Margaret of France (Marguerite de France, Marguerite de Valois, 1553-1615) was Queen of France & of Navarre during the late 16th century. A royal princess of France by birth, she was the last of the House of Valois.
She was born Marguerite de Valois, the 6 child & 3rd daughter of Henry II & the manipulative Catherine de' Medici. Three of her brothers would become kings of France: Francis II, Charles IX & Henry III. Her sister, Elisabeth of Valois, would become the 3rd wife of King Philip II of Spain.
Although Margaret is said to have loved Henry of Guise, her mother would never allow the House of Guise, with whom she had been wrestling for power during the past decades, any chance of controlling France. Margaret was her mother's political pawn. Her mother offered to marry Margaret to Philip II's son Carlos, Prince of Asturias, but the marriage never occurred. Her mother then instigated serious negotiations for Margaret's marriage to King Sebastian of Portugal, which were also considered but abandoned.
Finally, Margaret was forced to marry King Henry III of Navarre, the son of the Protestant queen Jeanne III of Navarre, who ultimately did succeed Margaret's brothers as Henry IV of France. The union was calculated to reunite family ties (the Bourbons were part of the French Royal family & the closest relatives to the reigning Valois branch) & to create harmony between Catholics & the Protestant Huguenots. The religious harmony was a fantasy.
Henry's mother Queen Jeanne III opposed the marriage, but many of her nobles supported it, so the match was made. However, Queen Jeanne III died under suspicious circumstances before the marriage could take place. Many suspected that a pair of gloves sent to Jeanne III as a wedding gift from Margaret's mother, Catherine de' Medici had been poisoned. The marriage of the 19-year-old Margaret to Henry, who had become King of Navarre upon the death of his mother, took place in 1572, at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. The groom, a Huguenot (French Calvinist Protestant), had to remain outside the cathedral during the Catholic religious ceremony. Not an auspicious moment.
Just 6 days after the wedding, on St Bartholomew's Day, Roman Catholic factions instigated a group of assassinations, followed by mob violence, all directed against the Huguenots . The killing of the Huguenots is said to have been instigated by Catherine de' Medici. It was the perfect moment for the vicious queen, the marriage was an occasion on which many of the most wealthy & prominent Huguenots gathered in largely Catholic Paris.
Despite her mother, Margaret has been credited with saving the lives of several prominent Protestants, including her husband's, during the massacre, by keeping them in her rooms & refusing to admit the assassins. Henry of Navarre had to feign conversion to Catholicism. It did not work.
After more than 3 years of confinement at his own court, Henry escaped Paris in 1576, leaving his wife behind. Finally granted permission to return to her husband in Navarre, for the next 3 & a half years Margaret & her husband lived in Pau. It was not a happy union. Both openly kept other lovers, & they quarrelled frequently.
Margaret, among other political manipulations, endured an arranged marriage & being held prisoner (in a castle) for many years. However, her life was not that of the passive female. Margaret was famous for her beauty & sense of style, everything money could buy. She was also a gifted poet & writer. She kept the gossip mills afire, notable for both her own scandalous behavior & for revealing that of others. She had learned of affairs & how to use them for her advantage from her mother Catherine de Medici.
After an illness in 1582, Queen Margaret returned to the court of her brother, Henry III, in Paris. But Henry III could not abide the scandal surrounding her reputation & forced her to leave his court. After long negotiations, she was allowed to return to her husband's court in Navarre, where she received an icy reception.
Determined to overcome her difficulties, Queen Margaret masterminded a coup d'état & seized power over Agen. After several months of fortifying the city, the citizens of Agen revolted against her, & Queen Margaret fled to the castle of Carlat. In 1586, the troublesome Queen Margaret was imprisoned by her brother Henry III in the castle of Usson, in Auvergne, where she spent 18 years.
Margaret took many lovers both during her marriage & after her annulment. When imprisoned by her brother Henry III for 18 years, 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 & Henry III with her husband Henry IV. The memoirs were published posthumously in 1628 & scandalized Europe.
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 4 years later. As king, Henry continued to keep mistresses, most notably Gabrielle d'Estrées (from 1591 to 1599) who bore him 4 children. Negotiations to annul his marriage to Margaret were entered in 1592, & concluded in 1599, with an agreement that allowed Margaret to maintain the title of queen.
She settled her household on the Left Bank of the Seine, in the Hostel de la Reyne Margueritte. Finally reconciled to her former husband, & his 2nd wife, Marie de' Medici, Queen Margaret returned to the social scene in Paris & established herself as a mentor of the arts & benefactress of the poor. She often helped plan events at court & even nurtured the children of Henry IV & Marie.
Margaret died in her Hostel de la Reyne Margueritte, in 1615, & was buried in the Basilica of St. Denis. Her casket has disappeared & it is not known whether it was removed & transferred when work was done at the chapel, or destroyed during the French Revolution. Her life has inspired a variety of stories over the centuries, beginning with Shakespeare's comedy Love's Labour's Lost written during her lifetime.