Ten Famous French Queens
Historically, royal marriages were meant to cement alliances between nations, produce heirs and maintain dynasties. In this article, we’ll explore the lives and legacies of the most notable Queens of France. Some were glorified, while others were vilified. All of these extraordinary women have left an indelible mark on the history of the nation..
1. Eleanor of Aquitaine
Queen consort of France: 1137 – 1152
Queen consort of England: 1154 – 1189
Eleanor of Aquitaine was both Queen of France, and England, and she flouted all conventions of how an aristocratic woman in the middle ages should behave. After she inherited the title of Duchess of Aquitaine (one of the most prosperous regions in France), she became the most sought after brides in Christendom. Eleanor married Louis VII, before he became king, and joined her husband on Crusade in 1147. It was totally unheard of for a women to go into battle with her husband. Though both the crusade and her marriage turned disastrous. After the birth of their second daughter, Eleanor had had enough. The marriage was annulled by the Pope due to the lack of a male heir.
Her second marriage was to Henry Plantagenet, who would become the warrior king, Henry II of England. He also happened to be the great rival of her ex-husband. They became the ultimate medieval power couple. By all accounts the marriage started off well, and they truly loved each other. We can only speculate as to why it soured. Perhaps it was Henry’s tyrannical nature, or Eleanor’s jealousy over his mistress? Either way, she plotted with her sons to overthrow their father. The rebellion was found out, and Henry had his wife imprisoned. She was released sixteen years later, after the death of Henry II, when her son, Richard I (Richard the Lionheart), inherited the throne. When Richard left on Crusade, he entrusted the governance of the kingdom to his mother. Upon his death in 1199, and after the succession of her son John as King of England, she returned to Aquitaine to govern the region. Eleanor died at the age of eighty-two, and remains one of the most brilliant leaders, and enigmatic queens in history.
2. Blanche of Castille
Queen consort of France: 1223 – 1226
In an effort to bring about peace between England and France, and at the behest of her grandmother ( Eleanor of Aquitaine) Blanche married Louis (later Louis VIII) in 1200. They had twelve children together. The king died at the age of forty-three from dysentery, although some believe he’d been poisoned by one of his rivals.
Blanche went on to govern France as regent (for eight years) until her son, Louis IX, came of age. When Louis IX left on Crusade, he entrusted the governance of the kingdom to his mother. Though she did not approve of the Crusades, he deferred to her judgment on all other matters of state until her death at the age of sixty-four. She proved to be a formidable leader, much like her grandmother before her, and maintained peace in the kingdom in the absence of her son. She is buried at Maubuisson Abbey, which she herself founded in 1236.
3. Margaret of Provence
Queen consort of France: 1234 – 1270
The dowager queen, Blanche de Castille, arranged the marriage of Margaret and King Louis IX in 1234. In a display of dominance, Blanche dismissed all of Margaret’s relatives and servants from the French court. As Blanche heavily influenced Louis throughout his life, the relationship between Margaret and her mother-in law was strained, to say the least.
Margaret accompanied Louis IX on his first Crusade to the Holy Land, and they set out full of idealism and christian zealousness. However, when Louis’ brother was killed in a raid, and Louis himself was captured, Margaret rose to the occasion and raised the ransom money while also negotiating his release. Unfortunately, any further attempts she made at entering into politics were thwarted.
It wasn’t until the death of her husband (while he was on another Crusade) in 1270, that she took up an active role in governance. Margaret spent her later years involved in charitable works, and died at Pour Clares Abbey (which she founded) two years before her husband was made a saint by the Catholic Church, in 1297.
Queen consort of England: 1308 – 1327
Isabella was born in Paris (historians are uncertain of the date), the daughter of the notorious King Philip IV (the ‘Iron King’). Betrothed at the age of ten to Edward, prince of England, it was a union intended to bring peace between the rival nations. Isabella married Edward II in 1308, and it would prove to be a disastrous union.
Edward II did not live up to his father, Edward I (also known as ‘Edward Longshanks’ and the) military ambitions….. Edward I was obsessed with crushing the Scottish people and dominating Scotland, earning the moniker the ‘Hammer of the Scots’. Edward II succeeded in losing dominion over Scotland. He also alienated his barons (and government) by reckless spending, arrogant behaviour, poor decision making and openly favouring his male lovers at court. He also openly disrespected Isabella in public, and she had had enough.
When Isabella was sent to France in order to negotiate a peace treaty with her brother, King Charles IV, she brought her son with her. Despite entreaties from her husband, she refused to return to England, citing her mistreatment. Instead, she allied with Lord Mortimer, a disaffected lord whom Edward II had also mistreated. In 1327, in her son’s name, Isabella and Mortimer defeated Edward’s army. Edward II would die later that year in captivity under suspicious circumstances. It was suspected that Isabella and Mortimer had ordered his murder.
The former queen was regent from 1326 to 1330. Edward III had grown tired of sharing power with his mother and Mortimer, and with the support of his lords, Mortimer was captured and executed for high treason. Though leniency was shown to the former queen, she was placed under house arrest until 1332. Upon her release, she retired to her properties and retained her vast wealth. Nearing the end of her life, she became a nun. Isabella, known by those unsympathetic to her cause as the ‘She-Wolf’ of France, died in her sixties. She was buried in her wedding dress, and ironically interred with her estranged husband’s heart.
5. Anne of Brittany
Queen consort of France: 1491 – 1498, 1499 – 1514
Anne of Brittany is the only woman to have held the title of ‘Queen of France’ twice. After the death of her father, and in the absence of a male heir, she inherited the region of Brittany. Though Brittany had recently been involved in the Franco-Breton civil war, her father’s final wish was that the duchy should cede to the kingdom of France. Anne would spend her whole life fighting for, and ensuring Brittany’s independence.
As Duchess of Brittany and heiress to a considerable fortune, Anne naturally received many marriage proposals. Although she made many legal protestations, she was married to King Charles VIII of France in 1491. In the marriage contract, it stated that in the event of her husband’s death, and in the absence of a male heir, that she would retain the territorial rights to Brittany. Charles VIII died in a freak accident when he was crushed to death by falling scaffolding holding heavy stones. Charles VIII’s cousin, Louis, was crowned King Louis XII. Besotted with Anne (and maybe her lands as well), Louis XII had his marriage to Jeanne of France annulled, and married his cousin’s widow. Anne was no fool, again she retained her rights as Duchess of Brittany.
Anne of Brittany died at the age of thirty-six due to complications from kidney stones, in 1514. After an elaborate forty-day long funeral, she was interred in Saint-Denis Basilica, the necropolis of French kings and queens. In the centuries to come, Anne’s image would be used as a representation of peace, French unity and Breton pride.
6. Catherine de Medici
Queen consort of France: 1547 – 1559
Catherine de Medici is known as the ‘Black Widow Queen’, but some believe that she has been unfairly slandered by her enemies. Catherine was born into the powerful Medici family in 1519. Since the middle of the 15th century, the Medicis were the most powerful clan in Italy, they accumulated their fortune due banking and political works, and there were three Medici popes. Catherine, who was orphaned as a baby, inherited a vast sum of money and was born into the Medici legacy.
King François I of France set his sights on welcoming Catherine (and her sizeable dowry) into the royal family as his daughter-in law, but in no way envisioned that she would later become Queen of France. She was married to François’ second son, Henry. The sudden death of France’s heir, put Henry in line for the throne, and he became King of France in 1547. Henry didn’t allow Catherine any political power during his reign, and openly favoured the stunning Diane of Poitiers, who was twenty years older than him. After Henry’s death due to injuries he sustained in a jousting accident, Catherine exiled Diane to her properties, and assumed the regency and governance of France. All jousting was banned by Catherine after the incident.
Three of Catherine and Henry’s sons became Kings of France, and all of them died young. Catherine wielded influence over all of them.The French Wars of Religion were turbulent and violent years, and the conflict between protestants (Huguenots) and catholics showed no signs of abating. Originally Catherine supported peace, but when that failed, she took a hard-line approach to the rebels. Both she and her son, King Charles IX, are said to have been responsible for the carnage of the Saint-Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.
Catherine’s reputation as being a jilted-black widow-queen with ties to the occult, and the dark arts persists to this day. Or was she a strong and capable woman who had been wronged and who would stop at nothing to ensure the continuance of her family’s legacy? It doesn’t help matters that Nostradamus (yes, the doomsday ‘prophet’ Nostradamus) was her personal astrologer. Are the rumours warranted? Perhaps, and then again, perhaps not.
7. Marguerite of Valois
Queen consort of France: 1589 – 1599
Marguerite of Valois (also known as Margot) was the least favourite of Catherine de Medici’s’ children. Forced into marriage with the Henry of Navarre, she at least hoped to escape her domineering family. The marriage was supposed to be a symbolic union between protestants and catholics, and celebrate the end to the Wars of Religion. It was not to be, the Saint-Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred during her wedding celebrations. The Wars of Religion continued in France.
When her brother, Henry III, died without an heir in 1589, Margot’s husband was declared King Henry IV. Unfortunately, the couple was already estranged and had been living apart for some time. She did not join him in Paris to claim her queenship. As their union had not produced any children, and recognizing that he needed an heir, Margot agreed to an annulment of the marriage. But she wasn’t born yesterday, Margot kept her title as ‘Queen of France’, received a hefty allowance, and was given several properties. Strangely enough, Margot became friends with Marie de Medici (Henry’s second wife), and she often visited their children. The last of the Valois line was a great patron of the arts, had several scandalous love affairs with younger men, and was the first woman to have penned her own memoirs. All in all, she not only survived her dangerous family and the Wars of Religion, she thrived.
8. Mary Queen of Scots
Queen consort of France: 1558 – 1560
Queen of Scotland: 1542 – 1567
Upon the the death of her teenage husband, King François II (Catherine de Medici and Henry II’s son), Mary returned to Scotland. She had spent a mere seventeen months as Queen of France, but had been brought up in the French court since she was five.
For her second husband, Mary chose to marry the charismatic Lord Darnley. Yet she would not allow him the title of king, nor any of the power that went with the position. Emasculated, Darnley took to drink, turned on his wife and actively sought to oppose her. He had Mary’s private secretary, David Rozzio, murdered in front of her at a dinner party. Darnley had gone too far. In 1567, he and his valet were found dead in the gardens of Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh. They were thought to have been strangled to death. Several lords, and Mary herself were implicated in the murder, though no one was found guilty. A couple of months later she claimed she was kidnapped and raped by Lord Bothwell (one of the lords implicated in the murder), and they that she married ‘under duress’. It is unclear whether or not Mary loved Bothwell, and if her claims were true. In any case, the Scottish lords weren’t having the drama, and they raised an army against the couple. After Mary and Bothwell were defeated, the Scottish lords claimed she was a murderess and adulteress. She was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, later James VI.
Mary fled to England to seek the help of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Instead of the warm reception she was expecting, Mary was imprisoned. Albeit luxuriously imprisoned, befitting her status, she was a prisoner nonetheless. She would never meet her cousin face-to-face, despite her entreaties as to her sincerity and devotion. Mary remained Elizabeth’s a prisoner for a total of nineteen years. What was once an earnest plea for help to take back her crown, turned into deception and plotting to escape. Mary’s secret messages were intercepted by Elizabeth’s spies. Mary Queen of Scots was found guilty of treason, and beheaded.
Elizabeth I would never forgive herself for executing an anointed sovereign, and mourned Mary for the remainder of her life.
9. Anne of Austria
Queen consort of France: 1615 – 1643
Anne of Austria was born in Spain, but due to her ancestral line, later referred to as the Habsburgs, she was referred to as ‘Anne of Austria’. She married Louis XIII when they were both fourteen, and it was a very unhappy union. Louis wanted nothing to do with her, and Marie de Medici was a domineering mother-in law who resented being usurped as queen. There was also the glaring fact that Louis XIII was gay, and openly preferred the company of men. Anne did not give birth until she was thirty-seven years old. The future King Louis XIV was called ‘dieudonné’ (gift from god), and his birth was truly seen as a miracle. Two years later, she gave birth to a second son, Philip Duke of Orlean, in 1640. However, nasty rumours persisted that they were the illegitimate sons of Cardinal Mazarin.
Louis XIII died in 1643, and little Louis XVI was four years old when he was crowned king. Against her late husband’s wishes, she took over the regency until Louis XIV (‘the Sun King’) came of age. She named Cardinal Mazarin (Cardinal Richelieu’s protégé) head of the government. During her regency, the Fronde (an aristocratic revolt) threatened to destabilize the monarchy, and this experience naturally shaped the small king. Perhaps influencing his decision to build the Palace of Versailles, in order to protect himself and control the nobles. Anne of Austria died at the age of sixty-four in 1666.
Queen consort of France: 1774 – 1792
Marie-Antoinette was born into the Austrian royal family, she left her country to marry Louis (later Louis XVI), the future King of France.
She was fond of theatre, the arts, and entertaining. However, her extravagant expenses, lavish lifestyle, and Austrian blood were all reasons for the French people to turn on her in the wake of famine, high taxation and food shortages. The storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Marie-Antoinette had pleaded with her husband to flee to the safety of her brother’s kingdom in Austria. Louis XVI refused to leave Versailles. This decision proved to be fatal for the couple. The French monarchy was abolished in 1792, and France was officially a Republic.
After their capture and imprisonment in the Tuileries palace (Paris), and realizing the gravity of their predicament, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette accepted the assistance of sympathetic royalists in an escape plot. The family dressed as ‘peasants’, but were later recognized in the town of Varennes. The former Louis XVI (now Louis Capet) was charged with undermining the First French Republic, and sentenced to death. His execution was carried out on January 21, 1793. Marie-Antoinette was publicly guillotined on October 16, 1793, in Paris.
Bonus: Paris’ beautiful Luxembourg gardens (Jardin de Luxembourg) feature twenty statues of Queens of France, which were commissioned in 1848. There are two glaring omissions. Can you guess which ones? Catherine de Medici and Marie-Antoinette.
Map: Luxembourg gardens (Jardin de Luxembourg)
See you soon in Paris!