Madeleine de Valois: Scotland’s ‘Summer Queen’

On this day in history, 10 August 1520, Madeleine de Valois, a French princess who played a pivotal role in solidifying the ‘Auld Alliance’ between France and Scotland, was born at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France. Madeleine, the fifth child and third daughter of King Francis I and Claude of France, suffered from poor health from birth. Fortunately, in 1520, the royal nursery could boast of two potentially promising heirs to the throne – Henri and Francis – and in 1522 another son, Charles, was born.

The nine years that Madeleine’s mother passed as Queen of France were spent in an annual string of pregnancies. Despite her husband’s numerous affairs, and her own enfeebled health, Claude managed to produce seven legitimate children for the country and took an active role in shaping the Kingdom of France into a modern state, often appearing independent of her husband on matters of religious reform and diplomacy. Exhausted, and likely suffering from tuberculosis, Claude died on 20 July 1524, aged twenty-four, at the Château de Blois. Her youngest daughter, Charlotte, followed her to the grave mere months later. Madeleine was not yet four years old.

Claude of France with her daughters (Charlotte, Madeleine and Marguerite), her sister Renée, and her husband’s second wife Eleanor of Austria, in the Livre d’heures de Catherine de Medicis, 1550.

After their mother’s death, Madeleine and her sister Margaret were sent to live in the balmy Loire Valley, shielded from the harsh conditions of Paris and of the itinerant royal court, and where they could soak in the unspoiled, rolling countryside, the low, grassy hills, sophisticated gardens, and pleasant weather of the region, famous for producing a variety of wines.

The royal sisters were governed under the watchful eye of their paternal aunt, Marguerite of Navarre, the Duchess of Alencon – a savvy, independent, and cultured woman, and one of the best educated in Europe. Marguerite provided a safe harbour to her nieces while their father, Francis, became embroiled in a bitter war with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, resulting in their two elder brothers, Henri and Francis, being held hostage in Spain.

Although little records have survived regarding the princess’ early years, it is probable that Marguerite took care to provide her nieces with a comprehensive education, likely foreseeing the importance of securing advantageous marriages for both Madeleine and Margaret. In Marguerite’s own case, she had been educated in various languages, including Latin, philosophy, theology, and history, all at her mother’s knee. A woman of the Renaissance, it is reasonable to assume that she took charge of her niece’s education, providing Madeleine with a solid bedrock of knowledge with which to enter the realm of European marriage negotiations.

Marriage negotiations

In 1530, Madeleine and Margaret were recalled to court when their father, Francis, remarried. The King’s new wife was Eleanor of Austria, sister to Charles V. The marriage was unhappy, a strategic move to quell the ongoing tensions between France and the Habsburgs, though Eleanor embraced her responsibilities as a royal stepmother and happily surrounded herself with her husband’s children. Brought into Eleanor’s household, Francis’s daughters quickly became the subject of potential marital negotiations swirling across the continent.

Tragically, by the age of sixteen, Madeleine had already contracted tuberculosis, which her mother likely died from, and was considered fragile. Too fragile, in fact, to marry a Scottish King.

Eleanor of Austria, Madeleine’s stepmother, with her siblings Charles V and Isabella

In 1517, three years before Madeleine’s birth, France and Scotland signed a treaty of mutual assistance, renewing the ‘Auld Alliance’ that pledged to provide support to one another should England attack either country. The Treaty of Rouen also promised a marriage between the Scottish King and a French princess; these negotiations were ultimately postponed, however, because Scotland’s king, James V, was only five-years old at the time.

It wasn’t until 1530 that serious discussions about marriage began, at which point Madeleine, then ten-years-old, was Francis I’s eldest surviving daughter. However, the French King soon voiced his objections, concerned that Madeleine would not survive the journey to Scotland, and that the country’s harsh weather (and sometimes violent political climate) would endanger her well-being.

Never one to resist a strategic maneuver, however, Francis proposed an alternative option for James. He put forth the name of Marie de Bourbon, a daughter of a Prince of the Blood, whom he would embrace as his own and provide a dowry for. In 1536, following extensive negotiations between French and Scottish ambassadors, James tentatively agreed to the match with Marie and traveled to France to finalize the mutually-beneficial arrangement.

When James finally locked eyes with his prospective bride, he was less than enchanted. He did not find Marie attractive and fell deeply in love with Francis’ eldest daughter, the sickly Madeleine. Moved by his daughter’s pleading, and persistent appeals from both parties, Francis eventually surrendered and granted his approval for the match, though nagging fears over the princess’ health considered to linger. With James and Madeleine’s affection for each other obvious, the court moved from Amboise to the Château de Blois, where Madeleine’s mother had died and where, on 26 November 1536, her marriage contract was signed and solemnized.

Scotland’s Summer Queen

James and Madeleine were married in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on 1 January 1537. Francis attended the ceremony and provided an incredibly generous dowry of 100,000 écu for his daughter, followed by 30,000 francs bestowed on his new son-in-law, which greatly enriched Scotland’s treasury. However, in turn, Madeleine was forced to renounce any potential claim her descendants would have to the French throne.

The contract also stipulated, in the unlikely event that James, twenty-four and in rude health, should predecease her, Madeleine would retain for her lifetime a splendid catalogue of earldoms, palaces, castles, and lordships.

Despite Madeleine’s deteriorating health, the wedding was sumptuously celebrated in Paris, spread over a span of four months and filled with extravagant festivities, tournaments, feasts, and grand banquets hosted at the exquisite Louvre Palace. These elaborate arrangements were orchestrated to intentionally prolong Madeleine’s departure for Scotland until spring, on account of her fragile state.

Coat of arms of Madeleine of Valois during her brief reign as Queen consort of Scotland

The Queen’s family, particularly her father, were all keenly aware that Madeleine’s health was likely to worsen, and that their poignant farewells would most likely be final. Indeed, Madeleine would never set eyes on her native country, or beloved family, ever again.

After months of festivities, the couple left France for Scotland in early May 1537, their ships laden with the new Queen’s expensive possessions, and made landfall at Leith on the 19th. Disembarking from the ship, a seasick Madeleine collapsed onto the beach and kissed a handful of Scottish sand in thanks for her safe arrival, although her health had already taken a noticeable downturn.

Nevertheless, the fragile Madeleine arrived to her adopted homeland in state. Additional to the costly jewels, pearls, cupboards, plate, furniture, hangings, and apparel with which she had been dispatched to Scotland, an inventory of wedding presents from her father, Francis I, still survives, offering us a tantalizing glimpse of the many tapestries, rich beds, gilt plate, Persian carpets, cloths of estate, and other other rich accoutrements in Madeleine’s possession, likely to have dazzled her besotted husband and subjects.

James V of Scotland and Madeleine de Valois

Additionally, a few of Madeleine’s French attendants also journeyed with her to Scotland, including her former governess, Anne de Boissy; her secretary, Jean de Langeac, Bishop of Limoges; a master of the household, a squire, a physician, two pages, a furrier (responsible for preparing the Queen’s rich, and extremely necessary, furs), butcher, and barber.

The couple spent two happy months together, nestled in marital bliss at James’ various castles. On 8 June 1537, Madeleine wrote a letter to her father from Edinburgh, claiming that her health had improved, signing the correspondence ‘Magdalene de France’. It was to be her last letter.

Sir, ever since the King of Scotland sent you to ask for the physician, master Francisque, things have changed a lot thanks to God as all my aches have disappeared but if he comes he will work and help me be completely cured  and mainly for the good news that I hope he will bring about you and please if you want to hear from me, you could ask Monsieur de Limoges who whatever you have asked from him, took great care of me during the journey, doing everything he could to make me comfortable and healthy. I feel I should let you know and beg you Sir very humbly that you enjoy the service and that you consider it the best recommendation since it comes from me. I am also begging you to let me be in your good grace, to which I do humbly recommend myself. Sir I pray God that he gives you a good and long life.

Your humble daughter, Magdeleine of France.

Nonetheless, Madeleine’s assurances belied her husband’s written appeals to Francis I, requesting that the French King send Master Francisco, a physician, to help cure Madeleine’s symptoms.

This conscientious request was to no avail. A month later, Madeleine’s health took a turn for the worse. On 7 July 1537, a month before her 17th birthday, Madeline died in James’s arms at Holyrood Palace. James wrote to her father informing him of the “Summer Queen’s” death, avowing that there was ‘nothing in this would that could be more unpleasant’ than having to break the news to Francis, the death of his ‘dear spouse, which happened today after a long period of illness’.

Sadly, Madeleine did not live to take part in the magnificent coronation planned for her, though she was later interred with great pomp and ceremony in the Royal Chapel of Holyrood Abbey, buried next to the remains of King James II of Scotland. Less than a year after Madeleine’s death, James married another Frenchwoman, Marie de Guise, the widowed Duchess of Loungeville, and a former companion to the Summer Queen. Their daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, would succeed him.

An inventory compiled at James V’s death in 1542 included a few of Madeleine’s belongings, including clothes, precious chapel furnishings, gold cups, and touching childhood possessions.

Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Hay, Denys, Letters of James V, HMSO (1954) (translation courtesy of Samia Chebbah)

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