Margaret of France, Duchess of Savoy

Margaret of France, Duchess of Savoy 1523-74

by Winifred Stephens

Like all princesses of the sixteenth century, the hand of the youngest daughter of François I was repeatedly hawked around the ever-changing pool of royal bridegrooms but, unusually, she did not marry until she was nearly 36. By this time she was famed as an intellectual and patron of poets and writers, and was an experienced and successful stateswoman in her province of Berry.

Margaret's mother, Claude, had died when she was a year old and the woman who had most to do with her upbringing and education was her godmother and aunt, Marguerite d'Angoulême, author of the Heptameron. Another strong influence in her life was Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France.

In public affairs grim, cruel, and relent­less, a bigoted Catholic, breathing forth sentences of death inter­mingled with his prayers, in private life Anne de Mont­morency was a kind and devoted friend. The children of Francis I, especially Margaret and her brother Henry, adored him. Margaret always addressed him as mon bon père, and her visits to Chantilly and to Ecouen lost half their pleasure when he was not present.

A number of letters from Margaret to the Constable are quoted in this book, including this:

Father, yesterday you heard by the doctors' letters of the improve­ment of Madam my little niece, in which state, thank God, she continues as you will hear from Batisses the bearer of this letter. On him I depend to give you a detailed account of this matter and other news from this place. It is enough for me to thank you for your unfailing kindness, especially on the present occasion; for I know that it was you who persuaded the King to send me here [probably to the palace of the Cardinal of Lorraine at Meudon], and that it was you, whose exaggeration of the little I have done for my niece, procured for me from the King [Margaret's brother Henry II] and Queen thanks far greater than I deserve."

Another life-long friend was Catherine de Medicis, brought to France at the age of fourteen to marry Margaret's brother Henry.

From the first our Margaret and her sister-in-law became fast friends; and their affection endured throughout their lives. Catherine never forgot Margaret's kindness when almost everyone in her new home seemed to be against her. Indeed in many respects Catherine's position at the court of King Francis suggests that of Marie Antoinette at the court of Louis XV more than two centuries later. Both the young brides were about the same age. In both cases the marriage was unpopular with the court and with the nation, and was rendered even more so by the childlessness of the young couple during the early years of their married life. In both cases the court and the nation expressed their dislike of the union by unkindly treating the bride.

During her brother's reign Margaret held an important position at court. Known as Madame la Sœur Unique du Roi she ranked next to the King and Queen and received foreign ambassadors after they had paid their respects to the Queen.

She was a witness of the famous duel between Jarnac and La Chataigneraie - an affair which is covered in detail in chapter 4 of this book. She was also a witness to the scandalous behaviour of her cousin, Jacques de Savoie, Duc de Nemours, which resulted in a famous trial (chapter 5).

In 1550 Margaret succeeded her aunt as Duchess of Berry. There she appointed a young lawyer, Michel de l'Hospital, as her chancellor. She kept him with her when she became Duchess of Savoy, again as her chancellor, only parting from him when her sister-in-law Catherine was in great need of his aid as chancellor of France. As for all her friends, Margaret always kept his welfare in mind: much later, at the time of the massacre of St Bartholomew, when he had retired from office, she wrote to Catherine asking her to protect him. That protection arrived just in time. He wrote to Margaret:

"What kings and what powers hast thou not invoked, O noble princess, in these sorrowful days. Far distant wert thou, and yet thy protecting hand reached me here. But for thee I should now be groaning in a dungeon or buried in a tomb."

Margaret's marriage came about as part of the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. The bridegroom was a man she had previously refused, Emmanuel Philibert, for although he was then the titular duke of Savoy, he was a landless prince with "nothing but his sword". By the time of the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis he had used that sword to such effect that he was in command of the victorious Spanish army and become "one of the greatest captains of history, and in his day and generation second to none, not even to François, Duke of Guise".

Emmanuel Philibert is an interesting character: a soldier and an athlete; a man who could forge a gun as well as fire one; a man of action who still found time for a daily lesson in geometry; a man of deep Catholic faith, regarded as one of the most stalwart defenders of the faith, he could yet be persuaded to sign a charter of religious toleration.

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