Marguerite de Valois: the indomitable French Princess who became a Queen of two countries

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Isabelle Adjani as Marguerite de Valois in the film Queen Margot (1994)

It’s interesting to me how a few themes have begun emerging in the more or less randomly chosen women from history I’ve been profiling here. Notorious reputations that emerged after their death not because of what they did, but because of how they threatened the power of men; how the act of having children, or not, affected their standing in the world; and, so far, the brutal ways each of them died. I’m pretty sure these themes will pop up over again as I continue looking at the lives of women in history, because the women whose stories are recorded tend to be those who lived unusual lives, and women who stood out from the pack often wound up dead. The happiest, or at least lengthiest, life I’ve examined so far was that of Catherine de’Medici, and today I’m psyched to dig into the life of her longest-lived child, Marguerite “Margot” de Valois. Because Margot? Doesn’t fit into any of the above categories, in the best possible way.

Margot was born in 1553, the youngest of ten children born to France’s King Henry II and Catherine de’Medici. Her nine older brothers and sisters were, by most accounts, frail and ill and potentially also somewhat deformed whereas Margot was admired for her great beauty and sense of style. Like literally, foreign delegations wrote lengthy letters back to their home countries about how gorgeous this woman was, basically describing her as one of the seven wonders of the world. Her recorded actions show a woman who was at times selfless and kind, at other times vain and cruel; but when pushed into impossible situations, she comported herself with unusual amounts of bravery and common sense. That such a multi-faceted, genuine person came of age in the French court of Catherine de’Medici is remarkable on its own. Her future mother-in-law, Jeanne d’Albret, wrote of Margot, “she is beautiful, discreet, and graceful. But she has grown up in the most vicious and corrupt atmosphere imaginable. I cannot see that anyone escapes its poison.”

Because basically, the French court at this time was a place of publicly performed religious devotion and privately held licentious abandon. de’Medici’s female servants, the so-called Flying Squadron of courtesan-spies, helped cultivate an atmosphere of corruption, licentiousness, and ruthless ambition where everybody was spying for someone else and nobody could be trusted. Beauty was prized above all else, giving Margot a higher stock than many of the other girls and women. At age 8, Margot’s role in this court was defined by her engagement to Henry of Navarre, the Prince of a nearby principality sent to be raised with her at court. Because there are a lot of men named Henry in this story, henceforth this one will be referred to as Navarre. Like most royal Princesses, Margot was a pawn to be used by her family to cement political relations with other royal families, to provide heirs, and to help maintain, and hopefully expand her family’s stronghold over France. But Margot wanted something else — wanted passion, romance, and adventure; being brought up to value appearance, she desired someone jaw-droppingly handsome, the sort of man who would turn eyes every time he entered a room, but who would also be strong and manly and brave. Navarre was… basically nothing at all like that and, having grown up with her, was more of a pesky younger brother figure than someone she could ever imagine as a lover.

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Rebecca Liddiard as Margot on the TV series Reign

Perhaps even moreso than Navarre’s apparently sub-par looks and immature personality, he and his family were Huguenots — Protestants, at a time of great religious tension. Navarre’s mother, the aforementioned Jeanne d’Albret, was not a fan of Margot’s Catholic family — particularly, her notorious mother, Catherine de’Medici. d’Albret saw her son being kept at French court as something akin to kidnapping, and schemed to escape with him back to their home palace. And, when Navarre and Margot were both about fourteen, d’Albret successfully absconded with him. Not only that, her plan counted on Catherine unknowingly funding their flight. Catherine was apoplectic; Margot, secretly relieved — after all, there was no chance she’d be permitted to marry a man whose family had just betrayed the royal family so cruelly. As fate would have it, the absence of one Henry was filled with the arrival of another, in the form of Henry, the Duke of Guise (heretofore known as de Guise).

And the thing is, de Guise was everything the romantic Margot had ever wanted. Three years older than her, eighteen to her fifteen, de Guise was tall and blond, athletic, charming, and valiant in the battlefield. He was also well-known for his skill at seduction, and in a court obsessed with physical beauty, he rose to become Margot’s equal; a sort of Prom King and Queen. By now, Margot had grown from the prettiest girl to the loveliest woman at court. Not only her looks, but her sense of style, her gracefulness at dancing, and her charming personality stood out from everyone else. On a personal level, they seemed a perfect match. And politically, their pairing seemed appropriate, too: after all, Margot’s older sister Claude had already married into the de Guise family, and his family had taken roles as senior advisors to her brother, the King. What could go wrong?? </foreshadowing>

What happened was the de Guise family got caught up in a conspiracy to kidnap King Charles, destroying friendly relations between the two families. To this point, Margot had somehow managed to avoid the cutthroat game of thrones continually playing out among her siblings and mother, but her relationship with de Guise was something her power-hungry family could not use against her. So, enter this story’s third Henry, Margot’s brother Prince Henry, Duke of Anjou (henceforth called Anjou). Anjou was Catherine’s favourite child, and he cultivated a raging hatred for his brother, the King. Charles, in return, hated Anjou for the way Catherine favoured him and how he openly craved the throne. Anjou also loathed de Guise, who was taller and more handsome and performed better on the battlefield. When Anjou became aware of Margot’s feelings for de Guise, he saw a way to ensnare his rival in a power grab. He manipulated Margot to side with him against Charles by flattering her, then coerced her to advocate for his interests with their mother, getting closer to Catherine such that Margot would be “the first with her and the last to leave her.” Catherine didn’t know why Margot was suddenly so close to her, but with Anjou off at battle, she began to shower Margot with attention, opening up to her with her most private thoughts.

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Isabelle Adjani as Margot in La Reine Margot (1994)

For four months, from June to October 1569, Margot did just what her brother had asked of her. And then things got pretty weird, frankly. I don’t super understand the precise betrayal that occurred, but here’s my best explanation: Anjou blabbed to Catherine that Margot wanted to marry de Guise, who Catherine of course hated at this point. Margot’s newfound closeness with Catherine made this all more risky — like, she knew some of Catherine’s secrets, and if she married de Guise then she’d let him know all the secrets, or something like that. But the main thing was that Anjou alleged that not only did Margot want to marry de Guise, she was actively trying to make it happen. Nobody was allowed to just decide on their own who they’d marry, especially not royals, especially not female royals, and especially not one of Catherine’s children. Catherine would never forgive Margot for going behind her back, and Margot would never forgive Anjou for setting her up and then selling her out.

I should note at this point that there are unsubstantiated rumours that Anjou, and potentially other of her brothers, sexually abused Margot. At the very least, Anjou seemed to delight in manipulating her; but then again, he seemed to enjoy manipulating anyone. For instance, when de Guise was recovering from an injury, Anjou arranged that he could return to French court — where Margot happened to be, also convalescing from an illness. de Guise visited her frequently, doing his best to assure her that his family was back in the royal family’s good graces, although that was patently untrue. Was he trying merely to seduce her, or did he want to marry her — and if the latter, was it because of love, or because of the power that marriage to her would provide? The entire affair came to a head when one of Margot’s ladies in waiting, secretly spying on her for Anjou, brought one of Margot’s letters to de Guise to the King. Don’t put your secret affairs in writing, Margot! Or if you do, use a cipher!

Anyway, Charles was so upset by this evidence of apparent betrayal (he had been on #TeamMargot, defending her against Anjou’s claims of her treachery) that he sent for Catherine, and the pair of them dragged Margot from bed and beat her viciously. This had the desired effect: Margot, terrified of her family, agreed to stay away from de Guise. Feeling that she would not be safe from rumours of their involvement until he was married, she went to her sister Claude, hoping that she could compel him to marry someone else. And Claude pulled through: de Guise was married in short order to another woman; Margot and her family were present at the ceremony, because this is all like a very murder-y high school where no one can ever avoid seeing each other at all the big parties. But the lessons she learned through this cruel sequence of events was one that would come to serve her in the near future; in order to survive within this court and her family, she would need to remain vigilant and careful, and suspicious of the motives of everyone around her.

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Adjani as Margot in La Reine Margot (1994)

By this point,Catherine had alienated a lot of other important families such that they wouldn’t consider marrying their sons to her daughter. So it was that, despite her best attempts, Catherine was not able to find anyone better to marry Margot off to than Henry of Navarre. Yes, he was still a Protestant and yes, his mother was one of Catherine’s most hated enemies, but a marriage between these two would perhaps provide a balm over the continued religious battles that continued to rip France apart. Also, It was incomprehensible for a Catholic and a Protestant to marry, and so the assumption was that Margot would ultimately convert to her husband’s religion. Margot, a devout Catholic, saw this marriage as literally being condemned to Hell. Much of the popular depictions of Margot suggest that her main resistance to this marriage was Henry’s sub-par physical appearance and unappealing personality, but Margot’s writings emphasize that religion was a bigger motivating factor. She may have been brought up in basically Game of Thrones, but her religious devotion was absolutely genuine.

… Not that it mattered in this instance, as marriage preparations began right away. It was during the planning that Navarre’s mother, Catherine’s enemy Jeanne d’Albret collapsed dead while out glove shopping. Physicians at the time claimed she died of natural causes, but rumours persisted that Catherine had killed her with a set of poisoned gloves. (I mean, poisoned gloves, who wouldn’t want to believe that amazing rumour??). The preparations and wedding itself occurred during a heatwave, which just sort of sets the scene for the way it was all about to explode. Everyone was sweaty and tired and wearing all of the layers of clothing one had to in the 16th century. And I’m sure all they ever drank was wine, so they were both sun exhausted and perpetually drunk. As was the custom for a royal marriage, the ceremony itself was followed by four days of celebration. As was not the custom, at the end of the days of festivity, Catherine and arranged for many of the visiting Protestants to be assassinated.

Wait, what?

So, basically: after d’Albret died, Henry of Navarre became the King of Navarre and, as such, the de facto leader of the Huguenots. Due to his high profile, most of the most prominent French Protestants came to Paris to celebrate his marriage — especially as they, too, assumed Margot was going to convert. There was a lot of backroom deals going on, everybody was backstabbing everybody but blaming others for it, and it wound up with Catherine arranging an assassination attempt on a leading Protestant general, framing the Huguenots for the crime. The night this happened, Margot was sitting with Huguenots, all of whom were surprised and confused by this turn of events; clearly, Margot saw, none of them had been involved. And yet the next day, word began to spread that the Huguenots had been behind the attempt themselves, in their attempt to make it look like the Catholics had done it… it was a mess, and Catholics started killing Protestants and it became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and so many people were killed, all over France. Happy wedding, Margot and Navarre!!

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Daniel Auteuil as Henry of Navarre with Adjani as Margot in La Reine Margot (1994)

The night that the slaughter began, Margot was woken from her sleep (she was not sleeping with Navarre, because: of course she wasn’t) by a Huguenot stranger stumbling through her door, grievously injured in the melee. He was pursued by armed guards, including four archers (!!!). Margot, acting entirely on instinct and in the first major moment that truly defined her true character, threw herself between this stranger and the palace guards determined to kill him. The guards were ordered away, and Margot was permitted to tend to the wounded man, saving his life. She then set out to see what she could do, as the Queen of Navarre, to help protect other Huguenots who were under threat, including her new husband.

Navarre, the person, had been forced to convert to Catholicism, saving his life for the time being. Having humiliated him through this conversion and parading him into Catholic mass, Catherine next set out to have their marriage annulled. Given that they had only just been wed, and that they almost definitely had not consummated their union, this could have likely been done quite quickly. And once Margot was freed of her husband, Catherine could more easily have Navarre killed. But the thing is: Margot knew that was the plan. As much as she must have wanted to be freed of this unwanted marriage, she already felt guilty for her complicity in the massacre and didn’t want his blood on her hands, too. And so, in a decision that would cement the nobility first hinted at when she saved the stranger, she refused the annulment. In so doing, she put her husband under her protection, ensuring her family could never kill him. (In a brutal twist, Navarre never learned that she had done this for him. He assumed, incorrectly, that Margot had been involved in her family’s treachery and that night she spent chatting with the Huguenots she had known what was to come. Her true motivations were never revealed until her memoirs were published, long after both of them had died.)

The way that life always does, even after a life-altering, horrifying thing happens, life returned pretty much to normal. Navarre, now a tentative ally to Margot’s family, was invited along with Anjou and others to help quell an uprising in the countryside. In his absence, Margot was left alone as a married woman of nineteen — a much freer, and more enjoyable status that she’d enjoyed as a single girl. She joined up with the most fabulous squad at court, led by 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 proximity to creative minds, this group of noblewomen became known as the Muses of Paris.

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Adjani as Margot with Dominique Blanc as Henriette de Cleves in La Reine Margot (1994)

It was at one of the many soirees she attended that Margot met Joseph de Boniface, known as La Mole. La Mole was an infamous ladies man twenty years her senior; a sort of the cooler, more grown-up version of Henry de Guise. I picture him as having a sort of George Clooney-esque quality, just fully dapper and charming. Apparently, La Mole was so skilled at wooing women that he had been sent as France’s representative when Catherine had been trying to convince England’s Queen Elizabeth I to marry one of her sons. (Elizabeth, to her great credit, did not; but I don’t think that was La Mole’s fault). He was also a friend to Margot’s other brother, Francois.

Meanwhile, her family continued to war with each other over a series of self-inflicted rivalries. Francois, conspired with La Mole and others to assassinate King Charles, who was already sickly. They were caught, of course, because Catherine always finds out. After Francois begged for and was granted forgiveness, La Mole became the fall guy for the plot. He was found guilty, largely due to the existence of a wax figurine pricked with needles (?) found in his room (??) and which was thought to be a threat to the King (???). He was put to death and in one of those rumours that is so great I really hope it’s true, Margot was said to have had his head preserved for her to keep with her. King Charles, who had always been fragile, died during this whole deal, making his younger brother Anjou the new King, known as Henry III.

Anjou was suspicious of and threatened by Margot, especially given that she and Navarre seemed to be getting along better lately. A happy King and Queen of Navarre were a threat to the King of France, so he pulled yet more classic schemes, connecting Navarre with a mistress who just happened to also be one of Catherine’s courtesan-spies, and arranging to have Margot caught in a compromising position to further alienate her from the rest of the family. Anjou, in this story, even given the other gross people involved, is officially The Worst. This whole situation puts me in the mind of Cersei on Game of Thrones, where the two people most capable of being in charge (Catherine and Margot) weren’t allowed to, and so they’re forced to grin and beat it as a series of fairly useless men rule the country. Primogeniture, you sick bastard.

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Adjani as Margot in La Reine Margot (1994)

You guys, there’s so much amazing stuff to get into, this could be like a twelve part series all about Margot being AMAZING. But since this is more of an overview than anything else, suffice it to say that over the next several years: Margot saved Navarre’s life, again; he didn’t know, and continued to hate her; Margot fell in love, again, with a man named Louis de Clermont d’Amoise, known as Bussy, because every one of her lovers had amazing names; Anjou kept scheming to destroy Margot and Navarre’s marriage, using a variety of gross sex-related schemes; Navarre fled Paris because can you blame him at this point honestly, abandoning Margot; Margot eventually joined him in Navarre, where they spent three years in an unhappy open marriage, hating each other; Margot fled back to Paris, where she lived it up to the point that even Anjou was like “girl, enough,” and kicked her out; Navarre didn’t want her back; eventually she wound up back there; it was a whole thing; I suggest reading a good nonfiction book to get all the AMAZING highlights of this woman’s life.

What I will note here, though, is how at one point Margot, fed up with being a pawn in literally everyone’s else game, masterminded a coup to seize power over the French province of Agen, which did not go well. The good news is she managed to seize control; the bad news is that the citizens revolted against her, and she had to flee. By 1586, Anjou imprisoned her (I think for the taking control of Agen scenario), but it was like a Mary Stuart/Jane Grey situation where she was basically trapped in a castle, not in an actual jail. Like she was imprisoned, but in a castle. Still not ideal, but not quite an Erzsebet Bathory “trapped in a tiny bricked-in closet you couldn’t move in” situation. Margot remained imprisoned for eighteen years, first by her brother, then by her husband. Every man named Henry in this story is terrible, apparently. But! Not one to let a moment go to waste, she spent this time writing her memoirs, which you know must have been juicy, and I have great news: they were published, and you can probably find a version to read it all yourself. Her writings weren’t published until well after the death of everyone mentioned in them, but when they were printed in 1628, it caused quite the scandal.

Anjou died in 1589 without an heir, as had his two older brothers, leaving the only possible new King to be… none other than Margot’s ex-husband, Henry de Navarre, who by this point had re-converted back to Protestantism. He wasn’t made King because of his relation to the crown, but due to his marriage to Margot — although they hadn’t physically been together in ages, it was still on the books. He re-re-converted back to Catholicism, but for real this time, and as Henry IV, founded the new dynasty of French royals known as the Bourbons (you may know them from his descendants, all of whom were Kings named Louis, one of whom was married to Marie Antoinette). Navarre and Margot had their marriage annulled in 1800, after which he married Marie de’Medici (who is also amazing and I’ll probably write about her later). However, the annulment agreement permitted Margot to retain her title of Queen.

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Adjani as Margot in La Reine Margot (1994)

Finally freed of her castle-prison, Margot returned to Paris, where she lived in an estate on the Left Bank known as the Hostel de la Reyne Margueritte. She spent her later years continuing the patronage of the arts she’d begun as a young woman, as well as acting as a benefactor to the poor, and basically being amazing. Because this story isn’t weird enough yet, she also helped as a party planner to Navarre and Marie, and was like a special Auntie to their kids. There was a rumour she had at least one illegitimate child of her own, but that was probably just Anjou being a dick, but officially Margot never had any children.

She passed away in 1615, at the old-for-that-time age of 62. At some point, likely during the French Revolution, her casket disappeared and nobody knows where it is anymore. Which is just the bonkers amazing end to this woman’s incredibly interesting life that this story deserves, I think.

My favourite book about Margot, that is really about her whole family, is The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom by Nancy Goldstone. The 1845 novel La Reine Margot, by Alexandre Dumas, takes a lot of plot points from her real story and makes for a fun read. The 1994 French film Queen Margot is based on this novel, and is so good. Also, the 2015 novel Médicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot, which I haven’t read but which sounds really good, focuses on Margot’s teenage years. And fascinatingly, Shakespeare found her a muse as well, basing the events of his comedy Love’S Labour’S Lost on Margot’s relationship with Navarre.

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