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.

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!