Biography of Margaret of Valois, France’s Slandered Queen

A queen whose legacy was marred by rumors

Portrait of Margaret of Valois
Portrait of Margaret of Valois, Queen of France.

The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Born Princess Marguerite of France, Margaret of Valois (May 14, 1553 – March 27, 1615) was a princess of the French Valois dynasty and a queen of Navarre and France. An educated woman of letters and patron of the arts, she nonetheless lived in a time of political upheaval and had her legacy tainted by rumors and false tales that portrayed her as a cruel hedonist.

Fast Facts: Margaret of Valois

  • Full Name: Margaret (French: Marguerite) of Valois
  • Occupation: Queen of Navarre and Queen of France
  • Born: May 14, 1553 at Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
  • Died: March 27, 1615 in Paris France
  • Known For: Born a princess of France; married Henry of Navarre, who eventually became the first Bourbon king of France. Although she was notable for her cultural and intellectual patronage, rumors about her romantic entanglements led to a false legacy depicting her as a selfish and hedonistic woman.
  • Spouse: King Henry IV of France (m. 1572 - 1599)

French Princess

Margaret of Valois was the third daughter and seventh child of King Henry II of France and his Italian queen, Catherine de’ Medici. She was born at the royal Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where she spent her childhood alongside her sisters, the princesses Elisabeth and Claude. Her closest familial relationship was with her brother Henry (later King Henry III), who was only two years her senior. Their friendship as children, however, did not last into adulthood, for several reasons.

The princess was well educated, studying literature, classics, history, and several ancient and contemporary languages. At the time, European politics existed in a constant, fragile state of shifting power and alliances, and Margaret’s mother, a savvy political figure in her own right, made sure that Margaret learned as much as possible about the complexities (and dangers) of domestic and international politics. Margaret saw her brother Francis ascend the throne at a young age, then die soon after, leaving her next brother to become Charles IX and her mother Catherine to be the most powerful person behind the throne.

As a teenager, Margaret fell in love with Henry of Guise, a duke from a prominent family. However, their plans to marry went against the plans of the royal family, and when they were found out (in all likelihood, by Margaret’s brother Henry), the duke of Guise was banished and Margaret severely punished. Although the romance was quickly ended, it would be brought up again in the future with slanderous pamphlets that suggested Margaret and the duke had been lovers, insinuating a long-standing pattern of licentious behavior on her part.

Political Unrest in France

Catherine de’ Medici’s preference was for a marriage between Margaret and Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot prince. His house, the Bourbons, was another branch of the French royal family, and the hope was that the marriage of Margaret and Henry would rebuild family ties as well as brokering a peace between French Catholics and Huguenots. In April 1572, the 19-year-olds became engaged, and they seemed to like one another at first. Henry’s influential mother, Jeanne d’Albret, died in June, making Henry the new king of Navarre.

The mixed-faith marriage, held at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, was intensely controversial, and it was soon followed by violence and tragedy. Six days after the wedding, while a large number of prominent Huguenots were still in Paris, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred. History would blame Margaret’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, for organizing the targeted murders of prominent Protestants; for her part, Margaret wrote in her memoirs about how she personally hid a handful of Protestants in her personal apartments.

By 1573, Charles IX’s mental state had deteriorated to the point where a successor was necessary. By birthright, his brother Henry was the heir presumptive, but a group called the Malcontents feared that the intensely anti-Protestant Henry would escalate religious violence even further. They planned to put his younger brother, the more moderate Francis of Alençon, on the throne instead. Henry of Navarre was among the conspirators, and although Margaret, at first, disapproved of the plot, she eventually joined in as a bridge between moderate Catholics and the Huguenots. The plot failed, and although her husband was not executed, the relationship between King Henry III and his sister Margaret was forever embittered.

Queen and Diplomat

Margaret’s marriage, at this point, was fast deteriorating. They were unable to conceive an heir, and Henry of Navarre took several mistresses, most notably Charlotte de Sauve, who sabotaged Margaret’s attempt to reform the alliance between Francis of Alençon and Henry. Henry and Francis both escaped imprisonment in 1575 and 1576, but Margaret was imprisoned as a suspected conspirator. Francis, backed by the Huguenots, refused to negotiate until his sister was set free, and so she was. She, along with her mother, helped negotiate a crucial treaty: the Edict of Beaulieu, which gave Protestants more civil rights and permitted the practice of their faith except in certain places.

In 1577, Margaret went on a diplomatic mission to Flanders in hopes of securing a deal with the Flemings: help from Francis to overthrow Spanish rule in exchange for putting Francis on their new throne. Margaret worked to create a network of contacts and allies, but ultimately, Francis could not defeat the mighty Spanish army. Francis soon fell under Henry III’s suspicion again and was re-arrested; he escaped again, in 1578, with Margaret’s help. The same series of arrests captured Margaret’s apparent lover, Bussy d’Amboise.

Eventually, Margaret rejoined her husband, and they settled their court at Nérac. Under Margaret’s guidance, the court became exceptionally learned and cultured, but it also was the site of many romantic misadventures among the royals and courtiers. Margaret fell in love with her brother Francis’s grand equerry, Jacques de Harley, while Henry took a teenaged mistress, Francoise de Montmorency-Fosseux, who became pregnant and gave birth to Henry’s stillborn daughter.

In 1582, Margaret returned to the French court for unknown reasons. Her relationships with both her husband and her brother King Henry III were in shambles, and it was around this time that the first rumors about her supposed immorality began to circulate, presumably courtesy of her brother’s loyalists. Tired of being pulled between the two courts, Margaret abandoned her husband in 1585.

Rebel Queen and Her Return

Margaret rallied the Catholic League and turned against her family and husband’s policies. She briefly was able to seize the city of Agen, but the citizens eventually turned on her, forcing her to flee with her brother’s troops in hot pursuit. She was imprisoned in 1586 and forced to watch her favorite lieutenant executed, but in 1587, her gaoler, the Marquis de Canillac, switched allegiances to the Catholic League (most likely by bribery) and set her free.

Although she was free, Margaret chose not to leave the castle of Usson; instead, she dedicated the next 18 years to re-creating a court of artists and intellectuals. While there, she wrote her own Memoirs, an unprecedented act for a royal woman of the time. After her brother’s 1589 assassination, her husband ascended to the throne as Henry IV. In 1593, Henry IV asked Margaret for an annulment, and ultimately, it was granted, especially with the knowledge that Margaret could not have children. After this, Margaret and Henry had a friendly relationship, and she befriended his second wife, Marie de’ Medici.

Margaret returned to Paris in 1605 and established herself as a generous patron and benefactress. Her banquets and salons frequently hosted the great minds of the time, and her household became central to cultural, intellectual, and philosophical life. At one point, she even wrote in an intellectual discourse, criticizing a misogynistic text and defending women.

Death and Legacy

In 1615, Margaret fell seriously ill, and died in Paris on March 27, 1615, the last survivor of the Valois dynasty. She had named Henry and Marie’s son, the future Louis XIII, as her heir, cementing the link between the old Valois dynasty and the new Bourbons. She was buried in the funerary chapel of the Valois in the Basilica of St. Denis, but her casket disappeared; it either was lost during the chapel’s renovations or was destroyed in the French Revolution.

The myth of a cursed, beautiful, lustful “Queen Margot” has persisted, largely in part because of misogynistic and anti-Medici histories. Influential writers, most notably Alexandre Dumas, exploited the rumors against her (which likely originated with her brother’s and husband’s courtiers) to criticize the age of royalty and the supposed depravity of women. It was not until the 1990s that historians began to investigate the truth of her history instead of centuries of compounded rumors.

Sources

  • Haldane, Charlotte. Queen of Hearts: Marguerite of Valois, 1553–1615. London: Constable, 1968.
  • Goldstone, Nancy. The Rival Queens. Little Brown and Company, 2015.
  • Sealy, Robert. The Myth of the Reine Margot: Toward the Elimination of a Legend. Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, 1995.