When one thinks about strong women in the sixteenth century, many turn their attention towards women like Elizabeth I, Isabella of Castile, Katherine of Aragon, Mary I and Catherine de Medici. These seemed like extraordinary examples of power that stretched the boundaries on what was right and acceptable for women of the time. That, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the sixteenth century in Europe was filled with powerful women who do not get the attention that they deserve. In Sarah Gristwood’s book “Game of Queens: The Women who made Sixteenth- Century Europe”, we are shown that it really wasn’t the men who had control, but their wives and daughters.
Diplomacy is often described as a chess game and in the case of the sixteenth century, that could not be more accurate. This was the century of political games, the importance of marriages, wars galore and religious reforms. It all started off with women like Isabella of Castile of Spain and Anne de Beaujeu of France; powerful women who would not only influence their own children but girls who would come into their homes to learn how to be strong royal wives. Anne of Beaujeu wrote a manual for noblewomen, including this piece of advice:
“And nothing is firm or lasting in the gifts of Fortune; today you see those raised high by Fortune who, two days later, are brought down hard.”
This would come to describe the lives of the women who would follow throughout the rest of the sixteenth century. Most of them had to act as regents for their sons or male relations. Others were wives of kings who tried to change their countries for the better and either succeeded or failed miserably. It was the women in the beginning and the middle of the century that would pave the way for the more infamous queens like Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Queen of Scots.
Sarah Gristwood was able to combine this complex game of women political chess with sixteen protagonists into a masterful biography to give a better understanding of how sixteenth century Europe worked. This was a sisterhood of queens with mothers teaching daughters on how to survive in the courts. These women were connected by blood and by marriage, however it was how they used the lessons of those who came before them which would define them.
Sarah Gristwood could have made sixteen separate biographies, but by combining all of these stories into one book, it shows how each country and each ruler truly depended on one another. In a world where male heirs were few or died young, it was the women who had to step in and make Europe ready for the future. The sixteenth century was the changing point for European history and it was the women who had to navigate the complex field to keep Europe from completely falling apart. This book is the story of powerful women who helped make Europe the powerhouse it would become in the sixteenth century and how they did it.