Marguerite de Navarre  

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Marguerite de Navarre (April 11, 1492December 21, 1549). As patron of humanists and reformers, and as the author of the Heptameron, she was an outstanding figure of the French Renaissance. Samuel Putnam called her "The First Modern Woman".


Also known as Marguerite of Angouleme, was the spouse of King Henry II of Navarre Marguerite became the most influential woman in France, with the exception of her mother, when her brother acceded to the crown as Francis I in 1515. Her salon became famously known as the "New Parnassus". The writer, Pierre Brantôme, said of her: "She was a great princess. But in addition to all that, she was very kind, gentle, gracious, charitable, a great dispenser of alms and friendly to all." The Dutch humanist, 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?"

Marguerite wrote many poems and plays and the classic collection of stories, the Heptameron. Anne Boleyn, before becoming the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, was lady-in-waiting to Queen Marguerite, who gave her the original manuscript of Miroir de l'âme pécheresse . Later Anne's daughter, Elizabeth—to become Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)—at age twelve, translated this poem for publication in English.

As a generous patron of the arts, Marguerite befriended and protected many artists and writers, among them François Rabelais (1483-1553), Clément Marot (1496-1544), and Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85); also, Marguerite was mediator between Roman Catholics and Protestants (including John Calvin). Although Margaret espoused reform within the Catholic Church, she was not a Calvinist. She did, however, do her best to protect the Reformers and dissuaded Francis I from intolerant measures as long as she could.

After her death, six "Catholic Wars" occurred, including the terrible "St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre" of 1572. Eminent American historian Will Durant wrote: "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.

Jules Michelet (1798-1874), the most celebrated historian of his time, wrote of her: "Let us always remember this tender Queen of Navarre, in whose arms our people, fleeing from prison or the pyre, found safety, honor, and friendship. Our gratitude to you, Mother of our [French] Renaissance! Your hearth was that of our saints, your heart the nest of our freedom."

Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), French philosopher and critic, whose Dictionnaire historique et critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary, 1697) greatly influenced the French Encyclopedists and the rationalist philosophers of the 18th century, such as Voltaire and Diderot, esteemed her highly, writing: "... for a queen to grant her protection to people persecuted for opinions which she believes to be false; to open a sanctuary to them; to preserve them from the flames prepared for them; to furnish them with a subsistence; liberally to relieve the troubles and inconveniences of their exile, is an heroic magnanimity which has hardly any precedent ..."

Marguerite's most remarkable adventure involved freeing her brother, King François, captured in the Battle of Pavia, Italy, 1525, and held prisoner in Spain by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor who had once been rejected by her uncle, King Louis, as Marguerite's suitor. (A Venetian ambassador of that time praised Marguerite as knowing all the secrets of diplomatic art, hence to be treated with deference and circumspection.) In a critical period of the negotiations, Queen Marguerite rode horseback twelve hours a day, for many days, through wintery woods, to meet a safe-conduct deadline, writing letters at night.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) died while guest of Marguerite and her brother, after designing a large chateau for them.

In 1550, one year after Marguerite's death, a tributary poem, Annae, Margaritae, Ianae, sororum virginum heroidum Anglarum, in mortem Diuae Margaritae Valesiae, Nauarrorum Reginae, Hecatodistichon, was published in England. It was written by the nieces of Jane Seymour (1505-37), third wife of King Henry VIII.

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