Authors: Nancy Goldstone
Tags: #Europe, #France, #History, #Nonfiction, #Royalty
For Larry and Lee, with all my love
Dear native land!
And you, proud castles! Say
(Where grandsire, father, and three brothers lay,
Who each, in turn, the crown imperial wore),
Me will you own, your daughter whom you bore?
—From “On Marguerite De Valois, Queen of Navarre” by George Buchanan (1506–82)
The lady left alone
The first one in the bed of honor having been extinguished,
For seven years shall be racked with grief,
Then long life in power with great good fortune.
—Prophecy by Nostradamus, reportedly referring to Catherine de’ Medici, published in 1557, two years before the death of her husband
ESPITE THE OPPRESSIVE HEAT, A
vast crowd had gathered, pushing and sweating their way into the wide plaza in front of the entrance and spilling over into the boulevards leading to the venerable, centuries-old cathedral. The focal point of the spectators’ attention was a long, high platform, recently constructed and ostentatiously hung with cloth of gold, that jutted out incongruously from the western facade of the church. It was on this grand stage that a seminal event would take place, the repercussions of which would be felt all over Europe: the marriage of the French king’s sister Marguerite de Valois, Catholic daughter of Catherine de’ Medici, to her Protestant cousin, Henry de Bourbon, king of Navarre.
A royal wedding was always a sure source of fascination for the Parisian citizenry. Celebrations of high spectacle, these occasions were deliberately fashioned to confer prestige and authority through magnificence, and the mob of onlookers sweltering under the sun that Monday in August were not disappointed. At three o’clock in the afternoon the doors to the Louvre opened, and the king of Navarre’s extensive entourage appeared, beginning the stately procession to the church. The bridegroom wore a doublet and cape of rich yellow satin conspicuously embroidered with diamonds and pearls; he was escorted on either side by the bride’s brothers, the dukes of Anjou and Alençon, whose costumes were, if anything, more elaborate. The duke of Anjou, who was particularly conscious of his position and wardrobe, had requisitioned twenty-three
from the royal treasury just for the purchase of his bejeweled cap.
But it was to obtain a glimpse of the bride, nineteen-year-old Marguerite (affectionately known by her childhood nickname Margot), that the populace had turned out in such numbers. The French princess was generally acknowledged to be one of the most exquisite women in Europe. The renowned poet Pierre de Ronsard, a contemporary of Margot’s, compared her to Venus; a Neapolitan ambassador rhapsodized that she was “
the greatest beauty
in the world” and declared that if he had left the kingdom without seeing her, “
On my return
… if I were asked had I seen France and the Court, [I] could scarcely say I had.” Her biographer and sometime correspondent, the abbé de Brantôme, devoted several pages of a manuscript to her ravishing personal charms, observing finally of her décolletage that “
never was seen the like
in form and whiteness.” Less flattering but more telling, perhaps, was the opinion of the Spanish grandee, Don John of Austria, illegitimate son of the emperor Charles V. “
The beauty of that queen
is more divine than human,” he was reported to have remarked after staring at her for some time at an official state reception. “She is made to damn and ruin men rather than to save them.”
But it was not just her glamour that drew the inhabitants of Paris out into the streets. The population, overwhelmingly Catholic themselves, adored the princess, who was generous as well as charming, and felt betrayed by this wedding. It was well known even among the common people that Margot was in love, and had been for years, not with her intended but with Henri, the handsome duke of Guise, and that this dashing young nobleman reciprocated her passion. A marriage between these two would have been a cause for wild celebration in Paris, for the duke of Guise, as the head of the powerful Catholic faction at court, was so venerated throughout the capital that he was treated as a hero, and his prestige exceeded that of the king, Charles IX, himself. But the queen mother, Catherine de’ Medici, had no intention of encouraging the ambitions of the
Guise family, whose influence and popularity threatened her government, by granting them so great a prize. Henri had been summarily expelled from court and forced to marry another woman. “
If he should ever
cast his eyes upon her again I will proclaim him renegade and miscreant and make him bite the ground with a dagger in his heart,” Marguerite’s brother the duke of Anjou had hissed after Henri was safely wedded.
Deplorable enough that Margot had been prevented from marrying the public favorite, but far worse that she was now to be allied to the king of Navarre, leader of the Huguenot party, as the French Protestants were called. The majority of the Parisian populace loathed and feared the Huguenots. Huguenots attacked Catholic churches, destroying precious relics and statues that they claimed were evidence of idolatry; they refused to attend Mass and worked openly to abolish sacred ceremonial processions. Parisians had no doubt that, should the Huguenots succeed in seizing power in France, as it was obvious they were trying to do, the Catholic population would be either forced to convert or suffer annihilation.
But the queen mother had inexplicably insisted upon this marriage, had pushed relentlessly for its consummation for over a year, until at last she had overcome all objections. The king of Navarre and his Huguenot entourage refused to enter the cathedral or partake of the traditional nuptial Mass? Very well; the ceremony would be performed outside the church, on a specially constructed open-air platform. The pope declined to grant a dispensation to allow Margot to marry her heretical cousin? At the last minute, Catherine de’ Medici claimed to have received the necessary permission, and as proof she waved a bit of parchment in the air. Although the union was portrayed publicly as an attempt to heal the wounds of religious conflict, the queen mother’s urgency hinted at other, less altruistic motives. The eighteen-year-old king of Navarre’s principal military adviser and mentor, Gaspard de Coligny, was known to be actively pursuing a marriage between his protégé and Elizabeth I, the Protestant queen of England. Such an alliance was unthinkable for
France; it would have given the English a strong foothold on the Continent from which to launch an assault against the western border of the kingdom. Catherine de’ Medici had other plans for Elizabeth I. Coligny was called to court, where he was made the beneficiary of a series of royal favors and privileges, including an outright payment of one hundred thousand
. He dropped his objections to Margot, and the marriage went forward.
In due course the groom’s procession arrived at the palace of the archbishop, near the cathedral, from which emerged the bride and her entourage, led by her eldest brother, Charles IX. Magnificently attired—“
I blazed in diamonds
,” Margot remembered—the princess, wearing an ermine-trimmed gown of royal blue silk, complete with a fifteen-foot train carried reverentially by three ladies-in-waiting, joined the wedding party as it made its way to the makeshift stage at Notre-Dame. The bride was very pale. When the cardinal of Bourbon, who officiated that day, asked the princess if she would take Henry of Navarre as her husband, she refused to answer. After a moment’s hesitation, Charles IX, who was standing behind her, brusquely pushed his sister’s head forward, as though she had nodded. The cardinal took this for an assent and sanctified the union.
The marriage ceremony concluded, the bride and her party went inside the cathedral to hear Mass, as had been stipulated by the nuptial contract. The king of Navarre and his Huguenot entourage remained outside, talking and laughing. An ominous murmur ran through the legion of onlookers, who had heretofore maintained an uncharacteristic silence. Their resentment was palpable.
Five days later Coligny was assassinated, and the streets of Paris ran with blood as the entire Huguenot wedding party was hunted down and slaughtered in one of the most infamous episodes in French history, known today as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. But this horrific mass murder, which claimed more than five thousand martyrs over the course of a week, was no spontaneous bloodletting. Rather, it was the denouement of a carefully constructed plot that
utilized the unsuspecting Margot as both victim and bait to lure Coligny and his faction to their doom, an intrigue planned, instigated, and executed by the one individual in France powerful enough to ensure its success: Marguerite’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici.
HE SIXTEENTH CENTURY MAY
arguably be classified as the Age of the Queen. In no other period in European history did a handful of seemingly indomitable women exercise such extensive sovereign power over so wide a dominion for so many years. The best known of these is of course Elizabeth I, monarch of England, the magnificent Virgin Queen, whose astoundingly long-lived and prosperous reign was threatened any number of times, particularly by her far more beautiful and tempestuous cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Theirs is a famous tale of cat and mouse, of intrigue and struggle, commitment and pathos, which has been told and retold by historians and novelists.
But at the very same time, across the Channel, sat another pair of queens of equal importance and influence whose fascinating history rivals that of their more celebrated neighbors to the west. Like Elizabeth and Mary, the saga of defiant, dazzling Marguerite de Valois and her unscrupulous mother, Catherine de’ Medici, is one of passion and power set against a gripping background of espionage and deceit. Catherine, the relentlessly calculating power broker who ruled France almost single-handedly for thirty years; Margot, intelligent and courageous, a free spirit trapped in a loveless marriage, the resilient opponent whom her mother could neither intimidate nor control.
Because they were bound by ties far more profound and intimate than those of Elizabeth and Mary, it is impossible to appreciate the role and character of either woman without the other. Together, their lives spanned one of the most thrilling centuries in history.
Theirs was an age of breathtaking adventure and astonishing events, of vile treachery and valiant swords. It was also an age of extraordinary women—and this is the story of two of them.