Marguerite: Bludgeoning Crocodiles? That’s Nothing!

They were the most celebrated women of their time, the Sisters of the House of Savoy, four cultured daughters of the Count and Countess of Provence at a time when southern Europe was the cultural center of the universe.

Troubadours frequented the southern courts, nobles who penned the songs, often of unrequited love from some unattainable lady, that captured the public imagination for more than two hundred years. Minstrels performed them on vielle, rebec, guitarras morisca, pipes, drums, harps. Jongleurs, with their juggling and acrobatics, provided visuals: breaking wind while standing on their heads, for instance. Wine flowed freely – and, coming from the Languedoc region, you know it was good. Lavender scented the air; the beaches glittered in the southern sun.

And the sisters, schooled by their ambitious mother with a boy’s education, grew like the sunflowers for which their lands would someday become famous.

From this idyllic life, Marguerite, the eldest of the daughters, traveled to Paris at the age of thirteen to marry Louis IX, the nineteen-year-old King of France. Her Savoyard uncles, Thomas and Guillaume, accompanied her, hoping to gain positions at court. Her mother-in-law, the formidable dowager queen Blanche de Castille, promptly dashed their plans by sending them home, along with all who had accompanied her. As Marie Antoinette would be, Marguerite was left alone in her new, dark, cold, austerely religious city. And her trials were just beginning.

According to historians including Louis IX’s first biographer, Sir Jean de Joinville, Blanche began immediately to interfere with Marguerite’s marriage to her son. Whenever they tried to spend time alone together, Blanche appeared, then pulled Louis away for more pressing business. Is it any wonder that Marguerite took six years to bear her first child, and ten to give her husband, at last, a male heir? Louis, in the meantime, seemed to lose interest in her except, perhaps, sexually: Marguerite would bear him eleven children in all.

And yet, as one of the protagonists of FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, Marguerite is a true heroine. Forced against her will to accompany her increasingly fanatical husband on Crusade, she gave birth to at least three children there, naming her first Jean Tristan – “Jean of Sorrows” – because of his birth in the city of Damietta, Egypt, in the midst of a terrifying Turkish siege. Deprived by Blanche of any opportunity to reign as France’s queen, Marguerite showed her true mettle during this crisis, saving the city and negotiating her husband’s release from prison before she’d even to recover from labor — perhaps traveling up the Nile in a boat and, as her sister Beatrice recalls, bludgeoning crocodiles with an oar.

Louis seemed barely to notice what she had done for him, according to Joinville, did not even thank her for ransoming him from Egyptian prison. Hers must have been a lonely life – or was it? Joinville’s own writings praise her strength and courage, criticize his friend Louis for neglecting her, and reveal details of her life that only an intimate friend would have known. Was he her Lancelot? I like to think that with him, at least, this admirable woman found comfort, and perhaps love.

Blanche’s death in 1254 gave Marguerite the opportunity to show the world of what she was made. While Louis, wracked with guilt over his devastating loss in Egypt, reformed the kingdom’s laws and persecuted heretics and blasphemers with a fanatical zeal — cutting off a man’s lips for blasphemy, for example — she built up the kingdom’s bankrupt coffers, decided legal disputes, commanded respect. At last, it seemed, she had all she desired – or nearly all.

The thorn in her side: Provence. When her father married her to the king, he promised a dowry of 10,000 silver marks or Tarascon, his most heavily fortified castle on the Rhone River. When he died, however, he bequeathed the entire county, including Tarascon, to his youngest daughter, Beatrice, in hopes, he said, that she might make as good a marriage as her sisters had done. Marguerite would spend the rest of her life fighting for her share of her beloved Provence. And, when Louis died and she was summoned to testify at the hearing establishing his sainthood, she refused.

“Louis,” she says in FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, “was no saint.”