Margaret of Valois (1553–1615)
Margaret of Valois (1553–1615)
French princess and queen of Navarre who was the sister of three French kings and the first wife of Henry of Navarre, the future King Henry IV . Name variations: Marguerite of Valois or Marguerite de Valois; Marguerite d'Angoulême; Margaret of Angoulême or Angouleme; Margaret or Marguerite of Anjou; Margaret of France; Margaret of Navarre; Queen Margot. Born on May 14, 1553, at St. Germain-en-Laye; died of pneumonia on March 27, 1615, in Paris; third daughter of Henry II, king of France (r. 1547–1559), and Catherine de Medici (1519–1589); sister of Francis II (r. 1559–1560), Charles IX (r. 1560–1574), Henry III (r. 1574–1589), all kings of France, and Elizabeth of Valois (1545–1568), queen of Spain; married Henry of Navarre (future Henry IV, king of France, r. 1589–1610), on August 18, 1572 (divorced, December 1599); no children.
Educated at French royal court; at age 19, became queen of Navarre (1572); marriage sparked St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; estranged from Henry for most of her marriage; forced into 19-year exile by her brother, King Henry III; returned to Paris (1605).
Memoires et lettres de Marguerite de Valois (n.d.).
On August 18, 1572, thousands gathered outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to witness the marriage of the beautiful, young, and Catholic Margaret of Valois to the plain, Protestant Henry of Navarre (the future King Henry IV). Henry of Navarre was dressed in pale yellow satin embroidered with pearls and precious stones while his 19-year-old bride stood next to him dressed in a purple velvet gown embroidered with fleurs-de-lys and a cape of spotted ermine. Her head was covered by a wide, blue, jewel-encrusted mantle with four yards of train. The marriage was not a love match but rather an affair of state with the hoped-for intention of ending more than ten years of religious civil wars in France. Margaret was a reluctant bride and, according to legend, when she did not respond to the marriage question, her brother King Charles IX pushed her crown so that her head nodded "yes." Festivities continued over the next three days, and, although the marriage was intended to reconcile French Protestants (Huguenots) and Catholics, it precipitated one of the worst and bloodiest massacres in French history. Thus began the ill-fated career of Margaret of Valois, also known as Queen Margot.
Margaret of Valois was born on May 14, 1553, at the Palace of St. Germain-en-Laye. She was the third daughter of King Henry II of France and his Florentine wife, Catherine de Medici . Margaret grew up in a large family with eight siblings. After the death of her father in July 1559, three of her brothers successively held the French throne. Margaret spent most of her early childhood away from court and grew up in the royal palaces of St. Germain and Amboise. Throughout her childhood and for most of her adult life, France was plagued by religious and political strife.
Dynastic politics ensured that the Valois kings of France, by pushing territorial claims in Italy, remained in conflict with the Spanish Habsburgs throughout most of the 16th century. More significantly, after the death of Henry II the succession of boy kings led to a resurgence of Protestantism in France and eight civil wars. More than half of the French nobility supported Protestantism and both sides were under the leadership of powerful noble houses. The Catholics were led by the influential Guise family who held important positions in the French government. The Huguenots were guided by several princes of the blood, the most important of whom, the Bourbons, came from the small kingdom of Navarre in southwestern France. Both sides were able to mobilize private armies and both sought aid from other European Protestant and Catholic countries. When Catherine de Medici became regent for her young sons, her policy was to maintain the authority of the monarchy as queen mother and to try for some kind of reconciliation with the Huguenots. Although she wanted to steer a middle course, her attempts at toleration and peace settlements were ignored by both sides.
While Margaret was sheltered from much of the turmoil during her early childhood, in March 1564, at age 12, she accompanied her mother and two brothers, King Charles IX and Henry, duke of Anjou (the future Henry III), on a two-year journey through France. It was hoped that by traveling through the kingdom, peace and religious harmony would be restored. Included in the royal family's train was young Henry of Navarre. Intelligent, bold and determined, Henry of Navarre was already exhibiting strong leadership qualities as well as an unfortunate tendency to gamble and spend money. Henry of Navarre had been raised in the Protestant faith by his mother Jeanne d'Albret and was next in line to the French throne if Charles IX and his two brothers died without male heirs. Henry of Navarre's leadership abilities were soon put to the test when he became leader of the Huguenot forces in 1569.
In that same year, Margaret's brother Henry of Anjou was appointed lieutenant-general and head of the Catholic army. Wishing to remain in his mother's good graces while he was away from court, Anjou asked Margaret to be his special agent with Catherine de Medici. Writing several years later in her Memoires, Margaret saw this as a turning point in her life. She noted: "I had been brought up in such awe of the Queen, my mother, that not only did I not dare to speak to her, but if she merely looked at me I trembled with fear of having done something to displease her." Her brother's confidence in her pleased Margaret, and she wrote that "it seemed to me that I had suddenly become something more than I was until then."
Following her brother's instructions, Margaret ensured that she was the first person in Catherine's presence in the morning and the last in her presence at day's end. For the next several months, she spent two or three hours daily talking with her mother during which time she never failed to mention Anjou's name. Suddenly, however, Margaret lost her mother's trust. Although it was never proven, Anjou accused Margaret of being in love with the duke of Guise and wanting to marry him. This conflicted with the queen's own plans for the marriage of her daughter. Margaret denied the accusation but noted in her Memoirs, "I would remember for the rest of my life the injury my brother had done me." According to the Spanish ambassador, when Charles IX heard the accusation of Margaret's affair with Guise he summoned her to his bedchamber and beat her severely. Both Charles and Catherine had different plans for Margaret's marriage.
Fearing that peace in France would never be achieved, Catherine de Medici began negotiations in 1570 for a peace treaty with the Huguenots. The treaty would be sealed by a marriage alliance between the Valois and Bourbon royal houses. Two years later, a formal contract for the marriage of Margaret of Valois and Henry of Navarre was signed in April 1572. Although the marriage was intended to engender dynastic stabilization as well as religious peace, it was able to do neither. First, Henry of Navarre's mother Jeanne d'Albret, who was opposed to the marriage, died suddenly two months before the wedding, in June 1572. While it is certain that she died of natural causes, the Huguenots spread a rumor that Catherine de Medici had poisoned her. Second, and more seriously, the marriage precipitated one of the worst massacres in French history.
Though the days following the wedding were spent celebrating, there were other, more sinister, forces at hand. At a secret meeting of the royal council, it was decided that Gaspard de Coligny, who was one of the most important and influential Huguenot leaders, had become too dangerous. Not only did Coligny exercise considerable influence over Charles IX (through witchcraft, some claimed), but he was urging the king to wage war against Spain. Fearing that all plans for peace would be jeopardized, the council decided that Coligny must be killed. On August 22, just four days after the wedding of Margaret and Henry of Navarre, Coligny was shot by an assassin hired by the ultra-Catholic Guise faction. Unfortunately for them, he was only wounded. It was then that a fateful decision was made. Not only was Coligny to be killed but other Huguenot nobles as well. Considering that over 1,500 of them were in Paris to celebrate the wedding, it was believed that a perfect opportunity had presented itself for their permanent extermination.
[Margaret of Valois] was the greatest princess of her time, daughter, sister, and wife of great kings, yet despite these advantages she became the plaything of Fate, was despised by those who should have been her subjects, and saw another in the place she herself should have filled.
On the morning of August 24, St. Bartholomew's Day, armed men broke into the houses of Coligny and other Protestant nobles and murdered them. Before these murders had ended, the Catholic populace of Paris began to riot; they murdered and mutilated, then degraded the corpses of anyone they suspected of being a Protestant. The victims numbered over 2,000. As news of the massacre spread, similar riots broke out in other French towns. Thus, the marriage that was supposed to engender peace merely crystallized existing hostilities.
After the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre there was no longer any distance between the crown and the Catholic leaders. More significantly, the Huguenots could no longer claim that they were only fighting against the king's evil advisors. Consequently, several Huguenot writers began to publish political tracts in which they provided justification for armed rebellion against the king. In essence, both sides became increasingly rigid and less willing to compromise. Catherine de Medici's attempt to steer a middle ground had failed.
Margaret knew nothing of the plans for the assassination of Coligny or the massacre but, as she noted in her Memoires: "All the harm that ever came to me in life came through marriage. Do not let anyone say that marriages are made in heaven; the gods would not commit so great an injustice." Her husband was imprisoned for a short time in the Louvre and, fearing for his life, converted to Catholicism. For the next several years, Margaret, her husband and her youngest brother, Francis, duke of Alençon (not to be confused with her other brother King Francis II who had died in 1560), were kept at court under house arrest. Although they had access to the king and the court, they were not allowed to leave the grounds except under heavy guard. In addition, it became apparent that Margaret's marriage was not a happy one. Neither she nor Henry were sexually attracted to one another nor did they have many mutual interests. Margaret was a very intelligent, vivacious and well-educated princess. She could read and write poetry, was fluent in Latin, and studied Biblical and classical literature as well as philosophy. She also loved living at court and, in particular, dancing and entertaining. Henry of Navarre, on the other hand, was more interested in military tactics, hunting and fighting rather than learning the accoutrements of a successful courtier. Within a year after their marriage, both Margaret and Henry had taken lovers and rarely spoke to one another.
Their situation changed when Charles IX died on May 30, 1574, and was succeeded by his brother Anjou, now Henry III. Unfortunately for Margaret, the enmity between herself and her brother was not alleviated by his succession to the throne. He remained deeply suspicious and kept a close watch on her. Two years later, Henry of Navarre finally escaped from court, in February 1576, following the duke of Alençon who had escaped the previous September. The king accused Margaret of plotting and aiding their escapes and promptly ordered her confined to her bedroom. Here she remained for the next several months. While under confinement, Margaret spent much of her time reading. More significantly, she engaged in a secret correspondence with her husband. Although they both knew that their marriage was one in name only, they also realized that the alliance remained mutually beneficial. Margaret was queen of Navarre and second lady in France while Henry
of Navarre had access to the intrigues at court through his wife.
In May 1576, Margaret was released from her confinement. Her main concern now was forwarding the career of Alençon who had ambitions to lead a French army into Flanders. The majority of Catholics who lived in the southern Netherlands were unwilling to follow a Calvinist leader in the rebellion against Philip II of Spain. As a result they turned to France for help. While Henry III was not a friend of the Spanish king, he was not willing to engage in a full-scale war with Spain while civil war continued to rage in France. Nevertheless, Margaret wanted to help her younger brother realize his ambitions, and in July 1577 she journeyed to Flanders on the pretence of visiting a spa and recovering her health. In reality, she spent most of her time there trying to convince the Flemish nobles to invite Alençon to lead them.
After passing six weeks in the southern Netherlands, during which time she was royally and lavishly entertained, Margaret returned to France. Although the Flemish nobles were more than willing to accept Alençon's help, Henry III, who was insanely jealous of anyone who outshone him, kept the duke at court ostensibly as an important and necessary member of the royal council. Margaret, having accomplished her mission, decided that it was time to reconcile with her husband whom she had not seen for two years. Her purpose was to reinstate good relations between Navarre and the king. After his escape from court in 1576, Henry of Navarre had instantly revoked his conversion to Catholicism and become the leader of the Huguenots once more. The sixth war of religion had just ended when Margaret returned from Flanders, and she was bent on keeping the peace. As she noted in a letter to a friend, "I am determined to do everything in my power for the king in whatever will not be prejudicial to the greatness and maintenance of my husband; for I would prefer death to war."
On October 12, 1578, Margaret made her formal entrance into the kingdom of Navarre. For the next four years, she remained in her husband's kingdom, primarily at the royal court in Nerac where she felt most at home. It was neither as austere nor as Protestant as the other towns in Navarre, and Henry of Navarre embellished the royal palace with new tapestries and furniture as well as glassware and mirrors. He also lavished gifts upon his wife, including several expensive gowns and jewelry.
Margaret of Valois was now 25 years old and was one of the most accomplished and beautiful women in France. Her court was filled with poets, musicians, and philosophers whom the young queen of Navarre dazzled and charmed. She was pleased with her surroundings and noted that "our court was so brilliant that we had no cause to regret our absence from the court of France." In addition, she was also becoming increasingly proud of her husband. As the civil wars continued, Henry of Navarre was often absent on various military campaigns. After one particularly brilliant victory in 1580, her pride was evident: "My husband showed himself not only a prince of renown but a resourceful and daring captain."
Despite the happy marital relations, rifts began to appear when Henry of Navarre fell in love with one of Margaret's ladies-in-waiting. Furthermore, Margaret was becoming increasingly upset that she was unable to become pregnant. Thus, in 1582 when her mother invited her to return to Paris, Margaret accepted. During this time, she fell in love with Jacques de Harlay, marquess of Chanvallon, who, although married, assured Margaret that he loved her.
Once Margaret moved into her own house in Paris, she and Chanvallon were able to visit one another more frequently. Unfortunately, this only aroused the ire of the king and the queen mother. By August 1583, Henry III ordered Margaret to leave Paris. The reasons for this remain cloudy, but it is generally concluded that her affair with Chanvallon had become too public. In addition, she continued to support her younger brother's ambitions in the Netherlands, against the wishes of the king. In any event, Margaret received no support from her husband who was involved in a new love affair of his own.
Relations with Navarre went from bad to worse when Francis, duke of Alençon, died on June 10, 1584. With no Valois heirs left, Henry of Navarre was next in line to the French throne. Ultimately, Alençon's death initiated the last of the religious civil wars, popularly known as the "War of Three Henrys," between Henry of Guise, the head of the Catholic party, Henry of Navarre the Huguenot leader, and the king, Henry III. By March 1585, Margaret left Paris for the Catholic city of Agen, believing that she had to protect it from her husband's forces. Unfortunately, Margaret was not an effective leader, and she soon became unpopular with the townsfolk. In an effort to fortify the city, she raised taxes, and the situation reached a climax when she refused to allow the townspeople to leave the city when plague broke out. Chaos and rebellion were the result, and Margaret narrowly escaped. She spent the winter of 1586 at Carlat but was eventually captured by the king's soldiers and taken to the mountain fortress of Usson.
This signaled the end of Margaret of Valois' exploits; she spent the next 19 years of her life imprisoned in the Castle of Usson. While war continued to rage on in France, Margaret whiled away her time peacefully, reading and establishing her own court. As always, poets, philosophers and musicians flocked to the court of the beautiful queen of Navarre and, although she was not allowed to leave Usson, she was never isolated or alone. She devoted much of her time to writing her memoirs and entertaining guests.
While Margaret lived peacefully, events in France changed the political situation substantially. Catherine de Medici died in January 1589 and eight months later, in August 1589, her last surviving son, King Henry III, was assassinated. Margaret's husband Henry of Navarre became king of France as Henry IV, and the civil wars finally came to an end. Realizing that his religion would remain a problem, Henry of Navarre again converted to Catholicism in 1593. From this point on, he also sent messages to Margaret requesting an annulment. Aware their marriage was over and that she would never be able to provide him with an heir, Margaret agreed. Her conditions were primarily financial. She asked for an annual allowance and full payment of her debts. Finally, in December 1599, Margaret and Henry of Navarre were granted an annulment on the grounds that their marriage had been coerced. She was allowed to retain her title as queen of Navarre, to which was added that of duchess of Valois. Ironically, from this point on Margaret's relations with Henry of Navarre were warm and friendly.
In 1605, Margaret returned to Paris. She remained on good terms with Henry IV and was particularly fond of his second wife, Marie de Medici . When Marie gave birth to Henry IV's son and heir, the future Louis XIII, Margaret grew very close to the dauphin and eventually named him as her heir. In Paris, Margaret once again bought a house in which she established her own court. Although she had gained weight, wore too much makeup, and dressed in outdated fashions, she was no political embarrassment to Henry IV. She had promised him her undivided loyalty and kept her word.
When Henry IV was assassinated in 1610, Margaret became even closer to Marie de Medici, who acted as regent for the ten-year-old king. In 1614, Margaret caught a chill from which she never recovered. Her health steadily deteriorated and on March 27, 1615, at age 61, Margaret of Valois died of pneumonia.
Haldane, Charlotte. Queen of Hearts: Marguerite of Valois ("La Reine Margot") 1553–1615. London: Constable, 1968.
Mariejol, Jean. Daughter of the Medicis: The Romantic Story of Marguerite de Valois. London: Harper and Brothers, 1930.
Dumas, Alexander. La Reine Margot (novel).
Heritier, Jean. Catherine de Medici. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1963.
Mahoney, Irene. Royal Cousin: The Life of Henri IV of France. NY: Doubleday, 1970.
Waldman, Milton, Biography of a Family: Catherine de Medici and her Children. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1936.
La Reine Margot (film), starring Jeanne Moreau , directed by Jean Dreville, 1954.
Queen Margot (162 min. film), starring Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil, directed by Patrice Chereau, 1994.
Margaret McIntyre , Instructor of Women's History at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada