If your tastes run to medieval European politics, then there is nothing better than a good meaty biography of royal intrigue and murder. Unfortunately, despite Nancy Goldstone's hard work, the heroine, Joanna I of Naples, only appears in flashes in "The Lady Queen."
Married at 7 to her Hungarian cousin, Joanna fought a lifelong battle to remain a monarch in her own right rather than being secondary to her husband. Not until the fourth husband — a German of lower social rank —did she find someone who didn't dispute her right to reign.
The most important event of her reign happened early — the assassination of her husband, Andrew. At 22, she was tried in front of the Pope on the charge of murder. Though she was acquitted, her reputation never recovered. The kingdom of Naples was invaded by her Hungarian in-laws, and she had to flee, leaving behind her son, who was taken back to Hungary where he died.
Joanna raised an army and regained her throne. Over the next 30 years, she reigned over a turbulent time with the constantly shifting alliances of the Italian city-states, religious turmoil, economic struggles, waves of plague and the danger of the Eastern European powerhouses, Poland and Hungary.
When reading "The Lady Queen," it's helpful to have a working knowledge of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) between France and England and of the constant turmoil in the Catholic Church during this period. It's also good to have a strong stomach. Medieval executions included flaying, hanging, drowning and disembowelment, sometimes in combination. They were performed in public more as warnings to the living than punishment for the guilty, and in a time of shifting loyalties even the highest in the land might end up smothered by mattresses.
Goldstone does a good job of keeping you on track of the numerous Charles, Louis and Elizabeths that were in power at the time. "In addition to Frederick III, the duchess of Durazzo was also pursued by Louis, count of Navarre, brother of the powerful Charles the Bad, king of Navarre; and by Louis II, duke of Bourbon, whose mother, Isabella of Valois, had been Joanna's mother's sister." There are also genealogical charts included.
Unfortunately, many of the original documents dealing with Joanna's reign were destroyed by the Germans in World War II. What survived were letters, contemporary reports, and various interpretations through the centuries since her reign.
What is left is a flickering memory of a woman monarch as politically adept as many of her contemporaries but forgotten by history. Goldstone reminds us of Queen Joanna I's shrewdness, as well as the delicious infamy of her reign and times.
"The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily" by Nancy Goldstone; Bloomsbury, NY (365 pages, $27)