Elisabeth of Valois was born on 2 April 1545 as the daughter of King Henry II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. She was born in the Château de Fontainebleau. Elisabeth was their second child. Her elder brother was King Francis II of France, who was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. She would have a total of nine siblings, though four of those would die in infancy.
In 1548, Elisabeth was lodged with her future sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, in the nursery. Catherine wrote, “The said Lord wished Madame Ysabal (Elisabeth) and the Queen of Scotland should be lodged together, wherefore you will select the best chamber… for it is the said Lord’s wish that they get to know one another.”1 The two would grow quite close over the years. The royal nursery was under the supervision of Diane de Poitiers, King Henry II’s mistress. The Valois children, with the exception of Margaret, were all known to be rather sickly.
From an early age, Elisabeth was part of marriage negotiations; she was even considered for King Edward VI of England. After his death, she was considered for Don Carlos, King Philip II of Spain’s heir. However, when Philip himself was widowed for the second time with the death of his wife Queen Mary I of England, she was considered for the King himself. On 22 June 1559, the proxy wedding between the 13-year-old Elisabeth and the 32-year-old King Philip II took place at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris with the Duke of Alba standing in for the King. Later that day, they ceremoniously got in a bed together and touched their bare legs together, and so the marriage was “consummated”. A few days later, the celebratory jousts began, but they would have a tragic ending. On 30 June 1559, Elisabeth’s father was injured in a jousting accident, and he died on 10 July. With his dying breath, he asked Catherine to make sure that his sister Margaret’s wedding to the Duke of Savoy would go ahead, which it did on 9 July.
It was, in fact, Elisabeth’s younger sister Claude who would leave France first. She had been married in January to Charles III, Duke of Lorraine. Then on 18 November, Margaret departed for Savoy. That very same day, Catherine joined Elisabeth for the first part of her journey to France. One week later, Elisabeth bade her mother farewell at Châtellerault. Her mother was in tears at her daughter’s departure, and this was the start of an extensive correspondence between the two Queens. On 30 January 1560, Elisabeth first met her new husband King Philip in Guadalajara, and she described herself as the luckiest girl in the world to have such a husband. Philip too declared his complete happiness. The wedding was formalised on 31 January in the palace of the Dukes of Infantado. She wore a silver dress with pearls and precious stones. She also wore a diamond necklace. Philip wore a white doublet with a crimson cloak. The wedding was followed by a banquet and a ball. The next day there were bullfights, jousting and a hunt.
Elisabeth did not have her first period until August 1561 and Philip continued to have mistresses. Despite her knowledge of this, their domestic life was rather harmonious. She even managed to befriend Philip’s unstable son and cried for days when Philip eventually had him locked up. The following year, Elisabeth briefly returned to France, but Catherine told her she had become “a right Spaniard!”2 After suffering several miscarriages, including twins, Elisabeth gave birth to two daughters, Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain on 12 August 1566, and Catherine Michelle of Spain on 10 October 1567.
When Elisabeth had become ill during her first pregnancy in 1564, the doctors bled her from her arm and temple. She had been so frightened at the prospect of being bled that she had called upon her husband to hold her hand. The procedure upset Elisabeth so much – having never been bled before – that she miscarried. She grew even weaker when blisters were applied to her feet and hands.3
Elisabeth never quite recovered from the birth of Catherine Michelle. She became pregnant again and was quite ill as a result. By the middle of September 1568, she was suffering from fevers, and she was feeling faint. On 3 October 1568, she died “after a stillbirth an hour and a half before of a girl of four or five months, who was baptised and went to heaven with her mother.”4 The little girl was named Joanna. Philip was devastated. Catherine too was devasted when she learned the news two weeks later, but the pragmatic Queen regent told her council, “King Philip will certainly remarry. I have, but one wish and that is for my daughter Margaret to take the place of her sister.”5
King Philip remarried a fourth and final time to his niece, Anne of Austria, who gave him five further children of whom only the future Philip III would survive infancy. Elisabeth was buried at El Escorial in the Pantheon of the Infantes (Princes), as opposed to the Pantheon de Reyes (Kings), because she was not the mother of a King.