The following is an excerpt from the historical novel The Queen Of Four Kingdoms, published in the UK in October by Constable.
This factually true story, set in 15th century France, grew into a thrilling saga of love and hate, war and peace, medieval tournaments combining chivalry and treachery -- all within the royal court of the king and the family of Anjou. It encompasses England's King Henry V's invasion and his victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt; the tragic story of Joan of Arc; and the interwoven lives of the children, including the young, future king among other cousins, brought up by an astonishing great lady, Yolande, Duchess of Anjou.
Yolande, the Queen of the title, was the only child of the King of Aragon and married a cousin of the King of France. As a French sovereign duchess, it is she who masterminds the young King of France, her son-in-law. She who keeps his wavering dukes loyal through the most devious means. It is she who rids the French court of its corrupt members while struggling to finance her sons' effort to re-gain and hold their inherited kingdom of Naples and Sicily. Few know that it is Yolande who finds and instructs Joan of Arc, even lending Joan her own army of Anjou to relieve the strategic, starving city of Orléans. And it is only Yolande who, having brought him up, has the ability to influence the young, vacillating king and help him save his country. As the Queen of Four Kingdoms, Yolande is a worthy and little-known heroine.
The story continues into two further volumes to be published in 2014 and 2015.
The leaves are still golden and falling gently as they reach Perpignan, Yolande's last stop on home soil. To her surprise, she is not nervous now; instead she feels a strange and agreeable expectation - or is it just the beauty of the season and the light wind making her favourite mare skittish?
Yolande has heard so much about Aragon's city of Perpignan as a centre of excellent craftsmanship, and of its complicated history as it passed continually between Aragon and France, that she gazes fascinated about her and almost forgets why she has come. But as the Princess of Aragon enters France, she is fast reminded by the appearance of her bridegroom's younger brother, Charles d'Anjou, Prince of Tarente, who has come to be her escort across Languedoc. He arrives with a large suite of elegant courtiers on fine horses - horses always catch her eye - and the French courtiers follow his lead in paying her their respects.
'Greetings, fine princess, my soon-to-be sister-in-law,' he begins with an impish smile and a low sweep of his multi-plumed hat as he bends over the neck of his magnificent steed. He rights himself with a jolly laugh. When he bows almost lower to Juana with a more mischievous grin, Yolande is delightfully surprised and barely stifles a laugh. Juana catches her eye and gives Yolande her most knowing look - if her bridegroom is as handsome and has half the merry wit of his brother, she will be fortunate indeed. Charles is a lively companion and chats away without stopping while riding beside her. He is about her age and she cannot help but be entertained.
'What a fancy little dancing mare you have, my Princess Yolande - may I try her?'
'Certainly not,' she replies firmly, 'I am sure you would gallop away with her and I would be left with that great warhorse you are riding!'
He laughs, and whacks her mare so hard on the rump with his whip that she leaps and charges off, with him keeping up alongside, still laughing - to the astonishment of Yolande's suite, unaccustomed to seeing their princess treated in such a fashion.
'Ha!' he shouts as they gallop, 'You think this mount of mine is not up to yours? Just watch me beat you to that great oak in the distance!' And to Yolande's profound displeasure, he does indeed arrive first. 'Never judge by appearances,' he chortles, pulling up. 'This charger of mine may be built to carry armour, but also to let me escape when I need!'
The way he glances at her from under his long dark lashes is most disconcerting for Yolande, his smile always hovering, a tease of some sort in his eyes. Juana can see that her charge is somewhat taken with this young French prince, until her stern look brings the girl back to her senses.
They are heading towards Arles, the old capital of Provence, where the wedding ceremony will take place. Yolande has heard much about this city, which was important in Roman times and is still full of their ruins.
'Tell me about Arles,' she asks Charles, and he does, with such enthusiasm that she makes a mental note to visit all the Roman sites here - the amphitheatre, the circus and the great triumphal arch. 'Perhaps your brother will bring me back here some day - there is so much more for me to see.
Her progress has slowed as the crowds grow thicker. Every- where she stops, Yolande is hailed as a queen - she rather enjoys that, waving graciously and acknowledging the greetings, while her equerries toss coins to the children lining their route.
Her mother has made a huge effort with her trousseau. Yolande's bright-coloured skirts almost touch the ground, and she wears a matching hat with a large brim trimmed with coloured ostrich feathers, pinned on with a sparkling jewel. This Spanish princess, an expert horsewoman, has brought a number of horses with her of pure Arabian blood, as well as the larger Andalusians with their strong, thick necks, flaring nostrils, long manes and tails. All are somewhat friskier than the ambling mares most ladies ride, and naturally she is aware of the admiring looks that greet her, especially from Charles d'Anjou.
'Ah-ha, my beautiful soon-to-be-queenly-sister, I see you intend to sweep our streets with your skirts before deigning to set your pretty foot down on foreign soil,' he jokes as he rides up alongside on one of his great chargers, which is snorting and blowing and even nipping the neck of her mare.
'Are all you French lords as forward and flirtatious as your horses!' she protests, in mock horror.
'My lady, I am but your humble servant, on my knees forever before you. My back is yours to step on to mount your own fiery steed whenever you require,' he answers with sham modesty.
I must not forget my place, she repeats to herself over and over as they ride.
Their huge cavalcade stops at a large inn, and, together with the nobles of both countries, Yolande changes into a more ceremonial costume; their mounts are equally finely adorned. After all, she is a princess of Aragon, about to marry a royal French duke and receive the title Queen of Sicily. The Pope himself crowned her Louis in Avignon and no lost battle will remove that honour from him.
To Juana's distinct disapproval, Charles d'Anjou is already a great favourite with the young ladies of the Aragonese suite, and they chatter and giggle in his presence as if going to a carnival. Yolande tries to remain serene and play her gracious part, but her future brother-in-law's joking with her ladies until they almost cry with laughter makes it difficult.
'Why, whose is that gorgeous hat?' she hears him call as he snatches one from a demoiselle and puts it on his own head. 'My, don't I look as elegant as any one of you?' and he hides half his face behind a stolen fan, to muffled shrieks.
Yolande's escort of several young ladies-in-waiting, her demoiselles, fuss about her as she dresses. She likes her outfits to be made from the most beautiful imported brocades and silk velvets in a multitude of colours, but she insists on simple styles. And so there is little for her ladies to do - no ribbons to tie or flowers to attach which would keep them busy pinning or stitching. The bodices of her dresses are laced taut to show off her tiny waist - the more so with her shoulders padded wide and the sleeves fitting tight. Her necklines are high and edged in a white frill, and her hats have feathers floating down her back, dyed in colours to tone. Yolande believes in first impressions, and if her clothes are kept to a sharp silhouette all in one suitable, flattering colour, and worn with a good jewel and hat, she considers the impact greater than a display of ribbons and frills.
Once outside, she can hear shouts of 'Brava!' from the crowds, and others calling out 'Look at her hat!' and they throw flowers in her path as she bows to left and right.
As they near their destination, Yolande's swollen cavalcade stops at a small chateau prepared for her arrival. Shown to her suite, which she barely notices in her nervousness at the prospect of this first meeting with her future husband, she calls to Juana:
'Dearest, help me choose what to wear, please.'
After a number of false starts, they choose a dress of butter-yel- low taffeta with two darker shades of yellow for her petticoats. Her fitted waistcoat is of pale mustard velvet with yellow taffeta sleeves, puffed at the shoulder and then tight from just above the elbow. Yolande is attaching a jabot of white lace at her neck when Juana approaches with the jewel case. 'Wear the ruby,' she urges. The Queen of Aragon has given her daughter some lovely jewels, and Juana pins the ruby brooch on to the jabot at the front. A large-brimmed white felt hat trimmed with long white ostrich feathers completes her outfit. Her blonde hair is twisted simply into a thick coil at the nape of her neck.
As she leaves the chateau to mount her horse, Charles d'Anjou rides up to greet her - and for once, his appreciation almost silences him.
'Madame, my princess-sister,' he says softly, 'you are truly beautiful. I rejoice for my brother and for all France.' He removes his hat and bows low on his horse. For once, no joke, no jolly banter - just a quiet smile and a look of reverence in his eyes.
As they approach Arles, the crowds lining their route grow denser.
'Listen to them!' shouts Charles over the noise, and Yolande can hear loud compliments about her, and about the ladies and gentlemen of her suite as well. She rides near the head of the procession, with four splendid knights in parade armour pre- ceding her, as well as two buglers. They are there to announce her arrival, and to warn other travellers or farmers with livestock to clear the road. Her suite does not ride quietly; there is much raucous repartee from all sides and she can sense everyone's excitement growing with her own.
She notices some of her equerries tossing coins to the peasants who hail her, and she returns their salutations with a bright smile. As they come closer to Arles, more mounted Angevin noblemen join their procession, each with a bow of greeting to Yolande, their hats sweeping low, before they fall in behind. How elegant they are in their multicoloured parade outfits, and handsome; she can feel the expectations of her ladies. The crowds lining the road have grown yet thicker, and she can clearly hear their shouts of 'Godspeed' and 'welcome', and blessings on her marriage. 'May this union of Aragon and Anjou bring peace, prosperity and many children,' she hears repeated from all sides.
Finally, on 1 December 1400, in weak sunshine but under a clear blue sky, the Princess Yolande of Aragon rides into Arles to meet her bridegroom for the first time, his brother Charles by her side. If he is as welcoming as the crowds, I shall be fortunate indeed, enters her mind, with a prayer. What a reception they give her - flowers everywhere, and at this time of year too; people are pressing forward so thickly her mare can hardly walk, but aware of her dancing agitation, they do move back a little.
Then, there he stands - her bridegroom. Any resistance she might still have felt towards this marriage disappears the moment she sees him. Louis d'Anjou is more handsome, more gallant than any young man she has ever imagined, with a penet- rating gaze from honest blue eyes and a cheerful, friendly smile. She feels her heart beat so fast it may well jump out of her tight bodice. As she brings her mare up to him, he descends the three steps on which he stands, slips her reins through his left arm, and, with both hands firmly on her waist, gently lifts her down from her horse to overwhelming cheers. As he lowers her, their eyes meet, and at that moment, she knows she can love - will love - this man as her husband, completely, for all her life.
'May I greet my beautiful bride,' he says with a smile and a low bow after he sets her down.
She drops a deep curtsey, eyes lowered demurely, but when she looks up, she cannot help laughing with delight. 'It is a joy indeed to meet my bridegroom,' she replies, 'especially after such a long journey and' - much softer - 'after such a long engagement!'
'You must be tired, my dear' he answers with a smile that reaches his eyes. 'Come, meet my mother, and then rest,' he says as he steers her firmly by the elbow.
The soft grey eyes of Marie de Blois embrace Yolande as warmly as do her arms. 'Welcome, dearest daughter, welcome to Provence and your new family,' and Yolande knows at once that they will be friends.
Louis and Yolande see little of one another on that first evening, as she is presented to the great and the good of his provinces. Occasionally they catch one another's eye across a sea of faces, and she can feel herself blushing in confusion and pleasure.
The next day, 2 December 1400, will be engraved forever on her heart. She is to ride 'amazon' - side-saddle - to the church on a large, slow white horse, not her fiery little Arabian. Her mother decided that she should wear a long dress of white silk overlaid with a web of fine silver lace; on her head a high tortoiseshell comb also draped in silver lace, worn in the custom of her country. Following Spanish tradition, as a maiden, under the lace her hair will hang loose over her shoulders to well below her waist. Her only jewellery is a beautiful row of pearls left to her by her father, and matching drop earrings. In front of her horse and behind it walk four elegant stewards dressed in vertical red and yellow stripes, the livery of the House of Aragon. Each holds a gold-painted wooden pole supporting one of the four corners of a cloth-of-gold awning held high over the bride's head. Above her she can see her royal arms and those of her bridegroom embroidered at its centre. In this way the Princess Yolande d'Aragon makes her solemn official entry into Arles, ancient city of the Romans and capital of Louis d'Anjou's sovereign territory of Provence.
Soon the bride forgets her nerves as she gazes with fascina- tion at a large Roman arena and then a theatre. As the cavalcade winds slowly through the narrow streets of ancient sand-coloured stone buildings, she cannot stop marvelling at her surroundings. Despite the lateness of the season, every window and balcony is garlanded, and the streets are completely covered with a blanket of flower petals and local herbs. The delicious scent of rosemary and lavender rises up from under the horses' feet, and the loud cheering of the crowds hailing Yolande as their queen quite over- whelms her. Suddenly the procession turns into a wide cobbled street leading to the ancient church of Saint-Trophime, built three centuries ago in the Roman style, with additions to the cloister of tall pointed arches in the new Frankish manner. Yolande has never seen anything like it.
As she nears the steps of the church, she becomes aware of figures standing waiting to receive her outside the intricately carved stone archway of the entrance. Seeing her bridegroom in all his finery, she catches her breath. How handsome he is, so tall and fair, the sun shining on his silver jacket and hose, a large emerald pinning a white ostrich plume to his hat, another emerald gleaming at his throat. His eyes hold hers and his smile has her trembling until she bites her lip to remain composed. As he lifts her down from her warhorse, she closes her eyes and prays silently not to faint. Somehow she walks the few steps to greet Marie de Blois with a deep court curtsey.
'Welcome to our family,' says the duchess softly as she raises Yolande, kissing her cheeks. Those kind grey eyes smiling into Yolande's manifest past suffering but also inner strength. Sensing Yolande's nerves, Marie takes the girl's hand and places it on her firm arm as they enter the cathedral, the bride's knees threaten- ing to buckle under her.
As she passes from the sunlight into the darker interior, Yolande is dazzled by the kaleidoscope of colour and glitter from the church ornaments, the glowing tapestries, the clergy's vestments, the elaborately dressed people all staring at her; and by the overwhelming scent of flowers mixed with incense. She remains standing at the door, as Duchess Marie precedes her on the arm of the bridegroom - the bride is to follow alone once they have reached their places by the altar. A brilliant salvo of silver trumpets announces her entry. With a quick glance around at Juana behind her, Yolande is grateful to see her governess's look of encouragement. Clutching her mother's small ivory- covered prayer book in one hand, a pearl rosary in the other, her hands joined in front, Yolande d'Aragon starts down the aisle towards the altar, her long train of silver gossamer lace held by her six demoiselles, each dressed in the palest lilac. She hears the appreciative murmuring from the packed church and is comforted to know that Charles d'Anjou is walking behind her should she need support. But Yolande has regained her composure now and holds her head high, bowing slowly to right and left, her tall headdress with its covering of fine silver lace adding to her slender, almost ethereal presence.
Surrounded by the nobility of Provence and Anjou, and many of her kinsmen come from Aragon, the Princess Yolande, daughter of the late King of Aragon, is wed with considerable pomp and formality to the son of Duke Louis I d'Anjou, younger brother of the late king, Charles V of France. She hears little of the sermon and moves as instructed, while floating in some kind of trance. The rousing singing of the Te Deum brings her back to herself, along with the echoing clarion call of the many silver trumpets. As Louis and his bride leave the church arm in arm, all the great bells of Arles begin tolling, a noise to wake the very dead. Conscious she is trembling, she steals a look at him, while flower petals rain softly down upon their heads from windows and balconies, along with happy salutations. It is good to feel the reassuring right hand of her husband stretching to cover hers on his left arm.
Now, as the wife of the head of the House of Anjou, Yolande is proclaimed the Queen of Four Kingdoms - Naples, Sicily, Cyprus and Jerusalem. Cyprus was conquered by her father, and Louis' father bought the honorary title 'King of Jerusalem' from the granddaughter of one of its last kings. Even Hungary was claimed by Queen Giovanna II, once conquered by her father, and her brother crowned then as King Ladislaus before he died. Too many kingdoms - and none of them to hold - for the present.
But all that is as nothing compared with the excitement of being the wife of this dazzling young man. Dear God, prays Yolande, may I prove worthy of him.
The banquet, speeches and toasts are finally over and they are brought to a suite in the royal palace. Alone with her husband in this large room, her nerves return. What should she say to him? No matter how strong her feelings, how can she start to know this dazzling husband of hers?
It is Louis who breaks the silence, holding her by her shoulders at arm's length and saying, 'My dearest lady, my own wife, I have a confession to make to you.'
For an instant she imagines that her bubble of joy might burst with some fearful revelation, and she forces herself to remain calm as he continues.
'It is true I had heard of your beauty, but princes are often lured into marriages of opportunity this way. I had to be sure. Now I must admit to you that I rode ahead of the rest of my party to await your arrival in Arles.' Yolande's mouth falls open in surprise, but she smiles a little as she reads the look in his eyes. 'I mingled with the crowd, listening to their comments about you and your entourage. Every voice lauded your beauty; the people were in a state of wonder and awe - and as your cavalcade approached I watched you laughing happily as you encouraged your spirited mare to prance for the crowd. Even before I saw your face emerging from the shadow of the buildings, I noticed your horse - what a mettlesome little Arabian - and how you controlled her with such ease and confidence. I thought to myself, "If she can handle that horse, she can handle anything." And then suddenly you were bathed in sunlight, a golden vision, skirts fluttering at every pirouette your horse made. And then I saw the beauty of your eyes . . .'
She holds her breath.
'At that moment I bent one knee to the ground and crossed myself, thanking the Lord - and the wisdom of my mother - for having sent me this paragon; then I slipped away to await your official arrival. Will you forgive me?' he asks anxiously.
With tender kisses she closes his questioning blue eyes. This man, she knows now, will fill her heart with love every day, whether they are together or apart. As he carries her to their mar- riage bed, she swears inwardly he will be the only man she will ever love.
To judge from his ardour, he does not seem disappointed in her either. 'My darling wife, you and I will share such pleasures every night of our lives,' he tells her with a gentle kiss in the morning - and she believes him.
It does not take her long to gauge his character. She judges him to be generous of spirit and human kindness; gentle yet strong; ambitious; most learned and sound in his judgements. And she too blesses his mother, and hers, for their wisdom in arranging their union; more, she trembles just at the thought of him touching her again.
He loves her, of that she is sure even after their first night together, but she discovers as the days and weeks go by that there are areas of himself he guards fiercely and will not share even with her - his real thoughts on what happened in Naples, his ambitions for the future. She knows his temper is strong and that she would be wise not to cross it. In these early, heady days of love, such realizations do not worry her. She knows herself too, knows that she will find ways to unravel his inner labyrinth and discover what she needs to prove a useful partner and collaborator. She will always be obedient to him, but naivety has never been part of her character.
After several days of ceremonies and celebrations, the bridal couple leave Arles and make their leisurely way by boat to Tarascon, where Louis has almost completed constructing what will be his principal seat in Provence. Situated in a valley, right on the bank of the River Rhône, this high, sheer fortress of white stone is being built on the site of a number of castles erected, destroyed and rebuilt again since Roman times. A few years ago Louis razed the last old fortress, and sent workmen to begin building his new château fort. Tarascon lies south of Avignon and north of Arles, in a strategic position on a bend of the Rhône which allows a perfect view of the countryside in every direction. The river is the border of their sovereign territory of Provence, with France on the opposite bank.
Yolande loves this new chateau at first sight, its great ramparts and crenellated towers, the whole seeming to grow sharply out of the rocks at its base. Narrow steps lead down to a landing area for small boats, and Louis takes her out on the river. The Rhône is not wide there; they could cross easily to France on the other side should they wish.
Despite the chateau's austere stone exterior, her clever mother-in-law, Marie de Blois, has arranged the interior to be as dedicated to comfort and elegant living as it is said she has done in her other legendary castles of the House of Anjou. The ceilings are wooden, sometimes decorated with fanciful animals cut out of lead and stuck on to the beams; there is a chimney piece with a lit fire in each room; trellised windows allow abundant light and give views on to the Rhône. How Yolande would love her mother to see this, her first home - but in her absence, she knows that Marie de Blois will teach her how to run and manage such a large establishment.
After their arrival, they are partaking of refreshments in the Great Hall when the duchess takes Yolande by the arm and leads her gently to stand by the chimney piece. Stretching her hands towards the fire, she addresses her with the sweetest of smiles.
'Dearest child, since you are the wife of my son, you are also my child, if you will allow me this privilege?' Yolande senses that her mother-in-law is about to say something that means much to her. 'By your marriage you are now the Duchess d'Anjou, Guyenne and Maine, and Sovereign Countess of Provence, but hereafter you will always be referred to as the Queen of Sicily, the highest of all your many titles - and I shall be known as the Queen Dowager.' With that, to Yolande's astonishment, the old lady bows gracefully to her before leaving the room.
Princess Michael of Kent is the wife of Queen Elizabeth II's first cousin and lives with her husband at Kensington Palace in London. As well as undertaking a great many charitable functions, she is the author of three history books, Crowned in a Far Country; Cupid and the King; The Serpent and the Moon and this, The Queen of Four Kingdoms, her first historical novel and volume I of "The Anjou Trilogy."