Book Review: Game of Queens. The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood

By Gabrielle Storey

The women who feature in Game of Queens, its moniker to most contemporary readers appearing to play on the epic fantasy series Game of Thrones, undoubtedly draws parallels with the ruling women of G.R.R. Martin’s series. However, Gristwood’s intention is akin to the game of chess rather than the fantasy epic, demonstrating how sixteen ruling women, often viewed as political pawns for dynastic allegiance, were in fact far worthier of the title of queen, in reality and as a playing piece. The women of Gristwood’s book lived during a time of significant religious and cultural change and political upheaval: although political upheaval is often a backdrop to most ruling lives, the Reformation and the Renaissance both impacted the abilities and the exercise of power by women. 

The ambition of Gristwood to cover so many figures is mediated by her clear signposting as she moves from kingdom to kingdom to aid the reader with the next discussion, and for those familiar with only one or two regions, the book provides interesting insights to the other leading women in sixteenth-century Europe. Spanning Isabella of Castile to Elizabeth I, Game of Queens is richly detailed, and interweaves the lives and connections between the sixteen women under study. Though female leadership, regency, and the exercise of power was by no means exceptional, Gristwood’s explanation of the power struggles and centrality of the queens to rulership in the period is a refreshing and welcome examination.

As the work is a popular history, it is not littered with references, however Gristwood’s depth of research and detail is clear throughout – the breadth of knowledge is evident. She provides a list of further reading and recommendations at the end of the book to allow the reader to make further explorations of the queens under study.

The book is structured chronologically: Part I covers the period 1474-1513, beginning with Isabella of Castile and Margaret of Austria before spanning the reigning women of the royal houses of Europe at this time. Part II moves onto 1514-1521, bringing together the lives Mary Tudor, Margaret Tudor, Louise of Savoy, Anne de Beaujeau, and Margaret of Austria. In the third part (1522-1536), the Tudor women and English queens take centrality, again their stories interwoven with their counterparts on the continent. Part IV (1537-1553) outlines the careers of royal daughters and princesses, demonstrating the importance of these to the chessboard of power in Europe. In part V (1553-1560), Gristwood shows the difficulties Mary Tudor (daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon), Marie de Guise, and Mary of Hungary encountered in their rulership. It then moves to the rise of one of the sixteenth century’s most famous rivalries: that of Elizabeth I and Mary, queen of Scots, as well as the rising power of Catherine de Medici and Jeanne d’Albret. Part VI (1560-1572) continues to trace these rivalries and careers, whilst part VII (1572 onwards) tracks the end of the career of Mary, queen of Scots, and the survival of two formidable women: that of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici.

Game of Queens does a fantastic job of highlighting the struggles that rulers faced, and the complications of the Reformation and the divisions between Protestants and Catholics undoubtedly affected the decisions and the abilities of these women to reign. What it also shows is the importance of maternal influence over royal sons and daughters in order to network and maintain power. It demonstrates the tutelage and sisterhood of royal women, though rivalries undoubtedly existed as they sought to balance their personal and dynastic power. The family trees, structure of the chapters, and list of figures at the beginning of the book all aid the overall flow of the narrative. In sum, this reviewer would highly recommend this work for any readers interested in queenship, power, or the politics of the sixteenth century.   

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