Day 804: The King Without a Kingdom

Cover for The King Without a KingdomWhen I first read Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series, I didn’t even know there were seven books. I read the first six, which told of the destruction of the Capet dynasty and ended with the death of Robert of Artois, a prime mover of events. But Druon still had one more tale of incompetent royalty to tell, that of King John II, the third Valois king.

The entire novel is written as a monologue by the Cardinal of Périgord, who tells the tale as he travels to try to mediate peace between King John and Edward, Prince of England. The Cardinal is a sharp old man with many a sarcastic observation to make to his audience, his nephew. King John is actually in captivity to the English, and the cardinal’s story is about how this situation came to be.

Unfortunately, I found this change of narrative style to be irritating, uninterrupted as it is by anything except references to arrivals, changes of horse, and other details of the journey. Although the story he has to tell is certainly interesting—about how the king threw away certain victory in battle because of his own stubbornness and incompetency, and about how he alienated his allies by reneging on deals in order to give honors to his favorite—the narrative style just seems too artificial.

In The Accursed Kings, though, Druon draws a devastating portrait of how a series of bad monarchs brought France down within a few years during the 14th century, from the greatest nation in the world to an impoverished, poorly run country that was considerably smaller.

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Day 748: The Lily and the Lion

Cover for The Lily and the LionBest Book of the Week!
The sixth book of Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series follows the fall of Robert Artois, the prime mover in many of the events of the other five novels. It is the reign of Philippe VI, the first Valois king, so you’d think the curse of the Knights Templar against the Capet kings would be complete. But Druon points out that there is one Capet we’ve probably forgotten.

It is Robert Artois who ensures that his Valois cousin is chosen from the candidates proposed for the crown, despite the better claims of Isabella of France, the only surviving sibling of the Capet King Charles IV, for her son Edward III of England. But even though by supporting the victorious candidate Robert finally gains a peerage and property of his own, he is still obsessed by the theft of his county of Artois by his Aunt Mahaut years ago.

He hears of the existence of a copy of the will and deeds that left him the property when he was a boy. The originals were stolen and destroyed by Mahaut and her minion, Monseigneur Thierry. But the Monseigneur kept the copies to protect himself, Robert is informed by Jeanne de Divion, the Monsiegneur’s mistress. Now that he is dead, Mahaut has treated Divion so poorly that she offers to steal the papers from the Monseigneur’s office. Before she gets the opportunity to do so, however, Beatrice d’Hirson, Thierry’s niece and Mahaut’s servant, steals them for her mistress. Robert then makes the decision that will decide his fate. He decides to forge the papers.

In the meantime, Isabella and Roger Mortimer have taken the throne from Edward II for his son, but the young king is a ruler in name only. Mortimer’s abuses are just as bad as those of the previous reign perpetrated by Edward II’s favorites. In addition, Edward III hasn’t forgiven Mortimer for having his father murdered. Soon, Edward will act for himself.

As with the others in this series, this novel is packed with traitorous acts, poisonings, and other skullduggery, as well as amazingly readable historical detail. Druon peppers his tales with plenty of cynicism and sly remarks. As always, I highly recommend this series.

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Day 676: The She-Wolf

Cover for The She-WolfThe fifth novel in Maurice Druon’s wonderful Accursed Kings series begins where the first one did, with the problems of Isabella of France, unhappy queen of England and sister to Charles IV of France. While Charles IV’s administration is being ably handled by his uncle Charles of Valois, the same cannot be said for that of Isabella’s husband, Edward II. He is completely under the sway of Hugh Despenser the Younger, his rapacious lover. At the beginning of the novel, Despenser has taken everything from Isabella’s dowry for himself and forces her to give him the valuable book she is reading.

Roger Mortimer is the only person to have ever escaped from the Tower of London, and he soon arrives in France. He too has been a victim of the greedy Despensers. He has a fateful meeting with Isabella when she arrives to broker a treaty. Soon their actions will cause the overthrow of a king.

The powerful Countess Mahaut of Artois still remembers Isabella’s testimony, which condemned her daughter and cousin to prison in the first book. She will make it her business to cause trouble for Isabella. And we know what trouble can mean, for in The Poisoned Crown, Mahaut had Charles’ oldest brother murdered so that her daughter could be queen of France.

Druon’s knowledge of medieval history, customs, and architecture is especially noticeable in this book, with its extensive historical notes. This fantastic series continues, with Druon specializing in snark.

The sixth book in this series will soon be available in paperback while the last is soon to be published in hardcover. Years ago, I read all but the last book, which I was unable to find, so I am looking forward to finally being able to read the entire series.

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Day 502: The Poisoned Crown

The PoCover for The Poisoned Crownisoned Crown begins with the beautiful and devout Clémence of Hungary on her way into a pit of vipers, the court of Louis X of France, and marriage with the king. Louis has managed to rid himself of his inconvenient first wife. His attention span is short, however, so by the time Clémence arrives after a horrendous journey he is more involved with an ill-conceived siege against the Count of Flanders than with arrangements for the wedding. Still, the new queen is soon esteemed for her gentleness and generosity, even by her horrible husband.

During Louis’ short reign, France has already descended from relative prosperity to famine, and the progressive steps taken by his father have all been rescinded. Robert of Artois, always trying to cause trouble for his aunt Mahaut, has provoked her barons to rise up against her in Artois. The cardinals have still not settled on a new pope. In short, France is in chaos. Louis’ younger brother Philip of Poitiers has striven to dissuade his brother from his poorer decisions, but Louis sends him off to the papal conclave.

Another character who has served in previous books as almost comic relief will soon become more important. This is Guccio Baglioni, the very young nephew of a rich Lombardi merchant. He has fallen in love with the daughter of impoverished nobility, Marie Cressay, and hopes to marry her, without understanding how much beneath them her family considers him. He has just helped escort Clémence of Hungary to France when he is badly injured.

The curse against the Capet kings of France continues in this third book of Druon’s excellent series The Accursed Kings. Those who are following it will not be surprised to learn how short Louis X’s reign will be.

Day 483: Reread: The Strangled Queen

Cover for The Strangled QueenThis article is a repeat review of the second book in Maurice Druon’s excellent Accursed Kings series. I wrote my initial reviews years after I read the books, from memory. This review is from a recent reread in preparation for my first review of the third book in the series.

The name of Philip the Fair would glow down the centuries only by the flicker of the faggots he had lighted beneath his enemies and the glitter of gold he had seized. It would be quickly forgotten that he had curbed the powerful, maintained peace in so far as it was possible, reformed the law, constructed fortresses that the land might be cultivated in their shelter, united provinces, convoked assemblies of the middle class so that it might speak its mind, and watched unremittingly over the independence of France.

So says Druon in his prologue to The Strangled Queen about Philip IV of France (Philip the Fair), whose death in 1314 begins the action of the novel.

Marguerite of Burgundy has not heard of Philip’s death. She and her sister-in-law Blanche, Philip’s daughters-in-law, are imprisoned in the Château-Gaillard for adultery, and she does not know that her husband has become the king of France, Louis X. When her cousin Robert of Artois comes to tell her, she naïvely believes he wants to help her, unaware how he has assisted in her downfall. What he actually wants is for her to agree to an annulment, as now she poses a big problem to the succession.

But Marguerite doubts when she should not. Although she would gladly exchange her harsh prison for a convent, she is afraid that once she signs, those in charge of her will leave her where she is. She also does not want to declare her daughter a bastard, the other requirement of her release.

Louis X soon sets his sights on marrying Cleménce of Hungary. To do so, he must get a pope installed who will agree to give him an annulment. However, the cardinals have been arguing ever since the death of Pope Clement V, who with Philip the Fair was a victim of the curse of the Grand Master of the Knights Templar (whose death by burning at the stake is referred to in the quote at the beginning of this review).

The weak and stupid Louis is faced with a battle between the forces of order and progress, represented by Enguerrand Marigny, his father’s coadjutor, and the old ways of feudalism, represented by his uncle, Charles of Valois. Whoever can get Louis a pope or his marriage with Cleménce will ultimately win, but in the meantime he begins stripping away all of the governmental reforms instituted by his father.

Bitingly told, about a fascinating period of French history, these novels introduce us to a world of complicated alliances, treachery, and politics, as well as murder and mayhem. Lately the novels are being marketed as the original Game of Thrones. There are certainly strong similarities.

Day 470: Reread—The Iron King

Cover for The Iron KingI already reviewed The Iron King during my first year of blogging, but that review was based on my memory of the novel, having read it several years before. I recently re-read it and would just like to mention it again, as it is so good and easier to find now that the first three volumes of the series have been republished.

The Accursed Kings series concerns the history of the last Capet kings of France. The first in the series, The Iron King, begins with some fateful acts that eventually affect the future of the kingdom.

The novel begins in England with Queen Isabella plotting with her cousin, Robert of Artois, against her three sisters-in-law. Queen Isabella, the daughter of Philip IV of France (known as the Philip the Fair or the Iron King), is unhappily married to Edward II of England, who disdains her and lends the power of his throne to the Despensers, the family of his male favorite. Isabella is disposed to make trouble. Her cousin has brought her his conviction that at least two of her three sisters-in-law are being unfaithful to their husbands, her brothers, the princes of France. Isabella and Robert hatch a plot to expose them.

Robert of Artois has his own reasons for the plot, for his father’s property was awarded to his aunt Mahaut instead of to him so that it would pass into the hands of King Philip the Fair’s two younger sons when they married Jeanne and Blanche, Mahaut’s daughters. Robert is only too happy to ruin Marguerite, Queen of Navarre and wife of Philip’s oldest son, along with the two other girls, as she is Mahaut’s cousin.

Awaiting their own fates are the last four members who are not in hiding of the once wealthy and powerful Knights Templar. Years before they had refused to admit Philip the Fair as a member, as it was against the rules of their order to admit royalty. Since then, Philip has plotted their ruin, assisted by Pope Clement, who covets the riches of the order. Now they have been condemned of heresy, largely on trumped up charges.

Early in the book, Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is burned at the stake. During his burning, he curses the King, Pope Clement, and Guillaume de Nogaret, Secretary-General of the Kingdom, to their thirteenth generation. The Pope is dead within 40 days, de Nogaret soon after. Thus the name of Druon’s fantastic series, The Accursed Kings, for you can be sure that Philip the Fair will be dead by the end of the novel.

This series is being marketed as the original Game of Thrones. Perhaps there are some similarities. The court is a nest of vipers—those in power are constantly engaged in political machinations and those not in power in other kinds of plots. The world Druon presents is fascinating, depicted with cynicism and wry observations. The novel is extremely well written, about an extraordinary time in French history.

Day 347: The Strangled Queen

Cover for The Strangled QueenBest Book of the Week!

The Strangled Queen is the second in Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series. In The Iron King, King Philippe IV and his progeny were cursed at the stake by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar for conniving with the pope to destroy the knights for their wealth. Now, after the pope and one of the king’s advisors dies, Philippe begins to believe in the curse and dies shortly thereafter, within a year, just as foretold.

His death leaves Philippe’s eldest son, Louis X, on the throne. Louis needs an heir, but his wife, Marguerite of Burgundy, was imprisoned in the Chateau Gaillard for adultery along with her sister-in-law Blanche. He is unable to get a divorce because a new pope has not yet been chosen. He sends Robert of Artois to coerce Marguerite into signing a letter claiming that their marriage was not consummated and their daughter is illegitimate.

In the meantime, Louis is involved in a power struggle against his uncle Charles of Valois. Louis does not know that Robert of Artois has taken his uncle’s side as part of his scheme to reclaim his inheritance, stolen by his aunt Mahaut.

Druon’s historical fiction is powerfully written, elegant and ironic. His novels do not take the point of view of one fictional character, as do most historical novels. All of the characters are actual historical figures, and few of them are sympathetic. The plots are driven forward by the power of the events they relate.

Several years ago, I had a hard time finding this series of books so that I could read it, but I felt that the result was worth the effort. Now, luckily for readers who are interested in the series, a new version of these books is available in paperback.

Day 88: The Iron King

Cover for The Iron KingBest Book of the Week!

The Iron King is the first of seven books in the “Accursed Kings” series by the French novelist Maurice Druon. Unlike many historical novels, this series does not follow a fictional hero or heroine but is an interpretation of actual events in French history with all historical figures. This series was popular in its time (it was written in the 1950’s), but may be difficult to find now. If you are lucky, your local library may have it.

It is 1307 in France. The kingdom is broke, and King Philippe IV, known as the Iron King, is looking for sources of money. The Knights Templar, one of the wealthiest organizations in the world, seems like a good place to get it, but they refuse France a loan. Some charges of heresy, obscene rituals, and other abominations have been laid against them by a defrocked knight. Everyone knows they are false, but with the collusion of Pope Clement, who fears the knights’ power, Philippe orders the members to be arrested all on the same night, and seizes their assets.

In the meantime, Robert of Artois has been cheated out of his inheritance by his aunt, Mahaut.  He decides to get his revenge by bringing down her daughters, who are married to the King’s sons.

Druon’s writing is elegant and ironic, his novels thoroughly researched. He doesn’t over-explain; instead, the novel is compelled forward solely by the events in the plot. Few of the characters are sympathetic; nevertheless, it is a fascinating series. I have often read opinions that Druon is one of the best historical novelists ever.