The She-Wolf by Maurice Druon

First published in French in 1959 as La Louve de France (The She-Wolf of France), this is the fifth novel in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series. The series – which began with The Iron King – tells the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. So far, the curse seems to have been very effective, as in the first four novels we have seen poisoned kings, strangled queens, failed marriages and family feuds.

In this book, the action switches to England for a while, where Isabella – Philip’s daughter – is unhappily married to the English king, Edward II. Feeling that her husband cares more for his favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, than he does for her, Isabella has turned to Roger Mortimer for comfort. As the novel opens, Roger escapes from imprisonment in the Tower of London and flees to France, where he hopes to gain support to return to England at the head of an army.

Meanwhile, Isabella’s brother, Charles, has just become France’s fourth king in eight years following the death of their elder brother, Philippe V. The new Charles IV proves to be a weak king but others who surround him at court continue to plot and scheme, looking for ways to gain power for themselves. But unknown to Charles, the person who could pose the biggest threat to his reign is far away, growing up in the care of Marie de Cressay, his existence known only to a select few.

It’s been a few years since I read the fourth book in this series (The Royal Succession) and I worried that I might struggle to remember what had happened in the previous novels. Luckily, the prologue gives us a reminder and then fills us in on the details of the reign of Philippe V the Long, who had just taken the throne at the end of The Royal Succession and is dead before this book begins. I was sorry that we weren’t able to spend more time with Philippe in The She-Wolf as I thought he was a much more interesting character than his brother Charles, but I’m sure Druon must have had his reasons for not writing much about that period and moving quickly on to the next king.

So far, most of the history covered in this series has been new to me and the books have given me a good introduction to the reigns of the Capet kings of France. With The She-Wolf I was on more familiar ground as there was more focus on English history and Isabella is someone I have read about several times before (both in non-fiction such as Helen Castor’s She-Wolves and in novels including Isabella by Colin Falconer and, indirectly, Susan Howatch’s Cashelmara which I’m currently re-reading). I was a bit disappointed that Isabella isn’t really given a chance to shine in this book; despite her strength and intelligence, it is Roger Mortimer who is shown to be in control and making all the decisions. Having said that, I did like the fact that she and Roger are portrayed as being genuinely in love; this helped me to believe in their characters and their relationship.

Edward II comes across very badly in this book (which does usually seem to be the case and I can’t really think of any positive portrayals of him in fiction). Druon takes the view that Edward’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despenser were of a homosexual nature, although there is some debate about this today, and he also sticks with the traditional story surrounding the method of Edward’s death, which again has not been proved. The book was written in the 1950s, though, and I assume they were probably the accepted theories at that time. I can’t comment at all on the accuracy of the French sections of the novel, but I think it’s clear that Druon did his research – as with the other books in the series, there’s an extensive section of historical notes at the back which are referenced throughout the text. And as ever, Humphrey Hare’s English translation is clear and easy to read.

I was disappointed that the battle of wits between the scheming Mahaut d’Artois and her nephew Robert, which has played such a big part in the previous novels, was pushed into the background and I was also sorry not to see more of two other recurring characters, Marie de Cressay and Guccio Baglioni. For those reasons, although I did enjoy this book, it’s not one of my favourites in the series, but I’m still looking forward to reading the final two and finding out what happens in the next one, The Lily and the Lion.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon

The Royal Succession The Royal Succession is an English translation of Maurice Druon’s 1957 French novel La Loi des mâles, the fourth volume of his Accursed Kings series which began with The Iron King. Described by George R.R. Martin as “the original Game of Thrones”, the seven books in this series tell the story of Philip IV the Fair of France and the kings who follow him, said to have been cursed “to the thirteenth generation” by the vengeful Grand Master of the Knights Templar.

Books two and three – The Strangled Queen and The Poisoned Crown – described the troubled reign of Philip’s son, Louis X. As The Royal Succession opens in the year 1316, Louis is dead, leaving no clear heir to the throne. There is some doubt over the parentage of Jeanne, his five-year-old daughter from his first marriage, so all eyes are on Queen Clémence, his pregnant second wife.

While France looks forward to the birth of Clémence’s child, a regent is needed; the obvious choices are Louis’ younger brother, Philippe of Poitiers, and his uncle, Charles of Valois. At this crucial moment, Philippe is away in Lyon awaiting the election of a new pope, but by resorting to some underhand methods he is able to turn the situation to his advantage and becomes regent on his return to Paris. However, his mother-in-law, Mahaut, Countess of Artois, is even more ambitious and vows to clear the path to the throne for Philippe.

Nobody is safe from Mahuat’s plotting, and when Clémence gives birth to Louis’ posthumous child, the sickly Jean I, the baby king finds himself at the centre of one of her schemes. Meanwhile, Philippe searches for a way to deal with the claim of his little niece, Jeanne, and finds a possible solution in the Salic Law, which excludes females from the line of succession.

I hope I haven’t made all of this sound too complicated! Some concentration is needed, but Druon does explain everything clearly and the plot is easy enough to follow, especially if you have also read the previous three books (something I would highly recommend). The period covered in this particular novel is fascinating and I found this a much more gripping and entertaining read than The Poisoned Crown.

The Accursed Kings series is based closely on historical fact, but there is one part of The Royal Succession which feels more like fiction – and that is the storyline surrounding the fate of little Jean I. However, having looked this up, it seems that Druon has developed this storyline out of a theory which has never been proved or disproved. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, and other books have been written on the subject. It also explained for me the role in the series of Guccio Baglioni and Marie de Cressay, something I’ve been wondering about since the first book as their story had previously seemed so disconnected from the central history.

There are three books left in the series and I’m looking forward to continuing with the next one, The She-Wolf.

My Commonplace Book: March 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


He had a narrow, swarthy face with a high forehead, so high he had his cropped dark hair brushed forward – he was losing his hair, then. His eyes slanted downward, sensual, melancholic and secretive. Saints in the churches, painted on panels and murals, had halos of light around their heads and bodies; the prince seemed to have a tracing of darkness, as if he was standing in front of a prince-shaped hole that led into something terrible, and you could just catch glimpses of it when he moved…

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas (2014)


Do you keep time in the same place that you save it? If so why is it so difficult to find? It must be in a very safe place.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (1997)


Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)


Buddhist caves, two hundred and fifty BC…? It was the Emperor Ashoka who had ordered them to be made, he felt almost sure about that. But there was something else, something to do with the shape of the caves, that escaped him. Was it about meditation? He hadn’t been paying close attention, his mind had been preoccupied, and now their purpose remained a mystery – as it seemed so much in this country was destined to, at least for him.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)


The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)


Days lived, whether full or empty, whether busy or serene, are but days gone by, and the ashes of the past weigh the same in every hand.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon (1957)


As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)



Under Dad’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels, he said, offered the specific clues, maps and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. By clues, he did not mean metaphors and he did not mean symbolism. He meant actual clues. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel, he said, left the close reader with a useful souvenir. All you needed to do was learn to see what was right under your nose.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)


“Robert has been led most of his life by his ambition – our family’s ambition – for him to be king. All of us have paid a price, for some the highest price, for him to fulfil that desire, but we have done so because we see in him something that lifts him above most other men; something that makes us hope. He has the iron will of our grandfather and, yes, the hot blood of our father, though he’ll not hear the latter said, but he also has the heart of our mother. It is a true heart. A good heart. You must keep faith, my lady.”

Kingdom by Robyn Young (2014)


Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)


“I think you’ll find most women in pursuit of a husband share an interest in appearing less educated than they really are,” said Beatrice. “It is why I have a low opinion of them.”

“Of women, miss?” said Abigail.

“No, of husbands,” said Beatrice.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)


Knighthood’s not for the likes of these people; for Madame Perrers’ brood. He thought she knew her place. But she’s overreached herself; she’s as grasping as the rest of them, after all. Do these people think they can buy or steal everything?

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett (2010)


Favourite books this month: The Red Lily Crown and The Summer Before the War.

My commonplace book: February 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


Every sound of the quiet evening came clearly to her ears with an unnatural distinctness; but now each one possessed a different and terrifying meaning. The muffled shouts and laughter of the few remaining bathers from the indoor swimming bath were the cries of fleeing, panic-stricken people. The whisper of the breeze through the pine needles was a frightened man whispering orders in the shadow of fog-shrouded whin bushes. A passing car was the drone of an enemy bomber and the faint lap of water against the sea-green tiles at the far side of the wide pool was the lap of waves against a pebble beach.

Death in Berlin by M. M. Kaye (1955)


“The promise of the day!” said Visconti, dreamily and sadly. “Hath it never struck thee how that promise never is fulfilled? Day after day, since the world began, something in the mystery of the dawn is promised – something the sunset smiles to see unfulfilled – something men have ever been cheated of – something men will never know – the promise of the dawn!”

The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen (1906)


Louis X

Uncertain health, a clever but overbearing father whose authority had crushed him, an unfaithful wife who had scoffed at him, an empty treasury, impatient vassals always ready to rebel, a famine in the first winter of his reign, a storm which threatened the life of his second wife – beneath what disastrous conjunction of the planets, which the astrologers had not dared reveal to him, must he have been born, that he should meet with adversity in every decision, every enterprise, and end by being conquered, not even nobly in battle, but by the water and mud in which he had engulfed his army?

The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon (1956)


She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her — understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)


Flag of Iowa

After all no fledgling had it easy, farmer or crow. Hadn’t he known since he was a boy the way the fledglings had to fall out of the nest and walk about, cheeping and crying, until they grew out their feathers and learned to fly on their own? Their helpless parents flew above them, and maybe dropped them a bit of food, but flying or succumbing belonged to them alone.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley (2014) – review to follow


“I must insist upon it,” she continued, “that you shall take me now as I really am — as your dearest friend, your sister, your mother, if you will. I know what I am. Were my husband not still living it would be the same. I should never under any circumstances marry again. I have passed the period of a woman’s life when as a woman she is loved; but I have not outlived the power of loving.”

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (1873)


“There is no other way, Robert,” James said quietly, watching the emotions shift across his face. “If Balliol returns you lose everything. At least this way you have a chance to make sure you and your family are protected. Our best hope is that Edward will be able to keep Balliol from the throne. If he succeeds, God willing, you may one day still claim it.”

Renegade by Robyn Young (2012)


St Patrick

And so it came to be that they carried me away into bondage, slung over the shoulder of the black-beard while the girl walked, roped behind. I cannot tell you of the voyage, nor of the faces of the many who were taken into captivity with us. I can only say that on that day “…the Lord brought over us the wrath of His anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers” in the land known as Eire.

The Lion and the Cross by Joan Lesley Hamilton (1979) – review to follow


Everybody was bowing, sliding on to one knee as Henry came into the chamber, leaning on his staff and smiling…Here comes the King, and with the coming of the King, all life must stop, the very air must thicken as if congealed in awe of this gross man who hobbled painfully on his tall staff, nodding and smiling, blinking every second.

Here Comes the King by Philip Lindsay (1933)


In a country where so many desire status and wealth, petty annoyances can spark disproportionately violent behaviour. We become frustrated because we feel powerless, invisible, unheard. We crave celebrity, but that’s not easy to come by, so we settle for notoriety. Envy and bitterness drive a new breed of lawbreakers, replacing the old motives of poverty and the need for escape. But how do you solve crimes which no longer have traditional motives?

Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler (2006) – review to follow


Favourite books this month: Phineas Redux and The Viper of Milan

The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon

The Accursed Kings has it all. Iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust, deception, family rivalries, the curse of the Templars, babies switched at birth, she-wolves, sin and swords, the doom of a great dynasty…and all of it (well, most of it) straight from the pages of history.

This is how the author George R.R. Martin has described Maurice Druon’s series of French historical novels, the inspiration behind his own Game of Thrones. The Accursed Kings (Les Rois Maudits) consists of seven books, all published between 1955 and 1977 and all available in English translations. The Poisoned Crown (Les Poisons de la Couronne) is the third in the series, continuing the story from The Iron King and The Strangled Queen.

The Poisoned Crown It’s 1315 and Louis X (known as le Hutin, the Quarreller) is on the throne of France. As the son of the late Philip the Fair, whose line was cursed ‘to the thirteenth generation’, Louis’ reign will be short and troubled. In the previous novel we saw the demise of his first wife, Marguerite of Burgundy. Now a second marriage has been arranged – with the beautiful Clémence of Hungary, who arrives in France after a terrible sea voyage and quickly wins the hearts of those around her with her kindness, generosity and religious devotion. All that remains is for Clémence to provide the king with heirs and secure the succession to the throne.

In some ways it seems that the presence of Clémence is making Louis a better person, but in others he is still proving to be cruel, weak and incompetent. A war against Flanders ends disastrously, he is unable to deal with the impact of famine and he fails to listen to good advice, being too easily influenced by his unscrupulous uncle, Charles of Valois. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing again between the king’s cousin, Robert of Artois, and Robert’s great-aunt Mahaut, who are still fighting over the lands they each regard as their own. Eventually the barons of Artois begin to rise against Mahaut, bringing the king into the dispute and setting a chain of events into motion which could bring about the end of Louis’ reign.

Three books into this series, I’m still enjoying it, but The Poisoned Crown is probably my least favourite so far. It feels like a bridging novel, leading us from the previous two volumes into the remainder of the series, rather than a satisfying story in itself. There’s less action in this one and too much focus, at least in my opinion, on the conflict between Robert of Artois and the Countess Mahaut. Still, there were plenty of things that I did like and the history is as fascinating as ever; I previously had almost no knowledge of what was happening in France during this period, so I’m really learning a lot from these novels.

Not everything in The Accursed Kings is based strictly on historical fact, though. One of the subplots which is largely fictional involves the Lombard banker, Spinello Tolomei, and his young nephew, Guccio Baglioni. Guccio’s romance with the impoverished noblewoman Marie de Cressay moves on a step in this book, although Druon goes on to spoil things for us by informing us of what the next ten years will have in store for them. One thing I find quite annoying about Druon’s writing is his habit of constantly telling us what is going to happen next. Of course, when you don’t know the history, even the titles of some of these books are spoilers in themselves!

The Poisoned Crown ends abruptly, but the scene is set for the fourth book in the series, The Royal Succession.

The Strangled Queen by Maurice Druon

The Strangled Queen This is the second book in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series (Les Rois Maudits in French). There are seven novels in the series, all published between 1955 and 1977, telling the story of the monarchs of medieval France. The front covers of these new HarperCollins editions tell us that The Accursed Kings inspired George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, but be aware that this is not a fantasy series!

In the first book, The Iron King, we saw how Philip IV the Fair of France brought about the destruction of the Knights Templar. Before being sent to burn at the stake, the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, cursed Philip and his descendants to ‘the thirteenth generation’. Philip was the first victim of the curse, but now he is dead and in The Strangled Queen we see how his son, Louis, becomes the next to suffer. Unlike his father, the newly crowned Louis X proves to be a very weak king and allows himself to be manipulated by his uncle, the Count of Valois, who is engaged in a power struggle with Enguerrand de Marigny, the former king’s chief minister.

Louis’ personal life is also a disaster – his wife, Marguerite of Burgundy, has been imprisoned for adultery following the Tour de Nesle Affair (described in the previous book) and as there is currently no Pope, he is unable to obtain a divorce so that he can find a new queen. Valois is hoping to arrange a marriage between his niece, Clemence of Hungary, and Louis, but first a new Pope will have to be chosen. However, Enguerrand de Marigny has other ideas and will do whatever it takes to thwart Valois’ plans.

I enjoyed The Strangled Queen, though not as much as The Iron King which I read more than a year ago and loved. I wished I hadn’t let so much time go by between reading the first book and the second as this really does seem to be a series that needs to be read in order with each book following on directly from the one before. Storylines that were begun in The Iron King were picked up again and continued in this book and I found myself struggling to remember exactly what had happened previously. I had forgotten all about Tolomei, the Lombard banker and his nephew Guccio, for example, but I was very pleased to see Guccio again as he is one of the few likeable characters in the series.

My only real complaint with this book is that, as someone who doesn’t know much about this period of French history, the title is a very big spoiler in itself. Knowing that the queen was going to be strangled took away some of the suspense! Luckily, though, the queen’s fate only forms a part of the story. Most of the novel is actually devoted to the rivalry between Charles of Valois and Enguerrand de Marigny…so you can expect lots of plotting, scheming and intrigue! And these are not the only plotting, scheming characters – there’s also Robert of Artois, still hoping to find a way of reclaiming his lands from his detested Aunt Mahaut.

I think the element of the book I found most interesting, though, is the portrayal of a young man (Louis X) who is unexpectedly forced to accept responsibilities that he is not ready for and not able to deal with. While I certainly didn’t like Louis (I find it difficult to have sympathy for someone whose idea of fun is shooting doves in an enclosed barn), I could understand his fears and insecurities and could see why it was so easy for the people around him to take control.

The third book in the series is called The Poisoned Crown so it sounds as if there’s still more trouble ahead for the sons of Philip the Fair!

The Iron King by Maurice Druon

The Iron King “This is the original Game of Thrones” it says on the front cover, but anyone picking this book up hoping for an epic fantasy novel is going to be disappointed. The French novelist Maurice Druon may have been George R.R. Martin’s inspiration (I haven’t read Martin’s books so wouldn’t know how strong the influence actually is), but this is definitely not fantasy – it’s an historical fiction novel and an excellent one too. While I think it’s good that Martin’s recommendation is encouraging people to read The Iron King, I do think it was maybe a mistake for the publisher to market the book in this way, as looking through the various reviews on Amazon it seems a lot of people have not got the novel they were expecting and as a consequence The Iron King has ended up with a lower rating than it deserves.

Anyway, now that we’ve established what type of book this is, let me tell you what it’s about! Originally published in the 1950s, this is the first in the seven-volume “Accursed Kings” series and tells the story of a fascinating period of French history. The Iron King of the title is Philip IV of France, who was also known as Philip the Fair. For seven years Philip has been persecuting the Knights Templar who he wishes to destroy because of their power and riches, and he finally succeeds in having their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, burned at the stake. But before the Grand Master goes to his death, he puts a curse on the King and his descendants – “accursed to the thirteenth generation!”

Things soon start to go badly for Philip and his family when it emerges that his sons’ wives are cheating on them with two young courtiers. Philip’s daughter Isabella, who is in a loveless marriage to King Edward II of England, sees an opportunity to bring their adultery to light, with the assistance of her ambitious and vengeful cousin, Robert of Artois, who is forming a plot of his own to reclaim his lands from his hated Aunt Mahaut. It seems that the Grand Master’s curse has been successful…

As this is a novel first published in 1955 and translated from French, it does have a very different feel in comparison to most of the historical fiction novels that are being written today and this was something I really liked about the book. Unfortunately I don’t have the language skills to be able to read it in its original French, but as far as I could tell, the translator (Humphrey Hare) has done a good job and The Iron King was one of the most entertaining historical fiction novels I’ve read for a while. There were so many interesting things to learn about – the origins of the famous ‘Tour de Nesle affair’; the demise of the Knights Templar; the community of Lombard bankers in Paris – and with a plot involving murder, torture, poisonings, court intrigue, and family feuds, there was always something happening.

Don’t worry if you know nothing about this period of French history – I had absolutely no previous knowledge of Philip the Fair and his family before reading this book but that was not a problem at all because this edition of the book makes the story easy to understand and follow. Everything you need to know regarding the historical background, the politics or the causes of feuds and disputes is clearly explained in the notes at the back of the book and the character list at the front helped me remember who everyone was and how they were related to each other. I am now looking forward to the second Accursed Kings book, The Strangled Queen. I hope the publisher will continue to reissue the rest of the series!