Catherine de Médici, Jeanne d'Albret, King Charles IX of France, King Henri IV of France and Navarre, King Philip II of Spain, Pope Gregory XIII, Princess Margaret de Valois, Queen Joan III of Navarre, Queen of France and Navarre, St. Bartholomew's Day massacre
Henri IV of France’s wives and mistresses played a significant role in the politics of his reign.
Henri’s womanising became legendary, earning him the nickname of Le Vert Galant. His sexual appetite was said to have been insatiable, and he always kept mistresses, often several at a time, as well as engaging in random sexual encounters and visits to brothels. Even so, he tended to elevate one mistress above the others and shower her with money, honours, and promises.
After the signature of the peace of Saint-Germain, Catherine de’ Medici, the powerful mother of King Charles IX, was convinced by François of Montmorency to marry her daughter Margaret with Henri III of Navarre.
The match was in fact assumed almost thirteen years earlier by the late King Henri II. Catherine, who believed in dynastic marriage as a potent political tool, aimed to unite the interests of the Valois and the Bourbons, and create harmony between Catholics and Huguenots in the reign of France.
By all accounts, Margaret of Valois was deemed highly attractive, even sexually magnetic: “The beauty of that princess is more divine than human, she is made to damn and ruin men rather than to save them”, said about her Don Juan of Austria came to court just to see her.
Margaret had also an enterprising and flirtatious character. Shortly before this marriage plan with Henri of Navarre, she had been involved in a scandal: it was discovered that she encouraged the handsome Henri of Guise, who intended to marry her, entertaining a secret correspondence with him. When her family discovered it put an end to the crush between them and sent Henri of Guise away from court.
Some sources claim the duke of Guise was Margaret’s first lover, but this is highly unlikely. For political reasons, the duty of a Daughter of France was to be a virgin at the wedding and for this she was very guarded.
If Margaret had really compromised her reputation, Jeanne d’Albret (Queen Joan III of Navarre) would not accept the marriage between her son Henri and the princess. Although certainly after the wedding, Margaret was unfaithful to her husband, many of the extramarital adventures are the result of pamphlets that have had to politically discredit her and her family: the most famous was Le Divorce Satyrique (1607), who described her as a nymphomaniac.
Margaret complied with her mother’s desire to marry Henri of Navarre, provided she was not forced to convert to Protestantism. When Jeanne d’Albret arrived at the French court after receiving numerous pressures from Catherine, she was extremely impressed by Margaret: “She has frankly owned to me the favourable impression which she has formed of you.
With her beauty and wit, she exercises a great influence over the Queen-Mother and the King, and Messieurs her younger brothers.” The problems began when the Protestant Jeanne discovered that Margaret had no intention of abjuring Catholicism. Meanwhile the marriage negotiations were repeatedly impeded by the Pope Gregory XIII and King Felipe II of Spain.
Tired of the duration of the negotiations, Charles IX decided that the wedding would be celebrated by the Cardinal of Bourbon even without papal dispensation, so Jeanne gave her consent to the wedding by promising that Henri could remain a Huguenot.
When Jeanne arrived in Paris to buy clothes for the wedding, she was taken ill and died, aged forty-four; and Henri succeeded her as the King Henri III of Navarre. Henri arrived in Paris in July 1572 and saw Margaret after six years of separation (they had spent their childhood together with the French court). Despite subsequent historiographic interpretations, contemporaries do not point out any mutual dissatisfaction between future spouses.
The controversial wedding took place on August 18, 1572 at Notre-Dame, Paris. After a nuptial lunch, four days of balls, masques and banquets ensued, only to be interrupted by the outbreak of violence in Paris.
After the attempted assassination of the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny on August 18, 1572, Dowager Queen Catherine and King Charles IX, to forestall the expected Huguenot backlash, ordered the murder of the Huguenot leaders gathered in Paris for the wedding. The result was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, in which thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris and throughout the reign.
Margaret later described in her Memoirs the chaos and bloodshed in the Louvre Palace, where she and her new husband were lodged. Henri found himself escorted to a room with his cousin Henri of Condé, and told to choose between death and conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Henri chose the latter. After the massacre, the Queen-Mother proposed to her daughter that the marriage be annulled, but Margaret replied that this was impossible because she had already had sexual relations with Henri and was “in every sense” his wife. She wrote in her Memoirs: “I suspected the design of separating me from my husband was in order to work some mischief against him.“