Who was Marguerite de Navarre?

Born in 1492, Marguerite de Navarre was the daughter of the Count and Countess of Angoulême, the sister of King François (Francis) I of France, and later, the wife of Henri II of Navarre.


Though we are referring to her as Marguerite de Navarre, she also goes by several other names, including Marguerite d’Alençon (thanks to her first marriage to the Duke of Alençon), Marguerite d’Angoulême and Marguerite de Valois.

De Navarre was a “key player in politics and diplomacy” at Francis I’s court, explains Lipscomb, and left a legacy as “a leading figure in intellectual, religious, and literary circles.”

Historian Suzannah Lipscomb
Suzannah Lipscomb chooses Marguerite de Navarre. (Photograhed by Nicholas Dawkes)

Marguerite de Navarre's life

In the place of Francis I’s wife Claude, who spent a lot of time away from court life due to multiple pregnancies, Marguerite was a key hostess of entertainment at the royal court. It is, however, for her political and religious interventions that she is most remembered.

Marguerite was “a kind of proto-Protestant, who really cared about the hypocrisy and the corruption and the abuses in the Church,” explains Lipscomb.

Despite remaining a Catholic herself, Marguerite played a significant role in the Reformation, because she believed that people should be able to make up their own minds about faith, says Lipscomb. To facilitate this fight for freedom of belief, Marguerite influenced her brother Francis to put people with more reformed ideas into ecclesiastical positions, and was a patron for several people who were considered heretics.

Lipscomb also credits Marguerite for her writing, which covered significant themes like religion and the mistreatment of women. Her posthumously-published collection of stories, the Heptaméron, explored the patriarchy and how it affected women at the time. It is often thought that Marguerite had drawn on her own experiences of maltreatment by men – a theory supported by Lipscomb ­– but regardless of her inspiration, says Lipscomb, the works she created were highly influential and brave, written “at a time when female voices were few and writing as a woman was to do something very risk to one’s reputation.”

Perhaps Marguerite’s most important contribution in her lifetime was her role as a diplomatic figure. A key example, explains Lipscomb, was when Marguerite came to the rescue of her brother.

In 1525, after the Battle of Pavia, Francis was taken prisoner by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

“It is Marguerite who makes the journey to Madrid,” says Lipscomb. “She negotiates for his release. She is the one parlaying with emperor to get him release and acting as this key political diplomatic figure.”

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Why does she deserve her 15 minutes of fame?

Ultimately, says Lipscomb, Marguerite de Navarre deserves her 15 minutes of fame because she currently does not get enough credit for her significant interventions in both the Reformation and the Renaissance.

“We often associate Francis I with bringing the Renaissance of Italy to France, and for supporting the work of humanist scholars,” says Lipscomb. But Marguerite “was totally influential in the spreading of the Renaissance in France and from there to England and in the shaping of the Reformation.

“She has been called ‘the mother of the Renaissance’ and I think we have to see her role as very much influencing Francis,” explains Lipscomb. “I think that she has a major part to play.”

Professor Suzannah Lipscomb was speaking to Emily Briffett. Lipscomb is a historian, author and broadcaster who has presented history documentaries for television, hosts the Not Just the Tudors podcast, and the co-editor of What is History Now?

Listen to the full interview and find more episodes in our 15 minutes of fame podcast series


Article compiled by Isabel King


Professor Suzannah LipscombHistorian, author, and broadcaster

Suzannah Lipscomb is Emeritus Professor at the University of Roehampton, and the author of several books about the 16th century