Marie de Clèves (1553-1574)

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Entry by Jacqueline Boucher, 2004

Marie de Clèves, born in 1553, was the third daughter of François de Clèves, duke of Nevers, and of Marguerite de Bourbon. After the death of her parents, Marie became the ward of the Cardinal of Bourbon but was in fact brought up as a Calvinist by Jeanne d'Albret. In 1566, her share of the inheritance of the House of Clèves brought her lands with an income of 28,000 livres, including the marquisate of L'Isle (Val d'Oise). She probably held further lands as well, since at her death her income was 60,000 livres. Jeanne d'Albret married this beautiful and wealthy heiress to Henri de Bourbon, second prince of Condé. He was relatively poor, far from handsome, gloomy by nature, but a fervent Calvinist. The wedding, held at the château of Blandy in Île-de-France on Aug. 10-12, 1572, brought together all the leading Huguenots, as their leader, the king of Navarre, was to be married a few days later in Paris, on Aug. 18. Marie caught the eye of one of the wedding guests, the duke of Anjou, later Henri III, who then courted her eagerly. Marie's husband was imprisoned on Saint Bartholomew's Day, Aug. 24, and forced to convert to Catholicism. Marie and her husband's younger brothers abjured their faith on Sept. 24, while Henri de Bourbon did so on Dec. 4; and on the orders of the Vatican he remarried Marie according to Catholic rites.

Although Marie did not love her husband, she refused the duke of Anjou's advances. He complained to her sister Henriette, duchess of Nevers, informing her of Marie's scorn for him and his resulting grief. Marie's brother-in-law, the duke of Nevers, encouraged her to continue to resist. Henri and the duke of Nevers then left together for the siege of La Rochelle, while Marie and Henriette remained in Paris -Henri being desperately jealous of anyone who approached Marie. While the duke of Anjou returned to Paris in July 1573, he left again in November for Poland, where he had just been elected king. The poet Desportes then wrote a poem entitled Complaint for the duke of Anjou, elected king of Poland, giving voice to his master's grief at leaving behind his beloved.

During his brief stay in Krakow, the newly crowned king of Poland wrote passionate letters to Marie, while other letters to close friends and family also allude to his love for her. On the death of Charles IX in April 1574, Henri became king of France, and on the journey back to Paris expressed his desire to marry her. This would have entailed the annulment of her marriage to the Prince of Condé, which worried terribly the new king's mother. However, the project came to nothing, as Marie died tragically young. Her husband took her to Picardy, where he was governor, before fleeing to Germany and returning to Calvinism. He tried to convince Marie, pregnant and unwell, to join him in Germany. Instead she denounced her husband's plan to trigger a new civil war and sought protection from the queen mother. She gave birth to a baby girl in mid-October and died two weeks later. The duke of Nevers, who was by her side at the end, wrote to his wife that she died in a state of great piety. The court, then in Lyons, did not go into mourning for the death of the wife of a rebel prince, but the papal nuncio recounted that the king's grief was deep and sincere. Henri III wore mourning for a few days but soon accepted the blow fate had dealt, for three months later he married Louise de Lorraine, a bride of his own choosing. He did, however, request Marie's Book of Hours, an early sixteenth-century manuscript now in the Cluny Museum. On his return to Paris, he also refused to go to a feast at the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés where the Cardinal of Bourbon had had Marie, his niece, buried. Her body was ultimately transferred to the church of the Cordeliers in Nevers. The Parisian chronicler Pierre de l'Estoile noted Marie's death and praised her goodness and beauty. The royal poets -Passerat, Jamyn, Ronsard, Desportes- evoked her death and the king's grief in discreetly allegorical terms. Desportes wrote a number of Regrets on the death of Diane, while Ronsard included his poems in a new edition of the collection of Amours by Marie l'Angevine.

(translated by Susan Pickford)

Selected bibliography

- Champion, Pierre. La Jeunesse d'Henri III. 2 vol. Paris, Grasset, 1941-42.
- Champion, Pierre. Henri III, roi de Pologne. 2 vol. Paris, Grasset, 1943-51.
- Desonay, Fernand. Ronsard, poète de l'amour. 3 vol. Bruxelles, 1952-59.
- Lavaud, Jacques. Un Poète de cour au temps des derniers Valois, Philippe Desportes, 1546-1606. Thèse de lettres, Paris, Droz, 1936.

Selected bibliography of images

- Portrait de Marie, école Clouet, vers 1572-74 (crayon) -- P. Champion, Henri III... (voir supra), vol. 2.


- «Le samedi 30 du dit mois d'octobre, Dame Marie de Clèves, marquise d'Isle, femme de messire Henri de Bourbon, prince de Condé, douée d'une singulière bonté et beauté, à raison de laquelle le Roy l'aimoit esperdumment [...], mourust à Paris en sa première couche et en la fleur de son aage, et laissa une fille son heritiere.» (Pierre de l'Estoile, Registre-Journal du regne de Henri III, oct. 74, éd. M. Lazard et G. Schrenck, Genève, Droz, 1992, vol.1, p.86).

Marie de Clèves (1553-1574)
Title(s) Princesse de Condé
Marquise d'Isle
Comtesse de Beaufort
Spouses Henri de Bourbon, prince de Condé
Birth date 1553
Death 1574
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire Hilarion de Coste
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