Marguerite de Valois was the French contemporary of Queen Elizabeth of England, and their careers furnish several curious points of parallel. Marguerite was the daughter of the famous Catherine de Médicis, and was given in marriage by her scheming mother to Henry of Navarre, whose ascendant Bourbon star threatened to eclipse (as afterwards it did) the waning house of Valois. Catherine had four sons, three of whom successively mounted the throne of France, but all were childless. Although the king of the petty state of Navarre was a Protestant, and Catherine was the most fanatical of Catholics, she made this marriage a pretext for welding the two houses; but actually it seems to have been a snare to lure him to Paris, for it was at this precise time that the bloody Massacre of St. Bartholomew's day was ordered. Henry himself escaped--it is said, through the protection of Marguerite, his bride,--but his adherents in the Protestant party were slain by the thousands. A wedded life begun under such sanguinary auspices was not destined to end happily. Indeed, their marriage resembled nothing so much as an armed truce, peaceable, and allowing both to pursue their several paths, and finally dissolved by mutual consent, in 1598, when Queen Marguerite was forty-five. The closing years of her life were spent in strict seclusion, at the Castle of Usson, in Auvergne, and it was at this time that she probably wrote her Memoirs.
In the original, the Memoirs are written in a clear vigorous French, and in epistolary form. Their first editor divided them into three sections, or books. As a whole they cover the secret history of the Court of France from the years 1565 to 1582--seventeen years of extraordinary interest, comprising, as they do, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, already referred to, the formation of the famous League, the Peace of Sens, and the bitter religious persecutions which were at last ended by the Edict of Nantes issued after Henry of Navarre became Henry IV. of France. Besides the political bearing of the letters, they give a picturesque account of Court life at the end of the 16th century, the fashions and manners of the time, piquant descriptions, and amusing gossip, such as only a witty woman--as Marguerite certainly was--could inject into such subjects. The letters, indeed, abound in sprightly anecdote and small-talk, which yet have their value in lightening up the whole situation.