La Reine Margot

14 May 2011

Marguerite de Valois, who is known to posterity as Reine Margot was born on this day, 14th May 1553 at the Chateau of St Germain-en-Laye to Henri II of France and his Queen, Catherine dei’ Medici. Like Mary Tudor, there has rarely been a princess more blessed than Princess Marguerite of France who was to become renowned throughout Europe for her dark eyed good looks, intelligence and fabulous sense of style.

There was a dark side to Marguerite though for she also became equally well known for her scandals and extra marital affairs.Worse still, her wedding day on the 18th August 1572 was overshadowed by the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre when the Catholic supporters of her family instigated a wave of hideous violence against the Protestant Huguenots, the most prominent of which were in the capital for her marriage to the Huguenot King of Navarre. To her credit, Marguerite is said to have saved the lives not only of her bridegroom but also several other Protestants by hiding them in her rooms at the Louvre.

It often seems like Marguerite’s life was blighted by tragedy but her spirit proved impossible to break. As a young girl she had been madly in love with Henri de Lorraine, Duc de Guise (cousin of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose mother had been his aunt) but her family had refused to contemplate the match – probably because they were already fed up with the Guise family’s posturing about the French court while Mary was Queen amongst other things. Besides, they had far more grand plans in mind for Marguerite, whose sisters had married the King of Spain and Duc de Lorraine.

Instead, Marguerite was married to another cousin, Henri of Navarre. Neither party were very happy about this but Henri, who famously later explained his conversion to Catholicism by saying that ‘Paris is worth a Mass’ was no doubt sanguine about entering the Valois family. Horribly overshadowed by such a tragic beginning, it’s probably no surprise that the marriage of Henri and Marguerite was not an altogether happy one, with both partners cheerfully and openly taking lovers and no children, legitimate or otherwise being born to Marguerite. However, they were capable of presenting a united front if it was required of them, particularly against Marguerite’s family, whom she seems to have disliked intensely.

In 1582, Marguerite accomplished a master stroke of not just falling out irrevocably with her husband but also with her brother Henri III as well, who banished her from court and then after a failed attempt to found her own court at Agen, had her imprisoned in the Chateau d’Usson. Poor Marguerite, just thirty three years old, remained incarcerated for nineteen long years. Undaunted, she set to work writing her memoirs – a no holds barred account of her life with much salacious detail about the love affairs of her brothers and husband.

Marguerite’s brother, Henri III was assassinated in 1589 and her husband succeeded to the throne, making Marguerite, Queen of France. Her lack of children and scandalous life proved to be a problem and it didn’t take too long before Henri, who took his time releasing his wife from her imprisonment was planning to annul the marriage and instead marry some nice, hopefully fecund foreign princess.

Marguerite seems to have been untroubled by the end of her marriage and like Anne of Cleves before her was to learn that giving in gracefully was the best way to royal favour as she was allowed to continue styling herself as Reine Marguerite, was allowed to take up residence in a magnificent mansion on the banks of the Seine in Paris and was welcomed at court by her estranged former husband and his new wife, Marie dei’ Medici. She was probably grateful not to be packed off to a convent!

Like so many fast living women of her time, Marguerite, a woman of formidable intellect, courage, loyal spirit and great generosity lived out her days in a cloud of piety, good works and charity and surrounded by a crowd of academics, philosophers, writers and artists. As the last remaining member of the Valois family, she must have been an object of awe and curiosity and a fascinating remnant of times now long gone at the court of Henri, the first of the Bourbon kings of France.

Marguerite was to die on the 27th of March 1615 at the age of sixty one.