Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Sister Queens

I had to put this book on hold at the library- I heard about it coming out through an author friend on Facebook.  Michelle Moran was one of the reviewers of this book, in fact it's on the front of the book.  Once I heard about it I knew I had to read it.  Sophie Perinot writes about two sisters raised by their father the Count of Provence.  Both were destined for great marriages and Marguerite, the eldest, is to marry the King of France at only age 13.  Louis IX is very handsome and considered the greatest monarch of his age.  A few years later Eleanor is married off to Henry III, King of England.  The book follows the sisters as they are separated from each other but keep in touch with letters.

Marguerite is quite happy at first with her handsome husband, but soon his overbearing mother Blanche of Castile gets in the way of them being together often.  She soon realizes as well that Louis is extremely pious, and getting more so as time passes.  He eventually quits giving her the love and companionship that they had at the beginning of their marriages, and she finds herself lonely and unhappy.  Sent away from her family at such a young age, she was not able to keep her own ladies with her either.  It takes several years for her to have a child, and eventually they have 8 children together.  3 of them are born in the Holy Land while they are there on Crusade for several years- parted from her eldest children.  It is during this time Marguerite begins an affair with one of her husband's favorite men, Jean de Joinville the Seneschal of Champagne.  As Jean is the king's favorite, he is often nearby and so at first it is easy to meet together secretly, because it's common for them to be together.

The King seems to suspect the affair but never openly does anything other than make some religious remarks and mild threats.  Eventually to keep her children safe, Marguerite stops the affair and they remain friends. The family she came from, the Savoyards, were celebrities in the High Middle Ages, known for their martial and political powers.  Their mother was related to the House of Savoy and had many powerful and handsome brothers.  They tried to travel with Marguerite when she married but were sent away.  Marguerite became a powerful woman through the advice of her uncles through letters and her own powers.  One of her sisters Beatrice is married to a relation of Louis's to keep him loyal, so she does have family with her, although not her favorite, Eleanor.  The two sisters keep in close contact through letters, only having a split in communication when their father passes away leaving everything to Beatrice, his favorite.  The living at Flamstead becomes an issue when her dowry will not be paid, so Marguerite works quickly to secure some lands for herself and marries Beatrice to Charles d'Anjou.  Although he is detestable they need his loyalty.  When Eleanor hears of this she feels betrayed for her sister and they do not write for some time. 

The siege of Damietta is a difficult time for Marguerite- the King had failed in his mission with the infidels against the Sultan of Aleppo; many of his men were captured or killed. The King himself was captured and many months went by without word of who survived.  Marguerite had to pay a heavy fine to have him released.  He seemed a changed man after this, becoming more emaciated and religiously obsessed.  At times he seemed to come back to Marguerite and paid her some attention, but then he went back to wearing his hair shirt, flogged himself and imposed strict punishments for petty mistakes or crimes.  She found herself not only out of love with her husband, but also a little scared of his devotion.  After being in Egypt and Jerusalem so long, she worries her three children back home have forgotten her.  During their time away, the Queen Mother passes away.  Eventually after 20 years of being parted, the sisters meet again for Christmas court.  The two sisters work together on a treaty between France and England, a treaty that was signed in 1259 and would see France and England as allies and not enemies.  The book does not cover the rest of the sister's long lives, but it seems they were quite productive and politically savvy.

Eleanor is passionate, strong willed and stubborn- as children she was often quite jealous of Marguerite and could fall into a rage easily.  She is to become Queen of England and when she meets Henry, he is older and not so handsome as she had hoped.  She met her sister's husband Louis and found him to be quite more attractive and younger.  The rivalry still existed in her mind at who was better at what.  Although it seems mismatched, they are quite happy together and he treats her very well.  She discovers over time though that he is not a very good King.  Where one sister is unhappy but has a great King for a husband, the other has true love but not the greatest King.  Eleanor ends up learning a lot from her uncles in how to help her husband rule.  She has a baby before her sister Marguerite and ends up having six or so.  Her sister Sanchia comes to her court and weds so she also has a sister nearby. In 1253 she is appointed regent while Henry travels to Gascony.  This was most unusual and shows how he truly loved and trusted in her abilities.  Eleanor's mother later complements her for being a wonderful mother and great leader.

I felt like Marguerite was written about more so perhaps that's why I wrote about her more or the fact I found her more interesting.  The letters from the sisters in the book are not actual letters but the author's idea of what they wrote to each other.  I find it interesting to read about their relationship, as sister relationships can often be quite complicated.  Just like Anne and Mary Boleyn were quite complicated, these two sisters seemed able to forge a respect and lively friendship throughout their lives.  I am interested to read about the rest of their lives.  Perhaps I was more interested in Marguerite's story because she saw more action on Crusade and was so unhappy with her husband.  It is interesting how neither sister could have both the handsome looks and a good King.  I believe Eleanor sounded more truly happy, especially as she did not sin and put her immortal soul in danger like she believes her sister did. 

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