Margaret of Navarre, also known as Marguerite of Angoulême, was born 11 April 1492 to Louise of Savoy and Charles, Count of Angoulême. Thanks to her mother, Marguerite was given a classical education which included Latin. Like her mother, Marguerite was very intelligent, later being called “Maecenas to the learned ones of her brothers kingdom.” (Maencenas was an advisor to Octavian and patron of poets Horace and Virgil, among others.)
When she was seventeen, Marguerite was married to Charles IV of Alençon by decree of Louis XII. Politically motivated, this kept the County of Armagnac in the family. He was kind, but considered practically illiterate, probably not a good match for this bright woman. They had no children and Charles died in 1525. Marguerite’s second marriage was to Henry II of Navarre, ruler of Lower Navarre, Béarn, and several dependencies in Gascony. In November of 1528, she gave birth to the future Jeanne III of Navarre, who would be the mother of Henry IV of France.
Marguerite was diplomatically astute and courageous. In one instance, she was able to free her brother, Francis I, after he was captured during the Battle of Pavia by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. To do this she had to write her diplomatic letters at night while traveling 12-hour days on horse back to meet the safe-conduct deadline.
However, she is probably best known for her intellectual legacy. In addition to writing many poems and plays, Marguerite hosted an internationally know salon which she called the “New Parnassus”. Her writings include a collection of short stories called Heptameron, and a religious poem called Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul). Sorbonne theologians considered this poem heresy, but others appreciated it.
“For a long time I have cherished all the many excellent gifts that God bestowed upon you; prudence worthy of a philosopher; chastity; moderation; piety; an invincible strength of soul, and a marvelous contempt for all the vanities of this world. Who could keep from admiring, in a great king’s sister, such qualities as these, so rare even among the priests and monks?” ~ Desiderius Erasmus
Marguerite appears to have had an acquaintance, and possibly influence, with Anne Boleyn and Marie Dentière, a French Protestant reformer in Geneva. She was not a Calvinist, but was in favor of church reform and did her best to protect reformers during the reign of her brother Francis I, King of France.
She died in December of 1549 at the age of 57. Her only son, Jean, died as an infant, but her daughter Jeanne went on to become queen regnant of Navarre and a leader of the French Huguenot movement.
“In Marguerite the Renaissance and the Reformation were for a moment one. Her influence radiated throughout France. Every free spirit looked upon her as protectoress and ideal …. Marguerite was the embodiment of charity. She would walk unescorted in the streets of Navarre, allowing any one to approach her and would listen at first hand to the sorrows of the people. She called herself ‘The Prime Minister of the Poor’. Henri, her husband, King of Navarre, believed in what she was doing, even to the extent of setting up a public works system that became a model for France. Together he and Marguerite financed the education of needy students.” ~ Will Durant
Find out what else happened on April 11 in Women’s History.