Breaking the Rules and Sharing Scandals: The Shocking Story of Queen Marguerite
Margaret de Valois was a Queen of Navarre and France. She was also the main character of the famous novel Queen Margot by Alexander Dumas. This is a story of a woman who loved life and who broke many of society’s rules.
Margaret (Marguerite) was born on May 14, 1553, as a daughter of powerful Catherine de Medici and King Henry II of France. According to historians, she was a member of the last powerful generation of the famous House of Valois. She was also a sister to three kings: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III of France. Her sister was Elizabeth de Valois, a wife of King Phillip II of Spain.
Catherine and Henry's marriage, painted seventeen years after the event. (Public Domain)
Her Mother’s Daughter
Catherine de Medici was a woman of many talents who was very focused on ruling the country and maintaining power. Her biographers believe that she was one of the strongest and most important people of the French monarchy, even more than her husband King Henry II of France.
Margaret’s youth was focused on typical activities for a young princess, although she had bigger expectations for her life. Her mother also helped Margaret by sharing her knowledge of diplomacy, politics, alchemy, and other useful disciplines.
Margaret was also considered to be a very beautiful woman, and she liked to create her own clothing styles. With time, she became one of the most fashionable women of Europe and an icon for good style. Women all over Europe started to order clothes ''a'la Margot''.
Originally, Catherine planned to arrange the marriage of her daughter with Carlos, son of Phillip II of Spain. But when the negotiations failed, she decided to find a candidate who would be more grateful and loyal in the future.
During those times, Margaret was in what was probably her first romantic affair - with Henry of Guise, the son of the Duke of Guise. According to historical resources, Catherine discovered their relationship when she saw her daughter in bed with him. The lovers were punished by the queen and Henry was sent out of the court.
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Eventually, Margaret married Henry of Navarre (her distant cousin) due to the decision of her brother Charles IX. This union was inspired by Catherine, who was worried about the future of the family’s dynasty. The main problem was the lack of a crown prince to become king after the death of Catherine and Henry’s three sons. Margaret got married and became the Queen of Navarre in 1572. Nonetheless, Catherine de Medici’s fears became reality, and when all of her sons died King Henry of Navarre became King Henry IV of France in 1589. He was the first king of France who came from the House of Bourbon.
Henry of Navarre and Margaret of Valois. (Public Domain)
The marriage was connected with a religious scandal as well. The wedding took place between a Huguenot (French Calvinist Protestant) groom and a Catholic bride just six days after the famous St Bartholomew's Day assassinations and violence against the Huguenots. Historians suggest that the massive attack on the Protestants was stirred by Catherine de Medici, but Margaret saved Henry and other important Protestants from death.
Painting by François Dubois of the St Bartholomew's Day massacre. (Public Domain) Although Dubois did not witness the event himself, he depicts Admiral Coligny's body hanging out of a window at the rear to the right. To the left rear, Catherine de' Medici is shown emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.
After the massacre, Catherine and her daughter’s relationship became strained. They were very similar, but at the same time they stood on two different sides of the conflict.
Soon after, Henry suggested that he convert to Catholicism although there were no real plans to go through with it. In 1576, the couple escaped to Pau near the Pyrenees. Far from Paris, they didn't have to pretend they had a happy marriage anymore. They liked each other, but there was no love between the husband and wife. In fact, they openly had other lovers. Their freedom ended in 1582, when Margaret became ill and had to go back to Paris.
Margaret had many possessions, more than most people could dream of. She was powerful and wealthy. Her correspondence with other royal women, including Safiye Sultan (one of her favorite pen pals) shows a woman whose head was full of ideas and plans as well. However, she was unhappy in her marriage and she felt that she lived in a cage due to her position.
Margaret of Valois, by François Clouet. (Public Domain)
The Queen of France was full of passion. Her husband, who was focused more on literature, politics, and own frustrations wasn't very attractive for her. She was said to have had many romances and affairs, but some of these stories were only gossip. Her confirmed lovers were: Joseph Boniface de La Mole, a nobleman from Marseille, Louis de Bussy d'Ambroise, a nobleman of the court of Henry III, Jaques de Harlay, a nobleman and Grand Squire of Margaret’s youngest brother– Francis Duke of Anjou.
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Her attempts to influence politics, protect Protestants, and dangerous efforts to control the court and her own life led to Margaret being imprisoned by her brother Henry III for eighteen years. Her stay in the castle of Usson, in Auvergne, took place during the reign of her brother, but also that of her husband - who decided to divorce her.
However, to keep power Henry had to allow Margaret to officially become the Queen of France. She was still popular as Catherine’s daughter and people believed that Margaret was a good Catholic as well. She spent her years of imprisonment writing her memoirs; where she described the scandals and her brothers and husband’s fight struggle against each other for power.
The book was published posthumously in 1628 and surprised many who read it. The scandalous stories the former queen described changed the public’s view of the monarchy forever. She lost her position for some, but was now seen as a woman who loved life, lived it to the fullest that she could, and who was a cheerful supporter of poor people. She became known as a queen who brought energy to the many French people’s miserable lives.
The Autumn of Her Life erHer
The autumn of Margaret's life took place in her household known as the Hostel de la Reyne Margueritte in Paris, located on the Left Bank of the Seine. She returned to the capital city with her former husband’s permission. Her new house was built in 1609 and she died there on March 27, 1615.
Margaret was buried in the funerary chapel of Valois in the Royal Basilica of St Denis. During the French Revolution, Margaret became one of the victims of the revolutionaries’ anger. Her casket was removed and destroyed, and her remains are probably buried somewhere around the Basilica, in a common grave.
L'Hostel de la Reine Marguerite built by Jean Bullant in 1609, and its gardens, as shown in Matthäus Merian 1615 plan of Paris. (Public Domain)
Margaret’s story was forgotten for many decades outside of France. The one who brought her fame back was Alexander Dumas, who wrote a novel ''La Reine Margot'' (Queen Margot), and published it in 1845. Dumas loved to study history books and he was a master at combining historical facts with his imagination. His impressive novel about Margaret made her an icon for French women, and an inspiration for many.
Top image: Margaret of Valois, by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1577. Source: Public Domain
R.J. Knecht, The French Wars of Religion, 1559-1598, 1989.
K. Wellman, Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France, 2013.
J. F. Solnon, Katarzyna Medycejska. Złowroga królowa Francji, 2007.
J. Héritier, Katarzyna Medycejska, 1981
A. Dumas, Queen Margot, available at: