I cannot keep the ribbons for the Queen’s dress from tangling as I walk. It is as if they are conspiring to knot and defy me. Amused at my predicament, the Queen’s guards nod at me and try to suppress a smile. I try to hurry to my mistress’ chambers, but the extra effort sends a wave of air and what progress I had made, tangles into a loose braid.
Entering the Queen’s antechamber, I bob into a curtsey, “I’m sorry, Madame, they seem to have gotten the best of me.” Like the guards, she is unable to suppress a giggle at my frustration. Recovering herself, she shrugs her petite shoulders.
“Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, Marie.” She answers me in Latin, our shared language. Since coming to the French court, Elisabeth of Austria has made a dedicated effort to speak French, but she has been met with as much difficulty as I have found in maintaining her wardrobe this morning. “If you would, please fetch my gown.”
Thankful for the reprieve, I place the ribbons on the nightstand and they are quickly forgotten. As Queen of France, Elisabeth would usually be expected to rule over the court, but we all know that the true Grande Dame is her powerful mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici. A quiet, pious and studious young girl, this arrangement suits Elisabeth quite well and she appears at court whenever the circumstances warrant it.
This hot August morning, her presence is certainly justified in court, as is mine. My cousin Henry, the young King of Navarre, is about to be married and we are eagerly awaiting his arrival in Paris. The bride to be is the King’s sister Margot, the Princess of France and one of the most celebrated beauties of Europe. At first glance, their match seems perfection, but as the bride and groom do not share the same faith, the betrothal has been fought with difficulties. The largest hurdle the two have faced, was the lifelong hatred between their mothers. Their hatred is due in no small part to my Aunt, Jeanne, the formidable Queen of Navarre.
I should not speak ill of my aunt; she took me in after my mother’s death and my father’s inability to raise his youngest daughter, a girl of nine. Married to my mother’s brother, Antoine of Bourbon, Jeanne of Navarre did not hesitate to send for me and offer to bring me up within her home. Of course, life with my aunt came with certain conditions, amongst them the requirement that I follow her Reformed faith. Unable to imagine what to do with me on his own, my father readily agreed and I was packed off before my tenth birthday to an unfamiliar home with its odd and alien faith.
So I was raised, like my cousin, the King of Navarre, as a Protestant, although little of the Reformed faith appealed to me. My loyalty to my aunt meant that I followed her religious instruction and I have spent my life as a Protestant. My older sisters, Henriette, who is eight years older than I and our middle sister, Catherine, five years older than I, were raised in the Catholic faith. As a result, my family feels very alien to me sometimes. After ten years with my aunt, I returned to the French royal court to become a lady in waiting to the new Queen, whom I found to be an easy mistress to serve.
I had not seen my aunt in months when she traveled with my cousin, Catherine to Paris to negotiate the marriage between Henry of Navarre and Margot of Valois. Our reunion was tense, as I felt she judged me for falling from the faith she had instructed me in since childhood. Within weeks, however, my aunt was also gone and I had lost the second mother I had known in my short life. Aunt Jeanne was determined to see her children married well and safely, while furthering the reformed faith and that included not only her son’s marriage to a Catholic princess. My aunt had seen to it that I also married well and married within her faith.
My aunt chose my other first cousin, the Prince of Conde, to be my groom almost a year ago. Conde’s Christian name was “Henry” in honor of the King’s father. I had known my cousin since I came to the Navarrese court, as he also came to court as a motherless orphan adopted by Jeanne of Navarre. Many people criticized her for being harsh and calculating, but one could never say that Jeanne of Navarre abandoned a child in need of a motherly figure. Rather than hold her generosity over our heads, she seemed to relish her opportunity to be the mother of more than the two children of her body.
As a result of her generosity in taking me in, I felt obligated to go along with the match she had made for me. Protestant princesses were in short demand in Europe, save the foreign ones from German principalities. It was a foregone conclusion, therefore, that I would marry and become the Princess of Conde as we forged a new Protestant dynasty. Despite any misgivings I might have about our marriage and mourning the death of my surrogate mother, I went ahead with our ceremony this past July and Conde and I married according to Protestant rites.
Now, almost a month later, I was faced with adjusting to married life. My royal mistress, herself, married for less than two years, became a genuine friend and a source of support for me. Elisabeth was in the final months of her first pregnancy and as her stomach expanded, we worked to likewise expand her gowns. As I laid the rose colored one she had selected for the evening’s reception on the bed, my wedding ring hung on the silk of the bodice.
“I’m sorry, Madame,” I grimaced and looked at her helplessly.
“It’s all right; you aren’t used to wearing it. It will become second nature to you, eventually.”
“It feels heavy,” our time together had taught me that I could be honest with her without fearing her judgment.
“I miss wearing mine. It’s been months since I’ve been able to get it on my finger.” Her hand went to her belly absentmindedly. All of France eagerly awaited the birth of the royal heir. Like any other woman, Elisabeth only hoped for the birth of a healthy child.
“I suppose it won’t be long before I’m in the same situation.” I tried to keep the edge out of my voice, but looking at the expression on her face, I knew that I had not succeeded in doing so.
Elisabeth smiled at me, the compassion showing on her face. Like me, she had no control over the man she married. She fulfilled her duty as a royal princess and her current condition was a fulfillment of her obligation to supply an heir. Unlike me, she accepted her role without complaining, a choice that I secretly envied. . Although officially separated by our religious beliefs, the devoutly Catholic Elisabeth never held my faith as a strike against me. We were inseparable almost all of the time, except for the times that we worshiped our Lord. The Queen accompanied the King to Mass daily while I attended sermons from the leading Protestant preachers who were allowed to remain at court.
As soon as I entered my private apartments within the vast Louvre palace, I removed my hood and attempted to smooth my brown hair. I had wanted a few quiet moments alone, but as I entered the bedchamber, I saw that my husband was already sitting beside our bed. Since going from cousins to husband and wife, our interactions had been awkward. Every new bride must take some time to adjust to married life, but I felt as if my adjustment period took me more time than most.
I was determined to work to make our marriage a success, but the truth was that my husband and I were very different people. Like my Aunt Jeanne, he had taken to the Protestant religious with relish and embraced the dour and restrained nature of the most ardent followers. As a result, his character was often dark and brooding, which made it difficult for us to connect with one another. A life stripped of the gaiety and spontaneous nature of most Frenchmen seemed an empty life to me. I was determined, however, to do my duty to make our marriage work, if not for our shared for faith, then for our family’s sake and to honor the memory of my Aunt Jeanne.
“I’ve just come from the Queen’s rooms; we’ve done all we can to prepare for Navarre’s arrival. “If he decides to come at all.”
I raised an eyebrow, “Do you think that he will back out of his mother’s promise?”
“If he knows what’s good for him, he will. None of the Papists can be trusted to keep their word.”
I held my tongue, choosing not to remind him that my closest friend at court was a Papist. I had no desire to pick a fight that moment, exhausted as I was from the continual preparations for the upcoming wedding.
“We are expected to be at the Admiral’s house this evening to hear the Reverend Challoit.” His imperious tone grated on my nerves and this time, I chose to say something.
“When have I failed to join you for a sermon at court? Do I not come faithfully as a believer and as your wife?”
He shrugged and I imagined that he got some thrill out of bating me. “I sometimes feel as if you are not as sincere about our faith as I am. One might think that the Catholic flavor of the court is rubbing off on you.”
Would that be so bad? In my mind, toleration was better than the extremism that my husband seemed doggedly determined to display. The King himself was willing to allow those of both faiths to worship without molestation at court. Both the King and his mother had encouraged toleration amongst the two groups of Christians within France and within the court. Still, men like my husband seemed determined to provoke hostility between themselves and the moderates of the court. Sometimes I felt as if my fellow Protestants only wanted to play the part of the persecuted party to garner sympathy abroad. From what I had seen so far, my countrymen enjoyed an unusual degree of religious freedom.
“We both serve at the pleasure of the King and his mother; we cannot forget that. Attempting to incite hostility between the Catholics and Protestants does nothing to help either side.”
He snorted, “Now you sound like Catherine.”
I shrugged, weary of his baiting. “Perhaps she is right.”