HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Black Prince of Florence’ by Catherine Fletcher

Ruler of Florence for seven bloody years, 1531 to 1537, Alessandro de’ Medici was arguably the first person of color to serve as a head of state in the Western world. Born out of wedlock to a dark-skinned maid and Lorenzo de’ Medici, he was the last legitimate heir to the line of Lorenzo the Magnificent. When Alessandro’s noble father died of syphilis, the family looked to him. Groomed for power, he carved a path through the backstabbing world of Italian politics in a time when cardinals, popes, and princes vied for wealth and advantage. By the age of nineteen, he was prince of Florence, inheritor of the legacy of the grandest dynasty of the Italian Renaissance.

Alessandro faced down family rivalry and enormous resistance from Florence’s oligarchs, who called him a womanizer-which he undoubtedly was–and a tyrant. Yet this real-life counterpart to Machiavelli’s Prince kept his grip on power until he was assassinated at the age of 26 during a late-night tryst arranged by his scheming cousins. After his death, his brief but colorful reign was criticized by those who had murdered him in a failed attempt to restore the Florentine republic. For the first time, the true story is told in The Black Prince of Florence.

Catherine Fletcher tells the riveting tale of Alessandro’s unexpected rise and spectacular fall, unraveling centuries-old mysteries, exposing forgeries, and bringing to life the epic personalities of the Medicis, Borgias, and others as they waged sordid campaigns to rise to the top. Drawing on new research and first-hand sources, this biography of a most intriguing Renaissance figure combines archival scholarship with discussions of race and class that are still relevant today.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I do so love the Medicis, especially this guy. No, he was a hideous human being, but everyone needs a bad guy. This guy was so awful he got a spot in my last book, and will get a spot in each of my Cromwell books.

Florence was far from a nice place to visit in the 1500’s. The weather might have been nice, but it would be easy to be killed for your alliances. Poison was a popular weapon and so were swords, and that leads us to Alessandro de’ Medici, the first Duke of Florence.

Alessandro’s birth in summer 1510 is a mystery in itself. His mother was Simetta da Collevecchio, a Moorish servant from Africa. She worked in the Medici household, and while officially Alessandro’s father was recorded as Lorenzo de’ Medici, it is said his father was, in fact, Lorenzo’s great-uncle, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici. He is also well-known as Pope Clement VII. Alessandro was raised as Lorenzo’s bastard, alongside Lorenzo’s other bastard, the great Catherine de’ Medici.

Alessandro and Catherine were bounced around after Lorenzo died after Catherine’s birth, and Pope Leo, a gay Medici pope, had the children cared for. The Holy Roman Emperor gave little Alessandro a duchy in Penne in 1522, and in 1523, Alessandro’s real father was made Pope.

Ippolito de’ Medici, Pope Clement’s cousin (though they were raised side by side by the former Pope Leo) ran Florence, though he was looking to be made cardinal. But the Medicis were overthrown in 1527, when Rome was being sacked by the Emperor’s soldiers, locals in Florence tore up the city and destroyed the Medicis. By the time the Medicis took Florence back in 1530, they had a new man to rule – 19-year-old Alessandro de’ Medici.

If Alessandro thought he was safe after being made the first hereditary duke of Florence, a title that his father Pope Clement bought for him from the Emperor Charles, he was mistaken. This was Florence, and the pace would never let up. Alessandro needed a bride, and the Emperor had a bastard daughter; his bastard ‘sister’ Catherine was being prepped to be queen of France.

Alessandro was nicknamed Il Moro, due to his dark skin, the first dark-skinned noble in Europe. Alessandro was rich and entitled, he was known as a tyrant, depraved, lewd and disgusting. Of all the evils in Alessandro’s life, inside and out of the fort he built inside Florence’s walls, he had one enemy – Lorenzino de’ Medici. A distant cousin, in 1537 he lured Lorenzo out of normally safe locations in order to have sex with Lorenzino’s sister. Only there was tyrannicide committed – Alessandro was dead by his cousin’s sword. Lorenzino wrote a story about the murder, to get the Medici enemies to rise up. Only they didn’t and Lorenzino had to flee. Alessandro was hurried to San Lorenzo cemetery and secretly buried to keep the situation was quiet as possible.

The truth is tough to find with Alessandro’s life and death and this book does not have new information, but it’s a good read nonetheless if you are new to the tale. As the author states – Alessandro had to pay for his father’s sins, not only his own. Everyone seemed to know his true father was the Pope. Those who wanted the papacy and its power hated Alssandro; other Medicis hated Alessandro for rising so high; his people were not a faithful lot.

Not all I know about Alessandro is in the book; not everything in here I agree with, but I mean no disrespect to the author in this. The details are hard to come by. Alessandro’s lavish life is well documented, but the full knowledge of that time will be known to the Medicis alone. He is one Medici definitely worth reading about.

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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Another book talking about Matilda of Flanders. That is no criticism – just because I know all about her doesn’t mean everyone does, and Matilda deserves to be written over and over. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book that caught my interest the moment I laid eyes on it. Matilda may have been married to William the Conqueror, but to start with, he was William the Bastard. Matilda bought legitimacy to her husband by association, a striking and strong woman. Their large family grounded their new dynasty on English shores, and Matilda was more than capable of ruling in her husband’s absence, taking care of her own projects and had to be skilled negotiator.

But this book doesn’t restrict itself to discussing queens. Also featured is Matilda’s daughter, Adela. At a young age, Adela married Stephen of Blois, Count of Blois and Champagne. Stephen went off to fight in the Crusades and left Adela as regent, only to see him killed the 1102 Siege of Ramallah. Adela went on to act as regent for her young son, and ruled jointly with her son when he was of age. Wise, assured and skilled in negotiation like her mother, Adela lived to see her son become king of England under her care.

Other great tales include St Margaret, princess and descendant of Ӕthelrӕd II the Unready (ouch), who fled to Scotland in 1066, married the king of Scotland steered the country away from Celtic teachings and into Catholicism. The well-known tales Katherine Swynford make an appearance, a mistress who bore to stain of the title, only to be risen to the name legitimate wife and bear children would go on to dominate royal houses over England. Also featured is the tale of Joan of Acre, born in the Holy Lands in 1272, married the squire of her first husband behind her father’s back, her father being King Edward I. It was a risk that eventually paid off, a happy ending for a girl previously sold off to an old man at her father’s behest.

Other tales tales exist, such as the exciting story of Nicholaa de la Haye, sheriff of Lincoln, who fought off Richard I’s men in 1191 and held out for three months against a French invasion in 1217. For this, she was stripped of her title and so marched to Henry III’s herself to reclaim her title, insistent that her role in saving the English from the French made her worthy of the title, despite being a woman now in her sixties. There’s a tale every history book needs to add.

Also detailed is the extraordinary Christine de Pisan, the first female writer ever to make a living from the (still) difficult career path, in the court of Charles V of France, and Joanna of England, married off to William II of Sicily, imprisoned by her husband’s bastard nephew, only to be rescued her brother, Richard the Lionheart. Joanna then went to the crusades with her brother before trying to achieve peace between England and France.

This is just a taste of the women featured in medieval history and this book is a great addition to any library. The author has done a wonderful job and this is a surprisingly easy read, not weighed down by facts, more of a story of constant greatness.

 

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Black Prince’ by Michael Jones

As a child he was given his own suit of armour; in 1346, at the age of 16, he helped defeat the French at Crécy; and in 1356 he captured the King of France at Poitiers. For the chronicler Jean Froissart, ‘He was the flower of all chivalry’; for the Chandos Herald, who fought with him, he was ‘the embodiment of all valour’. Edward of Woodstock, eldest son and heir of Edward III of England, better known as ‘the Black Prince’, was England’s pre-eminent military leader during the first phase of the Hundred Years War.

Michael Jones uses contemporary chronicles and documentary material, including the Prince’s own letters and those of his closest followers, to tell the tale of an authentic English hero and to paint a memorable portrait of warfare and society in the tumultuous fourteenth century.

cover and blurb via amazon

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My area is the 1400s and 1500s, so Edward, The Black Prince, hasn’t really been on my radar. So when I wanted to make a start on this legendary man, I came across this book, which stuck out. With my head already swimming with countless heavy academic books to read, it was a relief to find such an informative but easy to read book.

Edward of Woodstock (cool name) was born in 1330, was an earl while still in medieval nappies, and the first ever English duke, Duke of Cornwall, by age 7. King Edward III would have a slew of healthy sons, somethings all kings would dream of, but Edward was the first, the heir England needed. Young Edward was at his father’s side, and educated 1300s style – jousting, warfare and a touch of chivalry, which was on its way out. As a child, Edward had to attend council meetings and was Prince of Wales by age 13.

But it was the battlefield where Edward would reign, and get that nickname. The Crecy campaign of 1346 in France let Edward get taste for blood, winning the battle by his father’s side. The English had much of Normandy and had Calais, and then went to defend the sea between England and France from the Castilian soon after.

Battles in Aquitaine raged constantly and the Poitiers Campaign ravaged the French in 1356, and now the English had roughly a third of France in their control, making black-clad Edward a formidable soldier who could also be a great leader. Edward also sided with Pedro the Cruel in Spain to attempt victory in the Najera Campaign of 1366 which was a bad move, as Pedro more than lived up to his name, and Edward wasted his time in Aragon.

Edward’s name and reputation suggests a vicious man, cold and ready to use violence, but the author has shown a different man; a man loved by his countrymen, educated and cultured. Edward married his cousin Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, in 1361, and only just into his thirties, started to suffer an unknown affliction where he began to waste away, possibly of liver or kidney failure, or a number of infections picked up on numerous battlefields. Edward and Joan gained two precious sons, Edward and Richard, only to lose Edward at a young age, leaving waif-like Richard as the heir to the throne.

By 1371, Edward was again fighting to hold onto power in Aquitaine, but needed to return home with illness. He attempted one more battle into France with his father but had to return home again. He spent the remainder of his life suffering until an early death in 1376, aged only 45, his heir Richard only nine.

Edward was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and wasn’t called The Black Prince until a century and a half later, a result of his black armour and his ability to kill French people in Aquitaine, winning two of three major campaigns England made into France (the other is Agincourt 14515 btw). Edward III would have been devastated at the death of his son, and Richard went on to be a useless king, which caused death and battles among Edward III’s remaining heirs, all of which might have been avoided.

The Black Prince is the king who never was, and I am so glad I chose this book to start with learning more about the royals of the 1300s. You don’t need to be an expert to read this fluid piece of work, well laid out, and solid on the details. Much credit to the author for this book; I am glad to have it in my collection.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Templars’ by Dan Jones

Jerusalem 1119. A small group of knights seeking a purpose in the violent aftermath of the First Crusade decides to set up a new order. These are the first Knights of Templar, a band of elite warriors prepared to give their lives to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Over the next two hundred years, the Templars would become the most powerful religious order of the medieval world. Their legend has inspired fervent speculation ever since. But who were they really and what actually happened?

In this groundbreaking narrative history, the bestselling author of The Plantagenets tells the true story of the Templars for the first time in a generation, drawing on extensive original sources to build a gripping account of these Christian holy warriors whose heroism and depravity have so often been shrouded in myth. The Templars were protected by the pope and sworn to strict vows of celibacy. They fought the forces of Islam in hand-to-hand combat on the sun-baked hills where Jesus lived and died, finding their nemesis in Saladin, who vowed to drive all Christians from the lands of Islam. They were experts at channeling money across borders. They established the medieval world’s first global bank and waged private wars against anyone who threatened their interests.

Then in 1307 the Templars fell foul of a vindictive King of France, whose lawyers built a meticulous case against them. On Friday October 13, hundreds of brothers were arrested, imprisoned and tortured, and the order was disbanded amid lurid accusations of sexual misconduct and heresy. They were tried by the Pope in secret proceedings and publicly humiliated. But were they heretics or victims of a ruthlessly repressive state? Dan Jones goes back to the sources to bring their dramatic tale, so relevant to our own times, in a book that is at once authoritative and compulsively readable.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The thing about the Knights Templar is that you mention them, you get a reply that suggests they are well-known. But if you were to ask the where-when-why etc, you get a blank expression or something a little garbled and fishy. The Knights Templar has built up an aura of men in full amour, wielding swords, holding limitless power and having some sort of personal line to God. Finally, here is a book you can trust.

The cultish-like Templars started in Jerusalem, living rather plain lives, much like Spaniards  before the Moors came to town and made everything better. The Templars took their name from a palace in the centre city named Temple of the Lord. The Templars believed in Christian values, which even today is a sketchy ambition and usually means harming those who don’t agree with you. This is relevant to this tale, as the Templars were a Catholic military unit founded around 1119. From their basic levels in Jerusalem, over the next thirty years, the Templars spread themselves out over Christendom, killing in order to make sure everyone stayed Christian – their appointed version of Christianity. They were, by this time, famous, rich and considered battle warriors against heretics and infidels.

In a time of typically violent crusades between Christians and Muslims, the Templars rose to be seen as heroes. The victory in Jerusalem came in June 1187, winning against a Muslim attack thanks to the fund received from King Henry II, who had paid their church as penance for a huge misdeed. Again in 1191, the Templars rose to defeat the Saracen and their leader Saladin, in name of King Richard I the Lionheart.

The battles fought by the Templars raged throughout 1200’s but by the early 14th century, the Templars had established an iron will, refusing any kind of diplomacy and lack of understanding of values in the areas where they wielded their butchery. The Templars also remained strict to one another, sometimes even serving punishment to each other like eating like a dog for a year.

Jones’ work is accurate and yet reads like a drama as the Templars are turned upon by the French in the 1300’s when the king got heavily indebted to the Templars. Propaganda really got its legs when churches started disparaging the Templars. Their Grand Masters, combat robes, secret ceremonies, the vast wealth all started to slip away, as did their victories in the crusades. They lost Jerusalem by the mid 1200’s, moved on from modern-day Israel and Syria soon after, moved from Cyprus by 1303. Their cells through Europe continued, but when the Pope and the French king wanted them eliminated, the Templars met the fate on Friday 13, 1307, when they were set upon and formally denounced. By 1312, all the cells had been quashed and writs from the Pope wiped the Templars from Christendom.

Jones’ book is a wonderful read and dispels the myths of the Templars as well as giving the reader a clear picture of those murky times during the crusades. As always, Dan Jones has delivered.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Game of Queens’ by Sarah Gristwood

Sixteenth-century Europe saw an explosion of female rule. From Isabella of Castile, and her granddaughter Mary Tudor, to Catherine de Medici, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth Tudor, these women wielded enormous power over their territories, shaping the course of European history for over a century. Across boundaries and generations, these royal women were mothers and daughters, mentors and protégées, allies and enemies. For the first time, Europe saw a sisterhood of queens who would not be equaled until modern times.

A fascinating group biography and a thrilling political epic, Game of Queens explores the lives of some of the most beloved (and reviled) queens in history.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Sarah Gristwood has written a superb book detailing the lives of incredible queens from England, Spain. France, The Netherlands and Hungary, starting with Isabella of Spain through to Elizabeth I. Without sounding like I am hero-worshipping, this biography is perfection.

Isabella of Spain was unlike any queen before her. She had inherited Castile in her own right, married the king of Aragon and became the warrior leader needed to invade southern Spain and conquer it for the Christians. The example as a female leader set a standard for her daughters, including Katherine, who would go on to be queen of England.

The beauty continues as the book does not solely tell the tales of English queens (though Queen Katherine crushing of the Scots is brilliant, as is Margret Tudor on the Scots side with all her turmoil), other countries and their female leaders are given much page-time. Marguerite of Navarre is detailed, describing the intriguing relationship with her brother Francis I and her own mother, Louise of Savoy. Her diplomatic skills are recognised, along with her role in the Protestant Reformation. Marguerite also tutored Anne Boleyn, noting how Anne’s birth was her downfall, as she knew when to push forward but not when to hold back, not born into a royal role.

Mary of Hungary is a great addition to the book. With her strong noble family, she was a queen in Hungary as well as governor of the Netherlands in her own right. Mary of Guise is displayed as astute in Scotland, and Catherine de Medici’s long life ruling over France is beautifully written. A bastard daughter risen to be a wife of a second son instead became the French queen and was able to steer own family in ruling the nation.

Queenship is regularly overshadowed by kingly pursuits, when history can lavish us with wise, educated women. Religion plays out over every tale, where it could help steer these queens, guide or justify their behaviour and aid them in keeping their kingdoms alive. While the fate of women was always in the hands of male family members, these women took the hand they were dealt and ruled, an example to everyone.

Gristwood’s book is flawless and I would recommend it to absolutely everyone.