Author: Princess Michael of Kent

Publisher: Beaufort Books, 2014

ISBN: 10-0825307376

ISBN: 13-978-082530737

With instant communication around the world, we now know that even royal princesses go to work, and they work very hard to maintain the reputation of seriousness no matter how silly some media outlets get. In this atmosphere, the hard-working HRH Princess Michael of Kent, a prize-winning author of three histories, turns to fiction to introduce Yolande, the princess of Aragon who was assigned to marry the young Duke of Anjou in 1400, in hope of ending conflict between their kingdoms over claims to Naples and Sicily. While Yolande indulged her husband’s frequent campaigns in Italy, it became more urgent to give their support to defending their own lands against invasions from England. France was decimated by the Black Death; war had lay waste to crops and cut off foreign supplies, yet it remained bitterly divided, with some dukes supporting Henry V, whose occupation of northern France worked to their advantage. To complicate matters, King Charles VI was mentally unstable and disinherited his son, the dauphin, naming Henry as heir to the throne.

From her realm in southern France, Yolande spent many years before and after her husband’s death as his regent, arranging alliances to stabilize the futures of their five children and two royal wards, including the future king of France, Charles VII. Her substantial role in politics has been eclipsed by the sensational Joan of Arc who, in this version of the One Hundred Years’ War, wins the confidence of the nobles through Yolande’s support and influence. This fictionalized biography illuminates the better-known story, building from the time of the Aragon and Anjou union.

Princess Michael has imagined young Yolande romantically in a series of vignettes with informative details of costumes, jewels, and other marks of privilege. She allows us into the mind of this well-bred and well-protected young lady as she assumes her duties alongside Louis II who, though obsessive in his desire to regain Naples, is more handsome and good-tempered than she dared to dream. The bride and groom eagerly merge their cultural ideas and become unusually devoted parents. We see them as in a continuous tapestry depicting landscape and architecture as well as all the trappings of a gilded life, in entourages moving between castles to greet nobles and rally townspeople. Underlying this ceremony is rough-and-tumble territorial ambition. Recognizing this, Yolande firms up her confidence and convictions, becomes a remarkable manager of her estates and farms, and shrewd in accomplishing her political aims. What stands out most is her devotion to the principles of her now-deceased husband. For him, she makes it her duty to guide the fate of the dauphin as he prepares for the throne, by surrounding him with advisors and servants associated with the house of Anjou. 

The novel’s large cast is challenging to a 21st century American reader impatient with the power struggles that seem not to have any idealistic basis. One has to envision American Western Expansionism without “Manifest Destiny” and remember that France’s hierarchal society was just being formed. And how young these people were! Eventually, Yolande’s relationship with Joan of Arc turns the tide. England had nearly completed its takeover of France. People were starving. Their leaders were desperate enough to believe that a country girl’s visions could inspire an army in one last attempt to beat back the English and secure entry to Rheims (the Westminster Abbey of France) where Charles could be crowned. Princess Michael gives the legend heft by explaining how the French, deeply religious and/or superstitious, could allow a spiritually-motivated youth to lead the way, and how an older, wiser woman provided means.

The Queen of Four Kingdoms is the first of the Anjou Trilogy. The author, having long ago established her broad, deep and colorful knowledge of French history and nobility, is a popular lecturer on related topics, especially in the elite art world. While her interest may have been ignited by her own family history, she is credited by worthy equals in her field for superb research. In this story she repeatedly mentions a famous illuminated manuscript commissioned in the 15th century by the Duke of Berry. Tres Riches Heures contains a calendar of months that depicts major chateaux, including Yolande’s Samour (September) and the people of the countryside around them. The brilliant colors the author describes may indeed been inspired by these wonderful paintings. For the readers’ further immersion, I suggest Google Earth, which reveals what remains of these properties so central to the action.

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