|Statue of Marguerite|
located in the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris
By LPLT via Wikimedia Commons
Following a war of succession, Blanche of Castile had secured the French throne for her young son, Louis IX, and it was she who dominated both him and the kingdom. But she needed an ally to the south. The 12-year-old Marguerite, “a girl of pretty face but prettier faith,” was invited to Paris along with her dowry of ten thousand silver marks (most of which Raymond borrowed, financed or promised for later).
Blanche had no intention of giving up her power to her successor. When she discovered that Louis and Marguerite were in love, she took drastic measures to keep them separated. As long as the bride did not become a mother, Marguerite would have little claim on France. For years, the young couple met in secret, lingering on staircases, sneaking into each other’s chambers, and relying on faithful servants to warn them of approaching footsteps.
As years passed without a pregnancy, Frenchmen began whispering that the king should get rid of his barren wife, but Blanche had no pity for her daughter-in-law, even when Marguerite became deathly ill. As Louis sat at his wife’s bedside, his mother called him away saying, “you’re doing no good here.” Marguerite cried out, “Whether I live or die, you will not let me see my husband!”
Marguerite recovered, but Blanche continued to humiliate her, even sending her to pray publicly at a shrine for barren women. After six years of marriage, Marguerite finally became pregnant, but the child was a girl—good enough for a Count of Provence but not for a King of France. Two years later, another girl. Marguerite could not catch a break. Then, Louis fell ill. He was nearly declared dead when he suddenly awakened. Always a pious man, he celebrated this miracle by deciding to go on a crusade.
Blanche begged him not to go, afraid he would never survive a holy war. Marguerite wasn’t sure Louis could do it either, but now, at last, she could see a way of weakening her mother-in-law’s influence. Not only did Marguerite support Louis in his intention, she decided to go with him.
Her devotion and enthusiasm apparently sparked some devotion and enthusiasm from her husband: in the four years it took them to raise money and armies for the crusade, Marguerite gave birth to two sons. As they traveled across the Mediterranean to fight the Muslims, the couple’s romantic endeavors were rewarded once again. Marguerite arrived in Egypt with a baby on the way. Louis left her with a contingency of knights and mercenaries at Damietta while he went to fight.
With communications cut off between them, Marguerite was left to oversee Damietta as her pregnancy progressed. In her ninth month, lookouts announced that they could see the king’s army approaching, but they were not entirely correct. The king and what was left of the army were returning as prisoners of the sultan. Marguerite secured the city and then went into labor. She kept an old knight at her side, ordering him, “If the Saracens take this city, you will cut off my head before they can take me.”
After the birth of her third son, Jean Tristan, many of the mercenaries threatened to abandon the city. Unable to get up, the queen negotiated with them from her childbed, imploring them to “at least take pity on the poor weak creature lying here, and wait till I have recovered.” She also offered to personally pay them off.
Marguerite eventually bought off the Muslims too, offering them money, surrendering Damietta and promising to leave as soon as the king and his men were returned. But Louis would never be the same.
By failing in his crusade—losing thousands of men, including his brother, Robert—he felt he had failed God. He became increasingly stringent in his religion, even wearing a hair shirt to mortify his flesh. Marguerite once asked him to dress more appropriately for a king. “I’ll dress as you wish,” he responded, “if you’ll dress as I wish.” Marguerite dropped the topic; she had no intention of giving up her fine clothes.
She also had no intention of giving up the power she had won by her leadership in Egypt and by the death of her mother-in-law while she was away. Despite Louis’ growing fanaticism, she and the king had two more sons and three more daughters. Two decades after his first crusade, Louis took up the cross again. This time, when many of their children decided to go with him, Marguerite was less than supportive. If the king had been unsuccessful when he was young and strong, why should he be victorious now?
Marguerite stayed home.
When the crusaders arrived, their camp was struck by typhus. One of the first to die was Jean Tristan, who had been born on the last crusade. Three weeks later, the king died too. After negotiating peace, Marguerite’s other children headed home, but the journey was perilous. Her son-in-law grew ill and died. Her pregnant daughter-in-law was thrown from a horse, gave birth prematurely to a stillborn son and died. Another son and his wife both succumbed to illness. Her widowed daughter survived just two months after reaching France. Only the new King Philippe returned unscathed.
In essence, Louis had decimated his family, but he received his heavenly reward: he was canonized. As St. Louis, his name lives on in many places, including in the “Gateway to the West,” St. Louis, Missouri . (Marguerite refused to testify in favor of sainthood.)
Marguerite tried to follow her mother-in-law’s example, but King Philippe would not allow his wise mother any influence. It was not the only sign of his incompetence.
Marguerite turned her attention to the land and family of her birth. The eldest daughter, she outlived all of her sisters and seven of her children. She survived her sainted husband by 26 years.
Read about her sisters:
Eleanor | Sanchia | Beatrice
Work Consulted for This Post