She was Yolande, daughter of the King of Aragon before the country joined with Castile to make today's Spain. The only child of her father to reach adulthood, Yolande became the kingdom's heiress after the death of her childless uncle. For some time, Aragon and the French sovereign dukedom of Anjou had claimed the disputed inheritance of the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. In a bid to end the fighting, Yolande of Aragon was betrothed to Louis II of Anjou.
Rarely did an arranged marriage turn into a love match, but Yolande and Louis were among the fortunate ones. Both renowned for their good looks and intelligence, they were truly blessed, loved one another deeply and produced healthy children. Nevertheless, Louis decided to re-conquer his kingdom of Naples, this time using Yolande's dowry to fund his quest. He set out from his port of Marseilles, leaving his capable wife to act as regent for his enormous territories of Anjou, Maine, and Provence.
Tragically, King Charles VI of France, Louis II's cousin, was periodically mad. When sane, he was a splendid ruler -- just, attractive to his people, wise in government and devoted to his queen Isabeau, who gave him children almost annually. Suddenly, in his mid-twenties, he began to lose his mind for periods of time -- mad to the extent of decapitating some of his servants! As if the state of the king's mind was not sufficient reason to induce instability in the country, there was sporadic civil war to contend with as well. One of the king's cousins, the Duke of Burgundy, called John-the-Fearless, coveted the throne as well as trade with the English in Flanders, while the king's delightful brother, Louis, Duke of Orléans wholeheartedly supported his brother and French interests. Two opposing factions developed and the clashes between the Burgundians and the Orléanists grew in proportion, unsettling commerce and the peace of the kingdom.
For some time, the Kings of England had called themselves King of France. Indeed, much of the country did belong to England since the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine's marriage, and of course, they had owned Normandy since 1066.
Across the Channel, a brave and dashing new young king mounted the throne. With France divided through civil war, Henry V Plantagenet, energetic and charismatic, saw his opportunity. By 1415, Henry V had moved his army across the Channel while Yolande, known as the Queen of Sicily, the grandest of her many titles, was left alone in her great castle of Angers in Anjou to await the outcome of the invasion and inevitable, decisive conflict.
At the terrible Battle of Agincourt, although outnumbered five to one, the English are victorious and most of the scions of the great houses of France died in the deep mud on that day, helpless in their heavy armour weighing down them and their horses. Struggling to advance in the mire, wave upon wave of arrows descended on the French knights, fired by the English Longbowmen with astonishing skill, who did indeed turn "the day into night" with their density. There was not a family in France which did not lose someone that day -- a surprising victory for the English -- and one the French had been so certain they would win.
It was also the day that chivalry died. When Henry V saw he had not enough men to guard the French knights captured for ransom, he gave the chilling order: "No prisoners", and all were killed. During the next five years, France fell steadily into English hands. One by one, French dukes moved their allegiance to the winning side, and few but the Anjous, Yolande and her ailing husband Louis, remained in support of their half-mad King Charles VI.
In 1420, by the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, Henry V married a French princess and was declared the heir to France -- the two countries would be joined under one king once Charles VI was no more, and their own dauphin, France's heir and Yolande's son-in-law, stood disinherited in favour of an English king. Even when both kings died within months of one another, the fighting continued. The English controlled Paris and France's second city, Orléans, was besieged. The end seemed inevitable with the people inside reduced to eating rats; the old and the young died of starvation and the soldiers survived on a few mouthfuls of fish a day. Despite all her efforts, Yolande's son-in-law, the new young king of France, Charles VII, appeared totally listless and dazed, prepared for defeat.
Then, when all seemed lost, Yolande heard from her second son René of a strange young girl living in his territory of Lorraine in the north, a girl determined to "save France" on the orders of "her saints". With nothing to lose, Yolande sent for the girl in secret -- could an unknown seventeen-year-old farm girl really be of some use? For two days and nights Yolande quizzed her about the voices she claimed to hear - and decided to take the risk to believe her.
The king had no army but Yolande did -- the army of Anjou whom she recalled from their march to Marseilles to sail for Naples and her son Louis fighting there. Re-naming them "The Army of Jeanne d'Arc", she dressed Joan in white armour, sits her on a tall, white charger, a great swirling white banner with the red cross of Lorraine fixed erect to her saddle. Joan, she instructs, is to be placed on a hill opposite Orléans and out of arrow range. There she was to blaze in the sun like a miraculous icon in order to inspire the soldiers fighting both inside and outside the city. Miraculously, nine days later, the city was relieved, and its remaining skeletal inhabitants saved. Yolande's support of The Maid of Orléans, as the girl became known, was the beginning of France's steady recovery of her kingdom.
'The Queen of Four Kingdoms' was published by Constable last October in UK and became a best seller. This October it has appeared in France, published by Éditions Télémaque, and by Beaufort Books in USA.
'Agnes Sorel Mistress of Beauty', the second installment in the 'Anjou Trilogy' will be published in the UK on November 6th.