Marguerite de Valois (1553 - 1615), was the first Queen consort of Henry III of Navarre/Henry IV of France. Called by some the first feminist, but by her brothers Margot, she was the youngest daughter of King Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici, and she led a life filled with intrigue and illicit affairs. She was a sister to Kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Her sister Elisabeth de Valois was the third Queen consort of Philip II of Spain. Margot was also a sister-in-law to Mary I of Scotland.
The matter of her marriage initiated her first conflict with her family. Negotiations about marrying Margot with Carlos, Prince of Asturias, heir to the throne of Spain had begun in 1559. However Carlos died under suspicious circumstances in 1568 while held in confinement by his father Philip II. By 1570, Margot was actively courted by Henri de Lorraine, Duc de Guise and seemed to be in love with him. Guise was head of one of the richest and most powerful noble families of the time. He was also a leader of the Catholic faction and involved in a power struggle with the Huguenots (Protestants of France, most of them were Calvinists). The intended marriage was deemed unacceptable by both Charles IX and his de facto Regent, Catherine de Medici. They were already concerned the Guise were undermining the authority of the Valois. Marriage into the Royal Family could only increase their influence. Margot's protestations were ignored while the Valois sought to secure a position of Queen for her. They offered her hand in marriage to Sebastian, King of Portugal who was close to her own age. However Sebastian had doubts about allying himself to France and offered no clear answer on the matter. He did answer positively in 1572 but by then the Valois had chosen another husband for Margot.
Catherine had chosen Henry, Prince of Navarre, sole heir to his mother Jeanne d'Albret, Queen regnant of Navarre, as the new betrothed for Margot. Jeanne was among the leaders of the Huguenots. The marriage was intended to form an alliance between the Catholic Valois and the Protestants of Navarre. Jeanne died shortly before the wedding, an event contemporary observers found a bit too convenient for Catherine's plans. The marriage was considered controversial by both Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe and it was doubtful if it would result in peaceful relations between the French religious factions. The marriage did take place on August 18, 1572 and leading members of both factions arrived in Paris to attend it.
Tensions in Paris in the days preceding and following the wedding were high and there were fears an open conflict would result by the close interaction between bitter opponents. On 22 August, Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France survived an assassination attempt against him. Coligny was the de facto leader of the French Huguenots and political favorite of Charles IX. He was for months trying to persuade Charles to invade Spanish Flanders, taking advantage of an ongoing Protestant revolution there to make territorial gains for France. He was also convincing Henry to take initiatives not approved by Catherine, in effect starting to rule by himself. The assassin was suspected to be an agent of the Guise, though historians have argued Philip II of Spain and Catherine de Medici or their councilors are also viable suspects.
By 23 August, Catherine and Charles both feared the Protestants would retaliate against them. and Catholics in Paris. At least 4,000 armed Huguenots were camped just outside the city. They decided to act first, orchestrating the assassinations of Coligny (at the time wounded and bedridden) and other leading Protestants. On August 24, Saint Bartholomew's Day, the killings begun. However the situation was soon derailed as the Catholic population of Paris rioted and started hunting down Protestants. From August 24 to August 26. the so-called Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre went on. Besides the relatively few people killed by orders of the King and Queen Mother, thousands of French Huguenots were killed, regardless of their social class, wealth, sex or age. The exact number is unknown with estimations varying between the low end of 2000 people and the high end of 30,000. The estimation is made harder because anti-Huguenot riots and massacres took place in twelve other cities between August and October and contemporary accounts seem to consider them to be a single, long-lasting massacre. The events led to a new French Civil War and the death toll would only increase.
Margot was in peril right at the start of the Massacre with wounded Huguenots seeking refuge in her bedroom and armed guards following them there. Recovering from the initial shock of waking up with a bleeding men on her bed, Margot was able to use her royal status to intervene on behalf of various Protestants and have their lives spared. However she and Henry found themselves in luxurious captivity in Paris. The new couple were close allies for a decade but never passionate lovers to each other. Instead each of them sought other lovers, both before and after managing to leave Paris. By 1582, the duo had in effect separated and Margot was concentrating her political efforts against her brother Henri III of France. A failed coup against him resulted in Margot held in custody in Usson castle from 1586 onwards.
The assassination of Henry III in 1589, left Henry of Navarre as the new King of France and Margot his Queen. Both titles were nominal as Henry would struggle for years to be accepted by Catholics and Margot was still a prisoner. Henry would in fact have to convert to Catholicism before gaining recognition. He did not mind having a reputation as a lecher for his numerous affairs but did mind having one as a cuckod. Henry and Margot started negotiations about dissolving their marriage in 1592 and concluded them in 1599. Margot kept the title of Queen, gained her freedom and a household of her own. She had a role in the court of Henry and his new wife Marie de Medici. Having no children of her own, she acted as a mother to those of Henry and Marie. She also acted as a patron of the arts and benefactor to the poor. She survived Henry IV who was assassinated in 1610 and lived to see the first years of Louis XIII's reign. She died of natural causes in 1615.
In 1628, the memoirs of Margot were published and brought to prominence her own perspective on the reigns of her brothers and husband. They are considered a valuable historical resource and a significant literary work. Queen Margot was the subject of an 1845 novel by Alexandre Dumas by the title of Marguerite de Valois and a comic book series in Belgium which is just now being translated into English.