Probably he loved his sister only next to his mother, and above his mistresses—whose ministrations gave him something less lasting and profound than her selfless adoration. Love was her life—love of her mother, of her brother, of her husbands, Platonic love, mystical religious love. A pretty story said “she was born smiling, and held out her little hand to each comer.” 16 She called her mother, her brother, and herself Nôtre Trinité, and was content to be “the smallest angle” of that “perfect triangle.” 17 By her birth she was Marguerite of Angoulême, Orléans, and Valois. Two years older than Francis, she shared in bringing him up, and in their childhood games “she was his mother, his mistress, and his little wife.” 18 She watched over him as fondly as if he had been some saving divinity become man; and when she found that he was also a satyr she accepted that disposition as the right of a Greek god, though she herself seems to have taken no taint from her environment. She far outstripped Francis in studies, but she never equaled his connoisseur’s .appreciation of art. She learned Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, and some Hebrew; she surrounded herself avidly with scholars, poets, theologians, and philosophers. Nevertheless she grew into an attractive woman, not physically beautiful (she too had the long Valois nose), but exercising a strong fascination by her charms of character and intellect. She was sympatica, agreeable, generous, kind, with a frequent dash of sprightly humor. She herself was one of the best poets of the time, and her court at Nérac or Pau was the most brilliant literary center in Europe. Everyone loved her and wished to be near her. That romantic but cynical age called her la perle des Valois—for margarita was Latin for pearl; and a pretty legend grew that Louise of Savoy had conceived her by swallowing a pearl.
Her letters to her brother are among the fairest and tenderest in literature. There must have been much good in him to draw out such devotion. Her other loves flowed or ebbed, burned or cooled; this pure passion was constant through fifty years, and always intense. The breath of that love almost clears the air of that perfumed time.
Gaston de Foix, nephew of Louis XII, aroused her first romance, then went off to Italy to conquer and die at Ravenna (1512). Guillaume de Bonnivet fell deeply in love with her, but found her heart still full of Gaston; he married one of her ladies in waiting to be near her. At seventeen (1509) she was wed to Charles, Duke of Alençon, also of royal pedigree; Francis had requested the marriage to cement an alliance of troublesomely rival families; but Marguerite found it hard to love the youth. Bonnivet offered her the consolations of adultery; she disfigured her face with a sharp stone to break the spell of her charm on him. Both Alençon and Bonnivet went to fight for Francis in Italy; Bonnivet died a hero at Pavia; Alençon was reported to have fled at the crisis of the battle. He returned to Lyons to find himself universally scorned; Louise of Savoy berated him as a coward; he fell ill of pleurisy; Marguerite forgave him and nursed him tenderly, but he died (1525).
After two years of widowhood Marguerite, now thirty-five, married Henri d’Albret, titular King of Navarre, a youth of twenty-four. Kept out of his principality by the claims of Ferdinand II and Charles V to Navarre, Henri was made governor of Guienne by Francis, and established a minor court at Nérac, sometimes at Pau, in southwest France. He treated Marguerite as a mother, almost as a mother-in-law; he did not imitate her fidelity to the marriage vows, and she had to console herself by playing hostess and protectress to writers, philosophers, and Protestant refugees. In 1528 she bore Henri a daughter, Jeanne d’Albret, destined to fame as the mother of Henry IV. Two years later she gave birth to a son, who died in infancy; thereafter she wore nothing but black. Francis wrote her a letter of such tender piety as we might rather have expected from her pen. Soon, however, he commanded her and Henri to surrender Jeanne to him to be brought up near the royal court; he feared that Henri would betroth her to Philip II of Spain, or that she would be reared as a Protestant. This separation was the profoundest of Marguerite’s many griefs before the death of the King, but it did not interrupt her devotion to him. It is sad but necessary to relate that when Francis bade Jeanne marry the Duke of Cleves, and Jeanne refused, Marguerite supported the King to the point of instructing Jeanne’s governess to thrash her till she consented. Several beatings were administered, but plucky Jeanne—a girl of twelve—issued a signed document to the effect that if she were forced into the marriage she would hold it null. The wedding was arranged nevertheless, on the theory that the needs of the state were the supreme law; Jeanne resisted to the last, and had to be carried into the church. As soon as the ceremony was over she fled, and went to live with her parents at Pau, where her extravagance in dress, retinue, and charities almost ruined them.
Marguerite herself was the embodiment of charity. She walked unescorted in the streets of Pau, “like a simple demoiselle,” allowed anyone to approach her, and heard at first hand the sorrows of her people. “No one ought to go away sad or disappointed from the presence of a prince,” she said, “for kings are the ministers of the poor .... and the poor are the members of God.” 19 She called herself the “Prime Minister of the Poor.” She visited them in their homes, and sent them physicians from her court. Henri co-operated fully in this, for he was as excellent a ruler as he was a negligent husband, and the public works directed by him served as a model to France. Together he and Marguerite financed the education of a large number of poor students, among them the Amyot who later translated Plutarch. Marguerite gave shelter and safety to Marot, Rabelais, Desperiers, Lefèvre d’Étaples, Calvin, and so many others that one of her protégés compared her to “a hen carefully calling together her chicks, and covering them with her wings.” 20
Aside from her charities three interests dominated her life at Nérac and Pau: literature, Platonic love, and a mystic theology that found room for Catholicism and Protestantism alike, and tolerance even for free thought. It was her custom to have poets read to her as she embroidered; and she herself composed verses of some worth, in which human and divine love mingled in one obscure ecstasy. She published in her lifetime several volumes of poetry and drama; they are not as fine as her letters, which were not printed till 1841. All the world knows of her Heptameron, because of its reputed indecency; but patrons of pornography will be disappointed in it. These stories were in the manner of the time, which found its chief humor in the pranks, anomalies, and vicissitudes of love, and in the deviations of monks from their vows; the stories themselves are told with restraint. They are the tales related by the men and women of Marguerite’s court, or that of Francis; they were written down by or for her (1544–48), but were never published by her; they appeared in print ten years after her death. She had intended them to form another Decameron, but as the book stopped short with the seventh day of the storytelling, the editor called it Heptameron. Many of the narratives seem to be authentic histories, disguised with changed names. Brantôriie tells us that his mother was one of the storytellers, and that she had a key to the real persons concealed by pseudonyms in the tales; he assures us, for example, that the fourth tale of the fifth day is an account of Bonnivet’s attempts upon Marguerite herself.21
It must be admitted that the professed taste of our day would feel obliged to blush at these stories of seduction, told by French ladies and gentlemen who thus beguiled their days of waiting for a flood to abate and let them return from the baths of Cauterets. Some of the incidental remarks are startling: “You mean to say, then, that all is lawful to those who love, provided no one knows?” “Yes, in truth; ‘tis only fools who are found out.” 22 The general philosophy of the book finds expression in a pregnant sentence of the fifth story: “Unhappy the lady who does not carefully preserve the treasure which does her so much honor when well kept, and so much dishonor when she continues to keep it.” 23 The stories are lightened by many a jolly quip: so we hear of a pious pharmacist of Pau “who never had anything to do with his wife except in Holy Week by way of penance.” 24 Half the humor, as in Boccaccio, turns on monastic gamboling. “These good fathers,” says a character in the fifth story, “preach chastity to us, and want to foul our wives.” An outraged husband agrees: “They dare not touch money, but they are ready to handle women’s thighs, which are much more dangerous.” It should be added that the merry storytellers hear Mass every morning, and fumigate every second page with arias of piety.
That Marguerite should have enjoyed or collected these tales points the mood of the age, and cautions us not to picture her as a saint until her declining years. While she herself seems to have been sedulously pure, she tolerated much laxity in others, made no recorded objections to the King’s distribution of his powers, and kept on terms of intimate friendship with his successive mistresses. Apparently the men, and most of the women, thought of love between the sexes in unashamedly sexual terms. It was a charming custom of French women, in that lighthearted reign, to make presents of their garters to imaginative men.25 Marguerite considered physical desire as quite permissible, but she herself made room in her heart for Platonic and religious love. The cult of Platonic love had come down from medieval “courts of love,” reinforced by such Italian strains as Bembo’s paean at the end of Castiglione’s Courtier. It was good, Marguerite felt, that women should accept, in addition to the usual sexual passion, the devotion of men who were to be rewarded only with a tender friendship and some harmless intimacies; this association would train esthetic sensitivity in the male, refine his manners, and teach him moral restraint; so woman would civilize man. But in Marguerite’s philosophy there was a higher love than either the sexual or the Platonic—the love of goodness, beauty, or any perfection, and therefore, above all, the love of God. But “to love God one must first love a human creature perfectly.” 26
Her religion was as complex and confused as her conception of love. Just as the selfishness of her brother could not dim her devotion to him, so the tragedies and brutalities of life left her religious faith pure and fervent, however unorthodox. She had skeptical moments; in Le miroir de Fâme pécheresse she confessed that at times she had doubted both Scripture and God; she charged God with cruelty, and wondered had He really written the Bible.27 In 1533 the Sorbonne summoned her to answer an accusation of heresy; she ignored the summons; a monk told his congregation that she deserved to be sewn in a sack and thrown into the Seine;28 but the King told the Sorbonne and the monks to let his sister alone. He could not credit the charges against her; “she loves me so much,” he said, “that she will believe only what I believe.”29 He was too happy and confident to dream of being a Huguenot. But Marguerite could; she had a sense of sin, and made mountain peaks out of her peccadilloes. She despised the religious orders as idling, wenching wastrels; reform, she felt, was long overdue. She read some of the Lutheran literature, and approved its attacks upon ecclesiastical immorality and greed. Francis was amazed to find her, once, praying with Farel30—the John the Baptist of Calvin. At Nérac and Pau. while continuing to pray to the Virgin with trustful piety, she spread her protective skirts over fugitive Protestants, including Calvin himself. However, Calvin was much offended to find at her court freethinkers like Etienne Dolet and Bonaventure Desperiers; he reproved her for her tolerance, but she continued it. She would gladly have composed the Edict of Nantes for her grandson. In Marguerite the Renaissance and the Reformation were for a moment one.31 Her influence radiated through France. Every free spirit looked up to her as protectress and ideal. Rabelais dedicated Gargantua to her. Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay followed, now and then, her Platonizing, Plotinizing mysticism. Marot’s translations of the Psalms breathed her half-Huguenot spirit. In the eighteenth century Bayle sang an ode to her in his Dictionnaire. In the nineteenth century the Protestant Michelet, in that magnificent, interminable, unwearying rhapsody called Histoire de France, offered her his gratitude: “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, lovable Mother of our Renaissance! Your hearth was that of our saints, your heart was the nest of our freedom.” 32