Margaret of Angoulême (1492–1549)

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Margaret of Angoulême (1492–1549)

Queen of Navarre who was a poet, patron of reformers and humanists, and author of The Heptaméron . Name variations: Margaret of Angouleme; Margaret of France; Margaret or Marguerite of Navarre; Marguerite d'Navarre; Marguerite de Navarre; Marguerite d'Angoulême or Marguerite of Angouleme; Margaret of Orleans; Margaret of Valois; duchess of Alençon or Alencon; duchess of Berry. Pronunciation: ON-gyou-lame. Born in the castle of Angoulême on April 11, 1492; died in the castle of Odos-in-Bigorre, near Tarbes, on December 21, 1549; buried in the cathedral of Lescar; daughter of Charles de Valois-Orléans (1460–1496), count of Angoulême, and Louise of Savoy (1476–1531); sister of Francis I, king of France (r. 1515–1547); married Charles, duke of Alençon, on October 9, 1509, at Blois; married Henry II (1517–1555), king of Navarre, on January 24, 1527, at St. Germain-sur-Laye; children: (second marriage) Jeanne d'Albret (1528–1572), later queen of Navarre; son Jean (died on Christmas Day 1530, aged five months); twins (b. 1542, died within hours).

Selected writings:

Correspondance (ed. by P. Jourda, Paris, 1930); The Heptaméron (ed. by M. François, Paris, 1950); Les Poésies Dernières (Paris, 1896); Les Marguerites de la Marguerite des Princesses (2 vols., Lyons, 1547); Lettre et Nouvelles (pub. by F. Génin, Société de l'Histoire de France (2 vols., Paris, 1841–42).

Margaret of Angoulême, of Valois, of France, queen of Navarre (r. 1527–1549), duchess of Alençon and Berry, was highly respected as a person, poet, and patron of the Renaissance in France. She was praised for both her beauty and her intelligence, showing unusual brilliance in theology and language skills. Together with her brother Francis I, the king of France, and her mother Louise of Savoy , the noted regent of France, they formed the renowned trinité, which ruled over the French court in the early 16th century. Margaret supported and shared her mother's lifelong devotion to Francis as the king of France, often at the cost of her own happiness and health. Always obedient to the demands of Francis and Louise, she acted as her mother's deputy, traveling many miles, serving as mediator and messenger, most notably in Spain during Francis' captivity in 1525. It was Margaret of Angoulême who was called upon to care for Francis' motherless children after his wife Claude de France died in 1524, and to nurse Louise during her last illness in 1531. Margaret was destined never to find true happiness in human relationships. Her mother and her brother shamelessly exploited her devotion. Both her marriages proved to be loveless; Charles, duke of Alençon, was a weak, mean-spirited man, and Henry II, king of Navarre, some years her junior, soon tired of her. Her only son Jean died as an infant and her relationship with her daughter Jeanne d'Albret was a strained and difficult one. Margaret's unhappiness forced her to seek fulfillment in religion, and, through her correspondence over many years with Guillaume Briçonnet, she sought solace in matters spiritual. She became a friend and supporter of those who saw the need for reform in the church, defending them and protecting them during periods of persecution. She was loved by them for her integrity, sympathy, and understanding. She was a prolific writer, both of letters, personal and official, and of poetry; all of these have been preserved in the French national archives. Apart from her correspondence with Briçonnet, Margaret also wrote to her brother, to Montmorency, the constable of France, to the pope, and to other leading figures, such as Erasmus and Margaret of Austria (1480–1530). It was said that she wrote continuously during long, tedious journeys by litter. Her poetry has lived on and is as popular today as it was in the 16th century. The work for which she is most remembered is The Heptaméron, which she wrote to amuse Francis I during his last illness. After his death in 1547, she, the sole survivor of the trinité, retired to Navarre and a semi-reclusive life. By the time of her death in 1549, she had become partially reconciled with her husband and her daughter.

One of the most brilliant and attractive women of the whole sixteenth century.

—S. Harrison Thomson

In a century of outstanding women, Margaret of Angoulême holds her own both as a patron of the arts and sciences and as a defender and protector of reformers and humanists. It was Margaret who inspired and encouraged Francis I to form the Collège de France, and it was her support and participation that ensured the survival of the Renaissance in France. Her name was linked with the Cercle de Meaux, and she counted its members—Clément Marot, Bonaventure des Periers, Étienne Dolet and William Farel—among her friends, together with other learned minds, such as François Rabelais. She accepted the views of Briçonnet and Lefèvre d'Étaples, although she never left the Catholic Church. Her courts in Navarre attracted scholars and artists and became a refuge for the persecuted. She was the first of a feminine dynasty of evangelical reformers, followed by her daughter, the Calvinist Jeanne d'Albret, and then by her granddaughter, the Huguenot Catherine of Bourbon (c. 1555–1604). Much admired by her contemporaries, Margaret still retains a hold over the imagination and affection of the French people.

Margaret of Angoulême was born on April 11, 1492, the first child and only daughter of Charles of Orleans, count of Angoulême (r. 1460–1496), and Louise of Savoy (1476–1531). Her birth was recorded in her mother's journal thus:

My daughter Margaret was born in the year 1492, the eleventh day of April, at two o'clock in the morning, that is to say, the tenth day, fourteen hours and ten minutes counting after the fashion of the astrologers.

Her father was a direct descendant of Charles V, king of France (r. 1364–1380), and in position to claim the French crown should Charles VIII die and Louis (XII), his heir, fail to produce male offspring. His marriage with Louise of Savoy, many years his junior, had been arranged by Anne of Beaujeu (c. 1460–1522), daughter of Louis XI, king of France (r. 1461–1483), when Louise was two years old as a means of preventing Charles VIII's proposed marriage with Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482), an alliance which would have seriously threatened the power of the French crown. But Charles of Orleans was not politically ambitious; he was content with his own small court at Cognac, preferring books and women to the intrigues of the French royal court. He gathered around him artists and musicians and collected a library of rare books and manuscripts. As his wife, Louise, herself no mean scholar, participated in these activities and in turn passed on a love of learning and the arts to her daughter and her son. Margaret's brother Francis, destined to be Francis I, king of France (r. 1515–1547), had been born in September 1494.

Charles of Orleans died on January 1, 1496, when Margaret and Francis were still infants, leaving them in the care of their young mother. From Francis' birth Louise had been obsessed by him and his destiny as she believed it to be, and she instilled in her daughter the same sense of devotion and dedication. For the rest of her life, Margaret, like her mother, would put Francis and his needs before everything else. It would cost her dear in terms of her own personal relationships, but she never begrudged him or complained at the demands made on her by him or by Louise, acting in Francis' name. Rather, Margaret submitted to his will and served him well as official hostess, mediator, and personal messenger whenever the need arose. For his part, he accepted her devotion without question, returning her love by showering her with honors and, when necessary, protecting her from those who would have called her heretic. She was usually at his side, and foreign ambassadors and those currying favor sought her help.

In adult life, nôtre trinité, as Francis, Louise, and Margaret liked to call it, ruled the French royal court. Their mutual understanding conferred upon them an impregnability and independence that enabled them to function as one, with the single-minded purpose of preserving the ideal of the absolute monarch. They complemented each other perfectly; Francis was allowed to indulge his appetites for hunting, eating, drinking, and women, while Louise took on the practical roles of domestic adviser, diplomat, and foreign ambassador. Margaret, who was compassionate and caring, took on the roles of nurse and companion to Francis' wife Claude and their children, and it was she who provided the spiritual element necessary for a complete whole. Her two preoccupations in life, that of her brother and her religion, are illustrated by her adoption of a sunflower as her device, indicating that she knew she lived in the brilliance of her brother, and by her motto non in feriora secutus ("I have not followed lesser [or earthly] things").

As Francis moved nearer to the throne so Margaret and her mother moved with him, leaving Cognac in 1498 when Charles VIII died and making their home at Amboise under the protection of the new king, Louis XII. Louise oversaw every aspect of her daughter's education which, as Louise was a firm believer in sexual equality, Margaret shared with her brother. She shared not only his tutors and lessons but also his companions. There were five of them, and they were to play important roles in the lives of both Margaret and Francis: Gaston de Foix, whom Margaret loved and who was killed at the battle of Novara in 1513; Guillaume de Bonnivet, a philanderer who was killed at Pavia in 1525; Philippe Brion, who became admiral of France; Anne de Montmorency, who became constable of France and with whom Margaret corresponded regularly for many years; and Charles de Bourbon, also constable of France, but a traitor who betrayed his king.

Margaret of Angoulême proved to be a willing pupil and soon surpassed in learning both her mother and her brother. In 1502, Maréchal de Gié described her as "très belle et bitn sage de son âge" and Brantôme, the famous commentator on life at court, described her as "a princess of enlarged mind being very able both as to her natural and acquired endowments." Scholars taught her Latin, philosophy and divinity, Hebrew, German, Spanish, and Italian. She loved to read Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio. She never lost her thirst for knowledge and love of learning, and even at 40 years of age was taking lessons in Greek. In 1498, Louis XII approved

the appointment of Louise de Montmorency , Madame de Châtillon, as governess to Margaret, who was now the sister of the heir to the French throne. The wife of a former royal chamberlain, Mme de Châtillon was described by Brantôme as "a wise and virtuous dame of unblemished virtue and descent." She proved to be a good friend to the young princess, encouraging her to read the scriptures and remaining in her household after Margaret's marriage in 1509 to Charles, duke of Alençon, though now in the position of maid-of-honor. But Madame de Châtillon had been much influenced by Lutheranism and indeed brought up her three sons, the Coligny brothers, who in the 1550s became leaders in the Calvinist movement, as Protestants. She left Margaret's employ in 1520, when she feared that her Lutheran sympathies were in danger of compromising Margaret's position at court.

The important question of Margaret's marriage had been of concern for many years. She had been named as a possible bride for Arthur, prince of Wales, the prince of Wales, as well as his brother Prince Henry (later Henry VIII) and Charles of Austria (later Charles V, Holy Roman emperor). Louise of Savoy certainly favored such a match for her daughter and was not happy with Louis XII's choice of a mere duke. However, Louis saw the marriage of Margaret with Charles, duke of Alençon, as a means of settling a long and tedious lawsuit concerning the county of Armagnac. This rich county had reverted to the crown due to a lack of male heirs, but Charles still held a hereditary claim. By marrying him to Margaret, who would receive the county, plus 60,000 crowns, as her dowry, the hardheaded Louis was able to retain possession of the county and its revenues. Alençon could be considered a worthy husband since he was a direct descendant of Charles, brother to Philip the Fair, king of France (r. 1285–1314), but he was far from being a suitable mate for the intelligent, quick-witted, liberally educated Margaret. He was a dull, melancholic man with a mean, bad-tempered disposition. The marriage took place at Blois on October 9, 1509, and the ceremony was performed by the Cardinal of Nantes. Four days of festivities followed.

The marriage, loveless and childless, was never more than a simple business arrangement. Their incompatibility was not helped by Margaret's frequent visits to court at the demand of her brother and Alençon's all-consuming interest in his estate. In her disappointment and loneliness, Margaret turned to religion for consolation, encouraged by her pious mother-in-law, Margaret of Lorraine (1463–1521). After Madame de Châtillon left, Margaret looked beyond her immediate circle for help and guidance. She found it in the bishop of Meaux, Guillaume Briçonnet, and they began a correspondence which lasted for three years. A total of some 123 letters, 59 of them from Margaret, are housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The letters are very nearly unintelligible, written in an elaborate style with involved figures of speech. Margaret herself struggled to understand Briçonnet and in her letters frequently begs him to write more simply. It has been suggested that Briçonnet's letters were deliberately obtuse in order to confuse his enemies who might obtain access to them.

Louise de Montmorency (fl. 1498–1525)

French governess of Margaret of Angoulême . Name variations: Madame de Chatillon or Châtillon. Flourished from 1498 to 1525; married a former royal chamberlain; married Gaspard I de Coligny, Maréchal de Châtillon (c. 1440–1522, marshal of France); children—three sons, known as the Coligny brothers: Odet de Coligny (1517–1571); François de Coligny (1521–1569); Gaspard II de Coligny (1519–1572, an admiral and leader of the Huguenots and father of Louise de Coligny ).

Briçonnet hoped that in return for the guidance he gave to Francis' sister he might gain the king's support for reform. He was a cautious man, as evidenced by his letters, and always endeavored to steer clear of outright controversy. He was not a Lutheran; he sought, as many others did, a spiritual reform and a revival of piety that could be achieved within the existing framework of the church. Meaux, a town near Paris noted for priests and weavers, attracted the scholarly, pious, and wise minds of the day, including Lefèvre d'Étaples, Clément Marot, and William Farel. The group became known as the Cercle de Meaux, and they rapidly acquired a reputation for preaching and teaching the gospels; but, at the same time, they incurred the enmity of the orthodox theologians of the Sorbonne. Traditionally, noblewomen patronized such men, offering them shelter and protection in exchange for learning and scribal duties within the household. Margaret herself took Michel d'Arande and Gérard Roussel, both from Meaux, into her household. D'Arande preached as he traveled around the country with her, and Roussel was her almoner. Years later in 1531 and 1533 when Roussel was accused of heresy, Margaret's support saved him. In 1555, he was appointed to the bishopric of Oloron in Béarn and was responsible for the spread of reform there. In her support of the reformers, Margaret was following the pattern already set, but her position as the king's sister drew more publicity to the reformers and their practices.

Margaret's own position on the matter of religious reform is none too clear. On her death bed she asserted that she had supported the reformers not because she shared their beliefs, but merely out of compassion. Her conduct certainly lent credibility to this. She sympathized with, aided and protected but never openly supported the cause for reform since that would have exiled her from her brother's court, and she loved Francis too deeply to risk losing his love for her. Nevertheless, the reformers themselves believed that there was no one in France more evangelical than Margaret of Angoulême. In her personal belief, she inclined towards the mystical piety which is expressed so profoundly and eloquently in her poetry, but in some of her less spiritual writings she was not above ridiculing priests and friars and pouring scorn on superstitious practices. She had turned to religion when the love she so much desired and needed was denied her. She was not worldly at heart and did not recognize, as Francis and Louise did, the dangers the reform posed to the security of the crown.

It was Francis' support that saved her from persecution as a heretic. In 1531, her poem "Miroir d l'âme pechers" (translated by Elizabeth I of England in 1548 as "A Godly Meditation of the Soul") was condemned by the Sorbonne as a heretical work; instead of extolling the virtues of saints and purgatory, it stressed the saving blood of Christ, an emphasis seen by those theologians as proof of her Protestant sympathies. In 1533, they added it to the list of banned literary works. Francis was furious. Such an act against a member of his family and therefore against himself could not be tolerated. He ordered an inquiry. The theologians were forced to retract and revoke the censure. But soon after, in October of the same year, Margaret faced another attack, this time from the students of the Collège de Navarre, who staged a morality play in which Margaret was portrayed as a witch and accused of consorting with the Devil. Francis ordered the arrest of all concerned with the production. They were thrown into prison and threatened with the galleys for life. They were released with only a warning after Margaret herself had pleaded with Francis for mercy for them; even so, feeling against Margaret grew daily. She continued to defend the reformers, and then, when it seemed that at last there was hope of a breakthrough for them, there came the episode known now as the Affaire des Placards.

On October 18, 1534, Paris woke to find that every church and public building bore posters attacking the Mass, the prayers for the dead, and transubstantiation. The reformers were blamed, although there was no proof, and the author of the posters was never discovered. Swelled by the discovery of similar posters in five large provincial French towns, a wave of hysteria swept France, so strong it threatened the security of the king himself. Margaret, who had retired to Nérac, was ordered to return and answer the charges. She defended herself successfully but had lost forever the chance to win Francis over to reform.

Instead, on January 21, 1535, there was a national display of atonement. Francis, bareheaded, dressed in black and carrying a lighted candle, led a procession of all prelates, members of court and the universities, in a very public act of penance. Trials and mass burnings followed. It was the end for the reformers and reformation in France. From this time until her death in 1549, Margaret no longer interceded with Francis on their behalf. Her hope had been for changes effected within the existing religion, and she was not interested in the extremes now offered by Calvinism, finding them alien and distasteful. For the future, she would confine her spiritual activities to private prayer, meditation, and writing. The Affaire des Placards had clarified an ideological situation but had driven Margaret away.

But all that was in the future; in the early 1520s it was the wars in Italy that most occupied the minds of Margaret and her mother. In February 1525, the Habsburg-Valois rivalry, personified by the Spanish Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, and Francis I, the French king, reached a climax at the battle of Pavia. Francis was captured by the Spanish and taken first to Barcelona and then to Tarrigona as prisoner of Charles V. His mother Louise of Savoy, now the regent, set about the joint tasks of preserving the status quo in France and securing the release of her son. Both she and Margaret were alarmed by the reports that reached them of the serious decline of Francis' health. At the same time, on a more personal level, Margaret's marriage to Alençon had reached its nadir with his disgrace at the battle of Pavia.

Although Alençon had fought alongside his king before, notably at Marignano where he had acquitted himself well, as a soldier and a leader he was regarded as unreliable. Despite this, Francis had given him on this occasion the important command of the vanguard, and it was his failure to carry out his command successfully and support the king during the battle that led to the king's capture, a heinous enough crime which was compounded by his running away from the battlefield. As he made his way home to Margaret, now with her mother's court at Lyons, taunts of fuyard (deserter) followed him, and derogatory rhymes were composed about him. He arrived back at the end of March, desperately ill with pneumonia and shame. Feeling only contempt for him, Margaret nevertheless was moved to pity and nursed him until his death on April 11, 1525. She even sent, at Alençon's urgent request, a letter to Francis pleading for a pardon for him, though detailed study of the letter reveals little warmth in her references to her husband.

As well as nursing her husband, Margaret also had the care of Francis' six young children, now motherless after the death of Queen Claude in July 1524. In the autumn of the same year, the children caught measles and were very ill, especially the Princess Charlotte . Her death in October 1524, at the age of eight years, caused Margaret to write a memorial for her in the form of a poem with the lengthy title of A dialogue in the form of a nocturnal vision between the right honourable and excellent Princess, my Lady Marguerite of France, only sister of our Sire the King, by the grace of God Queen of Navarre and Duchess of Alençon and Berry, and the Holy Soul of the deceased Madame Charlotte of France, eldest daughter of the said Sire and niece of the said Lady and Queen. It was published in 1533, after Margaret's second marriage, and became one of the literary monuments of France.

After Charlotte's death, Margaret, now a 33-year-old widow and still childless after 16 years of marriage, was about to reach the pinnacle of her success as the king's most faithful subject and ambassador. As concern for the king deepened with no sign of any agreement on the terms for his release, it was decided that Margaret should go to Spain offering her proven nursing skills to the benefit of Francis and her reputed diplomatic skills to the aid of those already working in Madrid for the king's release.

This was no mean undertaking. Margaret was setting out on a four-month journey which was hazardous, strenuous, and made all the more grueling by the weather, for a series of delays had meant her setting off in the heat of the summer. Leaving Lyons in August 1525, she had arrived at Aigues-Mortes, her port of departure, after traveling down the river Rhône by barge, accompanied by her mother, only to be delayed for a further two weeks awaiting a safe-conduct from the emperor. When Charles V's permission for her to travel finally arrived, it stipulated first that Margaret would be regarded as a personal ambassador only and not as part of the embassy already discussing the terms for the French king's release, and second that she was limited to a stay of three months. It was September when she arrived at Palamos, in Catalonia, only to learn that her brother had been moved to Madrid, adding many miles to her journey. She arrived at his bedside on September 22. Francis was very ill with a high fever, and his life was so despaired of that Charles himself had arrived in Madrid concerned that he might lose this most valuable of prisoners. Francis did not recognize her. She remained at his side praying for several days. Suddenly the abscess in his head, the cause of the fever, burst, and he regained consciousness and began to recover. Francis declared that Margaret had saved his life. This was to be the sole achievement of her epic journey, for she failed even to soften the terms of the treaty or to bring a solution any closer. Dressed in mourning for the dead Alençon, without jewels of any kind, in black robes covered by a white veil that fell from her head to the ground, she was an impressive figure, her dignity and grace capturing the sympathy of the Spanish people but not of their king. As the talks dragged on, the expiry date of her safe-conduct drew closer, and Margaret learned of Charles' plan to arrest her if she stayed longer than the permitted three months. She made a dash for the border traveling 12 hours a day, on horseback for speed, and reached Narbonne on Christmas Day. The Madrid treaty was finally agreed in the New Year, and Francis left captivity on February 21, 1526, arriving on March 16 at the border where he was exchanged for his two young sons, who now became the hostages.

Back in France, Margaret was praised for her efforts to save the king. Francis made her duchess of Armagnac in her own right. She now directed her energies to securing the release of her nephews, whose condition in prison worsened as efforts were slowly made to raise the money for their ransom. Margaret's affection for her brother's children was such that she gave all she had in money and pawned her jewelry. The boys were eventually returned in 1530 after four years as prisoners.

In 1529, Margaret accompanied her mother to Cambrai to offer support in Louise's negotiations with Margaret of Austria that brought about the "Ladies Peace" and a break in the wars between France and Spain. In 1531, Louise of Savoy died, nursed faithfully to the end by her daughter. The trinité was broken. From that time, Margaret and Francis drifted apart.

The battle of Pavia had made reputations as well as destroyed them. One who had benefited was Henry II d'Albret, king of Navarre (r. 1517–1555). Captured with Francis and imprisoned in the castle of Pavia, he escaped in December 1525 dressed as a page, made his way to Lyons and offered his services to the regent. Margaret and Henry d'Albret were mutually attracted. He saw a beautiful, accomplished woman, pale and dignified in her mourning and acclaimed by the people of France for saving the king's life, and she believed she had found her savior, her knight in shining armor. He appeared to have every quality that Alençon had lacked, including courage, determination, and intelligence; he was a cultivated man, a patron of the arts and sympathetic to the reformers. Although he was 11 years her junior, they shared this interest in religious reform and a mutual hatred for Charles V. He admired her skills as a diplomat and recognized her potential as his queen. After withdrawing his initial objection, Francis approved the match, and the marriage was celebrated on January 24, 1527, at St. Germain-sur-Laye. The festivities and tournaments lasted for eight days.

Henry d'Albret, vicomte de Béarn, king of Navarre, was born in 1502, the son of John III, and Catherine de Foix , king and queen of Navarre. Navarre, the domain of the counts of Foix, sovereign lords of Béarn or "kings" of Navarre, lay between the Basque country and the central Pyrenées. Henry d'Albret's early life was spent on the Spanish side of the Pyrenées, but in 1512 Ferdinand II of Aragon had conquered these southern parts, so that only the northern part remained for the lords of Béarn. Henry d'Albret had fled with his mother to France. After her death in 1517, he had assumed the title of king and from that time was filled with an all-consuming desire to win back the rest of his land. The area continued to be a minor cause of friction between Spain and France, exploited to its utmost by Charles V but regarded as unimportant compared with other problems by Francis I. The 1526 Treaty of Madrid, through which Francis had obtained his release from captivity, contained proposals for the surrender of Navarre to Spain, but, since Francis had little intention of keeping the treaty, Henry d'Albret had every reason to hope that his marriage to the king's sister would lend weight to his cause. Margaret supported Henry in his claims, and Francis' continued refusal to discuss the matter was a great disappointment to her.

At first all went well with the marriage. "I have found my pearl and placed it in my heart," Henry d'Albret is reported to have said. With financial support from Francis, they were able to set up their court at Nérac and at Pau. Margaret presided over the court in much the same way as she had over the French court. She continued to administer to her duchies of Alençon and Armagnac, and took pains to learn the Basque language and to get to know her new subjects. She devoted her time to her charities, her letter writing, and to planning gardens, which provided employment for the poor. She and Henry d'Albret together worked to the benefit of the little mountain kingdom, improving agricultural methods and commerce and introducing new skills such as cloth weaving. They made political, financial, and legal reforms. Through her influence and efforts, Nérac became both a center for culture, attracting poets, writers and physicians, and a safe haven for those persecuted for their support of religious reforms. John Calvin, d'Arande, Lefèvre, and Marot were among those who sought sanctuary; none were denied. But any pleasure she could have derived from her modest achievements in Navarre was diminished by her failure to give birth to the much longed-for son and heir and by Francis' continued indifference to their claims in Navarre.

Catherine de Foix (c. 1470–1517)

Queen of Navarre . Name variations: Catalinda de Albret; Catherine of Navarre; Katherine. Reigned as queen of Navarre from 1483 to 1517. Born around 1470; died in 1517; daughter of Madeleine of France (1443–1486) and Gaston de Foix, vicomte de Castelbon and prince of Viane; married Jean also known as John III (d. 1512), duc d'Albret, king of Navarre, around 1502; children: Henry II d'Albret (1503–1555), vicomte de Béarn, king of Navarre (r. 1517–1555, who married Margaret of Angoulême [1492–1549]).

On January 7, 1528, their daughter and only living child was born at Fontainebleau. Neither Henry d'Albret nor Francis attended the birth of Jeanne d'Albret, who was destined to become queen of Navarre in her own right and to go much further in her support of religious reform than ever her mother did. Margaret's subsequent children died as infants. Her son Jean died aged five months on Christmas Day 1530, a grievous loss, and twin children born in 1542 lived only a few hours. Made impatient by the lack of response from the French king, Henry d'Albret took matters into his own hands and entered into secret negotiations with Charles V through the spy Descurra. By 1537, he was heavily involved in plans to marry Jeanne d'Albret to Charles V's son, Philip (II), the future king of Spain.

Gradually the marriage that had begun so well fell apart, and Margaret found herself alone again. For a time, she had been useful as a go-between for both her husband and her brother, but now Henry d'Albret began to spend more and more hours away from her, and Francis demanded her presence at the French court less and less. Her daughter Jeanne d'Albret was a stranger living with her governess in a castle in Alençon. Once again in need of solace, Margaret turned to study and to poetry and sought answers in her religion. Her best literary work was produced from these years to her death in 1549.

Margaret's relationship with her daughter was always an unusual one. At birth, Jeanne d'Albret was placed in the care of Madame Aimée de la Fayette at the castle of Alençon. When Jeanne was two, Francis, who was determined to maintain strict control of his niece, ordered her to be moved nearer to him and to be housed in the castle of Plessis-les-Tours in Touraine. Jeanne d'Albret had exchanged one gloomy castle for another. Despite the oppressive nature of her early years, or perhaps because of it, she grew into a wilful, determined young woman at odds with both her parents and her uncle. Margaret was neither a heartless nor thoughtless mother, but the demands of her public life in both France and Navarre meant long absences, and she was never able to contradict Francis' will even in the matter of her own daughter's welfare. However, when Jeanne d'Albret fell dangerously ill in 1537, Margaret set out immediately to be with her and remained with her until Jeanne was completely recovered.

Unlike her mother, Jeanne d'Albret felt no obligation towards the French king and saw no reason to bend her will to his. Her marriage to Guillaume de la March, the duke of Cleves, proved how far she was prepared to go in opposing him. Francis saw the marriage both as a means of preventing her father Henry d'Albret from making a successful alliance for her with Charles V's son, and of annexing the lands and support of the Cleves—almost a repeat of the marriage Louis XII had arranged for Margaret with Alençon. Jeanne d'Albret defied everyone and every order and was set firmly against the marriage. Lectures on her duty, royal commands, and physical chastisements, ordered, uncharacteristically, by her mother, deterred her none. She wrote two declarations witnessed by members of her household, which still exist, setting forth her case and her objections to the match and stating that it was only through coercion that she finally agreed. On her wedding day, June 15, 1541, she had to be carried up the aisle. Whether, as was said, this was because her robes were too heavy for a 12-year-old or because she refused to walk is not known. What is known is that Francis used the episode to humiliate Anne de Montmorency, the constable of France. By ordering him to carry the bride, when as constable it was his right to carry the Sword of State, Francis effectively degraded Montmorency and demanded his resignation. Three years later, Francis ordered the annulment of the Cleves marriage when the duke of Cleves turned his back on France and gave his support to Spain. Jeanne d'Albret later fell in love with and married Anthony de Bourbon, duke of Vendôme (r. 1518–1562) on October 20, 1548. She always kept an expensive household in Paris and lived very extravagantly, all at her mother's expense. Jeanne d'Albret never had any affection for her mother but always defended her memory and was proud of her literary achievements. When, after Margaret's death, doubt was voiced about the true authorship of The Heptaméron, Jeanne had it republished with a preface dedicated to herself to mark it forever as Margaret's work.

The Heptaméron, the work for which Margaret of Angoulême is best known, was written between 1538 and 1542, probably during 1541, to amuse Francis during his last illness. It is based on Boccaccio's Decameron, which she is known to have delighted in reading with her brother. It is said that when he looked to her for amusement to ease the discomfort of his pain she remembered Boccaccio and devised a similar volume, planning to write ten stories but only completing seven. The stories, told by a group of men and women travelers delayed by flooded roads on their return from the Cauteret Baths in the Pyrenées, are semi-autobiographical, and the characters are supposedly based on persons well known to Francis and herself. Scholars have written extensively about them and their real life counterparts. A mixture of spirituality and broad, bawdy humor, the tales illustrate the triumphs of virtue, honor and quick-wittedness over the evils of vice and hypocrisy. The satirical element, with licentious and grasping monks and clergy, is possibly drawn from Margaret's own experiences at court. It was said that she read Francis only the spicy passages, keeping the endings, when sensual love was raised to a higher plane, to herself. The volume was originally published in 1558, nine years after her death, and republished in 1559.

Concerning her other works, Les Marguerites de Marguerite des Princesses, published in 1547, is a mixture of poems and farces written in an elaborate artificial style. Her best verse is in Les Poésies Dernières, which includes Les Prisons, a pilgrimage of love from its first glow to its disillusionment, and Le Navire, an expression of her desolation at the death of her brother.

Francis' health declined from 1540 to his death in 1547. Margaret saw him last in January 1546. Although appointments were made to see him during the last year of his life, they were never kept. Margaret took refuge in a monastery at Tosson in Poitou, her health fluctuating according to the news of her brother's state of health. His death devastated her, and she spent 40 days in solitude during which she wrote Chanson faicte par la Royne de Navarre, ung Mois après la Mort du Roy. Her attire, according to a contemporary manuscript, was "a black velvet robe cut away slightly under the arms; a black jacket with a sable lined collar fastened down with brooches in the front; a mob cap low over her head; her blouse slightly ruffled about the neck."

The remainder of her life was spent mainly in Navarre. Her nephew Henry II, king of France (r. 1547–1559), continued to pay her a pension, but she no longer had any political significance. In September 1548, she witnessed Henry II's triumphal entry into Lyons as king, and in October she attended Jeanne d'Albret's marriage to Anthony de Bourbon at Moulins, after which she returned to Béarn and Pau. Henry d'Albret became more attentive, and they traveled together seeking a cure for her ills, to no avail. For a short period, she returned to Tosson and lived in a logis (dwelling) specially constructed for her. In 1549, she moved to Odos-en-Bigorre, near Tarbes, in the hope that the waters there would be beneficial. She died there alone on December 21, 1549, aged 57 years, following an attack of pleurisy or apoplexy. Henry d'Albret, having been summoned, arrived just hours too late. Jeanne and Anthony de Bourbon attended her funeral on February 10, 1550. She was buried in the cathedral of Lescar, the last resting place of the house of Navarre. The funeral oration was delivered by the poet Charles Saint-Marthe, who said that she "showed in her eyes, her countenance, her deportment, her speech, and, indeed, in all her actions that the spirit of God had been vouchsafed to her." There was no representation by the French court, but her own subjects turned out in full to follow the solemn procession, and throughout the civilized world poets and people of learning poured out their grief in epitaphs and eulogies.

Henry d'Albret's health gradually deteriorated, and he died some five years later on May 24, 1555, at the castle of Hagetmau, leaving their daughter Jeanne d'Albret, now aged 27, as queen in her own right; her son became Henry IV, king of France (r. 1589–1610).

Margaret of Angoulême was a gentle and compassionate woman ever heedful of the needs of others. Her brother said of her: "She is the only woman I ever knew who has every virtue and every grace without one admixture of vice and yet, she is never tiresome or stupid, as good people are apt to be." (She must never be confused with the notorious Margaret of Valois , queen of Navarre [1553–1615], who is sometimes also referred to as Margaret of Angoulême.) Margaret occupied an influential position in the intellectual movements of the day as well as a unique place at the court of France earned by hard work and at considerable personal sacrifice. Her humility and Christian idealism prevented her from expressing her true feelings when she was deserted by those she had looked to for love, and instead she retreated into melancholy and meditation. Her genuine and technically accomplished poetry remains as a testimony to the depth of her convictions and her spirituality.


Knecht, R.J. Francis I. Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Putnam, Samuel P. Marguerite of Navarre. London, 1936.

Robinson, A. Mary E. Margaret of Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, 1886.

Roelker, Nancy Lyman. Queen of Navarre, Jeanne d'Albret (1538–1572). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Williams, H. Noel. The Pearl of Princesses: The Life of Marguerite d'Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, 1916.

suggested reading:

Fawcett, Millicent Garrett . Five Famous French Women. London, 1905.

Jourda, Pierre. Marguerite d'Angoulême, Duchesse d'Alençon, Reine de Navarre (1492–1549). 2 vols. Paris, 1903.

Roelker, Nancy L. "The Appeal of Calvinism to French Noblewomen in the Sixteenth Century" in Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Vol. 2, 1972, pp. 391–418.


Margaret of Angoulême's letters are in the Bibliothèque Nationale.


The Bibliothèque Nationale has several drawings and portraits of Margaret of Angoulême; as well as a medallion dated c. 1509.

Margaret E. Lynch , M.A., Teaching Fellow in the Department of History at Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom, and an independent scholar

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Margaret of Angoulême (1492–1549)

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Margaret of Angoulême (1492–1549)