Martyrs and Murderers: the Guise Family and the Making of Europe

 Penny Roberts is fascinated by the story of an influential family in 16th-century Europe

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Reviewed by: Penny Roberts
Author: Stuart Carroll
Publisher: OUP
Price (RRP): £18.99

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The publicity for this book will inevitably focus on the most famous member of the Guise clan, as far as the English-speaking world at least is concerned, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Stuart Carroll deals with this distraction early on for, as he rightly argues, the House of Guise was a great deal more important than this association alone, although it did bring them into direct conflict with Elizabeth I. Mary is ultimately a bit player in this arresting portrait of what it was to be a high-ranking noble, close to the centre of power, in one of the most important European kingdoms of the 16th century.

Carroll is an effective and well-informed guide as he recreates a world of intrigue, loyalty and betrayal, flitting as the Guises themselves would have done, between the royal court and their family seat in the provinces. The wider international context of the Guise family, through ancestry (more than most noble families in France, including the Valois, they could claim direct descent from the Carolingians as well as the Angevins), intermarriage, and diplomatic contacts with Scotland and Spain, is expertly presented alongside the minutiae of their daily lives at Joinville. 

The dukes of Guise were not only renowned for their courage and skill as military leaders, but for their common touch, as well as their wielding of considerable influence and power. Furthermore, the family placed many of its members in high-ranking positions in the church, producing several cardinals. The personalities of the protagonists are brought vividly to life with all their strengths, shortcomings and obsessions: their humanity, piety and largesse; their pride, debauchery and arrogance.

Carroll places particular emphasis on the role of the Guise women, not least the formidable dowager duchess, Antoinette de Bourbon, who presided over the clan for more than 30 years after the death of her husband. He focuses, too, on important moments during the religious wars in which the Guise were key players, illuminating their role and seeking to explain their behaviour. He manages to dispel much of the ‘black legend’ of the family as fanatical Catholics, arguing, for instance, that their genuine but not militant piety allowed them still to maintain amicable relations with their Protestant clients and allies for much of the wars. Thus, a much more rounded picture is provided of the oft-maligned Cardinal of Lorraine, and a more nuanced account of the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris in 1572. Ultimately, this is an extremely sympathetic portrait: certainly the Guises usually come off best when compared to their rivals, such as the Huguenot prince of Condé, a “political non-entity”, and Charles IX, who Carroll describes as guilty of crassness.

The tale ends with the assassination of the Guise brothers, by order of the king, Henry III, at the end of 1588. The epilogue looks ahead to the fortunes of the family in the 17th century, which only contains echoes of the dizzy heights to which the 16th-century dukes and cardinals of the family were able to aspire. This book is a fascinating read for all those gripped by historical tales of derring-do, for those who prefer the details of how the nobility lived, as well as those who are interested in the wider machinations of the kings and queens of 16th-century Europe.

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Penny Roberts is associate professor in history at the University of Warwick