Marguerite de Navarre, Renaissance (Wo)man

By Michael K. Ingram

The daughter of a king, the sister of a king, the wife of a king, Marguerite de Navarre was by virtue of her parentage and offspring, one of the most notable women of the 16th century, but in character and accomplishments, she was far more than the inheritor and ancestor of great European dynasties. A queen, author, intellectual, diplomat, polyglot, patron of the arts, and humanist, Marguerite’s abilities challenged and transcended the social expectations of a noble woman of her time, and in so doing presaged the changing roles of women in the realm of intellectual pursuits.

One might say that, gender pronounsclipart-inkwell-8 notwithstanding, Marguerite de Navarre was the archetypal “Renaissance Man.” Though born at a time when even the most talented women were unlikely to be recognized for their artistic and intellectual contributions, history remembers her not only for her hereditary place in the history of European royalty, but for her art, and for the support and protection that she provided for some of the great other great thinkers and artists of the Renaissance.

Born to the heir to the French throne (and the sister to the future King Francis I), Marguerite was connected to some of the most important people and events of the 16th century. Though she was given an excellent education, as a member of the famous and prestigious House of Valois, she began her adult life just as many noble women of her time–as a diplomatic chip to be bartered in marriage.

536px-Coat_of_Arms_of_Marguerite_of_Angouleme,_Queen_Consort_of_Navarre.svgHistorically speaking, she dodged a bullet when negotiations failed that would have her marry England’s Prince of Wales, who would go on to rule as King (and serial wife-decapitator) Henry VIII. Instead, she was married to the Duke of Alençon, who was captured (along with her brother Francis I, and future husband Henry II of Navarre) during the French debacle at the battle of Pavia in 1525 and died not long after. According to accounts Marguerite, a notable diplomat in her own right, rode day and night into Spanish territory to secure her brother’s release.

After being widowed, Marguerite, still a young woman, was married to Henry II of Navarre. Henry was in many ways a king in name only, as most of his kingdom had been absorbed by Ferdinand II of Aragon over twenty years prior. Still, her marriage to a wealthy and well-connected nobleman afforded an opportunity to devote herself to her passions of art and learning. Her renowned salon, dubbed “New Parnassus” was famous across Europe, and Marguerite hosted and corresponded with some of the most notable thinkers of her day, including Leonardo da Vinci and Desiderius Erasmus.

Marguerite was a devoted humanist, and was the patron to many Renaissance artists and figures of the reformation, providing protection for artists and thinkers that might otherwise have been suppressed or persecuted in other, less tolerant realms. Notably, under Marguerite’s protection, François Rabelais wrote the controversial Gargantua and Pantagruel, the third book of which is dedicated to the Queen of Navarre.

800px-Hinchliff_-_Marguerite_Queen_of_Navarre_cropThough her first marriage was childless, Marguerite’s lone surviving child would go on to cement important place in history. Her daughter Jeanne III was an important figure in the Huguenot movement, and the mother of Henry IV of France, the first of the Bourbon line of French kings. The loss of her only son as an infant is often suggested to be the inspiration for her controversial poem Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (“The Mirror of the Sinful Soul”), a devotional and personal work that caused outrage in some religious circles.

Ironically, for all Marguerite accomplished as a patron and artist in her lifetime, the unfinished Heptaméron is often considered the best, and certainly the most well-known, of her work. Written in the style of Bocaccio’s Decameron (whom Marguerite greatly admired), the book is a collection of short stories linked with a framing narrative. Originally planned to be a collection of ten stories per day over ten days (in the style of Bocaccio), Marguerite’s death in 1549 left the book unfinished with only 73 entries.

For a modern observer, what Marguerite de Navarre accomplished was nothing short of stunning. Not only did she create an artistic and intellectual legacy for herself, and foster clipart-inkwell-8the development of countless Renaissance artists, she did so while somehow maintaining her own reputation in her own era. History is littered with woman of talent and drive who succeeded only in retrospect, who are appreciated only posthumously for their contributions, and in their own time ignored or even scored for the audacity to aspire to “men’s work.” Marguerite was a unique artifact of history; she was the personal embodiment of arts and intellectual endeavors, who perfectly reflected the changing face of Western society. Her direct and indirect contributions to the arts, religious discourse, and humanist thought earn her a well-deserved reputation as the first “modern woman,” and heralded the rise of women authors and scholars that came after her.

Works Cited

“Biography of Marguerite de Navarre, author of the Heptameron.”, 30 July, 2017.

Fabbri, Kimberly. Marguerite, Queen of Navarre. Kings College, Dec. 2005,

“Marguerite de Navarre.” Poetry Foundation, 30 July, 2017.

Royal People: Isabella of France, “She-Wolf of England”

This week we are featuring an article from Just History Posts, a fellow history blog. Highly recommend. Check it out!

Just History Posts

As my last blog post on medieval English royals was about a woman from my masters dissertation, I thought I would continue the trend and go back to my undergraduate dissertation for the next in the series. For this we go back to the previous century, the early fourteenth century, and look at the wife of King Edward II of England, Isabella of France.

Isabella of France is a fantastically interesting historic figure, even more so because of how little-known she is; even I had never heard of her before I started research for my dissertation. To have not heard of a medieval Queen, especially amongst the public, may not seem like such a big deal, until you consider the fact that Queen Isabella deposed her husband, Edward II, and seized the throne of England, ruling as regent on behalf of her son for several years before he in turn…

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Monolithic: Kandakes of Kush, Queens of Stone

by K.P. Kulski

By the early portion of the 1st century, it seemed that all the world knew of Rome and its might. Further, it knew of the great Caesar Augustus that reigned at the helm of the Roman state. But in the land of Kush[1], at the edges of Western interest, this was not the case. The feeling was mutual, or more accurately, mutual disinterest and ignorance, neither Rome, roman culture or the man that ruled it meant very much to the Kushites or their great queens, the Kandake.[2]

It is uncertain when the Kush royal heredity moved from male to female, but we do understand that a series of women headed the state as independent sovereigns. These women were rulers by their own right, not by widowhood, regency nor marriage. Additionally, Kandakes did not lose or diminish their power when they married or bore Meroe_1sons. Instead, it was the husband who took up the position as consort. It is from the period of Kandake rule that we have a significant collection of art and inscriptions that depict the nature of their authority. In these the queen often towers, sometimes in the throes of smiting her enemy. In others, her hands are lifted in religious devotion. In all of them, she is the central or only theme of the work. If husbands appeared at all, they were small in stature compared to their queens, if a male appeared of any significance is was most often the Kandake’s son. Frequently, consorts went completely nameless in the record.[3]

She often towers, sometimes in the throes of smiting her enemy, in others, her hands are lifted in religious devotion.

Kush already practiced a form of matriarchal succession common among the cultures of East Africa (and beyond) where royal males inherited rule through their mothers. These mothers were female relatives of the king, often a sister. It is thought that the title of

amanirenas-5Kandake meant “queen mother,” revealing the preexisting importance of the position and offering an easily identifiable reason for the transition to singular female rule. The importance of women goes beyond the royal world, but includes a special regard for the role of wives and mothers in society. Many societies recognize motherhood as a crucial position yet it occupies a support role to male authority. In Kushite culture women were esteemed as vital monolithic entities that were active in both domestic and public worlds. Further, roles were fluid particularly when it came to power. Female roles within society embodied strength, an attribute needed for ruling a kingdom.

It appears that in Kushite culture, women were esteemed as vital monolithic entities that were active in both domestic and public worlds.

When the Romans and Kushites finally crossed paths at Premnis, a fort located near the Nile in Upper Egypt, it was the Kandake Amantitere who led her forces and brazenly brought them down the Nile and into Egyptian territory. Kushite Amanirenas-4women were known to arm themselves in everyday life, so the appearance of a queen a the helm of a military effort is not surprising. According to Roman accounts, “the Candace[4] attacked the garrison with an army of many thousand men.”[5] Dio Cassius recorded the Kush army “with Candace as their leader, ravaging everything they encountered.”[6] Kandakes were not gilded rulers, decked in lace, delicate and breakable. Formidable in spirit as well as appearance, Strabo paints a picture of Amantitere that captures the imagination: masculine and in possession of one eye, having lost it is some unknown circumstance. [7]

Perhaps from gender egalitarianism, depictions of Kandakes belie beauty standards of the inheritors of the Hellenistic world as well as Egyptian ideals. Instead we are shown Sibyl Abraham Paintingimages of strong capable bodies. UNESCO describes a relief of Shanakdakhete, the first known true queen, as a women with, “a wide and powerful body adorned with many jewels…these traits which combine the promise of fertility and the exterior signs of wealth, symbolize prosperity and power.”[8] Kandakes harnessed feminine vitality and strength, there doesn’t appear to be a need for symbols of male authority nor titles to legitimatize their rule. The adherence to a separate standard is interesting as it is clear from artwork that Kushite culture had strong Egyptian influences, this included the adoption of several Egyptian deities.

Perhaps from gender egalitarianism, depictions of Kandakes belie beauty standards of the inheritors of the Hellenistic world as well as Egyptian ideals.

What stories and images left to us about these remarkable women only serve to inspire and leave us curious. What can Kush society teach us about the role of women in modern society? What things can it teach us about beauty standards? Just to know these stories and even to discover their faults would be a pursuit of new and worthy perspectives. While we can only continue to wonder, we can learn from what we do know: that women’s social roles were places of authority and that strength carried Kandakes to power.

We can be further inspired by the discovery of the stone head of Caesar Augustus buried at the entrance of Kandake Amantitere’s palace, where she tread over it with the confident legs of a monolithic and uncompromising queen.


[1] Also called Nubia. This region is part of modern day Sudan and Ethiopia as well as the location of a series of significant historical kingdoms (such as Axum).

[2] There is some uncertainty concerning the true title of the Kush queens. Some sources argue that the title “Kandake” specifically means Queen Mother and that women who held both the title of kandake and king were true independent rulers. Understanding the actualized extent of the title may not be possible until Kush hieroglyphics are fully deciphered.

[3] Women in Anquitity: Real Women Across the Ancient World, ed. Stephanie Lynn Budin, Jean Macintosh Turta. (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[4] Kandake is romanized as “Candace” in some sources

[5] Strabo, “Geography,” Fordham University Sourcebook, 03 May 2017,

[6] Cassius Dio, “History of Rome,” Fordham University Sourcebook, 03 May 2017,

[7] Strabo, “Geography,” Fordham University Sourcebook, 03 May 2017,

[8] “Statue of queen and prince of Meroe,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 08 May 2017,

How Cinderella Becomes the Evil Queen

By: Rebecca Halsey

Pick up a collection of fairy tales and you often see two types of women – the Maiden (Cinderella) and the Evil Queen (Stepmother). Fredegund, a Merovingian queen of early Francia, appeared to play both roles. Historical texts, particularly ones written by Gregory of Tours, associate her with the kind of cruel ambition that drives many of the female villains in folklore, and it is clear that Fredegund can be linked to many despicable attempts to retain power. What isn’t clear, largely because there are only a few sources for the time period, is whether these machinations were the only way women could exercise political agency.

The Merovingian dynasty was cemented by Clovis in the early 500s. By 550 the kingdom consisted of what is now the north of France and stretched as far East as modern-day Czech Republic. Unfortunately, the Merovingians had the habit of dividing the kingdom among their heirs, which made for dramatic feuds among brothers, cousins, and their wives. Technically, Fredegund was a queen of only a portion of Francia – Soissons, the part her husband inherited.

Because Fredegund was not born to a noble family, becoming a queen required considerable gumption. Some may consider Cinderella too gentle and passive, but even in the Disney version, Cinderella comes forward when she asks to try on the glass slipper at the end. Fredegund, a servant in King Chilperic’s house, similarly speaks up. As a lady’s maid to his wife, she points out the queen’s flaws, and the king becomes convinced that he should divorce his wife in favor of Fredegund.

The reversal – the rags-to-riches story – is one key part of the Cinderella fairy tale. “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” as they say. But pushing aside the other woman is just a glimpse at Fredegund’s modus operandi. In the Merovingian empire, queenship was fraught with the fear that you would be replaced next, and Fredegund dealt with this by regularly plotting against adversaries. When King Chilperic takes a third wife, she dies within a year – strangled – presumably at Fredegund’s command.

As a mother, reflecting on the political rivalries at play during this time period, I’m not sure how I would handle the fear that my children would be killed off by a rival at any time. But Fredegund’s schemes are truly awful. She solidifies her status as a villainess not only through actions devoid of any diplomacy, but also through a tendency toward self-preservation even over her children. For example, she tries to kill her own daughter, Rigunth, after they argue about who should be mistress. This account has been cited by folklorists as inspiration for the stepmother in an early version of the Cinderella story.

Maddingly, there is evidence that Fredegund even recognized her misdeeds. In one account, when two of her sons fall ill with dysentery, she tries to atone for her sins (in this case, extorting money from her subjects) by burning tax records. However, considering her other actions, I have to wonder if there were other motivating factors behind the destruction of these documents.

In at least one assessment of this time period, I read that queens like Fredegund and her main rival, Brunhild (a sister-in-law), were powerful because of their status as regent mothers, suggesting that their chief source of authority was the royal lineage of their sons. This undercuts the raw ambition, at least in Fredegund’s case, that landed her in that role in the first place. It also doesn’t explain why the exercise of this power was so particularly brutal.

I don’t think this female cruelty was limited to the Merovingians. Certain wives and mothers of Roman emperors expressed political agency in the same cruel fashion as Fredegund did. Not to mention the countless other myths and legends from early Europe that recount brutal queens or female warriors.

Fredegund was clearly ambitious from the start, but what was the catalyst for her to become the Evil Queen? Was it when her husband tried to cast her aside? Was it going toe-to-toe with her sister-in-law Brunhild, who was working to maximize power on behalf of her children also? Once married, did King Chilperic allow Fredegund to exercise authority or could she only work behind the scenes?

It doesn’t appear that Fredegund tried to hide her plots. For this reason, I imagine that she had to capitalize on fear to compete with the male-dominated, military style of leadership that valued strength and agnatic succession. At the very least, she may have believed instilling fear was her only option for success.

Works Consulted:

Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Boston: Wyatt North Publishing, 2012. E-book.

Larrington, Carolyne. Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.