The Serpent and the Moon : Two Rivals for the Love of a Renaissance King

by Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent
ISBN: 0743251040

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A Review of: The Serpent and the Moon: Two Rivals for the Love of a Renaissance King
by Christopher Ondaatje

Her Royal Highness, Princess Michael of Kent, herself a descendant of both Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers, has written a moving account of an intriguing time in Renaissance France, when a love triangle dominated both court and politics. It is an extraordinary story.
The first half of the 16th century was a time of giants: the dazzlingly attractive Francois I on the throne of France, a young and still attractive Henry VIII on the throne of England, a young (and less attractive) Charles V as the Holy Roman Emperor, and two Medici Popes holding sway one almost after the other in the Vatican. At the same time these powerful rulers had to contend with Sulieman the Magnificent-the leader of the Ottoman Empire. Francois I (the most Christian king of France) and later his son Henri II would form an alliance with Sulieman, the infidel, against the most Holy Roman Emperor. Overhanging the lure and enlightenment of the Renaissance in France at this time was the shadow of the Reformation, whose companion was brutal persecution. But the thread that runs through this great era of change is the extraordinary love between the beautiful and wise Diane de Poitiers and the future King of France, Henri II, who was eighteen years her junior. He loved her until the moment of his cruel death, and despite all the efforts of his wife Catherine de Medici, Henri had eyes only for this much older lady.
The splendid pageantry of the early reign of Francois I could not last. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, invaded France. At the great battle of Pavia in 1525 the King was defeated and taken prisoner to Spain. To complete a treaty, his two eldest sons, the Dauphin and six-year-old Henri d'Orleans were taken as hostages in their father's place. As their mother had died, it was Diane who comforted the young boy when the exchange of prisoners was about to take place. Diane de Poitiers ran out from among the courtiers and took the tearful young Prince Henri into her arms to comfort him. During his four long years in a Spanish prison he would never forget her kindness. On his return he became her young knight and she gently mothered him, helping him with his interrupted education.
The ensuing treaty with Charles V was ruinous for France and the King invited himself to Anet, a chateau in Normandy, to ask advice of its owner and old friend Louis de Brz (Diane de Poitier's husband). It was de Brz who recommended the marriage of the fourteen-year-old Henri to the ambitious Pope Clement II's young cousin, the orphaned heiress Catherine de Medici, who was also fourteen. Henri did his duty by Catherine but was not prepared to do more and continued his respectful adoration of Diane, Madam de Brz, who became a widow in the same year. Four years later the Dauphin died and Henri took his brother's place. At eighteen Henri was handsome and athletic, and Diane still a beautiful thirty-six. It is not surprising that they fell in love and continued their discreet affair all of Henri's life, possibly the greatest romance in French royal history.
Catherine was unattractive and despised at the French court. Her marriage to Henri was considered by all a scandalous misalliance. While the legendary beauty Diane cultivated her image as Diana, The Huntress and Goddess of the Moon, the envy and duplicity of Catherine led her to be called "La Serpente". Always frightened of Henri, Catherine's motto became "Hate and Wait". Henri's devotion to the beautiful Diane continued and grew. Catherine, on the other hand, lived in terror and repudiation. In ten years she had failed to produce an heir. Curiously, with Diane's guidance, children were born to the royal couple. Diane had recommended "some alternate positions for intercourse that would compensate for [Catherine's] retroverted uterus and Henri's hypospadias. Diane suggested to the Dauphine that she make love levrette'."(A levrette is a small greyhound bitch; and hypospadias, a birth defect of the urethra in the male that involves an abnormally placed urethral opening.) However, when Henri inherited the throne in 1547, he ruled as one with Diane, not Catherine, their intertwined monograms and signature black and white colours emblazoned on everything-their clothes, his household's livery, official proclamations, furniture and palace decorations. But sadly this paradise could not last. Henri died following a jousting accident in 1559, and Diane de Poitiers retired to her late husband's Normandy chateau Anet to live out her life reflecting on the "douceur de vivre" she had known with the King. She died in 1566 and is buried in a magnificent tomb at Anet.
The author's epic and absorbing love story is set between two great revolutions, one cultural and the other spiritual, the Renaissance and the Reformation. Princess Michael is no stranger to the machinations of palace intrigue herself. In this, her third book, and definitely her best, she has woven a masterful story of wars, betrayal and persecution during a time when Europe emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages into the light of Humanism. With her intricate knowledge of the European courts and her ability for painstaking research, we can only hope that she follows this captivating book with a biography of the long-suffering Catherine de Medici who, after her husband's death, eventually became one of the most important figures in European history. She ruled France from behind the throne during one of the nastiest periods in French history. Three of her sons became Kings of France, including one who married Mary, Queen of Scots. Catherine's story of "passion, hatred and vengeance" deserves sympathetic attention from this masterful popular historian.

Footnote: Princess Michael is a direct descendant of both Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. The chart at the front of the book indicates that a fifth generation descendant of Catherine de Medici married a seventh generation descendant of Diane de Poitiers. The Princess descends from that union through her mother's descent from the Savoy family.

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