I have been carrying out some research on Grey Friars in London recently and was reminded of one of England’s least well known queens, Margaret of France, who was buried there. It was a sad end for a woman who was a competent, if largely overlooked, queen that saw her tomb memorial taken apart and sold in the late 1540s following the dissolution of the monastery.
Margaret of France (c.1279-1318) is little remembered today and was, even in her own time, over-shadowed by her more famous predecessor as Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, and by her successor as queen, the notorious Isabella of France. She played an important role in keeping the royal family together and her life appears, in the main, to have been a happy one. She was the youngest child of Philip
III of France and his wife, Marie of Brabant and
was born around 1279. In 1285 her father died and she was raised under the
guardianship of her brother, Philip IV.
In 1296 Philip invaded Gascony and took control of the duchy. Edward I was already committed to his war in Scotland and was unable to defend both areas. He had already made one marriage in order to safeguard Gascony from foreign attack and he was therefore eager, in 1298 to adopt the pope’s suggestion of a marriage between himself and a sister of Philip IV, and for his eldest surviving son, Edward, to marry Philip’s daughter, Isabella. At first, it was suggested that Edward marry Margaret’s elder sister, Blanche, who was a renowned beauty. At some stage in the negotiations, Margaret’s name was substituted for Blanche’s. Margaret came from a good-looking family and her brother was always known as ‘Philip the Fair’. While Margaret was always rather overshadowed by her brother and elder sister, she was an attractive woman in her own right and, according to the Chronicler, Peter Langcroft ‘the Lady Margaret, in whose least finger there is more goodness and beauty, whoever looks at her, than in the fair Idione whom Adamas loved’. Edward had no reason to feel short-changed by the substitution of Margaret for the fair Blanche.
Margaret arrived at Dover in September 1299 and was taken straight to Canterbury where she and the sixty year old Edward were married on 8 September. No record of the couple’s first meeting survives but Edward was apparently delighted with his young bride and the couple, against expectations, became close. Margaret was presented to the people as a peacemaker for her role in ending the conflict in Gascony and this made her popular, with the contemporary Song of the Scottish Wars commenting of the marriage that ‘next the king returns, that he may marry Queen Margaret, the flower of the French; through her the kingdoms receive a more complete peace. Anger begets slaughter, concord nourishes love - when love buds between great princes, it drives away bitter sobs from their subjects’. She quickly fell pregnant following her marriage and both she and Edward found they missed each other, in spite of the brief time that they had been together. According to the chronicler, Peter Langcroft, soon after Easter 1300:
‘Queen Margaret, by command of her lord the king, proceeds towards the North; she was advanced in pregnancy; by will of God Almighty at Brotherton on the wharf she is safely delivered of a son who is named Thomas at his baptism. King Edward receives information of it, prepares quickly to visit the lady, like a falcon before the wind. After her purification made solemnly the king resumes his road towards Scotland; the queen with her son waits at Cawood, on the River Ouse, much at her ease’.
Given that Margaret had only arrived in England in September 1299 and her first son was born on 1 June 1300, coupled with the fact that Brotherton contained no royal residence, it is clear that Margaret’s first child was premature. In spite of this, her son was healthy and as soon as she was well enough to travel she moved to Cawood which had been prepared for her lying-in. Margaret’s other deliveries went more smoothly and she bore Edward two further children: Edmund at Woodstock in August 1301 and Eleanor at Winchester in May 1306. It is a testament to Margaret’s good nature that her only daughter was named after her predecessor as Edward’s wife.
Like Eleanor of Castile, Margaret spent most of her time travelling with Edward and she was a distant mother to her children. She involved herself in their upbringing as much as possible, personally selecting Thomas’s wet nurse, for example. She gave her two sons the gift of an iron birdcage and grieved for her daughter when she died young. Edward was also interested in his children and a letter survives from him to the steward of his sons’ household, telling him to ensure that they attended mass at Canterbury Cathedral and asking for a report on their conduct during the service. Edward asked for them to be brought to St Radegunds in September 1302 so that he could visit them. In a further letter to the children’s household after the birth of Margaret’s daughter, Edward asked for details of what the baby was like. It is obvious that both Margaret and Edward attempted to stay involved in their children’s lives and Edward treated the children of his second family with more indulgence than the strict upbringings imposed on his first.
Margaret made an effort to be on good terms with Edward’s children from his first marriage. She had considerable contact with the future Edward II and, even though she was only a few years older than him, she filled the role of a mother to him. In 1305, the young Edward and some other youths invaded the estates of the Bishop of Chester, pulling down fences and allowing his game to escape. Edward I was furious with his son and sent him to Windsor where he spent six months in disgrace. He was only released through a reconciliation engineered by Margaret when she convinced her husband not to punish his son further.
Edward I was faithful to both his queens and he and Margaret enjoyed a loving relationship. There is evidence that he was anxious about Margaret’s health and happiness, as a series of surviving letters show. Margaret was diagnosed with measles in 1305 and Edward was very concerned for her health, cancelling arrangements that had been made for her to travel to see him. In a letter to her physician, Edward told him not to let her travel until she was fully recovered or he would suffer for it.
Margaret was an exemplary queen and her only recorded vice was a failure to control her finances. She was very extravagant and by 1302 Edward had had to give her £4000 out of wardships and marriages so that she could pay her debts. In 1305 her lands were increased by £500 a year, again in order to service her debts. Margaret spent the money on luxuries: in 1302 she owed £1000 to an Italian merchant for fine clothes and other goods. She was left richly provided for in Edward’s Will but died heavily in debt.
In spite of these debts, Margaret was a kind-hearted woman and she interceded with Edward on a number of occasions on behalf of people who petitioned her. She saved the life of a Godfrey de Cogners, who had unwisely fashioned the crown with which Robert the Bruce was crowned in Scotland. Margaret was kind-hearted even to her opponents. In 1303 or 1304 she issued a writ against two men for trespass in her park in Camel in Somerset. Since both of the accuseds were in Scotland when the writ was issued, she agreed to postpone her action against them so that they would not be prejudiced by their absence. In a letter to Edward’s chancellor, Margaret wrote:
‘Because we have granted, at the request of our dear cousin, Sir Aymer de Valence, that the exigence [writ] which is running upon Sir Alexander Cheverel and Roger Parker (who remain in the service of our said lord the king in Scotland) in the county of Somerset by the order delivered to the sheriff of the same place by our said cousin, Sir Hugh le Despenser and Sir Henry le Spigurnel, justices assigned to hear and determine the trespass which was committed against our said lord the king and against ourself in our park of Camel, should be adjourned until the feast of St Hilary next coming, we command and request you that you hereupon make the said Sir Alexander and Roger have our lord the king’s writ to the aforesaid sheriff in due manner, so that they in the meantime do not incur damage or danger by it for this reason’.
Margaret was not with Edward when he died on 7 July 1307 at Burgh-by-Sands on his way to yet another campaign in Scotland. Edward’s death was unexpected and Margaret grieved for him deeply, never contemplating a second marriage, in spite of being only in her late twenties at the time. She did not, however, retire from public life and, on 22 January 1308 sailed to Boulogne with her stepson, Edward II, for his marriage to her niece, Isabella of France.
The royal party returned to England soon after the wedding for Edward and Isabella’s coronation. Margaret’s brothers, the Counts of Valois and Evreux publicly voiced their disapproval at the prominence given to Edward II’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, at the ceremony and it is likely that Margaret also disapproved. Certainly, she retired from court soon after the coronation. She may also have voiced her concerns to her brother, Philip IV, and, in May 1308, it was reported that both Philip and Margaret had sent £40,000 to the Earls of Lincoln and Pembroke to finance their campaign to oust Gaveston from power. She had reason to dislike Gaeston as, at Easter 1308, Edward took Berkhamstead Castle from her and bestowed it on his favourite. Margaret played only a small role in the campaign against Gaveston and it was the only foray into politics that she ever made.
Margaret’s last public appearance was as a witness to the birth of the future Edward
Windsor in 1312. She joined her niece, Isabella, two months before the birth
and stayed until after the christening before returning to her own estates. She
lived quietly for the rest of her widowhood and died at Marlborough Castle in
February 1318 of some unspecified illness. At her request, she was buried at
Grey Friars church in London, next to the altar in the choir that she had
built. In spite of her brief life and even briefer marriage, Margaret of France
appears to have been happy and she enjoyed a happier marriage than her niece
and successor as queen, Isabella of France.
Unlike her predecessor as queen, Eleanor of Castile, and successor, Isabella of France, there is unlikely to ever be a biography of Margaret of France. She made very little political impact but, in spite of odds that were stacked against her, she was happy. By choosing Grey Friars as her burial place she also set a precedent and it became the fashionable place for the London aristocracy and gentry to be buried. You can read more about Margaret, who appears incredibly human in the surviving sources, in my book, England’s Queens: The Biography.