The Victory of Queen Margot

Musée Condé, Chantilly/Bridgeman Images
Marguerite of Valois as a child; portrait by François Clouet, circa 1561

There are figures in French history who tower like monuments. Saint Louis, the Capetian king, a symbol of justice, Joan of Arc, warrior and martyr, and Henry IV, the great peacemaker, are three unmistakable paragons who personified a certain idea of French greatness. Oddly enough, Henry IV’s first wife, Marguerite of Valois, remembered as Queen Margot, also enjoys a high place in the popular imagination, although she had no political influence and her life was often threatened in the era’s turmoil; unlike her sister-in-law, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, she never wore the halo of martyrdom.

In France, nonetheless, she remains a popular presence in mass-market history magazines; five motion pictures have been made about her; she has been the subject of numerous biographies, some serious, while many others are far more fanciful and primarily focus on her amorous appetites and her “black legend.” In the aftermath of the beheading of her lover, Boniface de la Môle, it was said that she bought his head from the executioner and had it embalmed, and that during her lifetime she carried the hearts of her dead lovers in the pockets of her capacious dresses.

Certainly, Marguerite of Valois (1553–1615) had such a singular and surprising life that it could hardly fail to capture the interest of later generations. To begin with, she was the last member of the Valois dynasty (1328–1589), France’s most dazzling royal family. The Valois king who personified the French Renaissance was Francis I, the patron of Leonardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, and Andrea del Sarto. We owe to him the châteaux of Fontainebleau and Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris and Chambord and Blois in the Loire valley. What’s more, Marguerite lived in the second half of the sixteenth century, dramatic years that were as glorious as they were bloody—glorious because of the cultural glow conferred upon them by the first great writers and poets of the modern era, Montaigne, Brantôme, Ronsard, du Bellay; bloody because of the violence and cruelty of the seemingly interminable French Wars of Religion.

Marguerite was five years old when her father, Henry II, died of a lance wound to the eye sustained at a joust. This marked the beginning of the end for the House of Valois. Henry’s three surviving sons each succeeded to the throne but none, whether because of physical frailty, weakness of will, or sheer laziness, ever truly ruled as king. It was their mother, Catherine de’ Medici, who governed the kingdom for most of that period. Her eldest son, Francis II, married Mary Stuart and died at the age of sixteen, a year and five months after ascending the throne. The second eldest, Charles IX, became king at age ten and died without legitimate issue at age twenty-three, leaving the crown to his younger…

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