Potter — Monarchs of the Renaissance (Albright)

Philip J. Potter

Monarchs of the Renaissance: The Lives and Reigns of 42 European Kings and Queens

Jefferson, South Carolina: McFarland, 2012. 351pp. $40.00. ISBN 0-7864-6806-5.

On the back cover of this book, there is a quotation that is belied by the content of this work: “During the Renaissance, the monarchy became the dominant ruling power in Europe.” In this series of royal biographical sketches, Philip Potter (who previously wrote a similar volume on 31 Gothic Kings of Britain between 1016 and 1399), writes about 42 monarchs[1] of England, Scotland, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire between 1400 and 1580. Even though this is a book about the Renaissance, and even though the education and cultural achievements of these monarchs are mentioned, the book is primarily a work of political history.

As such, what this volume spends most of its time wrestling with are the political and military business of these monarchs. Rather than showing how powerful the monarchy became during the time of the Renaissance, the book shows (or implicitly argues) over and over again the dependence of the power of the monarch on the personal qualities of the monarch and their supporters. For example, of the death of James IV of Scotland, Potter writes: “James, Duke of Rothesay, the seventeen-month-old and only surviving son of James IV, was readily recognized as successor and Scotland again faced the uncertainty and weak government of a long regency period” (p. 139). Of Queen Joanna of Spain, Potter writes: “Queen Joanna died on April 12, 1555, at age seventy-five, isolated and forgotten. She had been held captive for fifty years to ensure the Spanish rule of her husband, father, and son” (p. 273). And of Frederick III of Habsburg, Potter writes: “The third Renaissance sovereign’s regime was beset with ineptness, creating a loss of imperial prestige and power, as the secular and ecclesiastic princes increasingly asserted their autonomous rule” (p. 297). Far from showing the power and glory of these monarchs, Potter shows their weakness and insecurity.

Although the claim of the back cover to show the power of these monarchs is belied by the historical record as discussed honestly and openly by Potter in the course of the volume, the book remains of interest to those who share the author’s interest in the political history of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, even if the author is a bit arbitrary in assigning those dates to the Renaissance in Western Europe — and also a bit arbitrary in discussing only five western and central European realms, rather than the rulers of other states during the time period, like Poland-Lithuania, Russia, or the Ottoman Empire (or the various rulers of Italy, for that matter). This selection in time and scope of work was probably done in order to focus on those areas that are the most popular and the best known as well as to limit the scope of the work to one volume. Still, the choices appear somewhat arbitrary, and a reader ought to recognize that.

The book does, however, spend most of its time talking about the wars of European Renaissance monarchs. On nearly every page of this book there is mention to warfare in pursuit of a monarch’s blood claims, of civil warfare between rulers and powerful magnates, or rebellions by overburdened commoners against oppressive and corrupt regimes, or political marriages contracted to gain territories by dowry or gain allies for one’s military efforts, or truces conducted with one enemy to allow a monarch to fight against another enemy who has opportunistically attacked while the monarch and his army of Scottish or German mercenaries was distracted elsewhere. Anyone who reads this volume will be made aware of the fact that these monarchs seemed constantly in a state of either fighting wars or preparing to fight them, or dealing with the civil discontent caused by the excessive taxation for warfare or for extravagant courts or wasteful elites.

Even though this particular volume is dedicated to biographical sketches of monarchs, many of the monarchs named here were either not particularly powerful monarchs on the battlefield or had to depend on regents to rule parts of their lands because of limitations of communication even as adults. As a result, the book is full of short biographical sketches of the other important military figures who assisted their monarchs in keeping order, or who rebelled against their monarchs. A typical introduction of these elite figures is as follows:

As Francis II was in Italy supporting the papacy against the Spanish Habsburgs, Philip II resumed the war in Flanders, sending a formidable imperial-Spanish army under the command of Emmanuel Philibert to invade northern France. Emmanuel Philibert was born on July 8, 1528, at Chambery, Savoy, and was the only surviving son of Duke Charles III and Beatrice of Portugal. When the duchy of Savoy was overrun by France, he was forced to flee to the imperial court for protection. (p. 220)

There are many examples of noble generals that begin in the same way, with genealogical information and a short biographical sketch of their own life mixed with their involvement in the affairs of the monarchs of their day. For DRM readers, there is also often specific information about battles and sieges and their results.

Given the paramount importance of military strength in preserving realms and dynasties, this book is of interest to anyone who desires to have a deeper understanding of the military realities of Renaissance monarchs. Entire realms (like Burgundy) disappeared because of their inability to preserve their ruling dynasties in the face of constant warfare on all fronts. Even those realms that managed to endure throughout this period, like Scotland, faced serious problems because of military weakness, including the forced abdication of monarchs, large parts of their territory under occupation by foreign armies (particularly the English, but also the Danish-Norwegian kings in this case). Even the most powerful of monarchs, like Philip II of Spain or Henry VIII of England, depended on mighty generals to defend their realms from civil disorder at home and project power in invasions abroad. Recognizing the key role of martial affairs in the preservation of power among Renaissance rulers is a key insight this book demonstrates, and it is one that ought to be of interest to many readers.

Despite the fact that this book fails to provide a picture of powerful monarchs who stand undisputed within their realms, it does successfully paint an accurate picture of insecure monarchs whose military power determined whether they were successful monarchs or whether they were impotent, powerless, and either imprisoned or deposed by rival claimants to their thrones.


[1] One of these monarchs, King Charles I of Spain/Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, is written about twice.

Nathan Albright

Norwich University <nathanbalbright@yahoo.com>

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