The Unique Career of Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre

Chapter 3 : The Moral High Ground

The Duke of Guise was ecstatic. The old generation Huguenot leaders were dead. The new ones were birds in a golden cage. These were Henri de Navarre and his first cousin Henri de Condé. Both were confined to the royal court. On 26 September 1572 Navarre renounced Protestantism and amused himself with an affair with Mme de Sauve, a married woman who was at the same time the girlfriend of ‘Monsieur,’ the youngest Valois boy (François).[16]

François Duke Of Anjou Nga
Francois, Duke of Anjou (1555 - 1584)

On 30 May 1574 Charles IX died of a tubercular infection at the age of twenty-four, haunted, it was said, by his actions of August 1572. He was succeeded by his brother, Henri de Valois, as Henri III.[17] Monsieur fled the court in September 1575 to canvas Huguenot support, including support from outside France (he was Catholic himself)[18]. He was instrumental in securing the next peace agreement, called the 'Peace of Monsieur' (5 May 1576), which, while it lasted, gave material benefits to Huguenot leaders. By its terms he became Duke of Anjou.

Navarre also fled the court in February 1576, leaving his wife behind. On 13 June 1576 Navarre announced that he had returned to the Protestant faith. Now twenty-two, he assumed Huguenot leadership. Conflict continued. On 8 June 1584, after a lively career of great ambition and little success, Anjou died (of disease and the doctors).

It was the pivotal moment. As we have seen, the Bourbon family was a cadet branch of the royal family. The result of the death of Monsieur was that the Huguenot Henri de Navarre became heir to the throne. After all the Valois boys failed in their primary duty of producing male heirs: Monsieur died unmarried, Henri III was childless, and the only surviving child of Charles IX was illegitimate. Suddenly the tables were turned on the Duke of Guise: France looked forward to the reign of a Protestant.

However the second result of Anjou’s death was the side-lining of the current King of France. The Holy Catholic League was formed, a national body dedicated to the eradication of heresy, funded by the King of Spain and the Papacy.  Instead of Henri de Navarre the League recognised the Cardinal de Bourbon (sixty-one years old in 1584 and childless, but Catholic!) as the heir apparent. On 31 March 1585 the Cardinal issued a statement from Péronne in which he promised to restore France to the old religion and declared that ‘subjects are not required to recognise or sustain the domination of a prince who has parted from the Catholic faith….[19]

Really the candidacy of Guise himself was being prepared. He was a gold-plated Catholic, he descended from Charlemagne, through the Dukes of Lorraine, and also from St Louis through his grandmother, Antoinette de Bourbon. He was supported by Spanish money and by the Pope’s moral authority. Regardless of the masculine rulebook,[20] from the time of Monsieur’s death Henri de Guise started to think that he could become King of France. 

It was open to Guise to show his loyalty to Henri III, instead he authorised a flood of propaganda which attacked the King as debauched and ineffective. On 9th September 1585 Pope Sixtus V excommunicated both Navarre and Condé, even though both were of course Protestant, and deprived them of their hereditary rights – Henri de Navarre was declared to have no right even to Navarre. It was a Catholic assault on the moral high ground to clear the way for a new Guise dynasty.

These events put Marguerite in a tricky position. She was the pious Catholic wife of the heretic Navarre. The princess was unfazed. If she ever looked towards the moral high ground she did so with a glazed expression. In fact her husband’s biographer describes their married life as a romantic free-for-all from the early days. ‘The greatest liberality rules the conjugal relations of the King and Queen of Navarre….’[21] As time passed both had lovers.

Henri III, King of France (1551 - 1589)

When her husband escaped the royal court in 1576 and reasserted his Huguenot identity, Marguerite was displeased by his lack of trust in her nonetheless. Politically she had worked in his support. Two years later she and her mother set off for the south, the Queen Mother hoping to build bridges by delivering his wife to her son-in-law. 

From 1578 to 1583 Marguerite lived with her husband, mainly resident at Nérac, 100 kilometres south-east of Bordeaux, where one arcaded wing of their fifteenth-century palace survives. There was a second honeymoon then Navarre had an affair with one of his wife’s ladies, known as La Fosseuse, and moved onto a serious romance with Corisande d’Andouins, Countess de Guiche.

In 1582 Henri III summoned his sister back to court with the hope that her husband would follow. She obeyed, but Navarre refused to return to court. Instead Marguerite threw herself into an affair with Jacques de Harlay, Sire de Champvallon, freely indulged in the privacy of the Hôtel de Navarre. In her complaints about her marriage to Champvallon we hear the idiom of the time which mixed classical allusion with Christian piety: 

‘Ah! Let nobody say that marriages are made in heaven. The gods would never allow such injustice.’ [22]

Rumours circulated that the Queen of Navarre was pregnant by Champvallon. On 7 August 1583 Henri III ordered his sister to leave court. Which of the two Valois behaved worse? An illegitimate pregnancy ran against every royal code for Marguerite but her brother cut a much stranger figure. At the Paris carnival earlier that year Henri III walked through Paris dressed as a woman, covered in jewels and displaying his (masculine) décolletage.[23]

[16] Hercule François de Valois was originally Duke of Alençon, then was given the senior title Anjou in 1576.

[17] Who had recently been elected King of Poland, and had to flee his new kingdom in secret to regain France.

[18] John-Casimir of the Palatinate

[19] JP Babelon Henri IV (Fayard 1982) p 345

[20] In France only men could be sovereign. Also royal rights could only be transmitted through the male line.

[21] Babelon p 208

[22] E. Viennot, Marguerite de Valois, Correspondence 1569-1614 (Honoré Champion, Paris 1998) p 146

[23] M Moisan, L’exil auvergnat de Marguerite de Valois (Créer 1998) p 25