Charlotte de Bourbon’s short, dramatic life seems ideally suited to fiction. A French princess pledged to the convent from childhood, she became a reluctant abbess at age twelve, converted to Calvinism, fled to Germany, married a man who became a national hero, bore him six daughters in seven years, and died of exhaustion after nursing him back to health after a failed assassination attempt. So why has hardly anyone heard of her?
I picked up this book because I’ve enjoyed some of the author’s previous novels about Dutch history, and because it was on a subject I knew next to nothing about. Brigid Knight is or was, I believe, a British novelist, the pseudonym of Kathleen Henrietta Eve Sinclair. During the mid-20th century, she wrote a collection of novels set at various points in the history of the Netherlands, from the time of the Reformation through the later years of its South African colony. The Cloister and the Citadel centers on a little-known Renaissance princess, Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier (abt. 1546-1582), and her marriage to William “the Silent,” Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau. Known today as the founding father of the modern Netherlands, William had the dubious distinction of being the first head of state to be assassinated by a handgun, an event recounted in Lisa Jardine’s The Awful End of Prince William the Silent (2006). Through their eldest daughter, Louise Juliana of Nassau, Charlotte and William became the great-grandparents of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, mother of George I of England and ancestress of the British royal family.
Charlotte was the daughter of Louis de Bourbon, Duc de Montpensier, and Jacqueline de Longvic (Longwy). I’ve been trying to determine Charlotte’s exact relationship to the French monarchs of her era, though haven’t yet found a family tree that shows the complete Bourbon genealogy. Knight’s version of her life story begins in 1559, when twelve-year-old Charlotte, raised in the convent since infancy, is forced by her parents to become Abbess of Jouarre after the death of its previous abbess, her aunt Louise. Denied a dowry and seeing no other choice, Charlotte accepts the formal ring of office, despite her insistence that she has no vocation. Still, she holds back from taking formal vows. Thus begins the most fascinating part of the novel. Charlotte successfully governs her flock, despite her reluctance to play the role of abbess. Many times she attempts to obtain a dispensation to release her from the convent, though they all fail. Over time, she comes to accept Calvinist doctrine as the one true religion, which leads to her boldest act. At age eighteen, after considerable planning to ensure her safety and that of her flock, she flees Jouarre for Heidelberg, where she takes sanctuary with Frederick, Elector Palatine, and his wife. It’s in Germany where she meets William of Orange and becomes his third wife. This creates an enormous scandal not only because of Charlotte’s status as a “runaway nun,” but because of William’s own marital woes. His second wife, Anna of Saxony, is a mentally unstable woman who had an extramarital liaison and illegitimate child with Jan Rubens, her lawyer. (After his release from prison, Rubens returned to his faithful wife, which resulted in the birth of Peter Paul Rubens.) William’s marriage to Anna is soon annulled, a fact that Anna’s relatives refuse to accept.
The novel proceeds in measured fashion, recounting Charlotte and William’s brief courtship, their long separations while he leads the Dutch uprising against the Spanish, his negotiations with France in support of his goal, and the births of their six daughters. Although we never see any military action firsthand, Knight goes into considerable detail on the historical backdrop, such as the growing Huguenot influence in France, the Sea Beggars’ raids against Spanish squadrons along the Dutch coast, and William’s dogged pursuit of a united Netherlands. Many Renaissance-era notables play significant roles, from Jeanne of Navarre, a confidante and mother figure for Charlotte in matters of religion, to Catherine de Medici, Queen Mother of France, whose respect Charlotte earns after she stands up to her parents. Knight is particularly good at explaining the complex relationships between France, the Netherlands, and their respective leaders. She drifts back and forth from fiction to nonfiction and back again, sometimes relating typical scenes with characters and dialogue, other times recounting the history straightforwardly. She shifts from close third person to omniscient viewpoint with increasing regularity as the novel continues, though occasionally swoops back in to recount emotional scenes more intimately. Some of the characters' actual letters, in English translation, are reproduced verbatim, in a way that enhances their fictional personalities. Per the author's notes, the archives at l’Abbaye de Jouarre proved a gold mine in terms of primary research sources.
Despite the odd stylistic changes, the strangest thing about it is how readable the novel is anyway, and I credit the history itself for that. Although Charlotte and William’s relationship is highly romanticized, and their personalities grow steadily more idealized, I can’t say I was ever bored. Their personal and political stories are gripping in themselves. To readers today, its style may seem old-fashioned, but I came away from it enlightened about a historical period underutilized in fiction, and in nonfiction for that matter.
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