Goldstone’s latest recondite foray (The Friar and the Cipher, 2005, etc., co-authored with husband Lawrence Goldstone) tracks the spectacular rise of four well-positioned sisters in 13th-century Provence.
The daughters of Raymond Berenger V and Beatrice of Savoy, Count and Countess of Provence, were neither terrifically rich nor highly well born, but they were comely, cultured and the right age just as Provence was growing more strategically important for both the French and English crowns. Blanche of Castile, the formidable mother of young Louis IX, hoped to neutralize Provence’s bellicose neighbor of Toulouse with the arranged marriage in 1234 of her son to eldest sister Marguerite, then 13. The scheming White Queen wasn’t wrong: The marriage lasted until Louis’s death in 1270, having produced ten children and endured two disastrous crusades and consolidated French power. Meanwhile, England’s 28-year-old Henry III thought a match with a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire—namely, Provence—might work to his advantage in the nation’s decades-long civil war and keep the White Queen in check as well. He chose Marguerite’s sister Eleanor, in 1236 a bright, literate young lady of 13; theirs, too, was a strong, fruitful alliance that ultimately prevailed through the uprising of Simon de Montfort in the 1260s. Third sister Sanchia, the most beautiful and timid, was married off to Henry’s gruff younger brother, Richard of Cornwall, and endured an unhappy, short life as queen of Germany before dying at age 35. Last came Beatrice, who at 13 became the sole heir of her father’s fortune; besieged by suitors, she was finally forced to wed King Louis’s youngest brother, Charles of Anjou. Husband and wife lustily raised an army and seized the kingship of Sicily, though Beatrice’s hope of ruling it over her sisters ended with her early death.
The author’s synthesis of much research is impressive, though her jam-packed history requires relentless attention to chronology and lineage.