Thursday, 12 April 2012

Marguerite of Navarre

Known as the “First Modern Woman”, Marguerite was responsible for the celebrated intellectual and cultural court and salons in France during her time.

The eldest child of Louise of Savoy and Charles, Count of Angoulême, Marguerite was born on April 11th 1492 in Angoulême. Charles was a descendent of Charles V and was a legitimate heir to the throne, providing that there were a few untimely deaths and lack of legitimate heirs. Her younger brother, Francis, was born two years later. Like her mother before her, Marguerite was a very intelligent and beautiful child and followed in her mother’s footsteps as one of the most brilliant feminine minds in France. Francis and Marguerite spent most of their childhood in Cognac and in Blois. After her father died when she was 4 years old her mother became the head of the household and it was Louise of Savoy who took control of her children’s futures. For Marguerite that meant a top notch education – Latin, Italian, Spanish, German, Greek and Hebrew as well as philosophy, history, theology and Scriptures. When she was 10 years old her mother attempted to marry Marguerite to the Prince of Wales, the future Henry VIII of England however the offer was politely rejected. In hindsight that was probably a good thing . . . her head would stand no chance of being detached from her body.  

When Marguerite was 17 years old she was married off to Charles IV of Alençon by the order of King Louis VII. Charles was described as a dolt and a laggard – totally below Marguerite’s intellect. The marriage was one that was for purely political reasons – it was extremely advantageous to her brother, the heir presumptive to the throne of France.

In 1515 Marguerite’s brother came to inherit the throne of France after Louis XII died without a legitimate male heir and since France was under Salic law, his daughters could not inherit (apparently France didn’t think that a woman could rule the country . . . ) therefore the crown when to his daughter’s husband and heir in his own right, Francis. Once her brother was securely on the throne, Marguerite packed up her life and moved to her brother’s court where she continued to live a life of privilege and where she patronized scholars and explored religious reform. When Queen Claude, the wife of Louis XII, died in 1524 she left her two young daughters Madeline and Margaret in the care of Marguerite and Marguerite raised the girls until her brother married Eleanor of Austria in 1530.

Francis I of France

Luckily for Marguerite the marriage to the Duke only lasted for 8 years when her husband was injured in the Battle of Pavia in 1525 and he later succumbed from these injuries. Interestingly enough, Marguerite’s brother Francis was also captured during this battle and was held prisoner by Emperor Charles V in Madrid, Spain. It was thanks to his brilliant and strong-willed sister Marguerite that he was set free. Marguerite actually traveled all the way to Madrid to negotiate her brother’s release in exchange for a high ransom.

Marguerite wouldn’t be single for long as in 1527 she married Henry II, King of Navarre with whom she had a daughter Jeanne who was born on November 16th 1528. Jeanne would eventually become Jeanne III of Navarre and mother of King Henry IV of France and Navarre. Throughout her marriage to Henry, Marguerite would remain an active and driving force at the court of Francis I. 

Henry II of Navarre
She would become the most influential woman in France, her salon “New Parnassus” became internationally famous and with her brother; they brought the Renaissance from Italy to France. Marguerite was a generous patron of the arts; in fact she befriended and protected many artists and writers including Rabelais and Marot. In fact, Marguerite was also an accomplished writer – a feat that most women could only dream of. She was able to do what most other women of her time could not – she was able to garnish success in a man’s world doing a man’s profession.

Marguerite was not only a cultural woman but she was also a religious woman. In fact, she even played a role in the religious Reformation. Her writings included a piece called “Miroir de l’âme pécheresse” which played a large role in the Protestant Reformation in England. Not only did it influence Anne Boleyn, but Elizabeth also translated this work into English and gave it to her step-mother, Catherine Parr, as a gift. Back in France, Marguerite played the role of mediator between the Catholics and the Protestants and she even tried to protect the reformers from her brother’s wrath. Marguerite’s role in the religious stability of France did not seem to large or important until after her death as in the years following her death there were no fewer than eight religious wars occurred in France including the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 (which interestingly enough also happened to be her grandson’s wedding day to another Marguerite, daughter of her nephew Henry II and Catherine de’Medici).

Margurite died December 21st 1549 in Odos, France at the age of 57.  

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