The Royal Succession is an English translation of Maurice Druon’s 1957 French novel La Loi des mâles, the fourth volume of his Accursed Kings series which began with The Iron King. Described by George R.R. Martin as “the original Game of Thrones”, the seven books in this series tell the story of Philip IV the Fair of France and the kings who follow him, said to have been cursed “to the thirteenth generation” by the vengeful Grand Master of the Knights Templar.
Books two and three – The Strangled Queen and The Poisoned Crown – described the troubled reign of Philip’s son, Louis X. As The Royal Succession opens in the year 1316, Louis is dead, leaving no clear heir to the throne. There is some doubt over the parentage of Jeanne, his five-year-old daughter from his first marriage, so all eyes are on Queen Clémence, his pregnant second wife.
While France looks forward to the birth of Clémence’s child, a regent is needed; the obvious choices are Louis’ younger brother, Philippe of Poitiers, and his uncle, Charles of Valois. At this crucial moment, Philippe is away in Lyon awaiting the election of a new pope, but by resorting to some underhand methods he is able to turn the situation to his advantage and becomes regent on his return to Paris. However, his mother-in-law, Mahaut, Countess of Artois, is even more ambitious and vows to clear the path to the throne for Philippe.
Nobody is safe from Mahuat’s plotting, and when Clémence gives birth to Louis’ posthumous child, the sickly Jean I, the baby king finds himself at the centre of one of her schemes. Meanwhile, Philippe searches for a way to deal with the claim of his little niece, Jeanne, and finds a possible solution in the Salic Law, which excludes females from the line of succession.
I hope I haven’t made all of this sound too complicated! Some concentration is needed, but Druon does explain everything clearly and the plot is easy enough to follow, especially if you have also read the previous three books (something I would highly recommend). The period covered in this particular novel is fascinating and I found this a much more gripping and entertaining read than The Poisoned Crown.
The Accursed Kings series is based closely on historical fact, but there is one part of The Royal Succession which feels more like fiction – and that is the storyline surrounding the fate of little Jean I. However, having looked this up, it seems that Druon has developed this storyline out of a theory which has never been proved or disproved. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, and other books have been written on the subject. It also explained for me the role in the series of Guccio Baglioni and Marie de Cressay, something I’ve been wondering about since the first book as their story had previously seemed so disconnected from the central history.
There are three books left in the series and I’m looking forward to continuing with the next one, The She-Wolf.