The Valois Family
In 1610, Vincent de Paul was living in the Rue de Seine in Paris, just opposte the residence of Queen Marguérite de Valois, and listed as one of several of her Chaplain-Almoners. Marguérite was the first wife of King Henry of Navarre (Henry IV of France). It was from this location in the Rue de Seine that Vincent began to visit the sick in hospitals, came to know Pierre de Bérulle, and to form his association with the de Gondi Family. It was also here that Vincent is reputed to have taken on the doubts of faith of a theologian in Marguérite's Court, and made a vow to serve the poor in order to free himself from those doubts.
Marguérite de Valois was born at St Germain-en-Laye in 1553 into the last generation of the Valois family, which had ruled France for over 200 years. Her parents, King Henry II and Queen Catherine de Medici, had six children - .François II, Elizabeth, Charles IX, Henri III, François (Duke of Alençon), and herself, Marguérite. By 1570, Marguérite's father and eldest brother were dead, and none of her surviving brothers showed signs of producing an heir. At this point, Catherine de Medici and her second son, Charles IX, began negotiations to marry Marguérite to Henry of Bourbon (Henry of Navarre), "first prince of the blood," the next in line for the French throne if the Valois had no sons to inherit. For a number of years, France had been in a state of civil war between Catholics and Huguenots. The Valois were Catholic and Henry's branch of the Bourbons was Huguenot, but Catherine believed that Henry could be won over to the Valois belief, while Henry's mother, Jeanne d'Albret, ruler of the Kingdom of Navarre in the southwest of France, hoped that Marguerite would choose to become Huguenot. In 1572 Jeanne d'Albret died, so Henry came to his wedding with Marguérite as King of Navarre. The wedding ceremony was cobbled together in order to marry a Huguenot to a Catholic, but six days later the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Huguenots began. Henry's life was spared, but he and Marguerite were kept at court for the next three years, ostensibly as family members, effectively as prisoners.
In 1574, Charles IX was succeeded by Henry III, a brother with whom Marguerite had always been at odds and who was suspicious of both Henry of Navarre and his own remaining brother, Francis (Duke of Alençon), a moderate who sought accommodation with the Huguenots. The next year, Henry escaped and returned to his own lands in the southwest of France. Marguerite was not allowed to follow him.
By 1578 there was still no Valois heir, so Marguérite was permitted to join her husband at his court at Béarn in Gascony, charged with bearing legitimate sons. But in the four years they were together, Marguerite remained childless (although at least one of Henry's mistresses gave birth). Henry of Navarre continued to fight on the Huguenot side, and in 1582 Marguérite returned to Henry III's court for a visit that she hoped would reconcile the two kings.
After a year at Henry III's court, she was sent away - because of her licentiousness, according to Henry III; because of her continued support for her brother Francis (Duke of Alençon) according to Marguérite. She went back to Béarn, still hoping for a child, but Henry went only to his mistresses.
In 1584, Marguérite's brother Francis (Duke of Alençon) died. This meant that Henry of Navarre was the heir-presumptive to the throne of France, and with Henry III still childless, a likely heir. Henry III and Catherine began to deal directly with Henry of Navarre; Marguerite was no longer needed as a go-between. In her isolation, Marguerite left Henry of Navarre's court and turned to the extreme Catholic party of the Duke of Guise, an old friend and perhaps a former lover. For the next two years she worked to oppose Navarre's succession as king of France; her efforts included actions seen as treasonous by the court. At the end of 1586, she was captured by Henry III's troops and, in spite of letters of appeal to her mother, Catherine de Medici, imprisoned at the royal castle of Usson, in the Auvergne.
Henry III was assassinated in 1589. Before he died he named Henry of Navarre as his successor. The new king, Henry IV (Henry of Navarre), kept his wife Marguérite at Usson, although the harshness of her captivity was lessened. It was then that she began to write her Memoires. In 1599 her marriage to Henry IV was annulled, Marguerite testifying that the marriage had been forced on her (which her Memoires denied). Henry promptly married Marie de Medici (a distant relative of Catherine de Medici), who bore five children. Shortly after the annulment, Marguerite's debts were paid and she was granted a very comfortable pension.
Marguérite in Paris
In 1605, Marguerite returned to Paris where she met Henry for the first time in over 20 years, and became something of a friend to Marie de Medici, Henry's second wife. In her letters to Henry of this period, she addressed him as "Roy mon seigneur et frere." Marguerite lived the rest of her life in Paris, firstly at the Hôtel de Sens at Boulogne, then in the Rue de Seine. Reputedly she left the Hôtel de Sens to live in her newly built mansion in the Rue de Seine after a somewhat gruesome incident. One day, when she was returning home to Boulogne, a servant of the household ridiculed a 'companion' she brought with her. To make the point that such behaviour was not acceptable from a servant, Marguérite had the servant beheaded at the front door of her residence. It seems that good help was hard to get even in those days!
At the Rue de Seine,'La Reine Marguérite' (or 'la Reine Margot' as she later became known), remained a personage of note .Marguérite and Henry stayed on good terms with each other, despite the annulment of their marriage, and Marguérite was a favourite of young Louis XIII, causing some chagrin to his mother Marie de Medici whom Louis regarded as somewhat distant.. When Henry IV was assassinated in 1610, Marguérite supported Marie de Medici's regency and made Louis XIII her own heir.
Worldly and Pious
Pierre Coste CM, author, has described Marguérite as being 'as pious as she was worldly'. In Paris she had a robust social life, and remained a thorn in many sides. Her noisy parties in the Rue de Seine (some authors refer to them as 'wild orgies') could be heard from across the river Seine in the Louvre Palace, and this did not endear her to the Court residing there.
During her long years of imprisonment at Usson, she had become an avid reader in Theology and Piety. Fond of literature and art, she brought some 3000 books with her to Paris. Her home became a centre not only of social life, but also of literature - a meeting place for scholars, artists, and people of letters. A devotée of music, she had frequent concerts held at her mansion.
However she gave generously to the poor from her income, and employed six Chaplain-Almoners to assist her in dispensing her generosity. One of her Chaplain-Almoners was of course Vincent de Paul, whose name first appears on a list of Councillors and Chaplains on May 17, 1610. Marguérite attended Mass several times a day, and went to Holy Communion three times a week. At her own expense she maintained a community of Augustinian monks who chanted Morning and Evening Office in her chapel.
The Legend of Queen Margot
Marguérite was a victim of the society, politics and power struggles of her time. Her brothers all died childless, women could not succeed to the throne in France, and both her mother and her husband were desperate for an heir to the French throne. In her younger years at Court, Marguérite was something of a 'loose cannon', and a threat to many because of her strong and lively personality. Her arranged marriage was an attempt to bring Huguenots and Catholics together. When she could not produce an heir, she was isolated, imprisoned, paid off, and finally discarded. For most of her life, Marguérite's situation - trying to balance between the Catholic and the Huguenot parties - also came to affect how she has been seen by posterity. To Calvinist polemicists, she was a Valois and a Medici, so by nature sexually depraved. To the extreme Catholic conservatives, her support for the politically moderate Duke of Alençon, (her brother Francis) could be due only to an incestuous relationship, and her ability to convince a Usson governor to ameliorate the condition of her captivity could be due only to seduction.
Thus was born the legend of 'La Reine Marguérite' - a legend further fuelled by Alexandre Dumas' novel of 1845 "La Reine Margot" (film 1994, dir. by Patrice Chereau, starring Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Vincent Perez).
BOOKS AND PERIODICALS
Coste CM, Pierre, The Life and Works of St Vincent De Paul, Vol I, (New York: New City Press, 1987)
Garrison, Janine, Marguérite de Valois, Fayard, (Paris: 1994)
Román CM, J-M, St Vincent de Paul, a Biography, (London: Melisende, 1999)
Henry IV King of France , Encyclopedia Britannia, Biographies, Raymond Ritter and Victor-Lucien Tapie, accessed October 25, 2017.
Memoirs of Marguerite de Valois - Queen of Navarre, Project Gutenberg, ebooks, accessed October 24, 2017.