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Four Queens : the Provençal sisters who ruled Europe
by Nancy Bazelon Goldstone
The thirteenth century was a time of chivalry, knights, and brutality. The Count of Provence had four daughters who married to become the queens of France, England, Germany, and Sicily. Each sister made her own mark on the world. Marguerite, the oldest, whose spirit would be tested in the dangerous atmosphere of the French Court.
Eleanor’s political ambitions would push her kingdom into civil war. As a neglected wife, Sanchia would rise with her husband to become queen of a purchased crown. Beatrice so wanted to be queen that she would risk her life to achieve that goal. Each would find themselves tested by shifting alliances, court intrigue, and international threats.
1. No other family in the thirteenth century, royal or otherwise, could boast of having four daughters who were all queens. What do you think accounts for the Provençal sisters’ extraordinary success?
2. In her first years of marriage, Marguerite of Provence’s actions and influence within the French government were severely curtailed by the tactics of her harshly autocratic mother-in-law, Blanche of Castile, an experienced ruler. Marguerite’s sister Eleanor, whose mother-in-law lived abroad, faced no such constraints, but lacked a sophisticated role model for governance. Which sister do you think was better off in the long run? If Marguerite ultimately benefited from exposure to the White Queen’s methods, do you think this justified Blanche of Castile’s behavior toward her son’s wife?
3. It has been suggested that women, even queens, did not truly exercise power in the Middle Ages. Does this seem to be the case with the four queens?
4. Which sister do you think was most influential in her lifetime? How much of her success can be attributed to the assistance and/or advice provided by her mother, other sisters, and uncles? What role did her husband play, consciously or unconsciously, in furthering his wife’s career?
5. The story of the four queens was famous in the later Middle Ages; Dante Alighieri referred to it in his monumental work, The Divine Comedy. Yet today these women are unknown. Why do you think their story has been ignored until now?
6. What do you think of Eleanor’s overall performance as queen of England? Do you think she should be judged mostly for her role in precipitating the civil war? What do you think of her son Edward’s decision to exclude her from his government after the death of Henry III?
7. By leaving all of Provence to his youngest daughter Beatrice at his death, Raymond Berenger V, count of Provence, provoked serious dissension among the sisters. What do you think of his decision to ignore his older daughters’ claims, particularly Marguerite’s? What do you think he was trying to accomplish with this bequest? Did he succeed? Do you think what he did was best in the long run for Provence?
8. Do you see any parallels between the crusade of Louis IX and our present military involvement in Iraq? Is there anything to be learned from the experience of King Louis’ crusade which might help us to understand, or put into perspective, our current position in the Middle East?
9. There are four kings and four queens in this book. Which king or queen did you admire the most, and why? Which did you think was the least successful or sympathetic? Was any ruler, male or female, truly outstanding?
10. Which king benefited the most from having married one of these sisters? Which the least?
11. Currently, questions have been raised about just how much influence first ladies and the wives of the presidential candidates exert over their husbands and their husbands’ governments. Do you see parallels between the four queens’ behavior and that of present-day political spouses? How much of the sisters’ experience is relevant today?