death, she becomes the power behind the throne as the Queen Mother, at a time when France is convulsed by religious wars and civil unrest.
Her daughter, Elizabeth de Valois, is sent to be the teenage bride of King Philip of Spain, a widower and much older than his new young queen. Despite an unpromising start, Elizabeth grows into her role, but tragically dies in childbirth, still only in her early twenties.
Connected to both Catherine and Elizabeth through the complicated marital arrangements of royal families, young Mary, Queen of Scots, grows up at the French court as the promised bride of the young Dauphin.
This is a meticulously researched and beautifully told story of the fluidity and pitfalls of the role of queen and how it always differed from that of a king. A king’s role generally lasted a lifetime. For a queen, the role could change over her lifetime, depending on whether she was Queen Regnant, Queen Consort, or Queen Mother.
In Renaissance times, princesses and queens inhabited bodies which were traded between families and across borders for the purposes of dynastic continuity, international treaties and alliances. These women lived in jeweled cages: surrounded by luxuries, riches, fine gowns and servants, they rarely had choice over their own bodies and futures. They were essentially bargaining chips to further the power and security of their family or nation.
The three queens of the book had lives that were dependent on the shifts and turns of the political landscapes of Europe. Accidents played a role, too, twists of fate such as the death of one king or the birth of another.
Against that backdrop, the author illuminates the three queens as women with personalities, strengths and foibles that also played a part in the trajectory of their lives. They were not merely blank slates for men to draw dynastic futures upon. They wielded varying degrees of power, both personal and political, in the ways available to them and with varying degrees of success. Their power took a different shape than that of their men, but it was power nonetheless.
There is poignancy in many of the letters and missives explored, especially those from Catherine to her daughter Elizabeth, worrying and fretting over her daughter’s uncertain health and her failure to fall pregnant with a Spanish heir. (As an aside, I am very glad not to be a Renaissance European princess with fertility problems, as apparently a common ‘remedy’ for this was a monthly dose of donkey urine!)
I enjoyed the narration by Olivia Dowd; her voice is clear and authoritative, with appropriate expression and emphasis; she also has excellent pronunciation of the many French, Spanish and Scottish names in the text.
I found this audio-book engrossing and very informative; a real insight into the lives of women who lived in a world and at a time far removed from my own.
Young Queens is published in August 2023 by Bloomsbury Publishing, and audio-book by RB Media Recorded Books.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.