In 1526, the French king François I, having suffered defeat and capture a year earlier, sent his two sons to take his place as hostages in Spain. The younger child, Henri, only 6, was visibly frightened as he prepared to embark. Suddenly, a young woman dashed out of the crowd and for a moment held the motherless boy in her arms. During the four years he spent in a Spanish fortress, the little prince never forgot her kindness, and later, in manhood, he began a love affair with her that lasted until his death. In The Serpent and the Moon: Two Rivals for the Love of a Renaissance King (Touchstone, 432 pp., $29.95), Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent chronicles the relationship between King Henri II of France and his mistress Diane de Poiters, 19 years his elder.
The rival in this story is Henri's wife, Catherine de' Medici, who never stood a chance. "Neither she nor Henri had chosen the other as partner, and both had been educated to accept the political or dynastic choice imposed on them," writes the author, who is descended from both Diane and Catherine. "It was Catherine's tragedy that she fell in love with Henri." Her jealousy was so acute that she had holes drilled in the floor of her bedroom, right above Diane's, so that she could spy on the lovers. Catherine did get her revenge eventually: when Henri was fatally injured during a tournament, Diane was not allowed to visit the dying king.
This love story takes place during the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the Princess does a good job of establishing the atmosphere of the day, explaining the balance of power among kingdoms and the diplomatic importance of marriage. At the time, the happiness or unhappiness of one girl would not have made a difference to those arranging a wedding. Reading this book, one can't help feeling sorry for jealous, scheming Catherine even if she understood and accepted the rules.
Princess Michael of Kent signs The Serpent and the Moon 2 p.m. Sept. 23 at Davis-Kidd, and presents a lecture and slide show 11:30 a.m. Sept. 24 at the Main Library on Church Street.
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