Game of Queens

The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe


By Sarah Gristwood

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“Sarah Gristwood has written a masterpiece that effortlessly and enthrallingly interweaves the amazing stories of women who ruled in Europe during the Renaissance period.” — Alison Weir

Sixteenth-century Europe saw an explosion of female rule. From Isabella of Castile, and her granddaughter Mary Tudor, to Catherine de Medici, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth Tudor, these women wielded enormous power over their territories, shaping the course of European history for over a century. Across boundaries and generations, these royal women were mothers and daughters, mentors and protées, allies and enemies. For the first time, Europe saw a sisterhood of queens who would not be equaled until modern times. A fascinating group biography and a thrilling political epic, Game of Queens explores the lives of some of the most beloved (and reviled) queens in history.


For my eldest niece, Emily West

Illustration Credits

Game of Chess, 1555, Anguissola, Sofonisba (c.1532–1625): Museum Narodowe, Poznan, Poland/Bridgeman Images.

Isabella of Castile, Ms 604/1339 f.64v King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, from the 'Devotionary of Queen Juana the Mad', c.1482 (vellum): Musee Conde, Chantilly, France/Bridgeman Images.

Anne de Beaujeu, detail of the right leaf of the Triptych of the Virgin in glory, 1498–1499, by Jean Hey or Hay (ca.1475–ca.1505), known as the Master of Moulins, sacristy of the church of Notre-Dame in Moulins, France: DeAgostini/Getty Images.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold: Wikimedia Commons.

Margaret of Austria, c.1490 (oil on oak panel), Master of Moulins (Jean Hey), (fl.c.1483–c.1529): Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA/Bridgeman Images.

Manuscript miniature showing french queen Louise of Savoy: PVDE/Bridgeman Images.

Marguerite of Navarre, c.1527, by Jean Clouet (c.1485–1541), found in the collection of Walker Art Gallery: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Margaret Tudor: Sir Francis Ogilvy/The National Library of Scotland.

Anne Boleyn, 1534 (oil on panel), English School: Hever Castle, Kent, UK/Bridgeman Images.

Katherine of Aragon: Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

Elizabeth I when a Princess, c.1546, attributed to William Scrots (1537–53): Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

Queen Mary I (1516–58) 1554 (oil on panel), Mor, Anthonis van Dashorst (Antonio Moro) (c.1519–1576/77): Prado, Madrid, Spain/Bridgeman Images.

An Allegory of Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII: Wikimedia Commons.

Mary of Guise (1515–1560), 1537, found in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Mary of Austria (a.k.a. Mary of Hungary), c.1520 (oil on vellum on panel), Maler, Hans or Johan (fl.1510–1523): Society of Antiquaries of London, UK/Bridgeman Images.

Margaret of Parma: Stedelijk Museum 'Het Prinsenhof', Delft, Netherlands/Lessing Images.

Jeanne d'Albret: Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

Catherine de Medici (1519–89) (oil on panel), French School: Musee Conde, Chantilly, France/Bridgeman Images.

François Dubois (1529–1584) – St. Bartholomew's Night, August 24, 1572: DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images.

Elizabeth I: His Grace the Duke of Bedford and the Trustees of the Bedford Estates, from the Woburn Abbey Collection.

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots by François Clouet (1510–1572): World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.


1474 December 11

Isabella I becomes Queen Regnant of Castile, succeeding her half-brother whose putative daughter, La Beltraneja, also claimed the throne.


1479 January 20        

Isabella's husband Ferdinand becomes King of Aragon, succeeding his father. He and Isabella exercise effective joint rule as the 'Catholic Kings' of Spain.


1482 March 27        

Mary, ruling Duchess of Burgundy, dies, to be succeeded by her young son Philip.


1483 August 30        

Charles VIII becomes King of France, succeeding his father Louis XI. Charles's sister Anne de Beaujeu becomes regent in all but name during the thirteen-year-old's minority.


1486 February 16        

Maximilian I (Maximilian of Austria), widower of Mary of Burgundy, is elected Holy Roman Emperor.


1491 December 6        

Anne, the ruling Duchess of Brittany, is forced to marry the French king Charles, beginning what would become a permanent attachment of Brittany to France's interests.



Ferdinand and Isabella conquer Granada (2 January) and end the Moorish rule of southern Spain, expel the Spanish Jews (31 March) at the demand of Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada and (17 April) sign an agreement with Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, allowing him to claim any new lands discovered on their behalf.


1498 April 7        

Louis XII becomes King of France, succeeding his kinsman Charles VIII.


1504 November 26        

Juana 'the Mad' becomes titular Queen Regnant of Castile, succeeding her mother Isabella. Her father Ferdinand and husband Philip of Burgundy contest control of the country.


1506 September 22        

Philip of Burgundy dies, leaving his widow Juana to spend most of her life in incarceration and leaving control of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon. Philip's Netherlands territories pass to his six-year-old son Charles.


1507 March 18        

Margaret of Austria appointed Regent of the Netherlands for her nephew Charles.


1509 April 21        

Henry VIII becomes King of England, succeeding his father Henry VII. He immediately marries Katherine of Aragon.


1513 September 9        

The Battle of Flodden between England and Scotland. James IV of Scotland dies, to be succeeded by his infant son James V, whose mother Margaret Tudor is left as regent.


1515 January 1        

François I becomes King of France, succeeding his cousin and father-in-law Louis XII.


1516 January 23        

The death of Ferdinand leaves Aragon to his grandson Charles, already ruler of the Netherlands. On 14 March it is announced that Charles will assume rule of all Spanish territories, nominally sharing that rule with his incarcerated mother Juana, official Queen Regnant of Castile.


1517 October 31        

Martin Luther posts Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Palast Church at Wittenberg, condemning corrupt practices in the Catholic church.


1519 June 28        

Charles V is elected Holy Roman Emperor, succeeding his grandfather Maximilian.


1521 January 3        

Pope Leo X (the first pope from the Florentine banking family, the Medici) excommunicates Martin Luther.


April 18        

Luther appears before the Diet of Worms but refuses to recant.


April 8        

Charles V gives control of his hereditary Habsburg Austrian lands to his brother Ferdinand (also his regent in the Holy Roman Empire) keeping control of his Spanish, New World and Netherlands territories himself.


1525 February 24        

Battle of Pavia sees the crushing defeat of the French by Charles V's army and the capture of King François.


1526 August 29        

Battle of Mohacs; the Ottoman army under Suleiman the Magnificent defeats the Hungarian forces, which causes the subsequent reorganisation of Hungary. The Turkish threat to the east becomes an ever-greater factor in European politics through the following decades.


1527 May 6        

Rome plundered by imperial troops, Pope Clement VII (a second Medici pope, uncle of Catherine de Medici) is forced to flee. This has serious consequences for the papal inquiry into the validity of the marriage of Henry VIII to Katherine of Aragon.


1529 August 3        

Ladies' Peace of Cambrai signed by Margaret of Austria (on behalf of her nephew Charles V) and Louise of Savoy (on behalf of her son François I).


October 1        

The Marburg Colloquy, a discussion between Martin Luther and the more radical Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, illustrates important theological differences between different branches of the new Reforming faith. The following year, 1530, sees the 'Protestant' princes of Germany form the Schmalkaldic League, a defensive alliance against the overlordship of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.


1531 January 3        

Mary of Hungary requested by her brother Charles V to assume regency of the Netherlands, following the death of their aunt Margaret of Austria.


1533 ?January?        

Henry VIII of England secretly marries Anne Boleyn, who is crowned queen 1 June before the birth of their daughter Elizabeth on 7 September.


1534 March 23        

First Act of Succession secures the English succession to King Henry's children by Anne Boleyn and declares Princess Mary a bastard. In November, the Act of Supremacy declares Henry the 'only supreme head on earth' of the English church.


1536 January 7        

Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife, dies.


May 19        

Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, executed.


May 30        

Henry VIII marries his third wife, Jane Seymour.


October 13        

The Pilgrimage of Grace protests against Henry's break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries but is harshly repressed.


1542 April 15        

James V of Scotland dies, to be succeeded by his infant daughter Mary, beginning the slow rise to power of James's widow Marie de Guise.


1545 December 13        

Pope Paul III convenes the Council of Trent, the twenty-five sessions of which would be held off and on until 1563. The ecumenical council both consolidated the doctrines of the Catholic church and condemned those of Protestantism. This can be seen as the start of the Counter-Reformation.


1547 January 28        

Henry VIII dies, succeeded as King of England by his son Edward VI.


March 31        

Henri II becomes king of France, succeeding his father François I.


1553 July 6        

The early death of Edward VI sees the throne pass for a mere nine days to Lady Jane Grey before being seized by Edward's half-sister Mary Tudor. Crowned as Mary I, she sets about returning England to the Catholic faith.


1555 May 25        

Jeanne d'Albret becomes Queen Regnant of Navarre.


1555 October 25        

Mary of Hungary resigns regency of the Netherlands.


1556 January 16        

Charles V abdicates the crown of Spain to his son Philip II, to whom he had already handed over the Netherlands the previous October.


1558 November 17        

Elizabeth I becomes Queen of England, succeeding her half-sister Mary.


1559 April 3        

Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, orchestrated by Christina of Denmark, ends sixty-five years of intermittent warfare, much of it centring on rival claims to the Netherlands.


May 2        

John Knox returns to Scotland from exile. In Geneva, where he had worked closely with John Calvin, he published the pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet agaimst the monstrous regiment of women.


July 10        

François II (husband of Mary, Queen of Scots) becomes King of France, succeeding his father Henri II. Rise to power of the Guise family.


1560 December 5        

Charles IX becomes King of France, succeeding his brother François II. His mother Catherine de Medici assumes power during his minority, in rivalry with the Guises.


1561 August 9        

Mary, Queen of Scots returns to her country to assume active rule.


1562 March 1        

The Massacre of Vassy, the killing of French Protestants by the Duc de Guise's men, triggers the start of the French Wars of Religion.


1564 July 25        

Maximilian II becomes Holy Roman Emperor, following his father Ferdinand.


1567 February 10        

Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, is murdered.


May 15        

Mary marries Lord Bothwell, widely held  responsible for Darnley's murder.


July 24        

Mary is forced by her rebellious nobles to abdicate in favour of her infant son James VI.


September 5        

The Duke of Alba, arriving in the Netherlands to put down iconoclastic riots, establishes the 'Council of Troubles'. Margaret of Parma resigns her regency and Alba's harshness signals the start of the long Dutch revolt against Spanish rule.


1568 May 16        

Mary, Queen of Scots flees south over the border into England, to begin almost twenty years of captivity.


1571 October 7        

The Battle of Lepanto gives a league of European Catholic powers a great naval victory against the Ottoman Turks.


1572 June 9        

Jeanne d'Albret dies, to be succeeded as ruler of Navarre by her son Henri.


August 24        

Celebrations for Henri of Navarre's marriage to Catherine de Medici's daughter, intended to heal religious divides, instead herald the terrible anti-Protestant slaughter of the Massacre of St Bartholomew's Day.


1574 May 30        

Henri III becomes King of France, succeeding his brother Charles IX.


1581 July 26        

Seven northern (and largely Protestant) provinces of the Netherlands formally declare independence from Spain.


1587 February 8        

Mary, Queen of Scots is executed at Fotheringhay.


1588 August 8        

The approach of the Armada fleet, sent by Philip of Spain against England, provokes Elizabeth I's address to the troops at Tilbury. Much of the fleet is destroyed by adverse weather.


1589 August 2        

Henri of Navarre becomes Henri IV of France, succeeding his kinsman and brother-in-law Henri III. This ends the line of Valois kings and brings in the Bourbon dynasty.


1603 March 24        

Elizabeth I dies, leaving the throne of England to James VI of Scotland, Mary, Queen of Scots's son.


The Queene is queint and quick conceit,

Which makes hir walke which way she list,

And rootes them up, that lie in waite

To work hir treason, ere she wist


  • "Densely packed with fascinating material, this immensely ambitious undertaking succeeds triumphantly."
    Literary Review (UK)

  • "A
    fascinating work of world and women's history."—Booklist

  • "Gristwood's
    fresh take on a well-documented period and the achievements, failures, and
    relationships of some of Europe's most powerful players is intriguing,
    cohesive, and accessible."—Publishers Weekly

  • "[Game of Queens] casts a well-researched time period in an intriguing light.... Readers of popular history, especially of Tudor England, and of women's history will find much to enjoy."—Library Journal

  • "Sarah Gristwood handles
    multiple narrative strands with tremendous finesse, dexterously synthesizing
    the stories of women who, in many cases, never met but whose lives intertwined
    in manifold ways."—Literary Review (UK)

  • "Game of Queens is a magnificent exploration of a most remarkable group--the women who ruled sixteenth century Europe. Sarah Gristwood gives us impeccable research, incisive attention to detail, and exquisite writing as she investigates these truly fascinating women and their lives of courage, tribulation, and determination. Absolutely unputdownable."—Kate Williams, authorof England's Mistress

  • "Sarah Gristwood's study of the brilliant, beleaguered,
    and often bloody difficult women who kept Europe going in the sixteenth century
    is compelling, clear-eyed, beautifully rendered, and never-more-timely."—JessieChilds, author of God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England

  • "In
    her elegant and engaging style, she combines incisive detail with over-arching
    and eye-opening themes of queenship and the role of women in a male-dominated
    world. This book is a wonderful, timely contribution to our understanding of
    the period, and a pacy and illuminating good read."—Alison Weir, authorof The Lost Tudor Princess

On Sale
Nov 7, 2017
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Sarah Gristwood

About the Author

Sarah Gristwood is a regular contributor to many London publications as well as a commentator on royal and historical affairs. The author of several previous books, including Blood Sisters, Gristwood splits her time between London and Kent, United Kingdom.

Learn more about this author