She had a storybook prettiness which aroused a storybook sentimentality in a dissipated king – who had fathered three illegitimate children when still a teenager. Her skin had a pearl's shine, the type of aristocratic pallor so admired by observers of beauty in the 16th century. Her mouth promised a smile, like a bird that was about to alight on a tree. Her hair was a rich henna, but the color was natural: this child was already a flower, and had no need for another flower's stain.
Her body was frail, with slight, sloping shoulders. She was weak; yet she glowed with the feverish health possessed by many whose lungs were ravaged by disease. Yet though her bones cried out for flesh, her face was an oval, soft and full. Perhaps nature took pity and chose for her a birthplace known for its soft air and green-scented breezes. She was a gentle princess; her name was Madeleine de Valois and she was born in Paris.
The 1530's were the time of the great Renaissance kings – Henry VIII and Francis I, Madeleine's louche father, were two schoolboys competing on Europe's playground – whether the game was politics, building, war or a courtly parade on a Cloth of Gold. But it wasn't long before a third king insinuated himself between them, hoping to drive a wedge between the two powers. James V came from Scotland, a land swathed in fog, bordered with sharp, romantic coastlines – and he wanted to take the little princess, not yet 17, from her chateaus in the perfumed Loire Valley to this cold home.
The king of France was reluctant to let her go – his daughter needed warmth, mild winters, and clear skies to ease her tortured breathing: how many silk handkerchiefs had she ruined with spots of blood after the bouts of savage coughing shuddered through her tiny frame? She needed the velvet blankets and pretty baubles that would rise the spirits of a sickly girl. A marriage to Scotland only promised cruel seasons and a woman's duty that would freeze the life out of her. Francis, to his credit, stayed James' hand in marriage and spared the child.
But a king must marry. James changed his attentions to Marie, the Duke of Guise's daughter – but as he courted her, he saw Madeleine once more and the sight of her winsome paleness turned him away from Marie's buxom health. There is something about the sight of beauty about to expire that can kindle a feeling a love in the most unlikely of hearts. James was consumed by the the delicate consumptive – he asked her father's permission once more. The dowry was discussed. Contracts were drawn up. And her death warrant was signed when she knelt beside him in Notre Dame Cathedral on January 1, 1537.
She left for her new home in May. Two months later she was dead – her torn lungs overwhelmed by the cold, by the clouds heavy with rain and running low over the country like gray wolves. Did her lonely spirit find its way back to France, or did it become confounded by unfamiliar currents and become lost admidst the stars and planets over the North Sea?
As for James, he remarried the next year – to Marie de Guise. In the fulness of time, she was a widow and and by then would be under consideration by Henry VIII to be his fourth wife. He was a big man, he was heard to say, "I need a big wife." Fortunately, history has made a note of her response: "I may be big in stature, but I have a little neck."