The Journey has begun

The Journey begins

Font & light

The Journey has begun …. And what an auspicious start in a place of beauty and serenity. A joyful experience….

Stage One : Bourg-en-Bresse     Built on Love

There once was a child, born of the most eminent royal heritage, whose mother was killed in a riding accident when she was only two years old. Thus started the star-crossed life of the woman whose story fascinated, moved and inspired me on the first stop of my Journey.

I was at the shining white Monastery of Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse, famous to the French for the tastiest chickens in France, more important to me for its association with the captivating story of Marguerite of Austria. The French call her Marguerite d’Autriche, we seem to call her Margaret, but as her emblem was the marguerite flower I shall call her Marguerite, as she would have called herself.

The Monastery of Brou

The Monastery of Brou

Marguerite built the monastery of Brou to house the tomb of the man she had loved and been married to for only three years when he died of “a chill” after a day out hunting.   Now her tomb is beside his, and they are reunited after death.

Reunited lovers

Reunited lovers

The monastery is an enormous monument to love, built to house the couple’s tombs and the twelve monks whose sole task was to pray for Marguerite and Philibert le Beau. The church, cloisters, and monks’ quarters are filled with light, the stones with which they are constructed are sometimes a creamy white pierrre de ramasse and sometimes pink and orange marbled stone from the Ardèche.   The result is light, space, calm, and immense beauty.

Nave & Rood

When you enter the tall, bare vaulted nave with the light pouring in through its plain, clear windows it takes your breath away. It is not an imposing or sad church, despite its funereal tombs, it is all luminosity and radiance which cannot fail to lift the spirit, as a monument to love should do.

This simple but extraordinarily impressive nave is a complete contrast to the rest of the church, reached by passing through an intricate and ornate rood. There, in the choir, the chapel is flanked by carved oak stalls and the most magnificent tall triptych of stained glass windows rises up before you, portraying the lives of Marguerite and Philibert, who was the Duke of Savoy during his lifetime.

Here lie the tombs of the lovers, hugely elaborate with delicately carved filigree images in so-called flamboyant gothic style. Multi-coloured pastel shades of light from the stained glass dapple the tombs, the surrounding walls and the paving stones. In their day the flooring would in any case have been exquisitely coloured a deep blue, or covered in tiles decorated with yellow marguerite flowers, now effaced by footsteps of time.

Each tomb has two effigies, on the top as the person appeared in life, and below as they are immortalised in death. In Marguerite’s case in life at the age of fifty, and below as a lovely young woman reverted to eternal youth, her face ‘looking east towards the new dawn of the after-life’ as was the medieval tradition.


Around Marguerite’s tomb are stone carvings of quills, to denote her learning, and the initials P and M bound together with twists of rope.

This woman’s history enthralled me. I will recount it to you at some length, in the hope that you will be equally captivated.

She was born in 1480, the daughter of Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg and Mary of Burgundy. Maximilian was a member of the powerful Habsburg dynasty whose lands form the present Austria and whose lords shaped the history of Europe for centuries.

Her mother was only twenty-five when she was killed in that riding accident, leaving the two year old Marguerite motherless. Within a year Marguerite was married to the young Dauphin of France, Charles, ten years her senior and she was destined to become Queen of France when Louis XI died.

The three year old was taken to the French Court at Amboise where she was educated by Charles’ sister, Anne de Beaujeu, and prepared for her role as Queen. Louis XI died shortly afterwards, and though Marguerite was technically Queen of France, Anne of Beaujeu ruled France as her young brother’s regent. Anne is said to have been formidably intelligent and shrewd, and many noble children were educated by her.

When Marguerite was eleven years old Charles, now Charles VIII, chose to make a political alliance to gain Brittany by marrying Anne the Duchesse of Brittany and his marriage to Marguerite was annulled. Marguerite, wounded, was sent away.

At sixteen her father arranged Marguerite’s marriage to the King of Spain’s son and heir, Juan. Marguerite had a “nouvelle alliance, nouveau marriage, nouveau pays”.   The couple seemed attracted to one another, wrote a chronicler, but Juan was in poor health and unfortunately died only months after the wedding. The widowed Marguerite was pregnant, but regrettably her child, a daughter, died at birth. She was never to have another child.

Later there was another arranged marriage and at the age of twenty-one Marguerite was wedded to the man who became the love of her life, the handsome Philibert, or ‘Philibert le Beau’, who was also twenty-one.

Philibert was also immensely powerful. He was the Duke of Savoy with lands that stretched from Geneva to Turin and Nice. Finally the adult Marguerite had a mature, amourous relationship with a man her own age, and she was now the Duchess of Savoy.   However the two had only three years together before misfortune struck Marguerite again and Philibert died.

Marguerite vowed never to marry again and was later dubbed the ‘Lady of Mourning’ by her court historian and poet. She did not steep herself in sadness, however, but set about building the monastery of Brou to house her husband’s tomb and that of his mother, as he had promised to do himself. Historians say she did so with her characteristic ‘volonté’ – active willingness – and was not deterred by a heavy downpour on the day that she laid the first stone.

Monastery portal

Shortly afterwards another twist of fate occurred. Marguerite’s only sibling, her brother Philippe, died. Philippe had also had a royal alliance as a small child. Upon his death he left a widow who was deemed incapable of ruling and six children, the eldest of which was six year old Charles who was to become the future King of Spain.

In a move which was exceptionally unusual at that time, Marguerite, a woman, was appointed the regent of Charles’ territories in the ‘Low Countries’ and spent the next twenty five years governing the Netherlands, Charles even appointing her his regent when he was of age.   By all accounts Marguerite ruled wisely and diplomatically. She negotiated important treaties which brought peace and prosperity to the Netherlands.   It was in recognition of her wisdom that her nephew Charles appointed her governor until her death.

During her years ruling the Netherlands Marguerite oversaw a literary and artistic court, which was visited by artists, writers and erudite scholars, including Erasmus. She herself wrote poetry, collected and read literary works, played musical instruments, commissioned musical compositions and collected works of art.

Marguerite oversaw the construction work at Brou from afar. Incredibly at a time when religious edifices sometimes took centuries to build be built, the church and monastery only 27 years to complete. Marguerite had planned to move her court to Brou and had apartments constructed in the building along with a small private chapel which overlooked the tomb of her Philibert. But Marguerite died two years before Brou was finished and she never saw it in its beautifully completed state.

I adore this woman. I loved learning about her life and character, and her church brought me joy at the beginning of my Journey, for which I am grateful.

What moved me about Marguerite’s story is that her life, though star-crossed, does not have the feel of being tragic. Unfortunate events happened to her, she was used since infancy as a political pawn, but she did not appear to see herself as a victim, and therefore was not one. Though she was deprived the affection of parents and hurt by love she was able to give it. There is no sense of defeat in her story, only fortitude and making the best of the cards one is dealt by fate.   She met adversity with courage and whatever duty she was asked to perform undertook it to the best of her ability and dedication. She transformed her grief into something beautiful and celebratory. At a time when women were not usually esteemed she was respected for her character, wisdom, intelligence and learning.

We all know people who have little real reason to bemoan their fate yet who complain about every slight thing in their lives, who imprison themselves in their own negativity about the world, and suffer a narrow, restricted and often bitter life because of their attitude. They are so less than they could have been.   Marguerite was more than she should have been.   She speaks to me down the centuries and is an inspiration.

In prominent places of the church – around her tomb, around a large font, at the base of the stained glass windows – Marguerite’s motto is inscribed in the stone.   It is an enigmatic, mysterious motto, the exact meaning of which has been lost over the years.   It is FORTUNE INFORTUNE FORT UNE.

Her maxim has two possible translations.   The first is ‘Misfortune hurts a woman badly’.   The second is ‘Good fortune and misfortune make a woman strong’.   I believe I know which Marguerite intended. Don’t you?

Next stop is Vézelay in the Burgundy (Bourgogne) region of France.

(Technical note :  some of these images may not be in the position intended – still learning WordPress!)

Marguerite's Motto

Marguerite’s Motto

The cloisters

The cloisters



Tricks of light

Tricks of light

Nave arches

Nave arches

Beneath the rood

Beneath the rood

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