Some things are passed down from parent to child—and when your mother is the ultra-scandalous Catherine de Medici, odds are that life isn’t going to be tranquil. Margaret of Valois lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in French history, and she never shied away from getting right in the middle of the fracas. From her own “Red Wedding” to the passionate affairs and vicious power grabs that became her trademark, Margaret’s life was more jaw-dropping than an episode of Game of Thrones—and her twisted legacy is proof. Here are facts about the exiled queen, Margaret of Valois.
1. Her Family Was A Hot Mess
Margaret wasn’t born to a happy family. Her father, Henry II, was more into his mistress than his brood, while her mother, Catherine de Medici, was just straight-up ruthless and conniving. Despite the fact that the two were often at odds, they produced 10 children, but—surprise, surprise—as these children grew up, their relationships were also full of hostility and betrayal.
2. She Witnessed A Horrific Tragedy
When Margaret was just six years old, a tragic accident threw her entire world into chaos. An opponent badly injured her father during a joust, sending a piece of lance shrapnel right into his eye and causing brain damage. Henry passed soon after, leaving France without a ruler and Margaret without a dad. And more tragedy was to come.
3. Her Mother Was Cunning
The next few years of Margaret’s life were a whirlwind of horrors. While her teenage brother Francis initially reigned in his father’s place, he up and died, too, leading the matriarch Catherine de Medici to install herself as Regent over Margaret’s 10-year-old brother Charles. You can bet Margaret was taking notes on mom’s political power plays this whole time—after all, her infamous cunning came from somewhere.
4. She Was A Femme Fatale
Margaret was incredibly beautiful—so beautiful, in fact, that men considered her a femme fatale. As one admirer put it, “The beauty of that princess is more divine than human, she is made to damn and ruin men rather than to save them.” Margaret’s flirty personality made her all the more irresistible, and men would come to court specifically to catch a glimpse of her.
5. Her Mother Tried To Pawn Her Off
In those days, a woman was only worth as much as the advantageous marriage she could make, and Margaret’s mother tried desperately to ship her off to powerful suitors. It backfired horribly. Bewitching or not, a 12-year-old Margaret got rejected by Carlos, Prince of Asturias, Sebastian of Portugal, and a whole host of other European bachelors. Ouch.
6. She Had A Family Feud
When she was still a teenager, Margaret was close to her brother Henry. However, true to their disturbing upbringing, the siblings bonded over some extremely messed-up things, namely how much they hated their scheming mother Catherine de Medici. Indeed, they vowed to always take each other’s sides against her. As we’ll see…this alliance didn’t last long.
7. She Was An Eligible Bachelorette
Around 1570, things “seemed” to be looking up for Margaret. Her favorite brother Henry was back from a campaign, and her mother Catherine had finally found an acceptable and willing match for Margaret: Henry of Navarre. But something was off. In the days leading up to a betrothal, her brother suddenly sensed that Margaret was hiding a dark secret—and when the truth came out, it was explosive.
8. She Rebelled In A Big Way
Behind her family’s back, Margaret had fallen for a man named Henry of Guise, who was essentially the 16th-century equivalent of a motorcycle-riding bad boy. In fact, Margaret’s secret lover wasn’t even welcome at the French court, though this didn’t stop the pair from some very public displays of affection. Soon enough, everyone knew about them, and the consequences were dire.
9. Her Family Beat Her
When Margaret’s family found out about the affair, their reaction was utterly disturbing. Furious and humiliated that one of their own could be so flagrantly immoral, Margaret’s brothers and her mother turned on the princess, violently beating her for her indiscretions. But in comparison to her lover’s fate, Margaret almost got off easy.
10. Her Clan Banished Her Lover
Margaret’s clan wanted to punish the insouciant Guise by killing him, but in the end they decided the whole thing would go away a lot more quickly if they just banished Guise from court, again, like for real this time. Yet even with Guise gone, there was no quick fix. After this act of rebellion, Margaret’s relationship with her family changed for the worst.
11. She Had A Sibling Rivalry
Post-Guise, Margaret and her brother Henry developed a “lasting brotherly hatred,” and all their former closeness evaporated. As for Margaret’s relationship to her mother Catherine de Medici? Although they’d always been chilly with each other, they now went full-on Arctic Circle, and Margaret would never again feel much remorse for being a bad girl. And what a bad girl she was…
12. She May Not Have Been A “Maid”
Margaret probably wanted to dust herself off and try again after Guise left, but a dark rumor still followed her. Many courtiers whispered that Margaret had gone all the way and consummated her puppy love with Guise, an enormous no-no for a time that valued female virginity above all else. Although this likely wasn’t true, Margaret still had much bigger scandals to come.
13. She Had A Romeo And Juliet Love Story
Somehow, Margaret managed to keep Henry of Navarre as an interested suitor through all this turmoil—except the potential union brought its own controversy, too. Margaret was a Catholic, Henry was a Huguenot Protestant, and together they were like the Romeo and Juliet of their religiously fractured era. Was all this trouble a bad omen? Uh, most definitely yes.
14. She Made A Good Match—At First
Still, it started out well enough. Although Henry was some months younger than the 19-year-old Margaret, the teens both came into the match with good impressions, and Henry’s own mother wrote to him and confirmed that his bride-to-be had “frankly owned to me the favorable impression which she has formed of you.” Before long, however, it was going off the rails.
15. Her Husband Left Her At The Altar
Honestly, Margaret and Henry didn’t even make it down the aisle before practical problems started to show. Because of the bride and groom’s different faiths, their wedding in Notre Dame Cathedral was a bizarre service. Henry, as a Huguenot, couldn’t even set foot inside the Catholic church, so one of Margaret’s brothers had to take his place at the altar. Awkward.
16. There Was Dark Gossip About Her
People were so against the match, they weren’t even satisfied with these very real hiccups, and they had to make up more sinister rumors of their own. One source even claimed that Margaret’s family pushed her head down during the ceremony to mimic consent when the bride got cold feet. Although this didn’t happen, soon enough Margaret did think twice about her nuptials.
17. She Had A Red Wedding
Following the marriage, Margaret and Henry were settling into the honeymoon period, until their newlywed bliss turned into a bloody living nightmare. A large number of Huguenots had come to Paris to celebrate Henry’s matrimony, but days after the wedding, a Catholic faction suddenly attacked the group. Many lost their lives in the “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre”—and when the chilling details of that day emerged, they led right back to Margaret.
18. Her Mother Became Her Nemesis
There was a sinister force behind this tragedy: Margaret’s own mother, Catherine de Medici. No, really. Even though the Catholic battle-axe had arranged her daughter’s wedding to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre in the first place, she couldn’t resist showing her new son-in-law who was boss. And if you thought this family feud couldn’t get worse, it totally could.
19. Her Family Tried To Control Her
Catherine de Medici still wasn’t done wreaking havoc on her poor daughter’s life. With her dastardly St. Bartholomew’s Day plan accomplished, Catherine approached Margaret with an utterly indecent proposal. She wanted her to annul her marriage to Henry of Navarre. After all, Catherine no longer needed his family on their side. Margaret’s reaction was utterly ruthless.
20. She Made A Scandalous Confession
By then, Margaret was onto her mother’s game, and suspected the dowager of ulterior motives. Accordingly, she told Catherine in no uncertain terms that she’d never annul the marriage—besides, she couldn’t even if she wanted to. Why? As the new bride smirkingly replied, she was “in every sense” Henry’s wife, AKA: “We totally banged, mom.”
21. She Had An Active Bedroom Life
As it turned out, Henry and Margaret were having “conjugal visits” a lot. In fact, it’s actually historical record that the newlyweds were doing their duty day in and day out with each other. Except there was one huge problem. For all this time spent in the marriage bed, Margaret still wasn’t getting pregnant with an heir. And the solution wasn’t so simple.
22. She Was Barren
Baby-making in the 16th century was far from an exact science, considering women perished from childbirth on the regular. Still, it didn’t take a modern doctor to figure out that lots of banging and no pregnancy likely meant devastating news: Margaret was sterile. For a while, though, the couple kept trying—yet there was something else driving them apart.
23. Her Husband Was A Huge Jerk
Henry of Navarre was a total playboy, and having a ring on his finger only seemed to make him more irresistible to women. He kept scores of mistresses, and would rub his flings right in Margaret’s face. Rude—but that’s not even the worst part. The one he would flaunt the most was one of her mother’s lackeys, the beautiful Charlotte de Sauve.
24. She Was In A Bizarre Love Triangle
Did Margaret of Valois take all this disrespect sitting down? Absolutely not. She took a lover of her own, the dashing Louis de Bussy d’Amboise, who also happened to be the lover of her younger brother Francis of Alencon. Yep, you read that right, Margaret split a paramour with her brother. I mean, you know what they say: The family that shares together…
25. Her King Had A Sad Downfall
As if keeping her husband satisfied and keeping her mother at bay weren’t enough, Margaret quickly had a new problem on her hands. Although her brother Charles had been king for quite some time, he was rapidly losing his mind and his health, putting the throne in jeopardy. Like everything else in Margaret’s life, the transition was full of family drama and betrayal.
26. She Betrayed Her Brothers
See, Margaret’s allegiances were now split between her Protestant husband Henry and her Catholic family. So when her youngest, most religiously tolerant, and frankly sexiest brother Francis wanted the throne, Margaret backed him to make her hubby happy. This? Was not a good move. Her older siblings found out the plan, and they were not merciful.
27. She Nearly Lost It All
Margaret and Henry’s first treasonous plot together as husband and wife failed miserably, and her family doled out a brutal revenge. They threw Navarre behind bars, along with Margaret’s baby brother Francis for good measure. Margaret, beside herself, spent her days sending letters and pleading for their release. Not that Navarre thanked her…
28. Her Husband Was A Fugitive
By 1576, both Henry of Navarre and Francis managed to escape their captivity without Margaret’s help. In fact, Henry didn’t even bother to warn his wife that he was planning to break out, and Margaret found out only when royal aides accused her of abetting her fugitive husband, confining her to her rooms as punishment. But a twist of fate changed everything.
29. Her Family Didn’t Forgive Her
In 1574, King Charles IX passed at last, and Margaret’s erstwhile bosom brother Henry became King Henry III. Upon taking the throne, the new king found it in his heart to forgive Margaret and Henry’s sins…sort of. He kept her and her family under surveillance for years, and even threw them in and out of jail intermittently. Don’t forget who’s boss!
30. She Had A Debauched Court
The thing is, captivity didn’t tame Margaret or Henry of Navarre in the slightest; it only made them wilder. Sure, as Queen of Navarre, Margaret worked to assemble a refined court, but after hours, she really let loose. Her exploits were so notorious, they inspired Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. So it was no surprise, then, when things really got messy.
31. She Had A Teenage Rival
With Margaret still barren, Henry of Navarre began to truly push his queen away—until their relationship reached a dire breaking point. One day, Margaret discovered that Henry’s teenage mistress (and her lady-in-waiting) Francoise de Montmorency-Fosseux, was pregnant with the king’s child. Margaret did not handle the situation well.
32. She Got Into A Notorious Screaming Match
Rightfully grossed out by the whole drama, Margaret tried to banish Francoise from her sight and her court, only to witness a teen-pregnant meltdown to end all meltdowns. Francoise screamed back at her queen that she would never, ever leave, and swore that she would marry Henry once Margaret was gone. That’s not what happened, but it wasn’t any less tragic.
33. She Birthed A Stillborn Baby
Margaret, hoping to save both her face and the young girl’s, secreted Francoise away when the mistress finally went into labor. Within minutes, it was clear it was going to be difficult and that the baby wasn’t going to survive. Nonetheless, it was here Margaret showed a different side. She helped Francoise through a traumatic stillbirth…and then she pounced.
34. She Ruined Her Marriage
Margaret quickly decided to ruin Francoise’s life from afar—but she also ruined her own in the process. After that tragic business, the queen fled to Paris and into the loving arms of her other dysfunctional family. On the advice of her mother Catherine (never a good idea), Margaret finally fired the still-healing girl from her service. Henry was furious, and from that moment on, their marriage was effectively over.
35. She Had A Public Affair
In the story of Margaret of Valois, this is the major turning point into “good girl gone bad.” Margaret rebounded big time, even inviting one of her lovers, Jacques de Harlay, to come cavort with her Paris. She was so obvious about it that when she fell sick, people started to whisper that she was pregnant with Harlay’s child. The reaction was swift and vicious.
36. She Suffered A Brutal Humiliation
Margaret’s brother King Henry III was already teed off with his sister’s many betrayals against him, and he was all too ready to believe she’d messed up yet again. In response, he unceremoniously expelled Margaret from his court, thereby legitimizing all the malicious gossip about her and dealing her an enormous humiliation—but it didn’t stop there.
37. She Lived In Exile
Don’t forget: Margaret’s husband Henry of Navarre wasn’t pleased with her either, and he staunchly refused to accept her back home. So for eight long months, the mortified queen was stuck in a limbo between Paris and Navarre, all while the entirety of Europe looked on in shock and disapproval. Then the tinderbox got more fuel.
38. She Lost Her Beloved Sibling
In 1584, Margaret’s younger brother Francis—her biggest ally throughout all these years—passed. This was a bad situation in more ways than one. With Francis gone, Henry of Navarre was actually next in line for the French throne, and Margaret was under more pressure than ever to produce a legitimate heir with him. It was enough to make a woman go mad. And well, Margaret kind of did.
39. She Turned On Her Family
After years of manipulation, Margaret was T-H-R-O-U-G-H. Her next act was so scandalous that it’s unforgettable. First, she abandoned her husband—which wasn’t exactly an option for a woman in the 16th century, let alone a queen. Then, she rallied a squad of men and started fighting against, well, everyone even remotely related to her. Spoiler: It did not go well.
40. She Watched Her Friend Die
Margaret lasted about a year before the walls closed in on her. On October 13, 1586, her brother King Henry III’s forces caught her, imprisoned her, and then executed one of her closest aides, Jean de Lard de Galard, right in front of her eyes. Defeated both literally and spiritually, Margaret assumed she was next up to the chopping block, and her reaction was desperate.
41. She Wrote A Desperate Letter
Certain her time was up, Margaret sent a heartbreaking “farewell” letter to her mother Catherine de Medici. In it, she made one bizarre last request. As per usual, people had assumed that the late de Galard was her lover, so Margaret pleaded for someone perform to a post-mortem autopsy on her body just to prove she wasn’t pregnant with his child. Um, desperate times?
42. She Made A Great Escape
In the end, Margaret’s own cunning helped her escape her cruel fate. In 1587, after half a year in captivity, her guard, the Marquis de Canillac, had a sudden change of heart and released her. Some say Margaret must have seduced him, while others believe she merely paid him off. Whatever the truth, our girl was one smart cookie.
43. She Tried To Settle Down
By the age of 35, Margaret of Valois had married a king, carried on multiple affairs, staged a coup or two, and been exiled from her home. To the surprise of many who followed her scandalous exploits, she then just…kind of chilled out. Margaret decided to stay in the castle where she had been imprisoned, and lived there in exile for the next 18 years. Ah, if only things stayed peaceful.
44. She Could Have Been Queen Again
In 1589, a new plot twist appeared in Margaret’s life. Her brother King Henry III passed, turning her estranged husband Henry of Navarre into the next King of France. It might have been an opportunity for them to reconcile once more and rule France together, but…nope, there was no way in heck Margaret was going back to that. So she helped come up with an ingenious solution.
45. She Cancelled Her Marriage
Knowing that, as the new King of France, Henry of Navarre now really wanted a legitimate heir she couldn’t possibly provide, Margaret consented to annul her marriage. The pair quickly appealed to the papacy, citing Margaret’s sterility, the fact that their families were related, and their estrangement as evidence. Yet Margaret had some tricks up her sleeve…
46. She Made A Big Request
Margaret wasn’t going along with the annulment out of the goodness of her heart, oh no. Instead, she made two scandalous demands. First, like every self-respecting ex-wife, she wanted a buttload of money from Henry. Second, she demanded carte-blanche approval of whoever her no-good husband married next. And yes, this caused drama.
47. She Shot Her Husband Down
Margaret had a lot of leverage, and she also had a grudge. At the top of Henry’s bridal list was Gabrielle d’Estrees, his longtime mistress. Beep—WRONG CHOICE. Margaret immediately nixed the idea, saying she would never approve of him marrying someone “of such low extraction and of so impure a life.” Imagine being the victim of that beautifully-worded burn!
48. She Made An Unlikely Friend
In the end, Henry went with one of Margaret’s distant relatives, the Italian noble Marie de Medici, as his new bride, marrying her in 1600. Besides the fact that Margaret got to keep it in her own family, Marie and the former queen actually became BFFs after the marriage, with Margaret even managing to maintain her title. And they say exes can’t be friends.
49. She Had A Strange Comeback
Now back in the good graces of the king, Margaret made a triumphant return to Paris. Except when she arrived, the public was shocked. After nearly 20 years away, Margaret of Valois was like a bizarre old relic; her face was red and aged, and her clothing absurdly outdated. Nevertheless, she ended up charming them all—which makes what eventually happened to her so sad.
50. She Learned A Hard Lesson
After many rebellious years fighting against the wishes of her family and spouse, late-life Margaret became a people pleaser. She pretty much became the cool aunt to King Henry and Queen Marie’s quickly growing family, and was even named godmother to one of their sons. It was a happy time, yet it wouldn’t last for long.
51. She Was A Secret Hero
Margaret had a softer side that not many history books make clear. For example, when her mother Catherine de Medici orchestrated the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Margaret sprang into action to save many of the Protestants, helping the Huguenots and hiding their leaders in her own royal quarters to protect them.
52. She Bared It All
Obviously, people loved spreading gossip about Margaret of Valois, even her own friends. So when her regular correspondent Pierre de Bourdeille printed a text on her that contained multiple mistakes and false rumors, Margaret shot back. In 1594, she wrote her own memoirs, becoming the first woman to do so…then cheekily sent it right to Bourdeille, complete with a dedication made out to him.
53. She Inspired Mixed Feelings
Margaret of Valois fell ill in 1615 and passed in Paris at the age of 61. Incredibly, she had survived the reigns of six (!!!) separate Kings of France. One of the court’s statesmen eulogized her by saying she was “a princess full of kindness and good intentions.” However, her legacy is clearly complicated; he also described her as “her only enemy.”
54. People Called Her A Nympho
Throughout her life, Margaret was the subject of intense, malicious, and largely unfounded gossip. Among the accusations were a rumor that the Queen of France was a nymphomaniac—but somehow, it gets darker. A series of political pamphlets even once accused Margaret of having an inappropriate and intimate relationship with her older brother Henry. Ew.
55. A Myth Plagued Her Name
When most people think of Margaret, they tend to think of the way that she was portrayed by 19th-century author Alexandre Dumas in his novel La Reine Margot—but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Dumas based his story on all that spurious propaganda about Margaret, portraying her as nothing more than a pawn and a strumpet.
Sadly, the popularity of his novel ensured that this became the dominant narrative of this misunderstood queen’s life. Now, though, we know the real story.