Vulgar History Podcast
Elisabeth of Valois (with Leah Redmond Chang)
August 16, 2023
Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster, and this is a new installment in our ongoing series, which is not over, There’s Something About Mary, Queen of Scots. So, in the season so far, we’ve looked at, who have we looked at? We’ve looked at Catherine de’ Medici, Mary, Queen of Scots herself in 20.5 hours of episodes, Mary’s mother Marie de Guise, and her grandmother Margaret Tudor. And today, we’re going to be looking at Mary, Queen of Scots’s sister-in-law and childhood companion, Elisabeth of Valois. But we’re very much going to be looking at her story in the context of Mary, Queen of Scots and especially of Catherine de’ Medici, who was Elisabeth of Valois’s mother. And that is because I’m so lucky to be able to talk with author Leah Redmond Chang. Her book, Young Queens: Three Renaissance Women and the Price of Power has just come out, you should be able to get a copy of it wherever you get your books from, and this book is a triple biography of Catherine de’ Medici, her daughter Elisabeth of Valois, and Mary, Queen of Scots.
The book is described as “The boldly original, dramatic, intertwined story of Catherine de’ Medici, Elisabeth de Valois, and Mary, Queen of Scots, three queens exercising power in a world dominated by men.” And because we have talked at length about Catherine and about Mary, today, I’ve invited Leah on to talk about Elisabeth of Valois who is a person who, honestly, I knew next to nothing about until I read her book, she’s kind of there in the background. For context, she’s the oldest daughter of Catherine de’ Medici, the older sister of Queen Margot, who we’ve talked about in previous episodes. And she was married as a young teenager to Philip of Spain, who is the same Philip of Spain who was previously married to Mary I, Elizabeth I’s sister, and I’d only known about Philip really in the context of him being kind of a shitty husband to Mary I. But here we see him in a different way in his marriage to Elisabeth of Valois.
We also talk more about his son, Don Carlos and in the whole Mary, Queen of Scots saga, both Philip and Don Carlos kept coming up as potential husbands for her, so we learn a bit more about them and what’s going on in Spain. There’s a surprise appearance but I won’t spoil it for you yet; one of Elisabeth of Valois’s ladies-in-waiting is a person who we’ve talked about on this podcast before in a previous season. So anyway, I was so delighted to have Leah here to talk with me about Elisabeth of Valois.
Ann: Leah Redmond Chang, welcome to Vulgar History.
Leah: Thank you so much for having me.
Ann: Can you tell everybody about your book, what it’s about and who you profile?
Leah: Yes. The book is called Young Queens: Three Renaissance Women and the Price of Power, and it focuses on three Renaissance queens, three 16th-century European queens, some of whom are more famous than others. Catherine de’ Medici, her daughter Elisabeth of Valois, who becomes the Queen of Spain. Catherine, I should add, is the Queen Consort of France and then the Queen Mother of France. The third person in the book is Mary, Queen of Scots, who you know very well, who is Catherine’s daughter-in-law and Elisabeth of Valois’s childhood friend, and who is the reigning Queen of Scotland and the Queen Consort of France.
Ann: And how did you come to choose these three people for this book?
Leah: So, there’s a little bit of history here. I had actually done another project on Catherine de’ Medici and in the course of that project, I had seen her voluminous correspondence with Elisabeth of Valois, but it was kind of one-sided. There wasn’t a lot coming from Elisabeth, there was a lot from Catherine but not necessarily a lot of replies. And I was sort of amazed at how little I knew about Elisabeth because I had studied the Renaissance for a really long time, and I thought it was sort of odd that I knew nothing about this young queen of Spain.
So, I went looking for her. I did find some of her correspondence, there is less than the surviving letters from Catherine. But I was really researching that relationship and in the course of doing that, I saw that at a certain period of time, they were kind of plotting about Mary, Queen of Scots so this was intriguing, very, very interesting. And that’s when I remembered that Mary had really spent the first chunk of her childhood and young adulthood in France and I realized that they all knew each other.
So, it was sort of a natural, logical place to start: the court of France when these three – I’m going to call them women but two of them were girls – were living together at the court of France and then go from there. So, in some ways, the grouping was sort of a natural one to choose.
Ann: It’s interesting to me because in my research I’ve found a number of dual biographies, so there’s one that’s Catherine and her daughter Margot, there’s one that’s Mary and Elizabeth I, or there’s one that’s Catherine and Elizabeth I. So, this is a new combination of people and Elisabeth of Valois is really the wildcard here because I don’t even know if there’s been a biography of her before. Do you know if there has been?
Leah: There was a 19th-century biography of her, there’s a scholarly biography in French, and there are some Spanish biographies of her but nothing in English and certainly not a biography that’s written for the more general reader. A lot of this stuff was written for scholars.
There are a couple of reasons– And I do want to say that Elisabeth of Valois was kind of the reason why I wrote the book. After I did all this work on Catherine and Elisabeth and Mary, I thought, we really need to get Elisabeth out there. She was sort of the inspiration and then it became natural to talk about the three of them. I did really want to make her a central figure in the book, partially because the way I would put it is that she’s, kind of, this is going to sound a little bit strange but a Renaissance royal everywoman in some ways. I think she represents the common experience of aristocratic and royal women during the 16th century, in the 15th century, just during this time of dynasty. Most aristocratic or royal women would have an experience closer to Elisabeth’s. Catherine and Mary for various reasons, they’re pretty extraordinary. But Elisabeth is sort of your average Queen Consort if you will, and I feel like we don’t hear enough about what this was like. For a number of reasons, we actually have access to a lot of information about her and so I thought this was a great opportunity to bring that forward.
Ann: It was really interesting to me because I read your book just after I finished my research on Catherine de’ Medici and on Mary, Queen of Scots but this was really just filling in some gaps I didn’t even know were there. Who was this other person who was there? And as you said, her life was eventful, but it wasn’t the chaotic soap opera that was happening to the others.
Leah: Right, right, no, no, no. But at the same time, she’s a witness to all of that chaos and she’s an important player, certainly, her mother Catherine thinks of her as a really important player, to the extent that she can be as this teenage queen. But Catherine is also shaping her to be an important player. I won’t spoil it but… [laughs]
Ann: We’ll try and tell this story without spoiling all the reveals, but she was the eldest child, right, of Catherine and her husband?
Leah: She is the eldest daughter, she’s not the eldest child. She’s the second child. The first is Francis, and he is the heir and eventually becomes Francis II, that’s Mary, Queen of Scots’s husband. But Elisabeth is the first daughter and she’s kind of on the heels of Francis. As you know with Catherine, she is barren for the first ten years of her marriage which is very stressful for her. And then something changes, and she starts having child after child, these sort of repeated pregnancies. So, Elisabeth was her second child but first-born daughter. It’s a little bit hard to say because there are a lot of different sources that say one child or the other was Catherine’s favourite, but a lot of sources seem to suggest that at least among the girls, Elisabeth was Catherine’s favourite.
Ann: You were saying that she was raised knowing that she was going to be married to somebody important, she was going to have this role and Catherine wanted her to both excel at being a queen and also be her person on the inside, to be on Team Catherine.
Leah: Totally, totally! Team Catherine, I love that. And it’s definitely this collaborative mother-daughter team. What we don’t know is whether or not that’s originally what Catherine intended. To give a little context here, Catherine is the Queen Consort of France and she’s doing just fine being Queen Consort and then her husband, Henry, dies in this terrible jousting accident and suddenly the kingdom is thrown into chaos. Her son, Francis II, inherits the throne, he’s married to Mary, Queen of Scots, and she becomes the queen consort of France.
What’s at stake is this new peace treaty with Spain. Spain had been the enemy for generations, there’s a new peace treaty, suddenly they are allies, and no one really knows whether or not that alliance, that peace treaty, is going to hold. So, it’s very imperative that Elisabeth do what she can to help her mother keep the peace between France and Spain and the problem is that Elisabeth is only 14 years old. So, it’s at that point that Catherine really starts to cultivate Elisabeth as her team player, as you put it, and of course, all of this has to be done through correspondence because Elisabeth is in Spain and Catherine is still in France.
Ann: Let’s talk about Philip for a minute. So, this is who Elisabeth is married to, he has been married twice before. I think most people are familiar with the fact that he was married to Mary I of England. So, it’s that same Philip, you guys, it’s that same guy, widowed from Mary and then he is married to this really young teenage Elisabeth.
Leah: She’s a child, she’s still playing with dolls. They actually talk about that, her ladies-in-waiting, who write to Catherine. And Philip is kind of known to be a bad husband. Certainly, if you know about Philip and Mary I of England you know that he’s not a great husband; he abandons Mary I of England, more or less. And so, Elisabeth is marrying this man who doesn’t have a great track record with his wives. He’s 20 years older than her, he’s known to be austere, he’s very pious, Elisabeth wouldn’t necessarily have had a problem with that, he’s sort of this unknown quantity to her. He used to be the enemy; just a few months before, he was the enemy.
I think that often we have trouble wrapping our minds around that, how these alliances or relationships could shift, could turn almost on a dime. So, for instance, Philip, who was kind of this, I would imagine, monstrous figure in the eyes of the French is suddenly her husband! I often try to get myself into Elisabeth’s head to imagine how she must have thought of that. It must have been terrifying.
Ann: And in one of the letters, she says before she meets him– It’s so sweet, she’s so sweet because you have so much of her own words translated of course, but she’s saying “I want to do a good job and I want to be a good queen. I hope he’ll be like a husband and also like a father for me.” She says that, right?
Leah: She says that! And you know, I sat with that letter for a long time and like you said, it’s moving, you see her as this child who is just trying to wrap her mind around what this marriage is going to be. And of course, she’s saying that on the heels of her own father’s brutal death. And she loved her father, Henry II was a very good dad, I will say, his children seemed to really love him. So, this has been this horrible, traumatic experience, and now all she can hope for, what she has to imagine is that Philip is going to replace her beloved dad because that’s the only way she can relate, I think, to an older man.
Ann: And then also, in terms of her ladies-in-waiting. When she was in France, I talked about this in the Mary, Queen of Scots episode, but she was raised like siblings, she was like a sister to Mary, Queen of Scots; the children were in the nursery together. And I think even when she and Mary are writing to each other, they’re calling each other “sister” and things like that. So, it’s not just Elisabeth wanting to replace her beloved father who just died, but also her friend group, her entire life. So, she comes over to Spain, yeah.
Leah: Yes, totally. Catherine is worried about a lot of things. [laughs] That poor woman, actually, when I think about sending Elisabeth off to Spain with the political world in France, just sort of crumbling around you but she is very worried about Elisabeth personally and she’s also worried about Elisabeth politically. So, she sends a lot of very trusted French ladies-in-waiting with Elisabeth, and she also sends some very high-ranking noblewomen, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, who is this very wealthy heiress and cousin to Elisabeth and she’s about Elisabeth’s same age. I think the idea was that she was going to have this little friend, this friend in court with her who was of a certain noble ranking that would match Elisabeth and therefore be acceptable to the Spanish because the Spanish are really sticklers about things like rank and appropriateness.
Ann: Oh, speaking of, there are several moments in your book where you describe Elisabeth, there’s these just, she was frozen with indecision, “Who is the higher rank of this, who gets out of the carriage first,” or whatever. And she’s just like, [exasperated tone] “I don’t know! I’m 14, I’m in Spain.” But it’s so important to the Spanish people!
Leah: Yes! And she knows that, she knows. I mean, it’s like your first day on the job, right, where you already have a sense of the office vibe, and you know you have to make the right choice. I think that’s what Elisabeth was going through and, you know, she has a lot of advice from these ladies-in-waiting that I’ve just spoken about. But in the end, she is the queen already, even though she’s 14, so it’s up to her to make the right decision. And sometimes she makes the wrong decision, like any child would, and that actually ends up having some serious political implications.
Ann: I kept thinking this would be a really interesting film or TV show or something. I was seeing it very cinematically, this young girl who is so in over her head, but she’s so determined to do everything correctly and do everything right. Her mother is writing her these letters being like, “Here’s what you do,” trying to support her as best as she can. Like you said, it’s a very moving situation, I couldn’t help but, my heart goes out to her.
Leah: Yes, and to Catherine. I often think about that, what that must have been like without the immediacy of communication that we have today; hoping that your letter gets to your daughter in time before she makes the wrong decision; hoping that the people that you placed around her are going to steer her well; hoping that she doesn’t get sick or offend her new husband, who really has the power to do something terrible both in Spain and toward France. So, I feel for both of them, I feel for the young girl, but I also feel for the mother.
Ann: You’re right. Just thinking about that now too, the immediacy of it, because some of these things are quite time-sensitive, the questions she has or Catherine’s advice, but you have to wait for the courier to get there. This is a bit later in their story, but can you talk about the way that they wrote these very frustrating letters, to you, where they were just like, “Can you do that thing I talked about with that person we both know what that– “
Leah: [laughs] Oh my god, totally. Yeah, so the thing about these letters is that they couldn’t necessarily say exactly what they meant because letters aren’t secure; they get lost all the time, people could steal them, and spies could open and read them. There are all sorts of ways in which sending a letter is not the most secure form of communication. And because Elisabeth was so young, Catherine didn’t use code with her, she didn’t use cipher, also because if that did fall under the eyes of some Spaniard or some spy it would be clear that Catherine was communicating something secretive and that wouldn’t look so good, right, because Elisabeth was supposed to be the loyal Queen Consort of Philip II.
So, they found these ways to kind of hint at things, right, sort of dropping names or sometimes, you know, using certain roundabout forms of circumlocution to get at what they mean. And I have the feeling that there were things in those letters that I missed, that they were probably [giggles] hinting at or saying that I just never really picked up on because I didn’t understand the kind of code of allusion that was going on in the letters.
Ann: And that was so interesting coming off of, as you’re well aware, just this past year, the cipher of Mary, Queen of Scots that was cracked. I read up on that and it’s, you know, this symbol means this, and this means this, and once you figure that out, like Cryptoquote, you can understand it. But this, there’s no way to understand it because it’s all just in their hearts, this is all just in their minds.
Leah: Exactly. And then half the time, the messenger is the one who communicates the oral message, there’s so much that must have gone on orally that has been completely lost to us. So, we’re always only ever getting a part of the picture, and all we can do is try to kind of piece it back together again like a puzzle.
Ann: And just for the listeners of this, there was a part in the Mary, Queen of Scots episode I did where she was giving birth and she wrote a will and one of the things at her bequest was to David Rizzio’s brother and it just said like, “I’m going to give you this and do with it that thing that we said that you should do.” It’s that sort of thing where you’re just like, “What is that? What are you doing?” [laughs]
Leah: What was it?! I’m dying to know!! [laughs] Oh yeah, I know. I always feel like with history, that almost by definition we have it a little bit wrong always because there’s probably a show or maybe another book, something to create, where you could see all these different scenarios around say, a single object, or the will, or single event just reimagining how history might have gone if we had just one more detail.
Ann: So, speaking of things that they talk about very vaguely in their letters but also talking about the immense amount of pressure that this extremely young person is under. Can we talk about her health? There’s one of the letters where Catherine says, “If anyone found out what you have…” which could mean a disease, which could mean– who knows? But she had various symptoms. Can you talk about her physical issues?
Leah: Yes. So, it is very hard to diagnose people from the past. Reporters of symptoms are unreliable, including doctors. The way that they would describe symptoms in the past is maybe not the way we would describe them today. So, it’s really tempting to diagnose them, but we can’t. But we can talk about the kind of symptoms that Elisabeth had. And what’s unclear is how many of these symptoms she might have had before she went to Spain because we only have correspondence after she went to Spain but it’s very possible that she was suffering from a lot of this before she left for Spain.
So, among the symptoms, she has a lot of nausea, she vomits, she has terrible migraines, she has nose bleeds, and she often feels kind of faint. She has what Catherine describes as “fullness” but it’s really not clear what that is, it’s probably an allusion to too much blood. We’re still operating in a world that believes in humoral theory so, it’s probably a reference to her somehow having too much blood, maybe because she isn’t really menstruating yet. That’s the other huge thing about Elisabeth is that she struggles with her menstrual cycle, possibly very much like Mary I of England did, that’s also something that’s not totally clear.
So, she has this spate of symptoms which, to some degree, you kind of look at that and you say, “Hmm, I wonder if she’s an adolescent girl just struggling with hormonal changes?” That could have been the case. Or you know, maybe she’s really stressed. She is, after all, under a ton of pressure. Or maybe she’s just having trouble adapting to the new food, or maybe she’s always had an illness. She does seem to have some version of these symptoms until the day she dies. So, it does seem like there’s something chronically wrong with her. But what it exactly is, is unclear, but it did make Catherine very, very worried.
Ann: And that’s another really touching thing. People think, including myself, that Catherine de’ Medici is this formidable fierce woman, but these letters are just like, “Oh my God,” giving her advice. Catherine was really interested in, not chemistry, but making creams and tonics and things so she would prepare mixtures to send along, right?
Leah: Yes. And I kind of wish I had her mixtures because the way the French ladies talk about them, this stuff was really good! So, Elisabeth has smallpox, she has some scarring on her face, Catherine is terrified that these scars are going to be permanent, and the French ladies-in-waiting are saying, “Please send us more of your balm because we don’t trust any of the cosmetics here.” So, it must have been pretty good. Maybe she brought it over from Italy, who knows?
But she was and she’s very hovering in some ways over Elisabeth in both good ways and bad ways. I do think you see in these letters a little bit of the kind of, controlling, helicopter mom that Catherine is known to be. I like to think she had her reasons. But also, these letters show a woman who really loves her daughter and I feel like that is not something that we normally associate with Catherine de’ Medici but it’s what I saw in her letters. This mother who was grieving the departure of her daughter, was really worried about how she was going to do, who really needed her, emotionally, in some ways, and who loved her. Quite simply, she loved her daughter.
Ann: And just on top of all the stresses that we’ve already discussed about the weight of the peace between two nations resting on her behaviour, and she has this much older husband, she’s in a different country, she didn’t speak Spanish initially. But also, you just mentioned that she wasn’t menstruating. The whole thing is, “Let’s have this young, fertile,” allegedly, “young woman so she can start having some children so she can have some heirs,” and for six years she doesn’t have any children.
Leah: Right. It’s almost like she inherited her mother’s problem. So, Catherine is barren for 10 years and Elisabeth struggles with her fertility too and that must have been horrifying for Catherine. That must have been something she felt in her bones, the stress of that infertility and now, her daughter is suffering from it too and the stakes are still higher. So yeah, she doesn’t have her period, I don’t think she had her period when she went to Spain. There’s the possibility that she’s gotten it once but she’s by no means menstruating regularly. Catherine writes these panicked letters to the chief lady-in-waiting, Madame de Clermont, “Tell me when her period is coming. Tell me the moment her period comes!” You just know that when she got that news, Catherine would breathe a sigh of relief.
So, it’s very irregular and that is just, that leaves Elisabeth in such a vulnerable, insecure position because if Philip thinks that anything is wrong with her, he can just renege on that peace treaty, he can repudiate Elisabeth, and he can start to wage war again on France and in some ways, he has reason to. Not only because there’s this long-standing animosity between France and Spain, and long-standing wars over territories in Europe, but also because we are in the middle of the Protestant Reformation and the Huguenots, the Protestants are really gaining ground in France and that makes Philip very, very nervous.
So, Catherine needs Elisabeth to be secure in her place at court. She needs Elisabeth to have Philip’s ear and the only way that Catherine can be really sure that happens is if Elisabeth gives birth to the heir or to the next heir, the second in line, because there is another one. Don Carlos is already there.
Ann: I was just going to say, speaking of people with health issues that we’re not going to diagnose, let’s talk about… Here’s what I found really sweet, actually. Don Carlos is a person I’ve talked about a few times in the Mary, Queen of Scots season because on and off, Mary would be like, maybe that’s the match that she should have, make the connection with Spain. But Don Carlos is just… lots of health issues, lots of mental health issues. But he and Elisabeth have this really sweet friendship. They’re similar in age, I think?
Leah: Yes, they’re almost exactly the same age. She meets him when she first gets to Guadalajara and he’s very respectful to her and to all evidence, Don Carlos was nothing but respectful to Elisabeth, even though there is some testimony that he didn’t feel that way about women in general.
But it is very hard to know the truth about Don Carlos. He did have health issues; he had some physical health issues. I really think of him as a disabled child. He is a disabled child who has been made to seem monstrous over hundreds of years of first, testimony or hearsay in the 16th century, and then story building, the kind of story building that happens in the writing of history. But he’s a disabled child who definitely had some mental health issues.
So, they befriend each other, and I often think that they had a lot in common. There are these two young people who have to bear the weight of these incredibly powerful and overbearing parents, both of them, Philip for Don Carlos and Catherine for Elisabeth. And, you know, they’re just trying to get through their adolescence and please their parents. Elisabeth really, really wants to please her mother and in many ways, Don Carlos really wants to please his father. He doesn’t understand why Philip won’t give him more responsibilities, more titles, more of the kind of authority that he would expect if he was going to be heir to the crown of Spain, and Philip doesn’t do it because he sees his son as unstable, and this is crushing to Don Carlos. He doesn’t understand why his father is holding him back.
In some ways, I like to think that they supported each other, that there was kind of a unique empathy, maybe, that they felt for each other. And they had similar interests; they both really liked art so they could talk about that together. And, you know, I don’t think he had very many close friends and to some degree, I think she was one of the few that he had.
Ann: We don’t have time to get into what happens with Don Carlos, but when he’s taken away, she was grief-stricken for days, right? She wept.
Leah: Yes. And prayed, wept and prayed for days. And the French ambassador writes to Catherine about this, he’s clearly very moved by the level of emotion that he’s seeing in Elisabeth and that has since been sort of turned around. It starts in the 17th century that actually Elisabeth and Don Carlos were lovers and that’s what that was. I don’t think that was it at all. I think they were friends.
Ann: Speaking of friends and speaking of art, I do not know how to pronounce this person’s name so I will let you do it, but it’s like, Sofonisba…
Leah: Sofonisba Anguissola.
Ann: Thank you, thank you.
Leah: Yes. Oh, one of my favourite characters.
Ann: I love this. Explain how she enters the story and who she is.
Leah: So, Sofonisba Anguissola is actually a woman to know. She’s one of the great female artists of the Renaissance. She’s Italian. The reason why the court of Spain knows of Sofonisba is because the Spanish really control a lot of Italian territories including Milan and Sofonisba is a young woman, she’s already making a name for herself as an artist.
And when Elisabeth gets married, Philip evidently, I don’t know, maybe he decided with his third wife to start to be a good husband. [laughs] Philip basically instructs the Duke of Alba, who is his representative at the wedding, to find out more about the bride and the Duke of Alba finds out that Elisabeth really likes art. So, then the Duke of Alba gets the idea that maybe what Philip could do is bring this young woman artist that everyone is raving about in Italy over to serve Elisabeth as one of her ladies-in-waiting in the court of Spain. So, Philip thinks this is a good idea and he arranges for it to happen. So, just as Elisabeth is coming to Spain, Sofonisba is making her own journey from Italy to Spain where she will serve as one of Elisabeth’s chief ladies-in-waiting, maybe even her favourite lady-in-waiting.
She will paint lots of portraits; some of the most famous Renaissance portraits, certainly of the Spanish court at the time, that you recognize, are actually by Sofonisba. Because she was a lady-in-waiting, she didn’t sign them; it wasn’t considered appropriate, but they’re actually hers. So, she paints a lot of paintings, she paints Elisabeth, and eventually, she will take care of Elisabeth’s two little daughters.
Ann: I love the picture that you paint in your book – and again your book is not just about Elisabeth – but just picturing her… I was thinking that the TV show Reign, for instance, is a show I enjoyed, and that was just taking Mary and what was it like when she was a young teenager in France? And I was like, you’ve got your whole cast of characters here. You’ve got Elisabeth as a teenager, you’ve got Sofonisba there as the artist, then you have Don Carlos there as her friend who she looks out for. You’ve got Ana de Mendoza is there, I did a whole episode on her, she’s the one who wore the eyepatch so I’m like…
Leah: Oh yeah, oh gosh!
Ann: Yeah, so you’ve got your schemey intrigue there with her mysterious eyepatch ways.
I love the theme of the art because she also taught Elisabeth art lessons, they would paint together and she was apparently skilled, right?
Leah: Well, she is skilled but again, you kind of have to question the testimony, right. They are all these people, the ambassador, the ladies-in-waiting, who are eager to flatter Elisabeth, eager to flatter Catherine so they talk about what an amazing artist she is. “So amazing that eventually she’s going to surpass Sofonisba, herself.” [Ann chuckles] Well, I actually seriously doubt it. [laughs] But she did love it. She loved it and she cared about it, and she would write to her mother and ask for supplies, art supplies that she used to have in France, and she can’t quite get the same in Spain. So, it was clearly something very comforting to her. For instance, with Mary, Queen of Scots, embroidery was this thing that she turned to. It was her favourite hobby; it was something she found comfort in, and I think the same was true for Elisabeth with art.
Ann: And I just love that Sofonisba was there as a person to be a friend, but also a companion and they also shared this interest. Don Carlos had the interest in art. It’s just, I like that she had people there supporting her, who were kind to her because this pressure did not go down. The longer she went without having a child, the more pressure she would be under, I would presume.
Leah: Yes, for sure. And at the same time, maybe it’s because she did have these people around that Elisabeth ultimately became a successful Queen of Spain, at least by some measures if not others. She really does become a beloved figure of the Spanish court. That may have something to do with her personality. I think she melded well with the expectations of the Spanish. She was very gentle, she was very kind, as we’ve already seen with Don Carlos, just not a very forceful personality, at least not in a public way. If she did have one, and there is evidence that she actually could stand her ground. She kind of knew how to dial it in the right direction at the right time.
So, by the end of her life, she really is this beloved figure in Spain, unlike Mary Stuart in Scotland or even Catherine in France. But maybe that does have something to do with who she’s surrounded with that she started to maybe feel at home in Spain. And it helped too that she was only 14 when she came so she essentially finishes growing up in Spain.
Ann: So, she has two pregnancies– Well, two pregnancies that are… three, I guess. Anyway, there are miscarriages, there are stillbirths, but she gives birth to two daughters in quick succession. And her pregnancies, with her other health issues, are just dreadful experiences. Catherine, very worried.
Leah: Catherine is very worried. I actually think that the pregnancy– Well again, you don’t know. One of the other problems with tracking the illnesses of these royal women is that everyone is focusing in on every single symptom. It’s hard to know if these are normal pregnancy symptoms or if there’s something more ominous going on. But for sure, Catherine is very worried.
All women had to worry that they were going to die in childbirth. So, Catherine is not only worried that Elisabeth, her daughter, will die, but she’s also worried about the political alliance if her daughter should die, as well as Elisabeth’s dowry, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to it. So, there are all sorts of reasons for Catherine to be worried when Elisabeth gets pregnant but mostly, what she really wants is for Elisabeth to deliver a healthy baby to prove that she’s fertile, which she does. The one disappointment is that it’s never a boy, it’s these two girls, both of whom eventually Philip grows very, very close to. But where Elisabeth doesn’t succeed as a queen is she never actually gives birth to a boy.
Ann: I was just looking just, as I was reading your book, I was taking notes of phrases that caught my attention. I think this was from one of her pregnancies. Anyway, it was described that she had, “Infinite vomiting” which…
Leah: Yeah, that’s probably a very traumatic symptom, right? Although, again, we see that today with women it’s just that now we have medicine for it. [laughs]
Leah: When you think about that, these royal women, they are kind of baby-making machines and they just have to suffer through all the symptoms, hope they come out alive on the other end so that they can do it all over again.
Ann: Yeah, that’s the thing. I’m sure it was so stressful for everybody that she didn’t conceive a child for six years but once she started having the children, then there were new things to be worried about, basically. Is she going to survive the childbirth? Is it going to be a son? She dies shortly after.
Leah: Shortly after. And you know, from the way the description is, it sounds like the pregnancy was exacerbating some symptoms she was already having. So, this goes back to the likely chronic illness that she suffered from; the pregnancy clearly exacerbated that. So, she ends up more or less having a stillbirth, the baby is about five months in the womb, and then she dies soon thereafter. And it’s very sad, it’s very, very sad. And that baby was also a girl.
Ann: And then the funeral, you were saying that she became this beloved Queen of Spain and that’s how she was treated upon her death. You could see how much everybody really loved her and cared for her as their Queen.
Leah: Yes, genuine mourning. I think Philip really mourned her. One of the remarkable things about Elisabeth, especially because Philip was this neglectful husband for his first two wives, is that he seems to have grown genuinely close to Elisabeth. Something about her pleased him. I think it’s at least partly because she ended up taking his side. Philip did not agree with Catherine’s policies of religious tolerance in France and Elisabeth, she supported her mother but she kind of agreed with her husband about it, that the French should find a way to quash, to destroy French Protestantism. And so, I think that in some way, on some level, she made it clear to Philip that she chose him and Spain, and he really liked that. So yes, the whole court mourns her death and Philip too really does mourn her death.
Ann: It’s so tempting for me to think, what could have happened if she lived longer? And I think she’s someone who could have accomplished a lot. She was an interesting person. Politically, as she became an older person, more mature, understood the situation of what was going on better, she could have– Well, and then also everything changes, who Philip marries next. But it’s just such a sad thing that she died so young. She was in her twenties, right, when she died, like 20…
Leah: Yeah, she’s 22. There’s a little bit of confusion about her birth date so I subscribe to the work of one scholar who points out the irregular dating practices that the French had at the time, which makes her 22 at the time of her death. So, just sort of mind-blowingly young. I think that, you know, the interesting thing about Elisabeth is that Catherine was really teaching her how to be political as a queen consort, not always showing your cards to your husband, [laughs] maybe making him think one thing but doing something else. This is why I said earlier, she shows this sort of public face to Philip that she chose him but who knows exactly what she was eventually planning. And I think had she lived longer, she really would have been quite an influencer behind the throne in many ways, but she never gets that chance.
Ann: Yeah. Your book again is about the three of them together. You weave it together and I love the way that you did that because I wasn’t sure going into it, knowing that her life was so much shorter than the others, but all three of them are there throughout the whole story to weave in and out of each other’s lives. You talk a bit about how Mary, Queen of Scots at some points appeals to her for help because Mary is appealing to everybody. But Elisabeth, her loyalty is to Spain and to her mother and she can’t help out her childhood friend.
Leah: Right, right. And that’s an interesting thing to think about. You know, when Mary and Elisabeth were growing up together in France, they were children. Mary certainly thought of her childhood in France as a sort of idyllic time and in many ways, it was because it was simple. But as they get older and as they fan out to different kingdoms and things happen that fracture certain alliances or friendships, it’s that clichéd expression that blood is thicker than water but for sure, Elisabeth was going to choose her blood loyalty, her loyalty to her mother, over any kind of residual friendship she felt for Mary.
And you know, it’s hard to say that it was black and white. I can’t say that Elisabeth didn’t feel regret that she had to make that choice of choosing Catherine’s side over Mary, for all I know, it was a difficult decision for Elisabeth to make. That’s sort of something the archive doesn’t always let you into. You can’t always get into the complexity of their minds. But when push came to shove, she owed her loyalty first to Catherine or maybe Philip and then, you know, Mary only way down on the list.
Ann: Exactly. Yeah, it’s just an important thing to remember, that that loyalty was so important to her. Her devotion to her mother was so clear throughout her letters, throughout their communication, which is a fairly short period of time, but she was always so loyal to her mother, so loving to her mother, you see in the words of how she talks to her that she admires her and wants to please her and do what she wants.
Leah: Like a young girl for her mother. To me, too, that expression of love was very much evidence of her youth. Again, had she lived longer, maybe she would have been able to cut the cord a little bit more. But even though she’s in Spain, she never fully cuts it. [laughs] She’s still very tied to France.
And you know, Elisabeth was known as the Queen of Peace, that was sort of the moniker that she was given upon her marriage to Spain because her marriage seals this peace treaty between France and Spain. But in some ways, that’s just how she lived out her life, always a little bit between the two kingdoms, doing what she could to, kind of, be the intercessor between those two kingdoms. Had she lived longer, who knows what would have happened? So, in some ways, she remains the Queen of Peace in part because she dies young.
Ann: That’s interesting how she was literally the Queen of Peace because her marriage was this peace treaty but personality-wise, she wanted to, you know, mediate between other people and make everybody get along. That seems in a small way and in a big way what she was about.
Leah: Yes, yes. I agree.
Ann: So, whenever I profile somebody on my podcast, we go through these four categories and I’m so curious to see what you think. So, the four categories each measure a different thing and some people score highly in one and not another, it’s very rare someone scores highly in all four. Mary and Catherine both did. [both laugh] Elisabeth lived a very different life; it was much shorter. So, the first category is, so Scandaliciousness, how scandalous was she seen at the time? I think, to her credit, she lived very well and kept herself out of scandal and that was important and good for her.
Leah: Definitely keeps herself out of scandal. She lives this blemish-free life at the court of Spain but that doesn’t mean that she’s not engaged in intrigue behind the scenes, I will say that.
Ann: That’s true, all those letters that are like, “Oh, I did that thing you told me to do with that person.”
Leah: Yes. [laughs] Yes. Yes.
Ann: So, it’s like secret scandal. So, on a scale of 0 to 10, what would you score her there?
Leah: Okay, maybe a 6.
Ann: Okay, because she’s got her secret scandals going on.
Leah: Her secret scandals, yes.
Ann: I like that. I like that, it’s so interesting, this is how she portrayed herself, this is how people saw her, but then when you see the letters, and the letters are also still how she’s portraying herself… But that’s how she’s portraying herself! It’s like seeing someone on social media, that’s not who you are, that’s what you want people to think.
Leah: Right, right, right! Gosh, and it’s one of the frustrations of a historian, right? Trying to get who the person actually was.
Ann: Mm-hm. And also, I think if your mother is Catherine de’ Medici, you’re not going to get less than a 5 in Scandaliciousness, that’s just in your bones. [Leah laughs] So, the next category is Scheminess. In her context, and again, we don’t know the secret things she was doing but being resilient and having a plan and knowing what you’re doing and being prepared. We don’t know that she was instigating things, she was more working on her mother’s behalf, perhaps?
Leah: Yeah, that’s exactly right. She was not the instigator of the schemes. There were definitely schemes, lots of schemes, but it was Catherine who was pushing her. I do think there is some evidence that Elisabeth wasn’t always entirely comfortable with this, she wants to do her mother’s bidding but if she can kind of find a way to do it without really doing it maybe she would have actually chosen that. So, in terms of Scheminess, I don’t know. Maybe a 3?
Ann: Yeah. The next one is interesting. It’s the Significance. This is where we’re looking at both did her descendants go on to do anything importance? What do you think her significance was to, I don’t know, world history is such a big thing to say. But I think the fact that she married Philip, and it was a successful marriage in the sense that she retained the peace for that period of time, they had some children. The significance there was, he could have married Mary, Queen of Scots, he could have married Elizabeth I, but he married her.
Leah: Yeah, and I actually think, so one of the schemes that we haven’t really talked about but was definitely there was Elisabeth and Catherine blocking that marriage between Mary, Queen of Scots and Don Carlos. If that had gone forward, that would have changed a whole lot in European history, really, a whole lot. And I think it almost went forward. So, you know, if we can see it that way, again, there’s this sort of behind-the-scenes work that a lot of women do, not just Elisabeth, or Catherine, or Mary, but a lot of aristocratic women and we don’t really see it and we don’t hear about it in the histories but it’s there. So, I kind of want to rate Elisabeth fairly high on that level, if only to kind of give credit to all the women who were changing history without us even hearing about it.
Ann: Exactly, exactly. How many things Philip did during that period of time did she influence? We don’t know because we just know what he did.
Leah: Right, right. Because women’s role isn’t recorded in a way that is easy to follow. So, I don’t know, I’m going to rate her high, I think it’s a 9.
Ann: For sure. I think if she hadn’t married him and if she hadn’t been savvy enough to be kind and sweet and nice and get along and make Spain love her, things could have gone– It was a really heightened situation, Spain and France and England and Scotland at this time. As we see Mary, Queen of Scots had so much, partially bad luck but that’s how she was going in her situation. But like you said, Elisabeth was a foreigner marrying into this country and she did so much better, she fit in so much better than her mother did or than Mary, Queen of Scots did, and I think that’s significant.
Leah: And that is skill, as you say, skill that doesn’t necessarily get recorded. It does in the sense that courtiers will praise her. So, the language of praise is evidence, as you’re suggesting, that she is succeeding. And it’s not like she’s just necessarily walking through her days and happens to be liked, she’s doing the things that are necessary in order to be liked.
Ann: Yeah. So, the fourth category, we call it the Sexism Bonus. This is basically for people who have stories where they could have accomplished more if it wasn’t more the patriarchy holding them back, if they had been given other opportunities. If you think of somebody in history, like Juana of Castile, she was locked away for decades for– That would be like a 10 Sexism bonus that got in her way and stopped her. Elisabeth, where do you think she would land? If she hadn’t had to give birth to all these children, she might not have died.
Leah: That’s right. I actually take that very seriously because, you know, her job as the Queen Consort is to be the womb, right, for the Spanish King, that is her number one goal. And you know, it does, it probably did exacerbate her health problems, and maybe it killed her in the end. If she hadn’t died, who knows what she would have accomplished, and if she hadn’t had that pressure to be bearing children– One of the reasons why my book is called Young Queens, I was trying to emphasize that particular pressure on the young, presumably fertile, female body. Catherine accomplishes all her great things after she’s had her children, after she’s widowed, when that pressure is taken off. When she’s no longer wrapped up in all the childbearing and child-rearing, that is when she assumes this political role. So, to some degree, the fact that dynasty, monarchy, you know, to some degree, but dynasty relies on these young female bodies determines Elisabeth’s fate in a way that it wouldn’t have if she wasn’t sort of the linchpin.
Ann: And that also makes me think about, and I don’t know how to pronounce this perhaps, but Say-lick [phonetic] law, is it…? Sallick [ph] law?
Leah: Sallick [ph] law?
Ann: In France, a woman can’t take the throne. So, after her brother Francis died it went to Charles. If that wasn’t in place, then she could have inherited the throne.
Leah: She could have. For all of these countries, even where they do allow women on the throne, if there’s a boy, it always goes to the boy. So, she never would have inherited the throne, but it’s true, if we had the kind of monarchy then that England does now, it would have gone to her. Even just on a much simpler level, maybe Elisabeth would have been an artist.
Ann: Yeah! I was thinking that too.
Leah: She loved art, you know, she loved art she wanted to do it all the time. If she didn’t constantly have to be parading herself in front of Philip, being the Queen and trying to have his babies, she would have done something else. So, you know, there are lots of different ways to imagine what she could have accomplished.
Ann: Definitely. I think it’s a funny thing to see, she did, as we’ve discussed, accomplish a fair amount in her very short life and so much of it was this behind-the-scenes stuff. But were it not for the patriarchal culture, she could have accomplished different things, she could have… Yeah.
Leah: Right. But the patriarchy prescribes what her role is going to be, from the moment she’s born.
Ann: So, on a scale from 0 to 10, how much did the patriarchy get in her way?
Leah: Oh, I forgot that part. [both laugh] Augh… 8.
Ann: Sure. I think to be a 14-year-old, sent off into marriage and then pressured to have children and then you die when you’re 22, that’s some bull shit there.
Leah: That’s the patriarchy, right, exactly. [laughs]
Ann: So, let me just, I’ll let you know. Her total score is 26 and that’s actually… I just want to see if that compares to anybody who we’ve talked about… It’s a common score for people who get high in some things and lower in some other things, 26, 27. I’m just seeing, for instance, scrolling up, scrolling up, Catherine de’ Medici got 35.5.
Leah: [laughs] It’s the scheminess and the scandal.
Ann: Yeah. Mary, Queen of Scots got 36. But they both lived twice as long at least, so she could have scored more if she lived longer but also maybe not. Maybe she would have kept everything close to the chest. To be Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter and to have everyone be like, “Isn’t she so nice?” takes some serious skill.
Leah: [laughs] Although, Catherine wasn’t all bad.
Ann: Oh no, she wasn’t.
Leah: I think Catherine has gotten a bad rap. No, Catherine is a very complex person.
Ann: I’m just thinking how Catherine was seen at the time for her daughter to overcome all of that is pretty impressive. That’s also something, so your book, Young Queens, it’s talking about Catherine, it’s talking about Mary, it’s talking about Elisabeth, I think all of them, you bring a really fresh perspective to it. Especially Catherine and Mary, stories that I am quite familiar with at this moment in time but you’re looking at them from different angles. You’re saying Catherine, what she’s like as a mother and all these sorts of things that often get forgotten, I guess.
Leah: I was very disturbed, I have been for years, by this flattened portrait that Catherine gets. I think there’s something about our culture, we like evil women. It’s easy to build stories on them and this portrait of Catherine as the evil queen has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years and I just couldn’t, I didn’t quite buy it. When she dies, the kingdom of France is really divided. There are people who hated her but there’s also this outpouring of grief, this despair. What is France going to do without Catherine de’ Medici? And I think studying or looking at the young Catherine, the very young Catherine, the child Catherine, gave me a lot more sympathy for her so I wanted to work against this narrative of the evil queen and just create a more, a rounder picture, if I could.
So, there are moments that Catherine gets very controlling and moments where I definitely wouldn’t want her to be my mother, [laughs] but at the same time, there are these touching moments and emotions that she displays that certainly I can identify with. And I just think that that’s a fairer, more feminist portrait, I guess, to kind of show this woman in as much of her entirety as we can, or at least to show the complexity of the woman.
And the same thing is true for Mary. Just reading her letters closely and really thinking about well, how old was she when she came back to Scotland? And what had her childhood been like and how was she raised by her de Guise family? I just started to understand a little bit more of her psychology and I just couldn’t help but sympathize with her a lot more. And that’s what I wanted to show. I kind of wanted to show a very human Mary who kind of gets caught in these positions – because of the patriarchy [laughs] – that she just can’t get out of. And, you know, there’s no one reason why she gets herself into the trouble she does, there are a number of different forces. But in the end, I at least sympathize with that poor girl and that’s what I wanted to communicate.
Ann: Yeah. I mean, I just did ten episodes about Mary, Queen of Scots so I have very strong feelings about her as well and wanting to see her and all the sides of her. And I think the people who wrote the history, which is often Queen Elizabeth’s fans, they have a reason to want to show Catherine de’ Medici as a monster and want to show Mary. And then Elisabeth of Valois is just kind of like, “Oh she was just kind of there, she married Philip and then she died.” So, I think giving them, I really don’t like to be so, whatever, binary about it, but for so long, books about men, they give them so much nuance. A biography of Napoleon or Winston Churchill or something, and women’s history has been like, “Look at this tragic heroine or look at this evil person.” Where it’s like, let’s just look at them as people.
Leah: Yes, right. Flawed people. Actual people. And when you put it that way, I completely agree with you that a lot of the history is a form of propaganda, it’s very pro-English, certainly the English language stuff that has come down to us. But in some ways Elizabeth I is really the outlier when you think about these generations and generations of aristocratic women or royal women who have to kind of be the pawns in this dynastic machine, their experience is closer to the Elisabeth’s than Catherine’s and Mary’s and Elizabeth I is really kind of the outlier. So, if we want to get a better sense of what it was like to be a woman, certainly a royal woman, in the 16th century, we should be looking at these other figures.
Ann: So, your book is coming out in North America later this month, in August, and you have a website. Can you tell people what sorts of events and things that they can keep an eye out for?
Leah: I’m doing a number of interviews like this one and I do really enjoy them.
Ann: Good. [laughs]
Leah: [laughs] Very glad to be doing them. I’m giving a talk at Politics and Prose, which is a bookstore in Washington DC on launch day, on August 15th. So, if you’re in the DC area, definitely come by. Or it will be live streamed on YouTube and then we shall see what other events come my way.
Ann: Perfect. And if people go to your website, all your links are there so they can see what you’re up to.
Leah: Yes, at LeahRedmondChang.com.
Ann: Perfect. Thank you so much for talking with me today. I’m always so excited to read a book that was so interesting and then to see that you’re so passionate about it, it’s really great to connect with you.
Leah: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really been fun.
So again, Leah’s book is called Young Queens: Three Renaissance Women and the Price of Power, it is available everywhere. I really recommend it. Honestly, you know how much research I’ve been doing recently about Mary, Queen of Scots, Catherine de’ Medici, I devoured this book. It’s telling this story in a new way, from a new angle, with some of the letters she’s looking at, the research, her point of view. It’s a really fascinating book to read and also, you know what, if you have someone in your life who doesn’t know these stories, it’s a good entry point as well because it doesn’t assume knowledge, it really handholds you through everything. I was just taking so many, I was reading the eBook, I was taking so many screen captures of moments and points that I found were so interesting or just phrases that were so good. Anyway, so that is Leah’s book, there are links to buy copies of it in the show notes as well and also, and you can check more about her on her website as she said.
You can keep up with me and this podcast, we’re on Instagram @VulgarHistoryPod, we’re also on Threads and on TikTok @VulgarHistory. I do want to clarify that there are going to be more episodes in the Mary, Queen of Scots season, we’re doing a slow wean off of this really intense season. We’re going to be talking about two more women, two more episodes coming up. In between there’s going to be some author interviews. We’re back to the schedule I had originally told you we were going to do, which is like, talking about a Mary, Queen of Scots-adjacent person, then take a week to have an author interview, and then another Mary, Queen of Scots-adjacent person. So, this is still going, I’m not going anywhere. This season is barreling on through to the autumn. Anyway, we are back to one episode per week though now, just so you know what to expect from the show.
Anyway, you can get in touch with me at my website which is VulgarHistory.com, or you can also go there to find transcripts of the recent episodes done by Aveline Malek from The Wordary. Thank you so much Aveline for making these transcripts so people can read the episodes. There is also a contact form on that website. You can also email me at VulgarHistoryPod@gmail.com. We also have merch available at VulgarHistory.com/Store or if you’re outside the US, the shipping is a bit better if you go to VulgarHistory.Redbubble.com.
We also have a Patreon so that’s where you can get early, ad-free access to all episodes. And I do want to reiterate, I’m not going anywhere, there are still more episodes coming. But if you start missing that twice-a-week Vulgar History era that we were in over the summer, you can get some more. There’s a huge archive of old episodes, older episodes on the Patreon of the bonus series that we do there, So This Asshole where I talk about terrible men from history and then also Vulgarpiece Theatre where myself, Allison Epstein, and Lana Wood Johnson talk about various costume dramas.
So anyway, Patreon works by if you donate, it’s like a monthly subscription almost. So, if you donate $1/month, then you get the early, ad-free access to all the episodes. If you donate $5/month then you get access to the bonus episodes as well as our Discord server which is a place for Patreon members of those levels to hang out and we’re having a nice time. I’m going to be honest, in one of the conversations on that Discord server I learned about a new historical person who I am really compelled by, and I found a way to insert that person into an upcoming episode. Anyway, all these things are happening. Weekly episodes of Vulgar History. Everybody should read Young Queens and thank you so much for listening. Keep your pants on and your tits out!
Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.
Transcribed by Aveline Malek at TheWordary.com
Learn more about Leah and her book at leahredmondchang.com
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