Thursday, August 16, 2012

Women at Sea: Mademoiselle de la Rocque

On the face of it, the story of Marguerite de la Rocque reads as a simple one. Good girl from up-and-coming family gets knocked up and kicked out of the house. In Marguerite’s case, the situation and consequences of her scandal were so unusual as to be extreme.

In what year and exactly where Marguerite was born remains somewhat of a mystery. We know that her influential kinsman, Jean-Francois de la Rocque de Roberval, was born around 1500 in the ancient city of Carcassonne, located in southern France. We also know that Marguerite held lands in Languedoc, also in southern France, in her own name by 1536. She also jointly owned land in Pontpoint with Roberval. Roberval would have a significant effect on Marguerite’s life but their exact relationship continues as pure speculation. Certain historians call them brother and sister or half-siblings while others say they were cousins. Either way, Marguerite seems to have been under the protection of Roberval by the time she reached maturity.

Roberval was a social climber who wormed his way into a friendship with the young Francois I of France during a brief military foray into Italy in 1524. Francois took a shine to young Jean and gifted him the estate of Roberval in northern France. There, the two buddies spent time hunting and womanizing but Roberval could not keep up with Francois’ expensive tastes. He borrowed heavily on his estates in the south and did a brief but unsuccessful stint as a French privateer when those same estates were threatened with foreclosure.

Desperate, Roberval returned to Francois and proposed that the king grant him a commission to recolonize New France. This was the area of Canada now known as Quebec and Newfoundland. Roberval had help convincing Francois from a shifty individual named Jacques Cartier. Cartier had been to New France, and he enjoyed flashing the “diamonds and gold” – which were in fact nothing more expensive than quartz crystal and pyrite – that he had found there “in great abundance.”

The king agreed and made Roberval Lieutenant General of New France in 1541. At this time, it is reasonable to assume that Marguerite was somewhere between 20 and 25 years old. And it is here that the narrative of her life’s story turns from standard to curious indeed.

For some reason that history fails to mention, Marguerite de la Rocque signed on for her kinsman’s passage to New France. Why a young, unmarried woman from a good family and with land in her own name would do such a thing is a point for discussion. Even if Roberval was her appointed guardian, one might imagine that a good marriage would be a better way to look after her than packing her off to an unknown, inhospitable colony. All the same, that is what Roberval did and Marguerite, along with her maidservant Damienne, boarded the ship Valentine bound for New France in April of 1542.

The passage was doubtless grueling, as all travel was at the time. Three ships held 200 colonists along with Roberval’s men, a few horses and the ships’ sailors. At some point during the months-long cruise, Marguerite began an affair with one of her shipmates. Who this man was remains part of the mystery surrounding her. Speculation makes him everything from a young knight to a hardened soldier. In her novella about Marguerite published in 1559, the Queen of Spain, Marguerite of Navarre, made the young man a poor carpenter.

Who he was not withstanding, Roberval found out about the man’s dalliance with his kinswoman and he did not take it lightly. In true puritanical fashion (Roberval was secretly a member of the Calvinist church in France, known as Huguenots), the new Lieutenant General marooned a probably pregnant Marguerite de la Rocque on a barren island off the coast of Quebec, along with her maid. In some accounts, the offending lover was set down on the island with them. In others, he jumped off the departing ship and swam to Marguerite’s side. Either way the three, or perhaps four, marooners were stuck on the Isle de Demons – island of Demons which is speculated to be the modern Hospital Island.

What exactly happened during the two and a half years that Marguerite was literally stranded can’t be said, but she certainly encountered one hardship after another. Local legend says that the band of three took shelter in a particular cave. It is known that they had a certain amount of provisions, including at least one gun, black powder and shot, one or more knives, a Bible and perhaps bread. In short order they had to turn to hunting and gathering. Before the birth of her baby, both Damienne the maidservant and Marguerite’s lover had died.

Marguerite managed to give birth on her own. If she was indeed pregnant when Roberval marooned her, the blessed event would have occurred in the spring. It is probably no surprise to anyone that Marguerite’s final companion, and apparently only child, died within a month of her birth.

Even in the face of so much loss, Marguerite went on. She wielded the gun with aplomb, even taking down a bear at one point. She was wrapped in its skin when Basque fishermen from Newfoundland happened by in the fall of 1544. She climbed into their boat, clutching her tattered Bible, and never looked back.

Marguerite returned to France, where legend says she opened a school for girls in Picardy. No records exist of any legal action brought against Roberval on her behalf. It seems a certainty that, after failing in New France, he returned to Paris and claimed her lands as his own. This greedy act may very well have been the motive for his brutal treatment of Marguerite from the very beginning.

But karma, then as now, is a hard mistress. Leaving a Huguenot meeting one night in Paris, Roberval and a group of companions were attacked and beaten to death by a Catholic mob. He was 59 or 60 years old.

The unfortunately little-known story of Marguerite de la Rocque, the female Robinson Crusoe who knew the isolation of a marooner years before Alexander Selkirk was even born, remains a titillating fabric whose frayed edges cry out to be sewn up.

Header: Can You Hear Me Now by Christina Ramos via American Gallery


Undine said...

Now, here is someone who should have written an autobiography. As amazing as the known facts may be, I have the feeling history doesn't know the half of this story.

A post that just cries out to be adapted into a movie. Thanks.

Pauline said...

I couldn't agree more, Undine. Evidently several novels, poems and plays have been written about Marguerite and she is better known in French-Canada than she is in the U.S. All the same, it does seem about time for a major studio to visit the story. Mademoiselle could surely give Katniss Everdene a run for her money!

Timmy! said...

Wow, very cool story, Pauline. Of course, she would have ben using a musket rather than the repeating rifle in the picture, but still... even more impressive that she took down a bear with it.

And I agree with Undine about the cinematic quality of the story too.

Pauline said...

Yes, of course. The matchlock musket or arquebus would have been the field piece of the era. I just like that girl and her gun; somehow, she reminded me of Marguerite.

Danielle Thorne said...

Excellent post. Thanks for the story!

Pauline said...

Thanks, Danielle; I love Marguerite's story.

Anonymous said...


I've linked your blog from a post that will be published on April 16. It is regarding a post I wrote about Roberval and Marguerite.
You can view it on the 16th at:
If you have a problem with this, don't hesitate to leave me a message!

Pauline said...

Hello TK. Thank you for letting me know and no problem at all. I look forward to reading your post as well.