Jean Plaidy

Queen Jezebel

To G.P.H. whose practical help and advice have been invaluable


WITHIN THE THICK STONE WALLS, Paris sweltered in the heat of the summer sun. For weeks now, from the far corners of the land of France, travellers had been passing through the city’s gates. Noblemen came with their retinues, and following in their train were the beggars, rogues and thieves who had joined them on the road. It seemed that the whole population of France was determined to see France’s Catholic Princess married to the Huguenot King of Navarre.

Now and then a glittering figure would ride by to a flourish of trumpets and with a band of followers to announce him as a nobleman. On his way to the Louvre, he passed through the streets of tall and slender houses, whose roofs crowned them like grey peaked caps, and if he were a Catholic gentleman he would be cheered by the Catholics, and if a Huguenot, by the Huguenots.

In the winding alleys, with their filth and flies, there was tension; it hung over the streets and squares, above which, like guardians, rose the Gothic towers of the Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame, the gloomy bastions of the Bastille and the Conciergerie. The beggars sniffed the smell of cooking which seemed to be perpetually in the streets, for this was a city of restaurants, and rôtisseurs and pâtissiers flourished, patronized as they were by noblemen and even the King himself. Hungry these beggars were, but they also were alert.

Now and then a brawl would break out in the taverns. A man had been killed at the Ananas and his body quietly thrown into the Seine, it was said. He was a Huguenot, and it was not surprising that he found trouble in Catholic Paris. One Huguenot among Catholics was a dangerous challenge; but in Paris this summer there were thousands of Huguenots. They could be seen in the streets, outside the church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, strolling through the congested streets, past the hovels and the mansions; many were lodged behind the yellow walls of the Hôtel de Bourbon; others found their way to the house on the corner of the Rue de l’Arbre Sec and the Rue Béthisy which was the headquarters of the greatest of all the Protestant leaders, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny.

Away to the east in the Rue Saint Antoine was one of the largest mansions in Paris—the Hôtel de Guise—and on this summer’s day there came riding into the city a man, the sight of whom sent most Parisians wild with joy; he was their hero, their idol, the handsomest man in France before whom all others, be they Kings or Princes, looked like men of the people. This was the golden-haired, golden-bearded, twenty-two-yearold Duke, Henry of Guise.

The Parisians shouted their devotion; they waved their caps for him; they clapped their hands and leaped into the air for him; and they wept for the murder of his father, who had been another such as he. He was a romantic figure, this young Duke of Guise, particularly now when the whole city was preparing to celebrate this wedding, for Guise had been the lover of the Princess who was to be given to the Huguenot; and Paris would have rejoiced to see the Catholic Duke married to their Princess. But it was said that the sly old serpent, the Queen Mother, had caught the lovers together, and as a result the handsome Duke had been married to Catherine of Cleves, the widow of the Prince of Porcien, and gay and giddy Princess Margot had been forced to give up Catholic Henry of Guise for Huguenot Henry of Navarre. It was unnatural, but no more than Paris expected of the Italian woman, Catherine de’ Medici.

‘Hurrah!’ cried the Parisians. ‘Hurrah for the Duke of Guise!’

Graciously he acknowledged their homage, and, followed by his attendants and all the beggars who had joined them on the road, Henry, Duke of Guise, rode into the Rue Saint Antoine.

* * *

The Princess Marguerite, in her apartments of the palace of the Louvre with her sister, the Duchess Claude of Lorraine, listened to the cheers in the street and smiled happily, knowing for whom the cheers were intended. Marguerite, known throughout the country as Margot, was nineteen years old; plump already, vivacious and sensually attractive, she was reputed to be one of the most learned women in the country, and one of the most licentious. Her older and more serious sister, the wife of the Duke of Lorraine, made a striking contrast with the younger princess; Claude was a very quiet and sober young woman.

Margot’s black hair fell loosely about her shoulders, for she had just discarded the red wig she had favoured that day; her black eyes sparkled, and even Claude knew that they sparkled for the handsome Duke of Guise. Margot and Guise were lovers, although they had ceased to be faithful lovers; there were too many separations, and Margot’s nature was, Claude told herself, too affectionate for constancy. The mild and gentle Claude had a happy way of seeing everyone in the best possible light. Margot had often told her sister that her life had been ruined when permission to marry the man she loved—the only man she could ever love—had been denied her. As a wife of Henry of Guise, she declared, she would have been faithful; but, being his mistress and being unable to become his wife, she had been dishonoured; in desperation she had taken a lover or two, and then had been unable to get out of the habit, for she loved easily, and there were so many handsome men at court. ‘But,’ explained Margot to her women, ‘I am always faithful to Monsieur de Guise when he is at court’ And now the thought of him made her eyes shine and the laughter bubble to her lips.

‘Go to the window, Charlotte,’ she commanded. ‘Tell me, can you see him? Describe him to me.’

A young woman of infinite grace rose from her stool and sauntered to the window. Charlotte de Sauves could not obey a command such as the Princess had just given, without seeming to proclaim to all who watched her that she was the most beautiful woman at court. Her long, curling hair was magnificently dressed, and her gown was almost as elaborate as those worn by Claude and Margot; she was fair, her eyes were blue and she was two or three years older than Margot; her elderly husband occupied the great position of Secretary of State, and if his duties left him little time to bestow on his wife, there were many others ready to take over his conjugal responsibilities. Margot’s reputation was slightly tarnished, but that of Charlotte de Sauves was evil, for when Margot strayed, she loved, however briefly, and for her that love was, temporarily ‘the love of her life’; Charlotte’s love affairs were less innocent.

‘I see him,’ said Charlotte. ‘How tall he is!’

‘They say he is at least a head taller than most of his followers,’ commented Claude.

‘And how he sits his horse!’ cried Charlotte. ‘It is not surprising that the Parisians love him.’

Margot rose and went swiftly to the window.

‘There is no one like him,’ she said. ‘Ah, I could tell you much of him. Oh, Claude, do not look so shocked. I shall not do so, for I am not as indiscreet as Charlotte and Henriette.’

‘You should tell us,’ said Charlotte, ‘or some of us may be tempted to find out for ourselves.’

Margot turned on Charlotte and, taking her ear between her finger and thumb, pinched it hard. It was a trick Margot had learned from her mother, and she knew from personal experience what pain it could inflict

‘Madame de Sauves,’ she said, every bit the Princess now, ‘you will do well to keep your eyes from straying in the direction of Monsieur de Guise.’

Touching her ear very gently, Charlotte said: ‘My lady Princess, there is no need to fear. I have no doubt that Monsieur de Guise is as faithful to you as . . . you are to him.’

Margot turned away and went back to her chair; it did not take her long to forget her anger, because already she was anticipating a reunion with Henry of Guise; those about her knew her well, and they were fond of her, for, with all her faults, she was the most lovable member of the royal family. Her temper rose quickly but it fell with equal speed and she was generous and goodhearted; she could always be relied upon to help anyone in distress; she was vain and she was immoral; there had in fact been unpleasant rumours concerning her affection for her brother Henry, the Duke of Anjou; she had at one time admired him greatly; this was when he was seventeen and the hero of Jarnac and Montcontour, and Margot’s love, whether for cousin or brother, held nothing back that might be asked. But beautiful as she was, both gay and learned, so eager always to talk of herself, to make excuses for her conduct, she was an enchanting companion, a joy to be with, and greatly she was loved.

Now, because of the words of Charlotte de Sauves, she must justify herself in the eyes of her women. She shuddered and rocked herself gently to and fro. To think,’ she murmured, ‘that each passing minute brings me nearer to a marriage which I hate!’

They tried to comfort her.

‘You will be a Queen, dearest sister,’ said Claude.

Others added their balm. ‘It is said that Henry of Navarre, although lacking the beauty of Monsieur de Guise, is not without his attractions.’

Charlotte joined them, still tenderly fingering her ear. ‘You would find many women ready to testify to his attractiveness,’ she murmured. ‘He is a little rough, they say, a little coarse; but it would be difficult to find another as affectionate and as elegant as Monsieur de Guise. Duke Henry is a king among men; and the King of Navarre, it is said, is just a man . . . among women.’