History tells us that when Gabrielle de Estrées was sixteen years old she was so pretty and already in possession of a good figure, that at her mother’s instigation she was sold as mistress, to Henri III. The deal was negotiated through a third party, Montigny, and a sum of six thousand crowns agreed as payment to compensate her for the loss of her daughter. A most unnatural mother if ever there was one. Montigny, however, only remitted her two-thirds of that amount, retaining the balance for himself, and when this came to the king’s ears he lost all favour.
Gabrielle, however, got the worst of the deal as she was passed on from lover to lover, including the Cardinal de Guise. He was her lover for more than a year, until May 1588 when he left for Paris to support his nephew, the Duke de Guise, in what became known as the Day of the Barricades.
For a time Gabrielle felt free, was passionately in love with the Duke de Bellegarde, Grand Equerry of France, Master of the King's Wardrobe and First Gentleman of his Chamber. Henri III, with whom Bellegarde was in high favour, is said to have supported his suit. Unfortunately, Gabrielle was a sprightly, spoiled little miss at this time and was also in love with the Duke de Longueville. Playing one off against the other she couldn’t quite make up her mind which would make the better husband.
She was considered to be a perfect beauty, and the courtiers waxed lyrical on the subject.
‘Blue eyes so brilliant as to dazzle one; a complexion of the composition of the Graces but in which the lilies surpassed the roses unless it were animated by some deep feeling… a mouth on which gaiety and love reposed, and which was perfectly furnished.’…‘fair hair like fine gold, caught up in a mass, or slightly crisped above the forehead.’… ‘the nose straight and regular, the mouth small, smiling and purplish, the cast of physiognomy engaging and tender. A charm was spread over every outline. Her eyes were blue, quick, soft and clear. She was wholly feminine in her tastes, her ambitions, and even her defects.’
Bellegarde was so besotted he foolishly boasted about her to his master, Henry of Navarre, who later became Henry IV of France. And the rest, as they say, is history…
The story of Gabrielle d’Estrées is one of love, betrayal, intrigue and tragedy. All she wants is to marry for love, and enjoy the respectability of a happy marriage. But in the court of sixteenth century France this is almost impossible to achieve. She was sold by her own mother to three different lovers before catching the eye of a king.
Henry has a weakness for beautiful women with fair hair and blue eyes, and once he sees Gabrielle, he knows he must have her. She bears him children and he promises to marry her, despite still being married to the exiled Queen Marguerite de Valois.
Is the love of a king enough to secure Gabrielle the happiness and respectability she craves, and a crown for her son as the next dauphin of France?
Here is a short extract from the opening pages of Reluctant Queen.
‘My sweet one, I love you more than I can say. I do understand your concern, but no other woman is prettier or more charming than you. I cherish the day Madame de Tignonville, your dear mother, was chosen as companion and governess for my sister when she returned recently from Paris. Otherwise I might never have met you.’
Jeanne cast a sideways glance up at him from beneath her lashes, carefully studying his expression for evidence of his sincerity. This was the King of Navarre she was refusing, after all, not some young courtier with no manners or money to his name. Was that wise? Her caution lay not simply with regard to her virtue, virgin though she undoubtedly was, but with the sad fact that the King was not free as he possessed a wife already. But then Queen Margot remained in Paris, held captive by her brother Henri III and her mother Catherine de Medici. Even as Jeanne heeded her own mother’s wise advice not to yield too easily, she felt giddy with the possibilities of what heights she might reach by capturing the King’s heart. ‘Sire, I must guard my reputation. I am an innocent.’
‘Your innocence enchants me. I adore you.’
‘But how can you say that when you hardly know me?’
‘Your modesty does you great credit, but you are not so innocent as to fail to see how the very sight of you sets my pulses racing. I must have you. I need you by my side, day and night.’
Jeanne was instantly alarmed, a flush of pink flooding her soft cheeks. ‘Sire, you speak wild. I am a maiden. My mother would never consent.’
‘I am not asking your mother. Besides, how could she deny a King?’ he teased. ‘Ah, but I see I am rushing you, my little one. Will you grant me a kiss at least?’
Henry gazed into her blue eyes, entranced. He was all too aware that falling in love was as natural to him as eating the pigeon pie he loved so much, or drinking his favourite Gascon wine. He was quite unable to resist a beautiful woman, particularly one as young and delightful as this one. Her dark hair was so soft that he ached to stroke it, her childlike form so delicate his fingers itched to caress her budding young breasts. He had been pursuing the girl for some weeks now, ever since his sister Catherine had come home, yet she resisted him still.
Capturing her in his arms he attempted to steal a kiss, but at the last moment Jeanne averted her face. ‘What is it my lovely, do I repulse you?’
‘Of course not, Your Grace.’ She looked appalled by the very idea, which soothed his bruised ego somewhat. Nevertheless, Henry very reluctantly let her go.
‘Why then do you deny me? I am not an unkind man, a most generous one in fact, known for my good humour and equable temper. Nor would I ever force myself upon a woman. Ah, could it be that you have never been kissed before?’
The flush deepened and Henry laughed out loud. ‘That is the way of it, eh? An innocent indeed.’ The prospect of teaching this delightful child all about love making excited him more than he could express. What a diligent teacher he would be! ‘Perhaps, as our friendship develops, and if I am very good, you will permit me a little license?’
Soft lips pouted as she considered the matter, blue eyes bright with wounded pride. Jeanne felt confused and untutored in these matters, uncertain how to protect herself and yet not lose his interest completely. ‘I do not see how a maid of honour could dare to refuse a king anything, so I beg of you, Sire, not to presume upon me by asking.’ So saying, she sank into a curtsey and begged leave to depart. Chuckling with delight Henry granted her wish. Oh, but he would enjoy wooing this little one, and one way or another, he would win her.