Marguerite de Navarre was born in Angoulême on 11 April 1492, the eldest child of  Louise of Savoy and Charles, Count of Angoulême, who was a descendent of Charles V. He was the eventual successor to the French crown, as imposed by masculine primogeniture law, in case Charles VIII and his heir, Louis, Duke of Orleans, would not produce a son.

Marguerite’s father died when she was only four years old, but nevertheless, she received an excellent education. She also studied Latin. Today, she is considered one of the most important women of modern times.

Marguerite de Navarre, original painting by Karin Peschau

She was two years older than her brother, Francis I, who became King of France in 1515, and with whom she had a deep and loving relationship. For Marguerite, her family was the most important centre of her life. In fact, together with their mother they were named “The Trinity” because of their strong and loving union.

At her brother’s side, and later as the Queen of Navarre, after her marriage with Henry II of Navarre, Marguerite became the most influential woman in the France of her time.

Henry II of Navarre was a beautiful man and 12 years younger than her, admired as a hero, having escaped  from imprisonment after the battle of Pavia. Marguerite  had two children with him, Jeanne, born 1528, and a son who died  early, and also a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. 

After the death of her brother’s wife, Claude, who Franz had been married to because her father, the King Louis XII had no male heirs, she looked after and educated their two daughters, Marguerite and Madeleine.

Her brother was more important to her than her husbands. Her first marriage with the Count of Alançon had been arranged by LouisXII, and the second, with Henry of Albret, for political reasons, by her brother Francis I.

The highly educated Marguerite established, together with her brother, Francis I, a humanistic Court that was famous internationally. They built the castles of the Loire, invited artists like Leonardo da Vinci and various writers and intellectuals. Marguerite protected persecuted reformers, with whom she had an intense exchange, such as Calvin and Marie Dentière. When some of them were persecuted as heretics, she helped them, sending them to the court of her cousin Renèe de France or of Ferrara. Marguerite was deeply admired by many of these humanistic people.

The Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, wrote to her:

“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.”

The green parrot in the painting is an esoteric symbol for higher wisdom. the mirror in her hand symbolizes a person who has reached a high level of knowing herself.

Already as a girl she wrote deeply religious poems and later she created her masterpiece, a collection of short stories, The Heptameron.

From the Back Cover:

“In the early 1500s five men and five women find themselves trapped by floods and compelled to take refuge in an abbey high in the Pyrenees. When told they must wait days for a bridge to be repaired, they are inspired – by recalling Boccaccio’s Decameron – to pass the time in a cultured manner by each telling a story every day. The stories, however, soon degenerate into a verbal battle between the sexes, as the characters weave tales of corrupt friars, adulterous noblemen and deceitful wives. From the cynical Saffredent to the young idealist Dagoucin or the moderate Parlamente – believed to express De Navarre’s own views – The Heptameron provides a fascinating insight into the minds and passions of the nobility of sixteenth century France.”

Marguerite was a patroness of literary figures. She also commissioned translations from Italian (i.e. Boccaccio’s Decameron) and of classical Greek literature and philosophy  (such as Plato), and later a French translation of the Bible ( then only available officially in the Latin version known as the Vulgate) by the humanist Lefevre d’Etaples, who was consequently condemned as a heretic. Marguerite protected him and employed him as the tutor of the children of the Royal family, and offered him a quiet residence for his old age.

Marguerite belonged all her life to reformed Catholicism, but she was strongly influenced by the Reformation, as is evident  in The Heptameron, her collection of short stories. Here she created a fictional woman who is reading the Bible and interpreting it to other women and men, an activity which was outrageous for those times! In fact, when the book was published for the first time in 1559, all references to Reformation ideas were censored.

Marguerite de Navarre is a #NastyWomanWriter

Original Artwork and text by Karin Peschau

©Karin Peschau 2018

Works Cited

Merete Nielsen,,’Angoul%C3%AAme.jpg