Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Art & History Feature - Marguerite de Valois

Marguerite de Valois

You may not be familiar with Marguerite de Valois, but the name Queen Margot might ring a bell. It is a famous book by Alexandre Dumas Sr., as well as a beautiful French movie of the same name. But who was the real Queen Margot?

Margo as a young girl, by Fran├žois Clouet  (image source:
Marguerite de Valois was born on in May of 1553, the daughter of French King Henry II and his wife, the infamous Queen Catherine de' Medici. She was the sister to three future kings, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III.

Marguerite was knows throughout France, and the world, for her beauty, intelligence and sense of fashion.

At age 19, by Fran├žois Clouet (image source:
Marguerite was used as a pawn in the political manipulations of her mother and brother. At 19, she married King Henry of Navarre. The marriage was an arranged one, a political alliance meant to unite the Catholics and the Huguenots (protestants) of the realm after years of bitter war. The Queen of Navarre and the mother of Henry, Jeanne, was against the marriage but died under mysterious and suspicious circumstances before it took place. There were rumors of her being poisoned by the Catherine de' Medici, as her uses of poison was well known, a knowledge she brought with her to France from her native Italy. However, nobody was able to ever prove it.

Margaret and her husband, Henry of Navarre, later King Henry IV (
But there was a more sinister reason for the marriage of Henry and Margaret. Six days after the wedding, in the even that became knows as the Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the mob, instigated by Catholic factions and, it is believed, by the Queen Mother herself, killed thousands of Huguenots. While it is not known exactly how many were killed, the modern day historians estimate that it was anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000. Prior to the mob violence, targeted assassinations of major Huguenot noblemen leaders were carried out, starting with Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who became like a father to the king, Charles IX, and was one of the architects of the marriage of Marguerite and Henry of Navarre. Is it likely that Charles gave the orders for the assassinations and the killings reluctantly, pushed to it by his mother.

While it was no love match, Marguerite and Henry seemed to respect each other, and it was Margot who is said to have kept Henry, and a few other prominent Huguenots, save by hiding them in her rooms and not letting the assassins enter. After the terrible event, Henry was basically imprisoned at Louvre for the next three years, finally escaping but leaving Margo behind. She was finally allowed to join him in Pau, where they lived for the next few years. Both Margot and Henry openly had other lovers and fought a lot between each other, but still respected and admired each other. One of the theories is that Henry could never forgive Margot for the knowledge of what would happen on St. Bartholomew's night, although there is no proof that she in fact had such knowledge prior to the event.

Louvre in 16th Century (

Around 1582, Margot fell ill and afterwords went back to Paris, to the court of Henry III, her brother. He, however, was not happy about her reputation and she was ordered to leave the court and to return to Navarre. She was also not welcome there. Marguerite was behind a coup d'etat and seized control over an area knows as Agen, but the people of the city eventually revolted and she fled. Starting in 1586 and for the next 18 years, she was imprisoned by her brother Henry III in Usson, a castle in Auvergne.

While imprisoned, Queen Marguerite wrote memoirs that would be published after her death and would scandalize France.

Marguerite became the Queen of France when Henry of Navarre came to the throne as Henry IV in 1589. He had to convert to Catholicism since the people of Paris, mostly Catholic, would not accept him as their king otherwise. The phrase "Paris is worth a Mass" is attributed to him.

Henry had a number of mistresses, the most famous of them being Gabrielle d'Estrees who gave him four children. Henry wanted to make her his queen and had the marriage to Marguerite de Valois annulled by the Pope in 1599 (she was allowed to retain the title of Queen), but Gabrielle died before he could marry her, while giving birth to the last of their children. There are theories that she may have been poisoned. Henry eventually married Marie di Medici and was assassinated by a religious zealot in 1610. He is considered one of the greatest kings of France.

Margo was reconciled to her ex-husband and his second wife and returned to Paris for awhile, where she became a benefactress of the arts and of the poor. She was actively involved in planning events at the court and was a friend to the children of Henry IV and his wife Marie.

Hostel de la Reine Marguerite (public domain image)
Marguerite spent her last years following Henry's assassination in her Hostel de la Reine Margueritte, on the left bank of Seine. She died there on March 27th, 1615 and was buried in the Basilica of St. Denis, where most of Valois royalty was buried. Her casket is no longer there, though, and to this day it's not clear whether it was moved during the work that was done at the chapel or whether it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Later years (Credit: Art Archive, The / SuperStock)
Marguerite de Valois is a fascinating character that has inspired numerous books and present-day movies. One of the first works of literature that she inspired was that of no other but Shakespeare, in his comedy Love's Labour's Lost, and continued with the works of Alexandre Dumas and others.

Her memoirs, which were written as collection of short stories, are considered to be one of the best literary works of the 16th Century.


  1. She inspired Shakespeare? I had no idea! How cool. I love these pieces!

  2. Aww, thanks Heather. It's fun writing and sharing stuff that's interesting to me :) And Margot really was a fascinating woman!


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