In the High Middle Ages, there were four sisters known by the famous moniker of “the Provençal Sisters” and they married four of the most influential men of Europe at the time. It is through these four marriages that the sisters: Margaret, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice ushered in an era of relative peace in the 1200s.
A Desirable Arrangement
The year was 1233, and Louis IX of France had been on the throne for seven years. At the age of 19, Louis IX’s mother, the formidable Blanche of Castile was determined to find a suitable bride for her son and the one who would go on to become the Queen of France. A myriad of young women from an array of kingdoms and prestigious families were considered as possible brides.
It all started, when in the very same year, a knight of the queen by the name of Giles of Flagy visited the highly-sophisticated court of Raymond Berenguer IV, Count of Provence. When he glimpsed the lovely Margaret, the eldest daughter of the count, he immediately exclaimed, “A girl of pretty face but prettier faith.” Margaret, as the eldest born daughter of Raymond and his wife, Beatrice of Savoy, had taken up the mantle of propriety, piety, and she was known for being very gentle. Tales of Margaret’s fair beauty with her dark hair and fine eyes were sung far and wide by the minstrels who wandered from town to town. In that particular time, it was known that the disagreeable Raymond, Count of Toulouse sought her for his bride, and this was a match that was highly disagreeable to her father. It was not unknown for a would-be suitor to forcefully abduct his bride in that time, which is a consideration that Raymond Berenguer may have weighed in his mind. Therefore, when Giles had arrived, he was treated to a hearty welcome complete with days of feasts, many minstrels singing songs, and even tournament games. For Margaret to capture the attention of the king’s mother is something that would elevate her status, and in doing so, would give her three sisters a chance at securing good marriages.
Shortly after the knight had met with Blanche of Castile, a match between Louis and Margaret was officially struck. However, it wasn’t Margaret’s widespread beauty that won her acclaim but her gentle courtly manner and her ardent religious devotion. Before the marriage contract was signed, there was an altercation between Blanche and Raymond of Provence, where the queen had demanded a prodigious fee in return for Margaret to wed Louis. Not only did Raymond lack what exactly she was looking for, he had positively no means to make that up to her. Scrounging whatever he could find, he was able to amass only 8,000 of the 10,000 Marks that Blanche was demanding. It was the necessary generosity of the Archbishop of Sens who was able to pay the 2,000 Marks in order to officially close the deal and thus, in a way, ingratiate himself with both queen and count. With everything established, the wedding moved forward as hoped.
Margaret, who had grown up at one of the most celebrated courts in Christendom, that being the court of Provence, enjoyed a life of prestige. Raymond Berenguer dressed his family in only the best silks and cloth while his wife saw to the education of her four daughters. In a time where women were scarcely taught how to write their names let alone read, the daughters of Raymond were taught polished Latin, as well as the traditional education, deemed suitable for a young lady. Was her education enough to prepare her to be the future queen of France? One can only conjecture.
A Happy Marriage
On 27 May 1234, thirteen-year-old Margaret married Louis, who was seven years her senior. Unfortunately, all of Margaret’s family could not attend the wedding but they accompanied her to Lyons for the signing of the marriage treaty. Those who did accompany her to Sens for the marriage were her servants from Provence, her Savoyard uncles, and additional attendants that she had had from her childhood. The wedding was a sumptuous affair, and she was crowned queen of France the next day, 28 May 1234.
From the beginning, the marriage between Louis and Margaret was a jubilant one. The two of them were both exceedingly pious. It is even said that when he prayed for hours on end, Margaret would place a robe about her husband’s shoulders to keep him warm. While the marriage was a happy one, and it produced 11 children (only 8 survived to adulthood), the difference in personality began to show. Margaret was so used to the fancy cloth that her father championed in Provence that it embarrassed her exceedingly that Louis sometimes dressed plainly. In the Middle Ages, the wearing of bright and luxurious fabrics bespoke of one’s status within the strata of society. Therefore, her husband dressing in such a way was not only humiliating but somewhat insulting. Louis, who would go on to eventually become a canonised saint, preferred the simpler things in life while his wife had a great deal of ambition.
Seeds of Marital Discord
Louis’s very own mother, Blanche of Castile began to see that his new bride had driven a wedged between her and her beloved son. This caused fury as well as a generous amount of jealousy. From then on, Blanche conspired to separate the newlywed couple. However, it wouldn’t be Blanche that succeeded in causing the couple to be at odds, but their differences and a crusade to the Holy Land that would change everything.
The Seventh Crusade was a cause that was championed by Louis and, in 1249, the crusaders captured the town of Damietta in Egypt. However, it was an absolute disaster because not only was the king’s brother killed but Louis himself was captured by the Egyptians. Margaret had gone along with her husband on the crusade, and to hear that he had been captured by the forces of Shajar al-Durr (the wife of the deceased Egyptian Sultan, Al-Malik as-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub) frightened her exceedingly. Not only did she have to be brave but she had to find the sum of 400,000 livres tournois (Tours pounds) and to surrender Damietta entirely to have her husband returned to her. Throughout his captivity, it is said that Louis thought very little of his wife and his children, at least according to the chronicler, Joinville.
Peace Between France and England
It was Margaret’s patience and endurance under intense duress that won her acclaim in France and amongst those of her peers. Over the years, Margaret was exceptionally close with her younger sister Eleanor, who had married Henry III of England. It is the two sisters who brought peace to the two countries that had been warring for decades, if not centuries. The French king and queen invited Henry and Eleanor to Paris for the Christmas celebration, which was a time of great merriment. Born out of a peaceful intention and a growing closeness between the kings, the Treaty of Paris was established in the year 1259. It meant the cessation of conflict between the houses of Plantagenet (England) and Capet (France) and that England could retain the lands of Gascony and Aquitaine (as a vassal of France).
After her success at ransoming her husband from his captors, Margaret tried her hand at politics and it is clear that she was not entirely adept at it. She threw herself into managing the affairs of state, something that was seen to be the domain of the king in the medieval era. When her eldest son Louis had died, she impelled her second son, Philip to swear an oath to his mother that he would remain under her guidance until he reached the age of 30. When Louis has uncovered this, he was furious and went to see the pope ensuring that this “oath” would have no repercussions. It is apparent from her machinations and contrivances that she styled herself after her mother-in-law, Blanche of Castile, who was ruled by no man and who was clearly a force to be reckoned with. Margaret fell rather short of the mark.
With the unleashing of the Eight Crusade, Louis travelled once again to war and he died of dysentery while in his camp. After the death of her husband in 1270, Margaret officially retired to a Poor Clares convent that she had founded and it is there that she spent the rest of her life before meeting her end at the age of 74. What can be said of Margaret of Provence? She was a mostly unremarkable queen, a devoted wife and mother, a pious follower of religion, and a brave woman in the face of danger, but it was her peace-making ability that still wins her recognition to this day.