The Unique Career of Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre

Chapter 4 : The Road to Usson

On 8th August Marguerite left Paris starting the long journey south. The next day her train was stopped near Palaiseau by a troop of royal archers who made her take off her mask – a fantastic insult – and arrested several members of her suite. Two of her ladies, Mme de Duras and Mlle de Béthune, were arrested separately. All were questioned about the Queen of Navarre’s behaviour and especially about the pregnancy. If there was a baby it had disappeared.[24] The scandal spread through Europe.

On 13th April 1584 the King and Queen of Navarre met again at Port St Marie just to the north of Nérac. The news of Monsieur’s death reached them in the middle of June. This left Marguerite and Henri III as the two survivors of the Valois children – their sisters Elisabeth and Claude had died in 1568 and 1575. Monsieur was the brother that Marguerite loved the most. The Queen was therefore at a low point. She had (probably) just lost a child. Her surviving brother was her enemy. Her marriage did not improve. She did not become pregnant by her husband.

Henri de Navarre focused on the politics and on Corisande. After the death of Monsieur, Guise made Henri III make war on Navarre. This was the start of the phase of the Wars of Religion called the War of the Three Henries – the King, Navarre and Guise all having the same first name.

Marguerite then took a wholly unexpected decision. If she could not live happily with her husband, nor find an understanding with her brother, there remained the populist Guise and the call of Rome. She decided to go over to the Holy Catholic League as a power in her own right. On the excuse that she wanted to devote herself to the celebration of Easter, Marguerite left her husband’s court and moved to Agen, twenty kilometres east of Nérac, a strategic possession within her appanage[25] dominating the Garonne River.

The Queen of Navarre proceeded to invest Agen and its surrounding country with 2,000 soldiers. On 15 May 1585 she addressed the chief citizens, headed by the bishop, and told them that the Maréchal de Matignon, the King’s Lieutenant-General in Guyenne, was plotting against her. She demanded and received an oath of loyalty from them and the keys of the town. The Queen of Navarre now held Agen for the League. She was a rebel against the King and against her husband. In short she broke every rule in the book and committed treason.

Catherine de Médicis was furious. She called her daughter her scourge.[26] On 15th August plague reached Agen. The citizens concluded this was the judgement of God against the princess. On 25th September there was an explosion in the noviciate of the monastery where the garrison gunpowder was stored. Marguerite abandoned Agen, which was soon occupied by royal troops, and headed further inland to another of her fortresses at Carlat.[27]

La Reine Margot Clouet
La Reine Margot by Clouet

At thirty-two, the Queen of Navarre was at the height of her physical allure. At Carlat she took a new lover, the Sire’d’Aubiac, but perhaps she took more than one. The Bailliff of the Auvergne was François de Lignerac. He owed his loyalty to the King but gave it to the King’s sister. Lignerac was consumed by jealousy and killed a third young man who was sleeping in the Queen’s chamber, the son of an Agen tradesman. Marguerite was so close to the fatal attack that she was spattered by the boy’s blood.[28] How many lovers did this amount to?

By now the King’s troops, under the command of the Duke of Joyeuse, were in pursuit of the Queen. The Marquis de Canillac headed the body of men who caught up with her after she left Carlat, and arrested her at Ibois shortly after her arrival there on 16th October 1585. Canillac escorted his awesome prisoner to another great fortress, at Usson. Here on a basalt plateau rising high above the plain was a collection of buildings that looked like the three-tiered papal tiara: the town at the bottom, the fortified outer wall of the castle in the middle, and the inner keep at the top.

Aubiac was arrested and soon put to death (by being hung from his feet) but the Valois princess was treated with courtesy. Nor did Canillac hold out for long against the dazzling Queen of Navarre. Within a year Marguerite was no longer a prisoner, but instead the sovereign of a reasonable territory in the heart of the Auvergne. As Brantôme saw it

 ‘Poor man, what could he do? Trying to keep as prisoner… the woman who with her eyes and her beautiful face could hold subject all the rest of the world…’[29]

[24] Historians disagree whether Marguerite was pregnant at all, whether she had an abortion, or gave the child to a servant to raise.

[25] The territories given to support a royal prince or princess.

[26] Moison p 31

[27] She did not leave Agen the moment plague was announced, as many would have done. She did not scare easily.

[28] Garrisson p 243

[29] Brantôme p 256