Gabrielle stood with her ear pressed to the salon door, anxious to hear the conversation taking place within between her mother and a gentleman by the name of Monsieur de Montigny. She was nervously wondering if he were handsome, and what he would think of her when she was paraded before him as her sister Diane had been before Epernon.
‘I couldn’t possibly let her go,’ she heard her mother say, playing the concerned maternal role to perfection. ‘She is but a child, an innocent virgin.’
‘My master prefers them young,’ came the reply.
Gabrielle was the fifth child of eight, six of them girls and all beautiful, in a family with a reputation for scandal and licentiousness. It was well known that several of her forebears laid claim to being royal mistresses. One to Francis I, another to the Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII. It was no surprise then that her own mother possessed an insatiable appetite for sex and frequently took lovers. Gabrielle’s father, the Marquis, seemed to have little control over the antics of his wife.
As well as enjoying a somewhat audacious life style herself, Madame d'Estrées seemed equally determined to take full of advantage of her daughters’ beauty.
Gabrielle knew that her elder sister Diane had been bathed in milk and ‘sold’ to the Duc d’Epernon, a favourite of Henry Trois, for a considerable sum. She had gone off happily enough to live a life of luxury at court, claiming that when Epernon tired of her, he would be sure to help secure her a rich husband.
Gabrielle was now thirteen and it looked as if it was her turn to be traded.
Her mother tittered. ‘I dare say he does. Do not all men if they can get them? But the younger the girl, the higher the price. My own sweet one is the beauty of the family. I doubt you could afford her.’
‘My master is rich beyond measure. What price did you have in mind?’
There was a long silence in which Gabrielle, listening avidly behind the door, almost despaired of an answer coming. Eventually, her mother responded in the kind of tone she might use when discussing the sale of a gown she was bored with. ‘I couldn’t take less than six thousand crowns. A loving mother requires suitable compensation for the loss of such a precious daughter.’
A mocking laugh followed this remark. ‘Is that what you claim to be, a loving mother? Pardon me for seeing you rather in the light of procuress. Mayhap you should show your gratitude for the honour done to your daughter by my master the King, and be willing to pay for the privilege.’
Gabrielle felt her heart start to thud loudly in her breast. This messenger then was from the King of France! No lover could be higher placed than Henri Trois. She had heard strange reports of this effeminate King who scented himself with violet powder, treated his wife like a doll, and taxed the people of Paris to pay for his extravagances. His mother, Catherine de Medici, was in constant battle with his mignons, all handsome, self-
‘You wish me to pay you? Very droll,’ her mother was saying, seemingly unruffled by the threats. ‘I know the value of my daughter and will not let her go cheaply. Why have you come? Who told you of her beauty?’
‘His Majesty learned of the girl from his favourite, Epernon, who is the lover of her elder sister, I believe?’
‘And is well pleased.’
‘If you would allow me to see the girl, I’m sure we could come to terms.’
‘But of course, you won’t fail to be enchanted.’
Gabrielle fled as she heard footsteps approach the door, managing to reach the stairs before her mother summoned her, adopting an innocent smile as she pretended to have just walked down them.
‘Ah, dearest, there you are, how propitious,’ As if her mother hadn’t guessed that Gabrielle had been eavesdropping. ‘Come with me, child, there is someone I would like you to meet.’
Gabrielle found herself being looked over as if she were a piece of meat on a butcher’s hook, turned about, and asked to raise the hem of her skirt to show off her ankles. It was most humiliating. And then, after an achingly long silence, the visitor smiled. ‘The girl certainly shows promise.’
‘Promise? She is the most beautiful of all my daughters, in all of France, I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘His Majesty has decreed that I may offer three thousand crowns for her.’
‘I have already said that I couldn’t take less than six.’
The bargaining was so unseemly, so deeply embarrassing that Gabrielle slipped away, unable to bear it. Yet she couldn’t help but be excited. What would it feel like to be the darling of a king, to be bedded by Henri Trois? Would he shower her with jewels and new gowns? Gabrielle began to daydream of the sort of trinkets she would most enjoy. Not pearls, they were surely for dowagers. Sapphires, perhaps, to set off her eyes. Diamonds, to draw attention to the perfection of her complexion. And nothing but the finest silk for her gowns.
In the end a price of four thousand was agreed and Gabrielle was duly packed off to court to meet the King.
Weary of her husband’s many mistresses, Marguerite de Valois returns to Paris and her own lover, Henri de Guise. But when her brother Henri Trois once more makes life impossible for her, and her situation as Queen of Navarre becomes increasingly insecure as her husband speaks of divorce, where can she possibly find safety?
Gabrielle d’Estrées, a young beauty, wants nothing more than 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 is sold by her own mother to three different lovers before catching the eye of a king.
Henry of Navarre 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 Margot. But 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?