Margaret of Valois

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Margaret of Valois
Queen consort of France
Tenure 2 August 1589 – 17 December 1599
Queen consort of Navarre
Tenure 18 August 1572 – 17 December 1599
Born (1553-05-14)14 May 1553
Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Died 27 March 1615(1615-03-27) (aged 61)
Hostel de la Reyne Margueritte, Paris
Burial Basilica of St Denis
Spouse Henry IV of France
House House of Valois
Father Henry II of France
Mother Catherine de' Medici

Margaret of Valois (French: Marguerite, 14 May 1553 – 27 March 1615) was a French princess of the Valois dynasty who became queen consort of Navarre and later also of France.

A daughter of King Henry II of France and Catherine de' Medici, Margaret was the sister of kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, and of Elisabeth of Valois Queen of Spain, as well as Claude of Valois. Charles IX arranged for her to marry a distant cousin, King Henry III of Navarre, and she thus became Queen of Navarre in 1572. In 1589, after all her brothers had died leaving no sons, Margaret's husband, the senior-most agnatic heir to France (the "Prince du sang"), succeeded to the French throne as Henry IV, the first Bourbon King of France.

A queen of two kingdoms, Margaret was subjected to many political manipulations, including being held prisoner (albeit at a comfortable castle) by her own brother, Henry III of France, for many years. However, her life was anything but passive. She was famous for her beauty and sense of style, notorious for a licentious lifestyle, and also proved a competent memoirist. She was indeed one of the most fashionable women of her time, and influenced many of Europe's royal courts with her clothing. Margaret took many lovers both during her marriage and after its annulment, of whom the best-known are Joseph Boniface de La Môle, Jacques de Harlay, Seigneur de Champvallon and Louis de Bussy d'Amboise. While imprisoned, she took advantage of the time to write her memoirs, which included a succession of stories relating to the disputes of her brothers Charles IX and Henry III with her husband. The memoirs were published posthumously in 1628.

Her life has inspired a variety of stories over the centuries, beginning with William Shakespeare's early comedy Love's Labour's Lost, which was in fact written within her lifetime, to Alexandre Dumas, père's 1845 novel La Reine Margot; to a 1994 movie La Reine Margot.


Early life[edit]

Catherine de Medici with her children in 1561: Francis, Charles IX, Margaret and Henri.

Margaret of Valois was born on May 14, 1553, at the royal Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the seventh child and third daughter of Henry II and Catherine de' Medici.[1] Three of her brothers would become kings of France: Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Her sister, Elisabeth of Valois, would become the third wife of King Philip II of Spain.

Her childhood was spent in the French royal nursery in the royal Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye with her sisters Elisabeth and Claude, under the care of Charlotte de Vienne, baronne de Courton "a wise and virtuous lady greatly attached to the Catholic religion".[2] After her sisters' wedding, Margaret grew up in the Château d'Amboise with her brothers Henri and Francis.

At the French court, she studied grammar, classics, history and Holy Scripture.[3] Margaret learned to speak Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek in addition to speaking her native French.[4] She was competent also in prose, poetry, horsemanship and dance. She traveled with her family and the court in the grand tour of France (1564-1566). During this period, Margaret had direct experience of the dangerous and complex political situation in France and she learned from her mother the art of political mediation.[5]

In 1565, Catherine met with Philip II's chief minister Duke of Alba at Bayonne in hopes of arranging a marriage between Margaret and Philip's son Don Carlos. However, Alba refused any consideration of a dynastic marriage.[6] Even the marriage negotiations with Sebastian of Portugal and Archduke Rudolf did not succeed.

By 1570, Catherine de' Medici was seeking a marriage between Margaret and Henry of Navarra, a Huguenot (French Calvinist Protestant). It was hoped this union would reunite family ties, as the Bourbons were part of the French Royal family and the closest relatives to the reigning Valois branch, and create harmony between Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots.[7]

However, Margaret was secretly involved with Henry of Guise, the son of the late Duke of Guise. Some historians have hinted that the duke of Guise was a Margaret's lover, but nothing authorises this theory.[8] When Catherine found this out, she had her daughter brought from her bed. Catherine and the king then beat her and sent Henry of Guise from court.[9]

On 11 April 1572, Margaret was engaged with Henry of Navarra. In one of her letters to Henry, his mother the queen of Navarre Jeanne d'Albret, wrote about Margaret: "she has frankly owned to me the favourable impression which she has formed of you. With her beauty and wit, she exercises a great influence over the Queen-Mother and the King, and Messieurs her younger brothers".[10]


Henry of Navarre and Margaret of Valois

The marriage of the 19-year-old Margaret to Henry, who had become King of Navarre upon the death of his mother, Jeanne d'Albret, took place on 18 August 1572 at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.[11] The marriage between a Roman Catholic and a Huguenot was controversial. Pope Gregory XIII refused to grant a dispensation for the wedding[12], and the different faiths of the bridal couple made for an unusual wedding service. The King of Navarre had to remain outside the cathedral during the mass, where his place was taken by Margaret's brother Duke of Anjou.[13]

François Eudes de Mézeray, a 17th century historian, invented the legend that Margaret was forced to marry the King of Navarre with a little push at the back of her head by her brother Charles IX.[14] This is one of the anecdotes that created the myth of the "Reine Margot". Margaret wrote in her Memoirs:

I was set out in the most royal manner. I wore a crown on my head with the coët, or regal close gown of ermine, and I blazed in diamonds. My blue-coloured robe had a train t it of four ells in length, which was supported by three princesses. A platform had been raised, some height from the groud, which led from the Bishop's palace to the Church of Notre-Dame. it was huge with cloth of gold; and below it stood the people in throngs to view the procession, stifling with heat. we were received at the church door by the Cardinal de Bourbon, who officiated for that day, and pronounced the nuptial benediction. After this we proceeded on the same platform to the tribune which separates the nave from the choir, where was a double staircase, one leading into the choir, the other through the nave to the church door. the King of Navarre passed by the latter and went out of church.[15]

St Bartholomew's Day massacre[edit]

St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Catherine de' Medici emerging from the Louvre castle to inspect a heap of bodies in a painting by François Dubois, a Huguenot painter.[16]

Just six days after the wedding, on St Bartholomew's Day, Roman Catholic factions instigated a targeted group of assassinations, followed by a wave of mob violence, both directed against the Huguenots.[17]

Traditionally believed to have been instigated by Catherine de' Medici, the marriage was an occasion on which many of the most wealthy and prominent Huguenots had gathered in largely-Catholic Paris. That took place during the period 1562 to 1598, known as the French Wars of Religion, with factional disputes between the aristocratic houses of France, such as the House of Bourbon and the House of Guise (Lorraine). Henry of Navarre had to feign conversion to Catholicism.[18]

In her Memoirs Margaret remembered that she saved the lives of several prominent Protestants, during the massacre, by keeping them in her rooms and refusing to admit the assassins.[19] Her eye-witness about the massacre in Memoirs is the only coming from the royal family.[20] These facts inspired Alexandre Dumas for his famous novel La Reine Margot (1845).

After St Bartholomew's Day, Catherine de' Medici proposed to Margaret that the marriage be annulled, but she replied that this was impossible because she had already had sexual relations with Henry and was "in every sense" his wife. Later she wrote in her Memoirs: "I suspected the design of separating me from my husband was in order to work some mischief against him".[21]

In the libelle Le Réveil-matin des Français wrote by an anonymous Huguenot author in 1574 against the royal family, Margaret was accused for the first time of incest with her brother Henri.[22][23] This slander is another of the anecdotes about the myth of the "Reine Margot".

Malcontent conspiracy[edit]

Margaret, Queen of Navarre. Portrait by Francois Clouet, 16th century

After more than three years of confinement at court, Henry escaped Paris in 1576,[13] leaving his wife behind.

Diplomatic mission in Flanders[edit]

In 1577, Margaret asked permission to go on a mission in the south of the Netherlands on behalf of her younger brother Francis d'Alençon. The Flemings who had rebelled against Spanish rule in 1576 seemed willing to offer a throne to a foreign prince who was tolerant and willing to provide them with the diplomatic and military forces necessary to conquer their independence. Henry III accepted the proposal of his sister because he would finally release the inconvenient duke of Aleçon.

On the pretext of a bath in Spa thermal waters, Margaret left Paris with her gorgeous court. She devoted two months to her mission: at every stage of the journey, during brilliant receptions, the queen of Navarre was entertained with gentlemen hostile to Spain and, while praising his brother, she tried to persuade them to join him. She also met the governor of the Netherlands, Don Juan of Austria, with whom he had a friendly meeting in Namur.[24] Almost one quarter of her Memoirs are devoted to this mission. For Margaret, returning to France was dangerous with the risk that the Spanish would capture her.

At the end, despite the contacts Margaret had found, the duke d'Alençon was incapable of defeating the Spanish army.[25]


Finally granted permission to return to her husband in Navarre, for the next three and a half years Margaret and her husband lived in Pau. Both openly kept other lovers, and they quarrelled frequently.

Scandal in Paris[edit]

After an illness in 1582, Queen Margaret returned to the court of her brother, Henry III, in Paris. Her brother was soon scandalized by her reputation and behavior, and forced her to leave the court, even claiming that she had borne a bastard child by Jacques de Harlay. After long negotiations, she was allowed to return to her husband's court in Navarre, but she received an icy reception.

Agen and Usson[edit]

Determined to overcome her difficulties, argaret masterminded a coup d'état and seized power over Agen, one of her appanages. She spent several months of fortifying the city, but the citizens of Agen revolted against her[26], and she fled to the castle of Carlat with a lover called d'Aubiac. In october 1586, Margaret was imprisoned by her brother Henry III in the castle of Usson, in Puy-de-Dôme, Auvergne. D'Aubiac was executed, despite Catherine de' Medici's wish, in front of Margaret.[27]

Queen Margaret spent eighteen years in the castel of Usson first as a state prisoner under her brother then a prisoner in exile under her husband who divorced her. During this time, Margaret wrote her Memoirs consisting of a succession of stories relating to the affairs of her brothers Charles IX and Henry III with her former husband Henry IV. The Memoirs were published posthumously in 1628.[4]

In 1589, Henry, her husband, succeeded to the throne of France as Henry IV. He was, however, not accepted by most of the Catholic population until he converted four years later. Henry continued to keep mistresses, most notably Gabrielle d'Estrées from 1591 to 1599, who bore him four children. Negotiations to annul the marriage were entered in 1592 and concluded in 1599 with an agreement that allowed Margaret to maintain the title of queen.[28]

Last years[edit]

L'Hostel de la Reine Marguerite built by Jean Bullant in 1609, and its gardens, as shown in Matthäus Merian 1615 plan of Paris.

She settled her household on the Left Bank of the Seine, in the Hostel de la Reyne Margueritte that is illustrated in Merian's 1615 plan of Paris (illustration); the hostel was built for her to designs by Jean Bullant in 1609. It was eventually demolished and partially replaced in 1640 by the Hôtel de La Rochefoucauld.[29]

Reconciled to her former husband and his second wife, Marie de' Medici, Queen Margaret returned to Paris and established herself as a mentor of the arts and benefactress of the poor. She often helped plan events at court and nurtured the children of Henry IV and Marie.[30]


Margaret died in her Hostel de la Reyne Marguerite, on 27 March 1615, and was buried in the funerary chapel of the Valois in the Basilica of St. Denis.[31] Her casket has disappeared and it is not known whether it was removed and transferred when work was done at the chapel, or destroyed during the French Revolution.[32]

In literature and fiction[edit]

The 1845 novel of Alexandre Dumas, père, La Reine Margot, is a fictionalised account of the events surrounding Margaret's marriage to Henry of Navarre.

The novel was adapted into a 1994 French film, La Reine Margot in which the role of Margaret was played by the popular French actress Isabelle Adjani.

The main action of William Shakespeare's early comedy Love's Labour's Lost (1594–1595) is based on an attempt at reconciliation, made in 1578, between Margaret and Henry.

Margaret is portrayed by Constance Talmadge in D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance.

La Reine Margot appears in Jean Plaidy's novel, Myself, My Enemy a fictional memoir of Queen Henrietta Maria, consort of King Charles I of England. A chance meeting between the young Princesse Henriette and the elderly reine Margot at the celebration of marriage of Henriette's brother, Louis XIII of France, and Anne of Austria, hints to the reader about the fascinating character that Margaret of Valois was. She also features in Jean Plaidy's 'Medici' Trilogy which focuses on her mother, Catherine de Medici - mostly in the second book The Italian Woman, and also in the third book, Queen Jezebel. Sophie Perinot's 2015 'Medici's Daughter' covers Margaret's adolescence and the early days of her marriage.

Margaret of Valois also has a major role in the Meyerbeer opera Les Huguenots. This was one of Joan Sutherland's signature roles and she performed it for her farewell performance for the Australian Opera in 1990.

The book Médicis Daughter by novelist Sophie Perinot (Thomas Dunne, 2015) offered a coming of age story of this youngest Valois princess.

Margot was portrayed by Rebecca Liddiard in the series finale of the television series Reign.



  1. ^ Wellman, Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France, p. 277.
  2. ^ Williams, Queen Margot, p. 3.
  3. ^ Williams, p. 11.
  4. ^ a b Pidduck, La Reine Margot, p. 19.
  5. ^ Moisan, L'exil auvergnat de Marguerite de Valois (la reine Margot), pp. 14-17.
  6. ^ Knecht, The French Wars of Religion, 1559-1598, p. 39.
  7. ^ Frieda, Catherine de' Medici, p. 256.
  8. ^ Williams, p. 39.
  9. ^ Wellman, p. 280.
  10. ^ Quoted in Williams, p. 60.
  11. ^ Pitts, Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age, p. 60.
  12. ^ Boucher, Deux épouses et reines à la fin du XVIe siècle, p. 25.
  13. ^ a b R.J. Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, p. 153.
  14. ^ Viennot, Marguerite de Valois. “La reine Margot”, p. 357.
  15. ^ Memoirs, pp. 55-56.
  16. ^ Knecht, The French religious wars: 1562-1598, pp. 51–52.
  17. ^ Pitts, pp. 61-65.
  18. ^ Pitts, p. 64.
  19. ^ Memoirs, pp. 65-67.
  20. ^ Craveri, Amanti e regine, p. 65.
  21. ^ Memoirs, p. 67.
  22. ^ Viennot, p. 313.
  23. ^ Pidduck, p. 18.
  24. ^ Williams, pp. 222-224.
  25. ^ Holt, The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629, pp. 121-122.
  26. ^ Frieda, p. 415
  27. ^ Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, pp. 254–55.
  28. ^ Éliane Viennot, « Autour d'un « démariage » célèbre : dix lettres inédites de Marguerite de Valois» in Bulletin de l'Association d'étude sur l'humanisme, la réforme et la renaissance, 1996, vol. 43, n°43, p.5-24.
  29. ^ "Histoire de la rue par les cartes"
  30. ^ Pitts, p. 270.
  31. ^ Castarède, La triple vie de la reine Margot, pp. 236-7
  32. ^ Castarède, p. 237


  • Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, Illustrious Dames of the Court of the Valois Kings. Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. New York: Lamb, 1912. OCLC 347527.
  • Jacqueline Boucher, Deux épouses et reines à la fin du XVIe siècle: Louise de Lorraine et Marguerite de France, Saint-Étienne, Presses universitaires de Saint-Étienne, 1998, ISBN 978-2862720807. (in French)
  • Jean Castarède, La triple vie de la reine Margot, Éditions France-Empire, Paris, 1992, ISBN 2-7048-0708-6. (in French)
  • Benedetta Craveri, Amanti e regine. Il potere delle donne, Milano, Adelphi, 2008, ISBN 978-88-459-2302-9. (in Italian)
  • Leonie Frieda, Catherine de Medici. London: Phoenix, 2005. ISBN 0-7538-2039-0.
  • Janine Garrisson, Marguerite de Valois, Paris, Fayard, 1994. (in French)
  • Nancy Goldstone, The Rival Queens, Little Brown and Company, 2015.
  • Marc P. Holt, The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Robert J. Knecht, The French Wars of Religion, 1559-1598, 1989
  • Robert J. Knecht, Catherine de' Medici. London and New York: Longman, 1998. ISBN 0-582-08241-2.
  • Michel Moisan, L'exil auvergnat de Marguerite de Valois (la reine Margot) : Carlat-Usson, 1585-1605, Editions Creer, 1999. (in French)
  • Julianne Pidduck, La Reine Margot, London and New York, I.B. Tauris, 2005. ISBN 1-84511-100-1.
  • Vincent J. Pitts, Henri IV of France; His Reign and Age, JHU Press, 2009.
  • Robert J. Sealy, The Myth of Reine Margot: Toward the Elimination of a Legend, Peter Lang Publishing, 1994.
  • Nicola Mary Sutherland, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew and the European conflict, 1559-1572 (1973)
  • Éliane Viennot, Marguerite de Valois. La reine Margot, Paris, Perrin, 2005 ISBN 2-262-02377-8. (in French)
  • Kathleen Wellman, Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France, 2013
  • Hugh Noel Williams, Queen Margot, wife of Henry of Navarre, New York, Harper and brothers, 1907.
  • Marguerite of Valois, Memoirs of Marguerite de Valois, written by herself, New York, Merrill & Baker, 1800

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Margaret of Valois
Cadet branch of the Capetian dynasty
Born: 14 May 1553 Died: 27 March 1615
French royalty
Preceded by
Marguerite of Angoulême
Queen consort of Navarre
Succeeded by
Marie de' Medici
Preceded by
Louise of Lorraine
Queen consort of France