The Unique Career of Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre

Chapter 5 : The Lady of Usson

Marguerite de Valois lived in Usson for the next nineteen years. The castle was soon a welcome haven as the Wars of Religion ground on and the grandee death toll rose. In December 1588 the Duke of Guise was killed on the King’s orders. Catherine de Médicis died early in 1589 leaving none of her enormous possessions to her daughter. Henri III was assassinated in August 1589 by a Catholic enthusiast, as he prepared the siege of Paris, which had risen against him. The Huguenot Henri IV became King of France.  The unthinkable had happened but the League had no intention of accepting a Protestant King.

With exceptional bravura Henri IV outfought his richer, better-manned enemies, facing troops not only of the League but also of Phillip II of Spain. But it was his (re-) conversion to Catholicism in 1593, the subject of my previous article, which made him universally acceptable as King. His coronation followed in February 1594. By this time the Guise family, now headed by the Duke of Mayenne, was much weakened. Philip II made plain his hitherto secret plan, to place his daughter, the Infanta Isabela, on the throne of France. Even the enemies of Henri IV shuddered at the thought of a Spanish sovereign.

The Wars of Religion came to an end of 1598 with the Edict of Nantes which established Catholicism as the religion of France but allowed limited privileges to the Huguenots including freedom of worship in many parts of France (excluding Paris). In this way Henri IV squared the circle.

His wife meanwhile, established a court at her oasis of Usson. Her household was something like eighty people, less than half of what she was used to, but enough to support a stately existence. She wrote her memoirs and poetry, built a library, and invited writers and philosophers to stay as her guest. The Queen spoke at least three modern languages (French, Spanish, Italian) and read freely in Latin and also seems to have spoken Latin, although she did not know Greek. She employed musicians and organised concerts, and herself played the lute and sang. She took more lovers.

To some extent she built out and embellished the Château d’Usson. In the early years her revenues were entirely controlled by her brother Henri III, and were largely used to pay her debts. Marguerite was obliged to live on credit but after 1593, when she re-established friendly contact with her husband, she was quite well financed, for reasons I will describe.

Always pious – however many lovers – she turned increasingly to religion, attending Mass every day,  receiving Communion at least once a week, and taking part in the Holy Office in the course of the day. In 1605 she left Usson and returned to Paris, where she lived until her death in 1615.

By this time Henri IV was himself dead.[30] He had remarried (his second wife was Marie de Médicis) and had a family including two boys who survived him. The elder succeeded as Louis XIII, the father, in turn, of Louis XIV, the Sun King and autocrat of Versailles. This second marriage of Henri IV was therefore a key moment in history.

It happened thanks to Marguerite. Her agreement to an annulment of her marriage, to clear the way for Marie de Medicis, a distant relation of hers,[31] was her great gift to husband. One might think that such an agreement would go against the Queen’s dignity but that was not the way Marguerite saw it. We owe Versailles and all that came from it to the Queen’s solid good sense, learned at the cost we have seen.

On 10 November 1593 Marguerite wrote to the King to explain that she needed a pension of 50,000 francs a year, the sum given her by her brothers, when they were King. And she needed another 200,000 écus to clear her debts. The King accepted the deal. In return she applied for an annulment, citing her barrenness, consanguinity, and the force majeure (of her mother and brother) which made her agree to the marriage against her will in the first place.[32]

In fact the annulment was not granted by the Pope until 24th October 1599. One reason is the uneasy relationship Henri IV had with the Papacy. His flighty sex life was another. The many love stories of Henri IV cannot be told at this point. We can simply note that about the same time that he and Marguerite started to write to each other again, he fell in love with the French noblewoman Gabrielle d’Estrées, who bore him three children. Although he had started negotiations with the Grand Duke of Tuscany for the hand of his niece Maria, there is no doubt that Henri IV intended to make Gabrielle his wife. For instance in February 1599 he presented Gabrielle with his coronation ring.[33]

Well informed by friends at court, Marguerite found it hard to agree to give up her marriage in order to be replaced by a girl who qualified as one of her servants. Poor Gabrielle however died a terrible death from eclampsia in the course of her fourth pregnancy. This tragedy cleared the way for the Medici bride. On 5 October 1600 Maria de’ Medici (Marie de Médicis) married Henri IV in a proxy ceremony in Florence cathedral and the French seventeenth century began.

Dominic Pearce is the author of a new biography of 'Henrietta Maria', the daughter of Henri IV and Maria de Medici who became the wife of Charles I of England.

[30] Assassinated on 14 May 1610

[31] The father of Maria/Marie was a distant cousin of the father of Catherine.

[32] The grounds were not strong according to Church Law. Ultimately the chief argument was ‘spiritual consanguinity’ on the very doubtful claim that Henri’s godfather (he was baptised a
Catholic!), the Cardinal de Bourbon, was the proxy of Marguerite’s father, so they were ‘spiritual siblings.’

[33] Babelon p 661