Marguerite's father, Charles of Orléans, Count of Angoulême, was a direct descendant of Charles V, and a claimant to the crown, if both Charles VIII of France and the presumptive heir, Louis, Duke of Orléans, failed to produce male offspring". In 1491, Charles married 15-year-old Louise of Savoy, daughter of Marguerite of Bourbon, sister of the Duke of Beaujeu—considered one of the most brilliant feminine minds in France. Louise named her first-born "Marguerite" after her maternal grandmother, Marguerite of Bourbon.
Two years after Marguerite's birth, the family moved from Angoulême to Cognac, "where the Italian influence reigned supreme, and where Boccaccio was looked upon as a little less than a god". Marguerite's brother, Francis—to become King Francis I of France—was born there on September 12, 1494.
Marguerite's mind, thanks to her mother Louise, was tutored from earliest childhood by excellent teachers, learning Latin, reading the Bible and Sophocles in the original. This young princess was to be called "the Maecenas to the learned ones of her brother's kingdom".
Louise of Savoy became a widow at 20, with a daughter nearing four and a son only one year old, who was now (as a result of his father's death) heir presumptive to the throne of France. When Marguerite was 10, Louise tried to marry her to the Prince of Wales, later Henry VIII of England; but this was "declined with thanks".
Someone wrote of her that Marguerite needed to love more than to be loved. "Never", she wrote, "shall a man attain to the perfect love of God who has not loved to perfection some creature in this world." Perhaps the one real love in her life was Gaston de Foix, nephew of King Louis XI. But Gaston went to Italy and died a hero at Ravenna, when the French defeated Spanish and Papal forces.
Marguerite was married at 17 to Charles, Duke of Alençon, 20, by decree of King Louis XI of France (who also arranged the marriage of his 10-year-old daughter, Claude, to Francis). This charming, intelligent, remarkably educated girl was forced to marry a generally kind, but practically illiterate man for political expediency—"the radiant young princess of the violet-blue eyes ... had become the bride of a laggard and a dolt". She had been bartered to save Louis' royal pride, by keeping the County of Armagnac in the family.
After the death of her first husband in 1525, Marguerite married Henry II of Navarre. (Now a principality of Spain, the capital of Navarre, Pamplona, is famous for the annual running of the bulls). Marguerite bore Henry a daughter, Jeanne d'Albret (mother of the future Henry IV of France).
Her first and only son, Jean, was born in Blois in July, 1530, when Marguerite was 38, middle-aged if not already old by 16th century standards. But the child died on Christmas Day the same year. Scholars believe that her grief motivated writing her most controversial work, Miroir de l'âme pécheresse in 1531. Sorbonne theologians condemned this as heresy. A monk said Marguerite should be sewn into a sack and thrown into the Seine. Students at the College of Navarre satirized her in a play as "a fury from Hell". But her brother forced the dropping of the charge and an apology from the Sorbonne.
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 worth 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 Marguerite's most controversial poem (condemned by Sorbonne theologians), Mirror of a Sinful Soul. 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), Clement Marot (1496-1544), and Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85); also, Marguerite was mediator between Roman Catholics and Protestants (including John Calvin (1509-64)). 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 Pau [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 wintry 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 for them a large chateau.
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, written by the nieces of Jane Seymour (1505-37), third wife of King Henry VIII.
Marie Stuart (1543-87), better known as "Mary Queen of Scots", was married in 1558 to Marguerite's grandson, François (1519-59), Dauphin of France.