La Reine Margot
She was one of the most educated, cultured, beautiful, fashionable women of her time, a “pearl of de Valois,” but also a victim of misogynist propaganda that portrayed her as nymphomaniac and incestuous La Reine Margot (Queen Margot) and downplayed the importance of her actions in the political sphere and the courage, nobility and class of her conduct.
Margaret (Marguerite) de Valois was born in 1553, the daughter of Henry II and Catherine de Medici. Three of her brothers would become kings of France – Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Her sister Elisabeth de Valois would become the third wife of King Philip II of Spain.
Her older brothers and sisters were by most accounts frail and ill, some say even slightly deformed, while Margaret was strong, healthy and beautiful. And at that time in the French court, beauty was prized above all else, giving Margot a higher stock than many of the other girls.
She spent her childhood with sisters Elisabeth and Claude in the French royal nursery of the Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye and then, after her sisters married, in Chateau d’Amboise with brothers Henry and Francis. It was during her childhood that her brother Charles gave her the nickname “Margot.”
At the court, she studied grammar, classics, history and the Bible. She also learned to speak Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek. She was competent in prose, poetry, horsemanship, dance. While on the grand tour of France with her family, Margot also learned from her mother the art of political mediation.
As a Princess, Margot was a pawn her family used to cement political relations with other royal families. Her mother Catherine tried to arrange a marriage between Margaret and Carlos, Prince of Asturias and also with Sebastian of Portugal and Archduke Rudolf.
Images taken from Wikipedia and IMDB
In the end she got engaged to Henry of Navarre, who was raised with her at court. A childhood friend and brother figure, but also a Huguenot and a member of the Bourbons royal family, Navarre was miles away from what she, a pretty young girl wanted – passion, romance and adventure with a handsome, strong, manly man.
She found all that in the form of Henry, the eldest son of Duke of Guise. Older, tall, charming, handsome and proven warrior with a scar on his face (earning him the nickname Scarface) he was a perfect match for Margot who had grown from the pretty girl to the loveliest woman at court, known for her looks, sense of style, wit, spirit and education. The pair was also a seemingly good political match – Margaret’s sister Claude was already married into the de Guise family who were advisors to her brother Charles IX, the King.
The friendly relations between two families were strained after reports that the de Guise family conspired against the King. Also, Catherine loathed the fact she had to work with de Guises as an advisor to her son Charles.
As teenagers, Margot and her brother Henry were close friends. Henry, Duke of Anjou was Catherine’s favorite child and hated his brother, the King. Charles on the other hand, hated Henry because Catherine favored him, but also because he was taller, more handsome and better on the battlefield.
Henry used the childhood friendship he had with Margot and asked her to advocate for his interest with their mother while he went away to command the royal armies. Margaret fulfilled her mission conscientiously. For months, she was the first with her mother and the last to leave her. Soon enough, Catherine began showering Margot with attention and opening up to her.
Manipulating, scheming Henry showed no gratitude, Margaret will later write. He told Catherine of Margot’s romance with Henry de Guise and their plan to marry. The newfound closeness with Catherine cost Margot a lot. She knew some of Catherine’s secrets and Catherine, who hated de Guises, most certainly wouldn’t allow her to share them with them. The other problem was that female royals couldn’t decide who they want to marry. It was a political chess game and Catherine de Medici sure as hell wasn’t going to allow one of her children to disobey her.
Catherine never forgave Margot for going behind her back and Margot on the other hand never forgave Henry for his betrayal. It is said that he arranged for one of Margaret’s letters to de Guise to end up in the King’s arms. Charles, who was on Margot’s side at the time, became furious by this evidence of apparent betrayal. He sent for Catherine and the pair then dragged Margot from her bed and beat her viciously. De Guise was sent away from court and married another. Margaret learned her lesson – in order to survive on the court and within her family, she would be vigilant and careful and suspicious of motives of everyone around her.
The marriage with Henry of Navarre was back on, after his mother Jeanne d’Albert, queen of Navarre managed to get him out of the court and back in Navarre. Catherine negotiated the marriage with Jeanne and the pair, both 19 years of age, married in 1572 at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. As it was incomprehensible for a Catholic and a Protestant (Huguenot) to marry, the assumption was that Margaret would convert to her husband’s religion. Margaret, who was brought up as Catholic, saw this marriage as being condemned to Hell.
Jeanne d’Albret collapsed dead while out glove shopping and Henry of Navarre became the King of Navarre and, as such, the de facto leader of the Huguenots. The preparations and the wedding occurred during a heat wave and the ceremony was followed by four days of celebration. Tensions were high. Because of Navarre’s high profile, the most prominent French Protestants came to Paris to celebrate his marriage, assuming Margot was going to convert.
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 ceremony was controversial. The King of Navarre had to remain outside the cathedral during the mass and his place was taken by Margaret’s brother, the Duke of Anjou. A 17th-century historian François Eudes de Mezeray invented the anecdote that Margaret was forced to marry the King of Navarre by her brother Charles IX who pushed down her head as though she were nodding her assent. The anecdote was invented decades later by the Bourbon propaganda to justify the annulment of the marriage between Margot and Navarre.
It is believed that Catherine de Medici arranged a different wedding present for her daughter and six days after the wedding, on St.Bartholomew’s Day, Catholics began murdering Huguenots which led to the notorious St.Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
The night the slaughter began, Margot was woken from her sleep by an injured Huguenot stranger. He was pursued by armed guards and, acting on instinct, Margaret threw herself between the stranger and the palace guards, saving his life. She later wrote in her Memoirs – first ever written by a woman, that she saved the lives of several prominent Protestants during the massacre by keeping them in her rooms and refusing to admit the assassins.
Alexandre Dumas used these facts for his novel La Reine Margot which was in the 1990s adapted into a movie of the same title, staring beautiful Isabelle Adjani.
Navarre had to convert to Catholicism to save his life and Catherine next set out to have their marriage annulled. Since they had only just been wed it was presumed they hadn’t consumed their marriage. With the annulment, Catherine would have her hands free to kill Navarre. Margot knew this and feeling guilty for the massacre, instead of breaking free from the unwanted marriage she said that the marriage was consumed and that she was “in every sense” his wife.
By refusing the annulment, Margaret put her husband under her protection. Henry never learned of this and assumed incorrectly that Margot was involved in her family’s treachery. At that time, a slanderous Huguenot author wrote a pamphlet accusing Margaret of incest with her brother Henry and other brothers. That and many other rumors about Margot’s alleged sexual affairs contributed to the myth of La Reine Margot.
After the massacre, life returned to normal. Navarre and Henry, Duke of Anjou left to end an uprising in the country. Married Margot remained in the court, enjoying a much freer status than she had as a single Princess.
She joined up with socialites Henriette de Cleves and Catherine de Clermont-Dampierre, attending all of their soirees and parties, socializing with artists and writers and great thinkers of the age. Due to their beauty and intellect, this group of noblewomen became known as the Muses of Paris.
Beautiful Margot was one of the most fashionable women of her time and influenced many of Europe’s royal courts with her clothing. Tall and white-skinned she was famous for her beauty. She was dark haired but wore wigs and colored her hair. Her late mother-in-law Jeanne described her as good figured but said “she holds herself in too much. As for her face, she uses so much help, it does irritate me, because she will ruin herself. But in this court make-up is normal just like in Spain.”
At one of the many soirees she attended, Margot met Joseph de Boniface, known as La Mole, a friend of her brother Francois. She fell in love with a man 20 years her senior.
Moderate Catholic lords called Malcontents wanted Margot’s younger brother Francois of Alencon on the throne of France. They allied with the Protestants in order to seize power. Francois conspired with La Mole and others to assassinate King Charles, who was already ill. Catherine found out and after granting Francois forgiveness, picked Le Mole as the scapegoat. He was found guilty and murdered. Rumors have it that Margot had his head preserved for her to keep with her.
Francois and Henry of Navarre were held as prisoners. King Charles died during this whole deal and his younger brother Anjou became the new King, known as Henry III. Henry III was suspicious of Margaret’s newfound closeness with her husband. She wrote a letter pleading for her husband, the Supporting Statement for Henry of Bourbon and the couple, though childless yet, became a threat to the King of France.
Vindictive and scheming as ever, Henry III allowed Francis and Henry at court (albeit under surveillance) and introduced Navarre with a mistress Charlotte de Sauve who was a member of Catherine’s Flying Squadron of sexy spies and slandered Margot, arranging for her to be caught in a compromising position and alienating her from the rest of the family.
Relations between Navarre and Margaret deteriorated. Despite being beautiful and spirited, Margot wasn’t attractive to her husband. He only approached her when it served his interests. Both of them took lovers. Margot fell in love with Louis de Clermont d’Amboise, known as Bussy d’Amboise – a swordsman, dandy, and one of the favorites of Monsieur, brother of the king.
Francois and Navarre finally managed to escape the court. Navarre did not even warn Margot of his departure but nevertheless she was confined to her chambers in the Louvre under suspicion that she was her husband’s accomplice. While under confinement, Margaret spent much of her time reading but also engaged in a secret correspondence with her husband as they both realized their alliance remained mutually beneficial.
Henry converted again to the Protestant faith and her brother who allied with the Huguenots negotiated his sister’s release. Catherine de Medici and Henry III refused to release Margot to her husband fearing she would strengthen the alliance between Navarre and Alencon.
Margaret was eventually released from her confinement and set her mind to forward the career of her younger brother Alencon who had ambitions to lead a French army into Flanders. She journeyed to Flanders on the pretense of visiting a spa and recovering her health. After six weeks in the southern Netherlands convincing Flemish nobles to accept Alencon’s help, Margaret returned to France.
Henry III jealous of everyone and everything sparked a fight between his favorites and Alencon’s supporters, led by Bussy d’Amboise. Henry arrested Francois and kept him in his room and Bussy was taken to the Bastille. Francois managed to escape a few days later thanks to a rope thrown out of his sister’s window.
Margaret denied any participation in this escape and finally got permission to join her husband. Catherine also saw this reunion as a chance to pacify the deeply divided country and negotiated the modalities of the pacification with her son in law.
King and Queen of Navarre spent three years in an unhappy open marriage. The settled in Nerac where Margot created a refined court frequented with poets and intellectuals. The court inspired Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Margaret had an affair with one of the most illustrious companions of her husband, the Vicomte de Turenne. Henry of Navarre, on his side, endeavored to conquer all the maids of honor who accompanied his wife.
Soon after, another conflict between the Huguenots and Henry III flared and Margot took the side of her husband. She called her brother Alencon to lead the negotiations and the war was over quickly. It was then that Margaret fell in love with the grand equerry of her brother, Jacques de Harlay, Lord of Champvallon. Her letters to him illustrate her concept of Neoplatonic love – a matter of privileging the union of minds with that of the bodies to bring about the fusion of souls.
The marriage situation deteriorated even further when one of her lady-in-waiting, Françoise de Montmorency-Fosseuxl, known as La Belle Fosseuse, began a passionate affair with the King of Navarre and became pregnant. She pitted Henry against his wife constantly, straining the already strained relations. La Belle gave birth to a stillborn and Margot returned to Paris without giving her husband an heir which would strengthen her position.
Initially, she was well received by her brother the King but soon that changed. When she fell sick in summer 1583, rumors claimed she was pregnant by Champvallon who returned to Paris too. Henry III used her reputation and behavior and expelled her from the court, not before humiliating her more with integrations of her household about the possible birth of a bastard child or an abortion.
The King of Navarre also refused to receive her and the Queen of Navarre remained for eight months in uncertainty between the French and Navarre courts. Finally, she was allowed to return to her husband’s court in Navarre where she received an icy reception. Her brother Francois died and she lost her most valuable ally. After his death, Henry of Navarre became heir presumptive of the French throne and was under increased pressure to produce an heir. His new lover Diane d’Andouins, nicknamed La Belle Corisande, pressed the King of Navarre to repudiate Margaret, hoping to be married to him.
Sick of it all, Margot abandoned her husband in 1585 and seized power over Agen, one of her provinces. Unhappy with high taxes and her demands, the Agenais revolted forcing her to flee. She retreated to impregnable fortress of Carlat with Jean de Lard de Galard, seigneur d’Aubiac, her lover whom she appointed a captain of her guards.
With the approach of royal troops, she fled again and took refuge in the castle of Ibois which was later seized. Her brother Henry III imprisoned her in the castle of Usson in Auvergne and executed D’Aubiac in front of Margaret.
With the help of the Catholic League who wanted Navarre heirless, she managed to escape – rumors at the court were that she seduced her keeper. But Margot decided to remain in the castle and she spent 18 years in self-imposed exile. Little is known of her life there. She trained a new court of intellectuals, writers and musicians, spent her time reading and even her financial situation improved thanks to her sister in law Elisabeth of Austria who began sending her half of her income.
When she read a slanderous political pamphlet Discours sur la Reine de France et de Navarre Margaret decided to set the record straight and wrote her Memoirs. She was the first woman to do so. The Memoirs were published posthumously in 1628.
During those 18 years, her mother and brother died and Henry became the King of France. He wanted an annulment of their marriage and Margot used this to try and improve her financial situation. She was proven sterile but the King needed a legitimate son to consolidate his power and for this, he needed the support of his wife to marry again.
Margaret was strongly against Navarre marrying his mistress Gabrielle d’Estrees, the mother of his son who was legitimized. She stopped the negotiations of the annulment but D’Estrees died and the negotiations continued. The marriage was annulled and a year later Henry IV married Marie de Medici who gave him a son nine months later.
The friendly relations between former spouses continued. She was allowed to keep the queen title, lands and was able to return to Paris where she shocked the Parisian with her appearance: she was fat, her skin was red and raw, she wore an extravagant blonde wig and her clothes were in fashion twenty years before, but despite this, she won the affection of the people. She established herself as a mentor of the arts and benefactress of the poor.
She maintained a friendly and cordial relationship with the Queen and named the Dauphin Louis her heir. This was a very important political move as it made official the dynastic transition between the Valois of which Margaret was the last legitimate descendant and the Bourbon dynasty. She also helped plan events at court and nurtured the children of Henry IV and Marie.
She settled on the left bank of the Seine in the Hostel de la Reyne Margueritte built for her in 1609. The palace became the political and intellectual center of the capital. Queen Margaret organized receptions and theatrical performances and pallets, she opened a literary lounge that was frequented by philosophers, poets and scholars.
In 1614 as an answer to a misogynist text written by the Jesuit father Loryot, she wrote The Learned and Subtle Discourse in which she affirmed the superiority of the woman over man, arguing that God in the creation of the world started from the lower creatures up to the superiors and the woman is the last created creature.
She passed away in 1615, at the old-for-that-time age of 62. She was buried in the Basilica of St.Denis but at some point, likely during the French Revolution, her casket disappeared without a trace never to be found again.
Queen Margaret’s life was obscured by the legend of Queen Margot, the nymphomaniac and incestuous woman from a damned and deranged family. The myth of La Reine Margot was born in the 19th century. Dumas invented the nickname for the title of the first novel of his Trilogy of Valois – La Reine Margot.
Despite some efforts by historians in the 19th and 20th century to rehabilitate the figure of the queen, it was only since the 1990s that some historians managed to clear her name up to a point. Films and books, however, still favored the image of an obscene woman instead of portraying her as a strong-minded, courageous, smart, free-thinking woman ahead of her time. A true badass.