Marguerite of Provence, Queen of France

Marguerite of Provence from a fifteenth century manuscript

Raymond-Berengar V, Count of Provence, married Beatrice of Savoy in 1219. Their eldest daughter Marguerite was born in the spring of 1221 in Forcalquier, and they would have three more daughters, all of whom would become queens. Marguerite married Louis IX of France, Eleanor married Henry III of England, Sanchia became queen of the Germans, and the youngest sister, Beatrice, became Queen of Sicily. Beatrice of Savoy proved to be a skilled leader and diplomat, and her daughters learned from her.

Life in Provence in the thirteenth century was convivial, sunny, affluent, and leisurely. The land of the troubadours was filled with good manners, plentiful food and gifts, with many lavish entertainments. The girls received a satisfactory education. Marguerite grew to be pretty, with dark hair and fine eyes and a personality that was patient, capable and intelligent. Marguerite and Eleanor, who were similar in age, would be very close growing up and remained in constant correspondence their entire lives.

Blanche of Castile, dowager Queen of France and mother of the reigning king, Louis IX, was the dominant force in her son’s government. In 1233, Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse rebelled against an alliance he had made with Blanche, and she planned for Gilles de Flagiac, a knight of the royal household, to go on a mission to Toulouse to negotiate terms. She considered all the political advantages of having a closer relationship with Provence to counter her alliance with Toulouse.

The dowager queen knew Raymond-Berengar V had four beautiful daughters and she instructed Flagiac to visit the Provencal court at Avignon during his mission to inspect the women, especially the eldest one, to determine her suitability as a royal bride for the king. Louis was nineteen and Marguerite was only twelve years old. Flagiac reportedly found Marguerite devout and courtly in manner, rather than beautiful.

In the following year, they sent ambassadors with a formal request for Marguerite’s hand, with Blanche demanding a dowry of ten thousand silver marks. In the spring, Marguerite’s parents escorted her to Lyon for the signing of the marriage treaty. Her mother’s brothers from Savoy brought her to Sens, south of Paris and the splendid wedding took place in the cathedral of St. Etienne on May 27, 1234. They crowned Marguerite queen of France the next day, followed by three days of celebration. The king and his party were dressed in robes of purple, scarlet and green, trimmed with miniver and ermine. The king’s brothers wore enameled golden belts and golden buttons and sported caps with peacock feathers. Marguerite’s gold crown cost fifty-eight pounds (over £42,000 in today’s money).

The wedding party made its procession toward Paris through the forest of Fontainebleau, accompanied by trumpeters and minstrels. They stopped to rest at the king’s hunting lodge. Once they reached Paris, Blanche dismissed Marguerite’s uncles and all of her servants. It was apparent Blanche was in control of the government, as well as her son’s relationship with his wife.

Blanche of Castile and King Louis IX

No delineation is historically clear between Blanche acting as regent for her son and Louis reaching his majority, as was the custom. Louis’ marriage should have officially made Blanche the dowager queen, but there was no alteration in her role. Early on, the young couple had a warm relationship, despite the influence of Blanche. They enjoyed each other’s company, horseback riding, reading, and listening to music. Even though she had chosen her son’s wife herself, Blanche’s jealousy was obvious. There would be no opportunity for Marguerite to play politics in her husband’s government while her mother-in-law lived. 

Blanche did everything possible to keep the couple apart. Marguerite would not give birth to her first child until about six years after her wedding. Following the birth of one of Marguerite’s children, she became seriously ill. Louis was by her side when Blanche entered the room, took his hand and said, “Come away, you’re doing no good here”. When Marguerite realized the Queen Mother was taking her husband away, she cried out, “Alas! Whether I live or die, you will not let me see my husband,” and promptly fainted. The king, convinced she was dying, returned to her side, and they revived Marguerite with great difficulty.

Marguerite gave birth to five daughters and six sons, nine of whom lived to adulthood, including King Philip III of France. The encyclopedist Vincent of Beauvais wrote a treatise for Marguerite entitled “De Eruditione Filiorum Nobilium” (On the Erudition of Noble Sons) and it gives us a glimpse into how Marguerite’s four daughters were trained. By 1250, Louis had committed to going on crusade to the Holy Land and Marguerite accompanied him, although she was pregnant with her sixth child.

The Crusaders were overrun by the Saracens at Mansourah, and they captured Louis. Queen Marguerite was in Damietta, expecting to give birth at any moment, and placed herself under the protection of an elderly knight, giving instructions to kill her if the city fell. Ruling briefly as regent, she worked to raise Louis’ ransom, served on diplomatic maneuvers and mediation and supplied food to the Christians living in the city. After the birth of her son, she convinced the Italian merchants of Damietta to remain in the town as Louis borrowed ransom money from the Knights Templar. He later joined Marguerite in Acre.

King Louis IX and his wife Margaret of Provence arrive in Acre in 1254 (From Le livre des faits de Monseigneur Saint Louis, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 15th C.)

Following the death of Blanche of Castile in November 1252, Marguerite attempted to take her mother-in-law’s place as counsellor to her husband following their return to France in 1254, but he rebuffed her. When her efforts failed, she turned her attention to the heir-apparent Philip. In 1263, she convinced her son to take an oath to make her his guardian until he turned thirty. When Louis found out, he persuaded Pope Urban IV to absolve the boy from his promise.

Marguerite’s sister Eleanor and her husband King Henry III were engaged in a power struggle with the nobles of England, and Marguerite agreed to arbitrate between Henry III and his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort. She helped Eleanor raise money for outfitting an army to fight for her husband’s right to keep his throne. Queen Eleanor’s treatment by the Londoners during a particularly hostile confrontation shocked Marguerite and Louis.

In 1254, Eleanor and Henry III arrived in Paris for a family visit with Louis and Marguerite. All four sisters attended, as well as their mother, Beatrice of Savoy. This unparalleled family affair would have lasting repercussions, leading to the Treaty of Paris in 1259, between England and France. The terms encompassed Marguerite’s promotion of the marriage of Henry and Eleanor’s daughter Beatrice to the Duke of Brittany’s son and reinforced the loyalty of Marguerite and King Louis to Eleanor when she became the victim of slander by Henry III’s Lusignan siblings in 1258. In addition, the treaty promised French royal financial and diplomatic aid during the period of baronial strife in England.

When Louis departed for his second crusade, Marguerite prudently stayed home. Louis died during this crusade in 1270. He had made it clear he did not want Marguerite to act as regent for their minor son, the new King Philip III. The acting regents tried to seize Marguerite’s dower, which was similar to her mother-in-law’s, but she fought them until her son eventually granted her reparations. Another battle Marguerite engaged in related to her claims of her homeland of Provence.

When Raymond-Berengar V died in 1245, he made clear his wish for his youngest daughter Beatrice to inherit his entire patrimony of Provence in her own right, making her an immensely valuable heiress on the marriage market. One of the interested parties was King Louis IX’s brother, Charles of Anjou. Beatrice of Savoy took her daughter to a fortress at Aix and asked Pope Innocent IV for his protection. A secret meeting took place in December between the Pope, King Louis, Blanche of Castile, and Charles of Anjou. King Louis pledged military support for the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor, and, in return, the Pope allowed for the marriage of Charles and young Beatrice, a satisfactory agreement for all parties.

Under the terms of the treaty, Provence would never be allowed to go to France outright through Charles. Assuming Charles and Beatrice had children, they would inherit the Counties. If there were no children, then Provence and Forcalquier would go to the third sister, Sanchia of Provence. Assuming Sanchia died without heirs, the Counties would go to the King of Aragon. King Henry III of England protested this agreement as he held fortresses in Provence, which he had pledged as collateral for loans.

The inheritance of Beatrice caused conflict with her elder sisters, who had hoped when their father died, the domains would be divided between the four daughters. Charles of Anjou declined to share the properties with his sisters-in-law, resulting in tense relations. After 1280, Marguerite’s son King Philip supported her claims in Provence and Marguerite did homage to Rudolph of Hapsburg, King of the Romans, who may have invested her with the county of Provence, though her brother-in-law never actually relinquished it. The king allowed her to raise an army to oppose Charles, probably for his own political purposes, letting her do what he couldn’t do directly.

Marguerite returned to Provence and became more politically active. She spent her last years doing pious work, including the foundation of the Franciscan convent of Lourcines in 1289. A movement began to canonize Louis IX as a saint. However, Marguerite refused to testify in favor of her husband’s sainthood. They would eventually canonize him in August 1297. Marguerite died in Paris at the Poor Clares monastery she founded on December 21, 1295, at the age of seventy-four. The chronicler of Reims called her “a very good and wise lady”. Her grandson, Philip the Fair, arranged her funeral and was in attendance. They conducted it with all the grandeur befitting a French queen and buried her near her husband in the Basilica of St. Denis.

Further reading: “Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe” by Nancy Goldstone, “Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England” by Margaret Howell, “Women in the Middle Ages: The lives of real women in the vibrant age of transition” by Frances and Joseph Gies

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