Q&A: Leah Redmond Chang on ‘Young Queens’

I am delighted to share my recent interview with Dr. Leah Redmond Chang, where we discussed her upcoming book, Young Queens. Scheduled to be published in the United States on August 15, 2023 (and already available for purchase in the UK!), Young Queens is a testament to Leah’s remarkable ability to navigate centuries of male-dominated history and bring women to the forefront of Early Modern Europe’s captivating narrative.

Spending an hour chatting to Leah about all things queenship, feminism, and the intricate political web of women in power felt like the equivalent of spending weeks in the archives, immersed in a treasure trove of knowledge and research. I extend my most heartfelt appreciation to Leah for allowing us a glimpse into her book and for joining us at Tudor Extra. Leah’s fresh perspectives and infectious passion for women’s history serve as a powerful reminder of why we are drawn to this field in the first place. 

This incredible tale of three queens at the heart of Renaissance Europe will forever change your perspective on women’s history, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to secure your own copy of Dr. Redmond Chang’s exceptionally original read by pre-ordering it here. I, for one, cannot wait for Young Queens to hit the shelves. 

The following is a transcription of our Zoom conversation with Dr. Redmond Chang, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Q. Your upcoming book, Young Queens, delves into the lives of Catherine de’ Medici and Mary, Queen of Scots, two of the most renowned figures of the 16th century – but you’ve also chosen to interweave the life of Elisabeth of Valois, Catherine’s daughter, into this brilliant tapestry of power. What about Elisabeth’s life inspired you to include such an overlooked figure into the narrative? 

In fact, Elisabeth was the inspiration for the book. Yes, rather than the third wheel, she was the reason why I wanted to write the book in the first place. I wrote a book about Catherine de’ Medici several years ago now, and in the course of prepping for that book, I had discovered her correspondence with Elisabeth – which was a very one-sided correspondence, because we have so much of Catherine. So many of Catherine’s letters are still preserved, but it’s a little bit sparse for Elisabeth. 

In that correspondence, I could see how young Elisabeth was, and how much she loved her mother, and how much she needed her mother. What was really fascinating to me was how much Catherine seemed to need Elisabeth, even though Elisabeth was only a teenager. That played only a small part in the book that I wrote about Catherine a while back. I wanted to know more, because while I had been studying women in the French Renaissance for quite some time, I was really surprised at how little I knew about Elisabeth de Valois – even though she was the wife of the King of Spain, it seemed like she should be kind of a bigger player.

Miniature of Mary Queen of Scots by Nicholas Hillaird, a painter at the court of Elizabeth I

That’s how this all began. I went to France. I sat in various archives. I discovered more letters, and I was blown away by how young Elisabeth was when she was expected to take on very important political responsibilities. Behind the scenes responsibilities, to be sure, but nonetheless political responsibilities. There are some considerable gaps around Elisabeth of Valois in the archive, partially because she was a queen consort and not a reigning queen, and because she died quite young. That’s a bit of a spoiler, but you can just look it up! I felt that there was more to be said if I painted her life around her relationship with her mother. Inevitably, in that relationship, you can’t ignore the role of Mary, Queen of Scots, and that’s how the threesome was born.

I think that is an incredible story. When I first read the description of the book, for whatever reason, I was like, okay, Elizabeth I, Catherine de’ Medici, and Mary Queen of Scots. But wait a minute – it’s Elisabeth de Valois, how interesting. 

Yes! Actually, in one iteration of the book, Elizabeth I was going to be in there, but there were too many queens. In the end, I had to demote Elizabeth I. She’s still in there, but she doesn’t play a principal role.

Q. Catherine, Mary, and Elizabeth were all integral aspects of each other’s lives. Can you give us a glimpse into how your book will cover the balance of power in their relationships?

The book is called ‘Young Queens’ because I really wanted to focus on the lives of these women when they were young, starting with Catherine, actually, as a young queen. The first thing that I should specify is that these women represent three types of queens. Catherine is first a Queen Consort, the wife of a reigning king, and then the Queen Mother. Then she actually functions as the regent to her sons – quite a powerful regent. Elisabeth of Valois, her daughter, becomes the Queen Consort of Spain, and that is the only type of queenly role she ever occupies. And then Mary, Queen of Scots, Catherine’s daughter-in-law and Elisabeth’s childhood friend, is a reigning queen, practically from birth.

The reigning Queen of Scotland is then married to the Dauphin, who becomes the King of France, and so she becomes – for a short period of time – the Queen Consort of France. When Francis dies, she becomes the Queen Dowager of France, but she remains the reigning Queen of Scotland. The balance of power between them is interesting. It’s related to rank, but not always entirely; some of it is personality and age. Of the three of them, Catherine becomes the most powerful and the most authoritative. 

By the time Catherine is queen mother, she’s forty years old. She’s done her duty as a queen. She’s given birth to many children, even though it actually took her quite a while to do that. Because she successfully gave birth to so many children, and successfully brought many of them into young adulthood, her status at the French court is quite assured. And because of the very precarious political situation in France, by the time she is queen mother, many people look to her as a figure of stability. Whether or not she planned it or not, this allows Catherine to become a powerful political figure.

For Catherine’s daughter Elisabeth, the kind of power she wields is related to two different things. First of all, for any kind of queen, the most important duty is to give birth to the heir and the spare, and then maybe more spares. Until a young woman can do this, she can’t really exercise a lot of influence at court, and so the first several years of Elisabeth’s experience as queen consort are preoccupied with this task. Until she gives birth to a child – or hopefully to the heir – she can’t wield much influence over her husband or at court.

Dr. Redmond Chang argues that Catherine de’ Medici’s tenure as regent created ‘another set of terms with which authority could be understood’.

However, Elisabeth’s particular situation is such that her mother really needs her to be a player at the Spanish court. What we see in the letters, in the relationship that Catherine builds with Elisabeth, is that Catherine was trying to mold her young teenage daughter, who’s barely fourteen when she gets to Spain, into someone that Philip II, King of Spain, will respect and listen to, so that Elisabeth can actually be a kind of agent for her mother in Spain. 

Moving on to Mary, Queen of Scots! Mary is such an interesting figure because she’s very well known in many ways, and yet, like a lot of these women, we’re always trying to kind of wrap our heads around what her experience was and what her personality was like. She comes to the French court at the age of five. She’s a child. She’s already the Queen Regnant of Scotland, but she’s a kid, so she doesn’t personally wield very much power. The interesting thing about Mary, Queen of Scots, I think, is that her French family, the Guises, were really using her as a tool for their own ambitions in France. They were raising her to be a successful queen consort of France, in some ways more than they were raising her to be a successful ruling queen in Scotland.

Mary really excels at the role of Queen Consort. She’s beautiful, she’s tall, she’s charming, she’s witty, she’s articulate. She has a lot of charisma. She’s one of these people who seems to walk into the room, and everyone looks at her, everyone’s a little bit in her shadow – and that is its own form of power. She did it extremely well. Where she gets on very shaky ground is when she actually has to rule the kingdom of Scotland. She seems to be much more comfortable leaving that to other people, and certainly when she’s younger, to the adults around her.

I think what is especially interesting is the mirrored experiences of Catherine and her daughter. Catherine had quite a rough go at it the first couple of years of her marriage. Elisabeth and Philip seem to have had much more of a loving relationship than Catherine [and Henry II]. And then Elisabeth had the benefit of having her mother over her shoulder to offer advice.

Oh, yes, for sure. That is something that I really develop in the book. It’s almost eerie how Elisabeth’s experience as a young queen mirrors some of the challenges that Catherine also experienced as a young woman. When Catherine shows up at the French court, she’s not married to the heir yet – she’s married to the second son. It’s a very transactional marriage, and for ten years, she struggles to conceive and to bear a child. She’s quite lucky, actually, that she doesn’t get sent back to Italy because at some point, there were plans to repudiate her. But she was very well liked by her father-in-law, Francis I. For that reason, and also because Francis I was hedging his bets, she was allowed to stay. 

On a personal level, we can sympathize with Catherine. She seems quite devoted to her husband, who becomes Henry II. He, in many ways, respects her and admires her on a sort of superficial level, but he doesn’t love her the way she seems to love him. He has this famous mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who’s twenty years older than him. All of his attention is given over to Diane. 

Henry II’s long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers, by Jean Clouet, c.1525

When Elisabeth de Valois marries Philip II, she also struggles with infertility for several years, and Catherine’s quite worried about it. Philip has mistresses. All the men, they all have mistresses! But he is quite gentle with Elisabeth. He leaves her to herself and her own household for quite a while – I think she struggled with this as well. But eventually, they do develop quite a loving relationship. It’s very clear that Elisabeth, in the later years of her marriage, is quite happy and content in that marriage. To some degree, that causes problems for Catherine, because Catherine and Philip don’t always agree. 

The question is, who is Elisabeth going to agree with, her husband or her mother? You can kind of see the same relationship mirrored in the soap operas of our time.

Q. One of the most compelling aspects of the Early Modern period is its wealth of complex, extraordinary women, from Anne Boleyn to Marie de Guise. Of all the women you’ve written about, is there one who stands out as a personal favourite?

People have asked me this question, and my answer is Catherine de’ Medici. She’s an incredible figure. I wrote another book about her, which was quite scholarly, several years ago, but even after I finished that, she wasn’t out of my system. There’s a lot that’s puzzling and interesting about her. She’s such a survivor. She has so much grit. I really respect that. I think that in terms of her legacy, she’s gotten a raw deal, and that intrigues me. I’m always trying to dig a little deeper and understand who this woman was on a more complex level. But, I’ll also say that I have a soft spot for Elisabeth de Valois because she’s been all but forgotten. 

This was a period of deeply entrenched misogyny. It was also a period of extreme religiosity when people believed that kings were invested with both royal and divine authority. Do you believe that queens, or in this case a queen mother, were held to higher standards than their male counterparts?

Oh, that’s such a big question. There are a number of different ways to answer this, so let me try to tackle it first with the women who were more publicly in charge, whether they were a Queen Mother like Catherine, who was very visible as the authority behind the crown, or, say, a Queen Regnant like Mary, Queen of Scots, or Elizabeth Tudor. When studying the period, you do sometimes get the feeling that everyone is just waiting for a man to take over, right? Even if they respect the divine origins of kingship, or the monarchy in general, even if they respect the female sovereign, they still presume that either male advisors or husbands are the ones in charge. 

Or, they’re just waiting for the next man to come in – the heir – because everyone is more comfortable with the idea of a man in power. Having a man in power is the way it’s always been, for the most part. Part of the sexism comes from sixteenth-century views of the weak minds of women, that their temperaments are weak and that they’re fickle. But some of it is attributable to cultural patterns, what people are used to.

The idea of a strong king, especially in these societies where war is ever present, is something that underlies why the French can never have a ruling queen. It’s called Salic law, but in fact, Salic law was more a custom than a law. But there is this idea that certain roles, the roles of warriors or the roles of priests, belong to men and not women. To this degree, no one is looking at women as the ideal ruler. 

That said, one element of Catherine’s genius, I think, was to perceive the assets that women could have or do have and try to play those up as the reasons why she should be in charge. When she first becomes Queen Mother, her son is a teenager and he’s too old for a regent. But he still really needs a lot of help. She starts to develop these almost propagandistic ways of undergirding her authority. That really becomes important when her younger son Charles becomes the king of France at the age of ten. So, again, because there were no other real options, she was able to foreground her motherhood as a facet of her strength. A lot of people argued with her reasoning, but there was precedent for it, even if it was also unusual.

Catherine takes the conversation out of the usual vocabulary of what makes a strong king and instead creates another set of terms with which authority could be understood. This is something that I think Mary, Queen of Scots never masters. In part because she was so young, and in part because by the time she gets back to Scotland, she’s alone in many ways with no one to really hold her hand in the way that she needed. 

I think it’s so interesting how these women in power have such different sets of arguments against them than, say, a King would.

Yes, it is. Just to go back, I said that there were two parts. The second part is the women who are behind the scenes – such as the mothers of these really powerful families. And those women are very, very powerful. They’re extremely good at networking. I do think that that’s a different sort of authority. It’s not associated with a throne, and it’s not associated with notions of divinity, for instance. But in terms of getting stuff done for their families or for whatever cause they’re supporting, for the moment, those women were incredibly effective and powerful.

Q. Back to the crafting of the book, could you share a little bit about your methodology for writing and researching Young Queens? I see that you were a professor of French Literature. Did your experience with the language come in handy when analyzing French records? 

Oh, yes. I received my PhD in comparative literature, but I’ve always veered more towards French things, and I was a professor of French for many years. To answer that question first yes, absolutely. I was really in there in the letters, in French, and actually in Spanish and Italian, too. But because these women all start in the French court, most of my primary material was in French. My method is to follow the threads in the archives, and I’m constantly reevaluating, constantly going back to bibliographies to see what I’ve missed. I have to say, thank God for the 19th-century editors who put together these compendiums of letters and primary texts, preserved them, and also made them available to us in a way that would be just that much harder if we were going back to the original letters! 

Elisabeth de Valois with her husband, Philip II of Spain. Miniature from a prayer book owned by Catherine de’ Medici.

Part of what I was looking at were letters, whether they were actual manuscript letters in archives, or in these 19th-century editions, looking at new materials but also looking at things that had been studied before – but maybe not for the same reasons as they’ve been studied in the past.

One of the most valuable texts that I looked at was a 19th-century edition of the notebooks of the French ambassador to Spain. There are a lot of letters in there, including a ton of letters by Elisabeth de Valois’s’ ladies-in-waiting. Scholars had worked on them and picked up on them before, but for the most part, they’ve been ignored because ‘women’s issues’ were not seen as important. But it was in those letters that you see all of the issues around Elisabeth of Valois’s body, from her health to her odd eating habits. She was frequently ill. She had trouble with her periods. That’s all in those letters. They were dismissed before, or just overlooked. That was the kind of stuff that I was looking for. 

I really wanted to create a narrative that focused on women’s experiences – that is, these queens’ experiences as women. I wanted to try to glimpse their inner lives, specifically as young women living in the orbit of power, and to create a narrative from those threads.

That is incredibly fascinating. So many scholars dedicate their lives to lifting the veil on, specifically, Elizabeth I – tapping into the woman, not just the queen, though others will say it’s impossible to truly get to know Elizabeth. But for these women, I don’t see a lot of people tackling that issue. I know that a lot of people, myself included, will be interested in reading that.

Yes, this is the feminism that undergirds all of my scholarship. One of the reasons why some of these women, particularly Catherine de’ Medici, have had such a terrible legacy in the 500 years since they’ve lived is because we don’t try to see them as complex human beings. It’s easier to imagine some of these women as the Evil Queen. For whatever reason, we seem to be very invested in the evil woman trope, whereas when you look more closely at their letters or the text surrounding them, you really can see them as complex human beings. I think that just seems more interesting.

Q. Was there anything that surprised you, or altered your perspective, during the research process for Young Queens

Elisabeth de Valois, the eldest daughter of Catherine de’ Medici and Henry II of France, was just fourteen when she married Philip II of Spain.

In terms of surprises, I would say that I got a very different view of Mary, Queen of Scots than I had before. I knew that she was going to be important to this narrative because at some point, Catherine and Elisabeth plot about Mary. And so I realized, okay, I’ve got to bring her into the story. I was really influenced by what I already knew about Mary, Queen of Scots, and so it was eye-opening for me to see her as this young woman, just eighteen years old when she gets to Scotland, and so motivated by a desperate desire to get back home – home both physically, but also intellectually, to this place where she had been before. To me, she just seemed so lost. That hadn’t really occurred to me before. I wouldn’t say it’s a surprise, but at the same time, it gave me a lot more sympathy for her than I had ever had before. 

Again, I think for all of them, remembering just how young they are when they’re married, when they’re expected to sleep with their husbands, when they take on these political roles, all three of them are only about fourteen or fifteen years old. When you take a look around you and see what a fourteen or fifteen year-old girl looks like these days, I think it really changes your point of view – not only of what their experiences were like, but what these courts looked like, what the expectations were, and also who was creating the politics at the time. In many ways, very young people.

I think people forget how young these people were. When I think about the women in power, it’s particularly startling.

Yes. Especially for the women. What makes us always assume they were older? Maybe it’s the clothes? That they were treated like adults? Or maybe because they were in a position to wield so much power? Maybe because they’ve been written about as if they were older? 

Lastly, for those of us who are interested, where can we find more of your fabulous work?

On my website, leahredmondchang.com. I have my other books on there. I started out as a history of the book person and then moved on queens. This book, Young Queens, is coming out in the States in August, but it’s already out in the UK. I am also going to be plotting my next book quite soon. In the meantime, I have a Substack newsletter under my name, Leah Redmond Chang, so I post regularly there as well!

I saw that you also do some speaking engagements. Will you be having any of those planned?

The next one is at the Chalke Valley History Festival in the UK, and then I will be giving a talk at Politics and Prose in Washington DC on August 15, the day that this book launches in the States.

About the Author

Dr. Leah Redmond Chang

Leah Redmond Chang is a former associate professor of French literature and culture at the George Washington University. Her writing draws on her extensive experience as a researcher in the archives and in rare book libraries. Previous books include Into Print: The Invention of Female Authorship in Early Modern France, which focused on women and book culture in the sixteenth century, and (with Katherine Kong) Portraits of the Queen Mother, about the many public faces of Catherine de Medici. With her husband and three children, she divides her time between Washington, DC, and London, UK.

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