The Secret Purpose of Masques at the French Court.

Catherine de Medici is reputed to have imported the fashion of masques to France from her native Italy, along with works by the Italian dancing masters. Her festivals and tournaments were famously lavish and spectacular entertainments. She spared no expense and employed the finest artists, musicians, choreographers and skilled craftsmen to create the necessary dramas and effects. A highly talented and artistic woman, she took a major role in planning and devising the most elaborate festivities, which she liked to call her ‘magnificences’.

A masque was a tableau or pageant in which the courtiers, often in some form of disguise or costume, would dance and perform. It could be anything from a simple ceremony or procession with torchbearers, to an elaborately staged classical story or mythological fable. They took place at Christmas, Easter and other festivals, would celebrate a wedding, christening or betrothal, or welcome visiting guests to the French court. They might include ballet or other dances, dramatic tales and songs, and even offer gifts to the spectators, often followed by a masked ball. These sumptuous court rituals sometimes incorporated martial sports and tournaments, which Catherine used as a means of allowing her feuding nobles to express their grievances with each other without reverting to open warfare, thereby maintaining her own power over them.

As queen mother of three sons who became King of France, Catherine used her entertainments to dazzle and impress visiting delegates and political leaders, the more fantastic and extravagant the better. At Bayonne she organised a water festival to take place on the river with an artificial whale leaking red wine from a supposed wound, and King Neptune riding his chariot pulled by sea horses. This was her way of showing the strength and riches of France, her adopted country. Her ‘magnificences’ certainly cost an inordinate sum to stage, but Catherine, being the wily operator she was, always had a political purpose behind them. Once her distinguished visitor had been sumptuously entertained, as with the Duke of Alva in Bayonne in ‘Hostage Queen’, the first of my Marguerite de Valois trilogy, she then embarked upon political discussions which, in this case, proved to have dire consequences.

Masques also provided an opportunity for a young lady to show herself off to advantage. Gabrielle d’Estrées in ‘Reluctant Queen’, second in the trilogy, chose the prettiest, most lively ladies of the court to take part in the ballet. She herself, splendidly attired as a queen in cloth of silver and ice blue satin, led the dance and was hailed la belle des belles.

Flirting and dalliance was very much a part of the scene, of which Henry of Navarre, later Henry IV of France, was an expert. The nymph-like figures would often be scantily dressed. In ‘The Queen and the Courtesan’, last in the trilogy, on seeing the King watching her, pretty little Charlotte tossed back her blonde tresses and pirouetted gracefully across the room, then lifting her bow aimed the arrow at the King’s breast. She struck his heart not with the arrow but with love, which was not good news for his official mistress, Henriette d’Entragues.

Henriette, or Madame la Marquise as she was known, has her hopes set on a crown, but is devastated when she hears that Henry IV is considering marriage to the Italian princess, Marie de Medici. The masque, with all its busy hubbub and noise, was an excellent place to involve herself in a little subtle intrigue on how best to rid herself of this rival. But whether it will gain Henriette what she most desires, or lead her into mortal danger is a risk she is willing to take.

Even as she let him peel off her silk stockings and pleasure her beneath her skirts, her mind was busily devising how to dispose of the Italian threat. Assistance soon came in the shape of Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy, a son-in-law and ally of Philip II of Spain. He arrived at Fontainebleau on the fourteenth of December with an entourage of his most important ministers and nobles, and twelve hundred horse. Henriette took a dislike to him on sight. 

‘What a strange little man he is,’ she whispered to her brother as the court gathered in the cold courtyard to receive him. ‘Like an ugly dwarf with that humpback, and over-large head with its abnormally broad brow.’

‘Hold your waspish tongue, sister. He is a powerful man, and whatever his deficiencies, rumour has it that he has enjoyed as many mistresses in his time as Henry of Navarre, and consequently acquired as many children.’ 

‘Poor souls,’ Henriette giggled. ‘I trust they do not resemble their father. His head looks like a brush with that great tuft of bristled hair atop it.’ 

‘Be nice to him,’ Auvergne warned. ‘He could be important to us. He bears many grudges against both France and the King. Apart from ongoing disputes about land, he had hoped to marry one of his daughters to Gabrielle’s son, little César, whom, had she lived, would have become the next Dauphin. Now that alliance has been lost, which he sorely regrets.’ 

Henriette considered this tidbit of gossip with eager interest. ‘You think he might help us then?’ 

‘It would not be in his interests for the Italian alliance to go ahead as the huge dowry offered might well be deployed by France to start a war against himself. Much of the territory he once captured from the French in the religious wars has now been restored, save for the Marquisate of Saluzzo. We, of course, regard that piece as of great strategic importance to our nation, being situated as it is on the Italian side of the Alps, but he resolutely refuses to surrender it. So guard that virulent wit of yours, sister, and practice more charm.’ 

The Duke was given a warm welcome by the King, and made much of with endless balls, jousts, masques and hunting-parties. After a week of this the court moved to Paris where the festivities, many devised by Madame la Marquise herself, continued over Christmas and into the New Year of 1600. Henriette was striving to be agreeable, and to please Henry, which was in her own best interests, after all. She even allowed the Duke to lead her out in a dance, although she returned to her brother’s side with a sardonic curl to her lip. 

‘I do not care for that odious little man. Small of stature, large in ego.’ 

‘Remember what I told you. Ah, he is coming for you again, now put on your best smile and be gracious.’
The Queen and the Courtesan, published 29 June, can be found as a paperback or ebook here:


Norwegian Fjord Cruise


Voyages of Discovery was our ship. Here she is in port.


We spent 10 days at the end of August on a magical cruise around the fjords of Norway.  



Starting from Harwich, our first stop was Oslo where we visited a World War II museum then to an open air museum with houses dating from the fifteenth century and earlier. Note the grass on the roofs.

And an amazing church.

These buildings were painstakingly dismantled from their original sites and reconstructed here in the museum.

Two of the friendly stewards keeping busy in a traditional way.



We then moved on to the Viking Museum to see ships that date back to around 820-1000 AD. There was a great deal of detail to explore about the archaeological digs which had recovered skeletons, as well as ships. Fascinating for a history freak like me.

Kristiansand was the next port of call with its delightful timber cottages. This is Hollen, a former fishing village, now a popular residential area.


Lysefjord is awe-inspiring, although as you can see the same could not be said for the weather. It felt almost as if we had slipped back to ancient times.

Here is the spectacular Pulpit's Rock, as viewed from our small river boat.

The goats came down to the boat to be fed.

Alesund, a delightful little town with art deco style buildings as it was rebuilt in 1904 following an earthquake. The time travel museum is worth a visit, and there are plenty of good shops.


Flam is a small village in the Aurlansfjord, largely dependent on the salmon and trout fishing. But from here you can take the railway up into the mountains for stunning scenery and an astonishing fete of engineering.





A kindergarten group enjoying a damp day on the railway. 


Back on board we sailed up the Naeroyfjord.
This is Gudvangen. Beautiful and so remote. 



 Lastly we visited Bergen, which is a bustling, charming seafront town with an ancient Hanseatic wharf with lots of local craft shops to explore.

And will I now write a Viking romance? You never know.


Renaissance Women in 16C France

‘Frenchwomen,’ said a critic, ‘are very devout in seeming, but in point of fact they are very light and very free. Every one of them, even if she be a courtesan, wishes to be treated as an honest woman, and there is no lady of bad fame who has not some objection to make to the morals of her neighbour.’

Nuns, apparently, were worse. But then many were quite secular in their habits, certainly Henry IV of France enjoyed affairs with several, including Marie de Beauvilliers, abbess of Montmartre. He did like to spread his favours. But then women often chose to enter a nunnery, considering this a better option than marrying a man they didn’t care for. And who could blame them since women often had little control over their choice of husband. Many Renaissance women, however, were independent and well educated.

Marguerite de Valois was proficient in French, Italian, Latin, Greek, music and mathematics as well as her devotions. But it wasn’t only royalty and the aristocracy who believed in education. The bourgeoisie were also great advocates of such refinements. It was considered that an educated woman was better able to maintain her family’s health, raise her children well, make her husband content and keep a household in order. The reformation also encouraged education for girls so that they were able to read the scriptures for themselves and be spiritually closer to God.


Daughters, however, were kept very much on a tight rein. They
were expected to walk behind their mothers, and were rigorously attended and chaperoned at all times. When travelling they were expected to ride en croupe (pillion) behind a servant, observing the proprieties by clinging only to the pommel and not by putting their arms about the servant’s waist. Clearly that would have been beyond the pale. Once having gained some skills she may be allowed to ride side-saddle, which required hooking one leg around the horn of the saddle.

Nor were young ladies allowed to drink, although their mothers might add a splash of Burgundy to give their water a little colour and flavour. ‘But their deportment,’ said an observer, ‘conveyed rather their good taste than their truth.’

Men grumbled, of course, at women’s independence, just as they do now. Nothing changes! They complained that their wives talked too much, stopping to gossip with passers-by in the street. They objected about their readiness to go alone to church or market, often being out and about for hours at a time, and ‘their husbands never daring to ask where they were.’ So a passion for women’s rights obviously simmered beneath the surface. One amusing rule I found for widows, was that they were obliged to wear a high necked dress, long cloak and a veil, and the authorities felt obliged to pass a law restricting the style as widows’ veils had become ‘dangerously attractive.’ You can’t keep a bad girl down.

Henriette d’Entragues was clearly of an independent mind, being highly ambitious and manipulative, with her sights set upon wearing a crown. But while Henry IV might have been sufficiently besotted to agree to anything to get her into his bed, his political advisers and ministers were another matter altogether. A King was not expected to marry his mistress. Could Henriette raise her status and break the rules of etiquette? She was very determined to try.

The Queen and the Courtesan, published 29 June, can be found as a paperback or ebook here:
Most of my titles are now available as ebooks on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords etc. Links to them can be found on my website: http://www.fredalightfoot.co.uk


Fire in Spain!

We returned from holiday to discover a whole tranch of emails with news of fire in Spain. Fortunately one from b-i-l had the subject - Open this first - which we did, so were quickly reassured all was well and our Spanish house was safe. Even though we are still in the UK, it was still a great shock and worry, not least for our friends.

The fire pretty well surrounded the village, but the bomberos did a splendid job with their helicopters and water planes, and no property sustained any serious damage. I've seen them do this in the past, they scoop up water from swimming pools, or from the sea, and without losing any power despite the added weight, they  scatter it over the fire. Most impressive. They apparently drenched one of our neighbours too, although she didn't mind as they saved her house and garage. Some terraces were gutted, trees and gardens destroyed in an instant, and there was a great deal of smoke damage. More importantly, no lives were lost. When friends saw the fire coming they hurriedly packed bags and escaped, watching the flames circle the village and their homes from a safe distance, and seeing it disappear under a blanket of black smoke.

These friends lost this terrace area, and our hearts go out to them. They say they won't be able to return to their home for a month because of the smoke damage inside. Some other close friends lost their precious garden and trees having spent 10 years creating it. However, the house, and more importantly themselves, escaped intact.

The village was evacuated with dozens of coaches bussing those people out who did not have their own transport. The army, the Guardia, the Medio Ambiente and the Policia Local were all out in force working with the bomberos. The villagers were accommodated in hostals and town halls in nearby towns. The local pharmacist even took the old folk's prescriptions and medication down to them, to make sure they were properly cared for. It was a most efficient operation apparently, yet we remained blithely unaware of this terrifying crisis as we enjoyed our cruise in the Norwegian Fjords.

Here is the aftermath, blackened countryside all around. Our house is in a dip to the far right and fortunately not in the direct path of the fire which swept by about fifty metres away.

And how did it start? Well, it wasn't an act of God or nature, it was two idiots a couple of miles below the village who decided to do a spot of welding out in the open in temperatures of over 42 degrees. They are now in jail facing a huge bill of hundreds of thousands of euros in compensation.

Here is a link to a friend's video taken during the fire. They, and the entire village were then evacuted, so are quite safe. No lives or property were lost, though several houses were damaged, terraces, gardens, trees, olive, almond and orange groves destroyed. But what a brilliant job the fire fighters did.