Margaret of Valois
The French queen Margaret of Valois (1553 – 1615) became famous both for her reported licentiousness, and for being the first woman in history to pen her memoirs – a vivid depiction of the turbulent France of her lifetime. Alexander Dumas’ portrayal of her in his historical novel, Queen Margot, made her even more famous, or perhaps, infamous.
Born to king Henry II of France and his formidable wife, Catherine di Medici, Margaret was quite close when growing up to her brother Henry – the future king Henry III. So close as to give rise to rumors of an incestuous relationship. Closeness turned into hatred, however, when she was discovered having an affair with an aristocrat, Henry of Guise. It ended in 1570 with Margaret’s mother and her other brother, King Charles IX, beating up Guise and banishing him from court.
At the time, there were serious religious tensions in France between Catholics and Protestants. To ease them, Catherine di Medici sought to bring the Catholic Valois closer to their Bourbon relatives, a Protestant branch of the French royal family. So Catherine arranged for Margaret to marry her Bourbon relative, the Protestant Henry of Navarre.
It was a disastrous marriage. Held at Notre Dame Cathedral on August 19th, 1572, it began inauspiciously when the Protestant groom refused – or was not allowed – to set foot in the Catholic cathedral. So he spent the wedding day outside Notre Dame. Things got worse five days later, when the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began on August 24th, and thousands of Protestants who had travelled to Paris for the wedding were murdered by Catholic mobs. Tens of thousands more Protestants were massacred throughout France in the following days.
Margaret’s husband survived by promising to convert to Catholicism. He was forced to live in the French court, but managed to escape in 1576. Margaret had nothing to do with the killings, and had done much to save her husband’s life. However, after the massacre and four years of captivity, Henry of Navarre was not fond of Catholics, including his wife. Once free, he renounced Catholicism and joined the Protestant military forces.
When Margaret’s brother Henry succeeded their brother Charles IX to became king Henry III, her husband became next in the line for the throne, as Henry III had no male heirs. His being a Protestant, however, complicated matters. Soon a three-way struggle, known as the War of the Three Henrys, erupted between Margaret’s brother king Henry III, her husband, Henry of Navarre, and her former lover, Henry of Guise.
In 1588, king Henry III had Henry of Guise assassinated, along with a brother who was a cardinal. That horrified the public, and led to a collapse of the king’s authority. Henry III was assassinated in 1589, and Margaret’s husband, Henry of Navarre, became king Henry IV of France. The Parisians barred him from the city, however, so to secure the throne, he converted to Catholicism, this time willingly, quipping that “Paris is well worth a Mass“. One of his first acts as king was to arrange an annulment of his marriage to Margaret of Valois.