QAB Interview with Historian Sarah Gristwood

New Release!
New Release!

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Editor’s Note: Today is a very exciting day for the English history of women’s studies!! Two major historical works are releasing that explore the lives late 15th through 17th-century women researched and composed by eminent historians Sarah Gristwood and Elizabeth Norton. Over the next few weeks, Queenanneboleyn.com will be highlighting through author interviews, guest articles, book reviews and extracts both Game of Queens: The Women Who Made 16th-Century Europe, by Sarah Gristwood and The Lives of Tudor Women, by Elizabeth Norton. Pull up a chair as together with these two fine historians we explore the “Gaps in English History”, the extraordinarily lives of powerful, as well as common women. We recently caught up with Sarah to discuss her thoughts on the women who yielded power in 16th-century Europe. Enjoy our online interview below. Sarah’s insights are fascinating.

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1. Sarah, your new history book Game of Queens: The Women Who Made 16th century Europe, releases today in the United Kingdom. By any historical era’s standards, women really stepped to center stage during the 16th century. Beyond the obvious choices of Isabella of Castile and Elizabeth Tudor of England, what female queen regents or queen consorts do you believe most profoundly influenced 16th-century historical events? Were there any surprises in this regard that you discovered through your research?
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Jeanne of Navarre (François Clouet, 1570)
Jeanne of Navarre
(François Clouet, 1570)

The sixteenth century was packed with powerful women, and not all of them had to hold a sceptre in order to wield that power. Isabella and Elizabeth were both ‘queens regnant’, ruling queens – like Mary Queen of Scots, or Jeanne of Navarre –  and other women wielded ‘soft power’ as consorts. But several of those consorts (Louise of Savoy, Catherine de Medici, Marie de Guise) then went on to rule as regents on behalf of their offspring . . . and two of the most interesting women of the century were never crowned queen at all. I’m thinking particularly about Margaret of Austria – the so-called ‘Great Mother of Europe’ – who ruled the Netherlands on behalf of her nephew Charles V, and Anne de Beaujeu, controlling France on behalf of her younger brother Charles VIII.

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2. In a 16th-century world laden in pervasive misogyny, how beyond an “accident of birth” did European queens build their power and prestige? Did the example and mentoring of earlier 16-century women of power influence those that followed? 
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Anne de Beajeu (cropped from a triptych by Master of Moulins)
Anne de Beajeu
(cropped from a triptych by Master of Moulins)

What interested me especially was the networks these powerful women formed – quiet alliances stretching across national borders. Margaret of Austria provided lawyers to advise Katherine of Aragon, even while she was engaged in diplomatic negotiation with Katherine’s estranged husband Henry VIII. Katherine, of course, had already learnt important lessons from her own mother Isabella of Castile, and passed her strength and stubbornness on to her own daughter Mary Tudor. Anne de Beaujeu actually wrote an instruction manual for powerful women  – Lessons for my Daughter – which has been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince.

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3. In looking at our contemporary world, I am struck with the dynamic of female world leaders — Hillary Clinton, for example — often being the spouses of powerful men. Did you notice any major similarities between contemporary women in power and their 16th-century counterparts? If so, can you give us a few examples?
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Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton

I see a huge number of similarities between the women of the sixteenth century and what’s happening today. Powerful women then and now face many of the same challenges – the difficulty of seeming strong without being called strident, the gendered abuse and the focus on their bodies: their looks, or the question of whether they’ve born a child. But Hillary Clinton is a particularly interesting example. Yes, to follow in your husband’s footsteps is a very well-worn path to power. But if she wins on November 8 she’ll be perhaps the world’s most powerful woman ever – and we’ll have to see what kind of a fist Bill makes of being America’s ‘First Laddie’!

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4. Can you provide Queenanneboleyn.com browsers with an example of one of the “lesser known” women highlighted in your book that you found surprisingly intriguing? Why so?
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Margaret of Austria (Jean Hay 1490)
Margaret of Austria
(Jean Hay 1490)

The character who most interested me was Margaret of Austria, and the surprise was just how someone so important could be ‘lesser known’ – or lesser known to English-speaking readers, anyway! To follow the adventures of her youth is like reading a Who’s Who of the sixteenth century, and she then spent more than two decades at the very heart of European diplomacy. A woman who could make poems as well as peace treaties, and who sent out a cohort of girls raised in her care to take their own places on the thrones of Europe.

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5. Mary Tudor — Is “Bloody Mary” a misunderstood monarch? What was her greatest contribution to English History? 
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Well – yes and no! Looking at the European context which formed her helps one understand Mary Tudor’s dilemmas. But I can’t say I really warmed to her. And I think her greatest contribution – whether or not she wanted it to be – was to have shown a woman could sit on England’s throne, and thus pave the way for her half-sister Elizabeth.
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6. Given 16th century female monarchs and queen consorts often reigned over their realms during overlapping timeframes, were they ever a support to one another? Or were they as better rivals as was common to their male contemporaries?
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Margaret Tudor
Margaret Tudor

I know I’ve talked already about women’s alliance, but there is something more to be said. The tragedy for many of these women was the way that – married off to cement a fragile peace made by their menfolk – they then found their responsibilities to that new country at complete odds with their loyalties to their natal family. Margaret Tudor must be the ultimate example – forced to appeal to her brother Henry VIII for help after the death of her husband the Scots king, even though that husband had actually been killed by her brother’s army! Margaret believed if only she and her sister-in-law Katherine of Aragon could only have met, they would have found a way to peace . . .

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7. Sarah, you prolific writing based on exhaustive research most commonly focuses on the lives of remarkable women throughout history. From Arabella Stuart to Perdita to Elizabeth Woodville to Royal Weddings to the Queens of the 16th-century, women take center stage. Do you find Women’s Studies has finally come to the forefront? Do you believe your research and those of other female historians is “rounding out” the stories of world history by finally “filling in the blanks”? 
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It’s firstly personal for me – it is women and women’s stories that most interest me. But it’s also completely true that women’s stories tend to be the forgotten ones, which the writer can have the thrill of telling afresh. Of course there are dangers – of making the women sound more central, more active in public events, than they really were. But I do believe that in trying to show aspects of women’s experience, we are filling in some huge gaps in our history.
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Arabella Stuart (Marcus Gheeraerts, the Younger)
Arabella Stuart
(Marcus Gheeraerts, the Younger)

8. If you could decide what research you’ve completed that you are most proud of, what would it be?

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My first historical biography was about Arbella Stuart, who was expected to inherit the throne of England from Elizabeth I – and she’ll always have a very special place in my heart. And in some ways her story ties in with Game of Queens, which looks at the reasons the country didn’t want another female ruler.

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9. Do you have any new projects in the pipeline that you are able to share with QAB browsers?
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Let’s just say I hope to be writing more on women and power – but in a period rather closer to home than the sixteenth century!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Sarah Gristwoog
Sarah Gristwood
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Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling biographer, novelist, former journalist, and commentator on royal affairs. A prolific historian of the influence of women in Tudor Era England and Europe, she wrote two bestselling Tudor biographies, Arbella: England’s Lost Queen and Elizabeth and Leicester; and the eighteenth-century story Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic which was selected as Radio 4 Book of the Week. Presenting and contributing to several radio and tv documentaries, she also published a book on iconic dresses, Fabulous Frocks (with Jane Eastoe); and a 50th anniversary companion to the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as collaborating with Tracy Borman, Alison Weir and Kate Williams on The Ring and the Crown (Hutchinson), a book on the history of royal weddings. 2011 also saw the publication of her first historical novel, The Girl in the Mirror. In September 2012 she brought out a new non-fiction book – Blood Sisters: the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses. Sarah’s newest history book, Game of Queens, releases today in the United Kingdom and November 29th in the United States.
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Game of Queens (United States Cover)
Game of Queens
(United States Cover)

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To Purchase Game of Queens or Another Brilliant Book by Sarah Gristwood, 

Click The Link Below!

BOOKS BY SARAH GRISTWOOD

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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