Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review - The Iron King by Maurice Druon

Short review: Greed, adultery, and the lust for power all converge to start the pebbles sliding that will result in an avalanche that destroys the Capetian dynasty and sparks the Hundred Years War.

Ruthless nobility
Philandering princesses
Dying dynasty

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: In the forward of the The Iron King, George R.R. Martin states that this series of historical fiction books by French author Maurice Druoun served as one of the inspirations for Martin's now wildly popular Song of Ice and Fire series. And when one reads this volume, which takes place during the last few years of the reign of Philip the Fair, one can see that Martin's work does indeed have Druon's fingerprints all over it, at least as far as the bitter and deadly courtly intrigue is concerned. As Martin observes, despite the obscurity of the series in the English speaking world, it is wildly popular in France, and has been made into a television series more than once, in effect making it the original Game of Thrones.

As the book opens, France is strong and Philip is the most powerful man in Europe. He had transformed France from a disorganized feudal state into a centralized kingdom. His sons had been placed in powerful position, his daughter was married to the King of England, and his brother had been given the impressive sounding but mostly empty title of Byzantine Emperor. Philip had quarreled with the papacy and won, and the current Pope resided in Avignon and was beholden to the king. Starting with Philip in this enviable position of power and prestige, Druon's story follows three loosely related threads that tie together around what seems to have been the most important issue in medieval politics: money. Philip had already tried to keep the royal coffers filled by ejecting the Jews from his kingdom and confiscating their property, and then he condemned the Knights Templar, and took their property. But as is shown in The Iron King, coffers must be refilled, and the squabbling over income can bring even the mightiest nations to their knees and cause a generations long war.

The central plot revolves around Philip's three sons Louis, Philippe and Charles and his daughter Isabella, motivated by Isabella's dislike of her three sisters-in-law, Margaret, Blanche, and Joan, who she believes are cuckolding their husbands. She conspires with her cousin Robert of Artois to lay a trap for the three women and their lovers, sending him with some very pretty and noticeable purses to bestow upon the princesses. The plot winds along until it culminates with what has since become known as the Tour de Nesle affair as two of the princesses' dalliances and the third's complicity are revealed. This portion of the book is not compelling for the plot itself - after all, the disgrace of the three Capetian princesses is a matter of historical record so it really isn't a surprise - but rather the hidden elements that Druon imparts that fill in the gaps in the story. Margaret and Blache, the two princesses convicted of adultery, are shown as almost careless in their decision to engage in what for them is a treasonous act. The decision to take a lover is especially puzzling when one considers that Margaret is portrayed as loving her husband (whereas Blanche appears to have nothing but disdain for hers).

But the critical decision, and one that had the most implications for the future of France was deliberate: Philip decides to exile the three women rather than execute them. All three women remain princesses of France, although they are disgraced and sent away to imprisonment within nunnerys. This means that all three of his sons, who have one child between them, continue to be married, and are thus unable to take new wives and produce heirs to ensure the continuation of the Capetian dynasty. And the decision to exile the women is driven by money: Philip's sons derive income through their wives' holdings - Philippe is dependent upon his wife's holdings - and to execute their wives or obtain a divorce from them would hurt them all financially, and bankrupt Philippe. And so Philip makes what seems to be the expedient choice that preserves his sons' immediate wealth, but also sets the stage for a dynastic crisis that leads to the Hundred Years War and the virtual ruination of France. Against this scheming over money, the savage torture and dismemberment of the two young men who were unfortunate enough to become the playthings of the adulterous princesses is almost an afterthought.

Interwoven with the main plot are two smaller plots, both focused in their own way on the quest for money. Philip the Fair famously destroyed the Templar Order, arresting them and imprisoning them for heresy. The Templars were accused of a number of ecclesiastical crimes, and Druon follows Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Order, as he endures imprisonment, torture, and condemnation. It becomes clear that the torment is not because of any particular heretical actions that were taken by the Grand Master or his followers, but rather because they were wealthy, and the King needed money. Or rather, the king owed them a lot of money and didn't want to pay his debts. Given the chance by the ecclesiastical court to accept the charges against him in return for perpetual imprisonment, de Molay accompanied by one other Templar, Geoffrey de Cahrney, refuse, and instead Philip orders them burned at the stake. This leads to one of the legendary scenes from the history of the era as de Molay curses his persecutors, telling them that they will be called before "God's tribunal" within a year of his own death. Whether de Molay actually uttered such a curse or not is not particularly important, because it makes for great theater and a riveting scene in the book.

The final plot line in the book focuses on the business affairs of Spinello Tolomei, a merchant and banker originally from Sienna. After Philip had exiled the Jews in 1290 (and appropriated their property for the crown), Italian merchants had come to France to take their place. This story, like the others in the book, is about money, but it highlights he fine balance that the mercantile classes had to strike. The merchants and bankers have money, which the landholding nobility want to borrow to finance their activities, but the nobility often don't want to repay the loans they take out. Because they have political power, the nobles established a practice of borrowing money, and then figuring out a way to avoid repaying their debts - by exiling the Jews, or by destroying a crusader order for example - which means that in this story, Tolomei is painfully aware of the fine line he must tread. Throughout the story involving Tolomei and his son who he sends on business errands, this tension is readily apparent. And coupled with the resentment that the nobles around Philip express towards the non-noble civil servants such a de Marigny and de Nogaret that the king has placed his trust in, this story brings to the fore the changes happening in French society as the moneyed classes are just beginning to assert their power, and the reaction of the established political movers and shakers.

The book culminates with Philip's death, setting the stage for the chaos that ensues, driven by the serial exhaustion of the royal treasury and the uncertain succession following the Tour de Nesle affair. Druon's book shows France at the apex of its power, with an inflexible iron hand guiding the nation and exerting influence that extends across Europe, even holding sway over the Pope himself. But it also shows the cracks in the seemingly solid edifice presented to the world, revealing the deep flaws that will destroy the Capetian dynasty and undermine the French monarchy itself. The Iron King is the opening act that sets the stage for the events in the succeeding books, and as such, it does an excellent job of showing the apparently stable beginning, which serves to make the coming collapse that much more dramatic.

Subsequent book in the series: The Strangled Queen

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