Marguerite de Valois, painted by Clouet in 1560. Photo: Musée Condé, Chantilly.
Monday, 18th August 1572 was an oppressively hot and sultry summer day in the French capital. Usually Parisians would be keen to stay indoors out of the sunshine but on such a special day they had instead been thronging the streets since the early morning, keen to find the best spot for that day’s royal processions, in much the same way as the streets of London filled up before last year’s royal wedding.
The marriage of Princesse Marguerite, sister of Charles IX and daughter of the formidable Catherine de Medici and her cousin, Henri de Navarre had been arranged the previous year after an attempt to marry Marguerite off to the King of Portugal had fallen through. The arrangement of her marriage with Henri had also been problematic as he too had a formidable mother in the person of Jeanne de Navarre and as a devout Huguenot she had rather less than keen to see her son allied to a Catholic princess in general and one who was the daughter of Catherine de Medici, whom she very much disliked and distrusted, in particular. Jeanne was also wary about the decadent nature of Charles’ court and, already well aware of her beloved son’s weaknesses when it came to women, song and wine, had no wish to see him exposed to such profligacy.
However, distrustful though Jeanne may have been, she was no match for the wiles of Catherine de Medici who was extremely keen to bring the match about and even courted war with Spain by lending support to the Protestant Netherlands in order to secure the trust of the wary Huguenots. As well as this there was a risk that if Jeanne continued to oppose the marriage, the unscrupulous Catherine would have Henri’s legitimacy (always a touchy subject as he was born from Jeanne’s second marriage which some believed was inherently invalid) overturned by the Pope which would mean losing his precious and all important right to the French throne.
Jeanne d’Albret, Reine de Navarre, painted by Clouet in 1570.
This was probably the deciding factor for Jeanne, who was keen to cement her son’s rights to France should Catherine’s sons die without legitimate male heirs and so in January 1572, Jeanne set off for the French court to parley with Catherine and King Charles as well as looking over her prospective daughter in law and making sure that she would be sympathetic to Henri’s religious beliefs.
Jeanne took her ten year old daughter, Catherine to Chenonceau with her, whom after meeting Marguerite for the first time wrote to her brother to tell him that ‘Monsieur, I have seen Madame Marguerite, and I found her very beautiful, and I wish you might have seen her.‘ Jeanne was also pleased with the lovely and extremely intelligent princess (although she thought she wore too much make up), but was rather less thrilled with the debauched and unpleasant atmosphere that pervaded Catherine de Medici’s court where, as she put it ‘here it is not the men who solicit the women but the women the men‘, where she often felt herself ridiculed, treated with arch contempt and also in some personal danger.
However, dutiful and welcoming though the princess had seemed, underneath her courtly elegance and esprit, she was furious about the planned match with Navarre, which she considered to be a provincial backwater presided over by a unrefined, smelly nobody. It infuriated her that any objections she may have made were summarily over ruled and ignored by her mother and brother who were seemingly determined to rid themselves of her at any cost.
Marguerite and Henri de Navarre, depicted in Catherine de Medici’s book of hours. Photo: Musée Louvre.
Despite all of the drama and private unhappiness, the marriage contract between Marguerite and Henri was signed on the 11th April 1572 and Jeanne duly set off to Paris to start making arrangements for her son’s wedding finery. However, an apparently trifling ‘catarrh’ illness that she had suffered from during her sojourn at Catherine’s risqué court worsened during her journey to the capital and she was to die there on the 9th of June. Rumours spread as they always do that the Queen of Navarre had been poisoned by Catherine or one of her cronies, probably with the aid of a pair of beautifully perfumed gloves that had been laced with a deadly poison, but an autopsy revealed that the Queen of Navarre had been in the advanced stages of tuberculosis and besides there was no reason for Catherine to do away with Jeanne now that the wedding contract had been signed and she had got her own way.
Nonetheless, the prospective nuptials of Marguerite and Henri, which ought to have been a joyous union between the Catholic and Huguenot factions in France, were instead bringing to the fore the always simmering tensions between the two groups with the thousands of Protestants who poured into Paris to take part in the marriage festivities feeling very ill at ease and unwelcome, while the Catholics at court regarded the incomers with annoyance. The terrible dusty heat in the French capital did nothing to ease the terrible rising tension on the streets as anti Protestant sermons were delivered in churches all across the city and even in front of the royal family in their chapel in the Louvre.
Catherine de Medici by Clouet.
However, tense and dangerous though the atmosphere may have been, everyone was determined to enjoy themselves when Marguerite emerged from the episcopal palace next to Notre Dame and walked at the head of the procession to her wedding. The nineteen year old princess was dressed in a diamond spangled gown covered with a blue velvet mantle which had a thirty foot train. On her head there glittered a fabulous crown as she did not just marry that day but also become Queen of Navarre.
Brantôme had described the princess in the spring of 1572 as ‘so beautiful was she, that one had never seen anyone lovelier in the world. Besides the beauty of her face and her well turned body, she was superbly dressed and fantastically valuable jewellery adorned her attire. Her lovely face shone with faultless white skin and her hair was dressed with big white pearls, precious stones and extremely rare diamonds shaped like stars — one could say that her natural beauty and the shimmering of her jewels competed with a brilliant night sky full of stars.‘
Henri de Navarre, painted in 1575. Photo: Chateau de Pau.
Certainly the adolescent princess was an eye catching sight as she walked between her brothers, King Charles and the Duc d’Anjou, both dressed in matching white silk covered in fine embroidery, diamonds and pearls to the platform that had been erected outside Notre Dame for the wedding ceremony, where her mother who was dressed in fabulous rich purple brocade awaited them. As her bridegroom was a staunch Protestant (until tested by the offer of a crown in later years!) it had been agreed in the marriage articles that the ceremony should take place outdoors rather than within the Catholic cathedral.
The Cardinal de Bourbon performed the ceremony, which the vast crowd crammed into the square in front of Notre Dame watched in unusually reverent silence. Accounts differ about what happened next but it’s believed that although Henri responded with a resounding ‘yes’ when asked if he would take Marguerite to be his wife, the princess remained silent when asked for her assent until her brother Charles lost his famously short temper, grasped her head and shoved it forward so that it looked like she was nodding in agreement. It was enough and the marriage was duly confirmed. Well, it was enough FOR NOW as later Marguerite’s lack of assent would be employed as grounds for the marriage’s later annulment.
Marguerite, painted in 1573 by Clouet.
After the ceremony was complete, Henri ceremoniously handed his new wife over to her brother, the Duc d’Anjou and stepped aside as she was led into the cathedral to hear the nuptial mass which was performed before her family and the entirety of the court. While they were all shut inside in the incense scented gloom and stifling heat of the cathedral, the day’s bridegroom remained outside on the platform where the crowd could see him chatting with his friend and advisor, the Admiral de Coligny, who was one of the most prominent Huguenots in France and also the focus of a great deal of anti-Protestant feeling.
When the royal party, headed by Marguerite and Anjou finally emerged blinking and exhausted into the bright sunshine once more they then walked in a procession to the next door palace for a lengthy and extremely costly wedding banquet after which there was a ball in the Louvre. No expense was spared for Marguerite’s wedding celebrations, which lasted for four days of balls, feasting, ballets, jousts and masques, while all the while tensions increased on the streets of Paris and secret machinations were being conducted behind the scenes in the Louvre…
Scene from Reine Margot, starring Isabelle Adjani. Probably one of the greatest films ever made.