Keira Morgan talks about four aristocratic women's remarkable lives and impact on France.
Gary: Today’s special episode is by Keira Morgan. When Keira was five, her grandmother gave her a book about England’s queens, which started a lifelong fascination. She went on to complete her B.A. in History and English and an M.A. in History, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. She spent the next few decades working in a number of professions, all while writing historical fiction.
Now a retiree, she is pursuing her writing dream full-time. Since 2019, she’s published three articles in local expat newsletters and a short story in an anthology. While searching for an agent for her first novel, she is writing a second, also set in Renaissance France. She also writes non-fiction biographies for her website Keira Morgan — Renaissance Fiction Writer, which she plans to collect in a book about Women of the French Renaissance.
Today she delivers a series in three parts about four powerful noblewomen and their impact upon France during its transition from the medieval period to the Renaissance. Please enjoy.
Four Royal Women’s Entangled Lives: The Beginnings—1483 to 1484
Hi, I’m Keira Morgan
In these podcasts I will talk about events that occurred during the period that France’s cultural and political systems were transforming from medieval to Renaissance. The change was rapid because in 1494 King Charles VIII rode off to war in Italy and became entranced by all things Italian. These Italian wars continued sporadically for the next sixty years. Because of them, large numbers of men from the highest nobility went away leaving women in charge.
The change began a short time earlier, in 1483. You probably know that in France only males could inherit the throne as a result of what was called the Salic law. There were only three times in which women were allowed to rule for men: if the king was underage—under 14 by French law—if or when the king was out of the country; or if the king were so incapacitated he was incapable of ruling. In those cases, his mother could be appointed to rule as Regent, with a Regency Council to guide her. It wasn’t required, but it was permitted.
But, during the period between 1483 and 1529, four women, two of whom became Regents of France, played huge political roles in French affairs. They also had important cultural and literary roles, which I will not address in this talk.
The four women are: Princess Anne de France, also known as Madame la Grande, Archduchess Marguerite of Austria, Louise de Savoie and Duchess Anne de Bretagne.
Today I will talk only about 1483 and 84, because they set the scene for the first crisis that came to a head in 1491. It led to the great enmity between the Hapsburgs and the Valois. This enmity resulted in the marriages between the Hapsburgs and the Spanish royal family and the territorial encirclement of France.
So, let’s get into the story. The key player during these two years is the elder daughter of King Louis XI of France and his favourite child, 22-year-old Anne, whom I shall refer to as Madame la Grande. Healthy and well-formed, with dark hair and eyes, she was an excellent rider who loved to hunt. But she was equally at ease in the Council chamber. Intelligent and remarkably well-educated for the times, she intimidated her father’s male courtiers with her cool rational mind and strategic thinking. She was just like her father they said, and it wasn’t a compliment. They meant she wasn’t properly feminine. But her father was pleased and called her “the least foolish woman in France, for there are none who are wise.” Fortunately for Anne, she was married to an easy-going man, 47-year-old Duke Pierre de Beaujeu, who recognized her superior intelligence, and didn’t mind her bossiness.
By 1483, King Louis XI, known as the Spider King, because he entrapped his enemies in his web and absorbed their lands, had been king for 22 years and was in poor health. He had many enemies, especially those foreign and French princes and nobles whose lands he had engulfed. It wasn’t just that he took their land, but that he used underhanded techniques like bribery, infiltration, lawsuits, and advantageous agreements to do so. During his reign he’d added Picardy, Provence the three great duchies of Anjou Berry and Burgundy, and the small territories of Roussillon and Cerdagne to France. In short, under his rule, France became the most powerful and unified state in Europe.
At the beginning of the year, taking advantage of the rebellion against widowed Duke Maximilian of Austria in the Burgundian Netherlands, King Louis negotiated another advantageous treaty. Under duress, the Duke agreed to dower his three-year-old daughter, Archduchess Marguerite of Austria, with the Franche-Comté and Artois, to betroth her to King Louis’s only son, 13-year old Dauphin Charles and to send her to France to grow up. King Louis also insisted she come without any personal possessions or household except one nurse. He intended to make a Frenchwoman of her.
While King Louis’s demand was unusual because Archduchess Marguerite was so young, both girls and boys did leave their parental homes young to live at other royal or noble courts. There they would learn social or military skills and meet eligible potential spouses. Boys usually left younger than girls, at 7 or 8. Girls often stayed at home until they were 12 to 14.
Archduchess Marguerite is the second noblewoman who will play an important role in French affairs. At three, she was an attractive child with blond hair and blue eyes, although she already had the heavy chin and jaw inherited from her Hapsburg forebears. In France, she was offered an excellent education and developed her musical abilities and artistic tastes. Even as a child she had a lively sense of humour, and a strong sense of loyalty and justice. Admired for her kindness and diplomacy, as an adult she welcomed scholars, writers and artists to her court.
That May, King Louis gave Madame la Grande her first important official role. He sent her with Dauphin Charles to meet toddler, Marguerite, on the north-eastern border between France and the Burgundian Netherlands. Since the child would have to leave her household behind, Madame la Grande brought with her Madame de Segré, who would become the young Dauphine Marguerite’s gouvernante. Happily for Marguerite, she and Madame Segré formed a close bond as the cortège made its progress through France. The royal party travelled ceremoniously, stopping in Paris to give the new Dauphine a Grande Entrée before continuing to Amboise where she would live. They arrived at the Château d’Amboise on June 22. Marguerite and Dauphin Charles celebrated their betrothal immediately. Directly after the betrothal, accompanied by their French and Netherlander witnesses, the children were married in the palace chapel.
A papal dispensation was required to allow them to marry since they were closely related, being doubly cousins. On her Savoyard side, Marguerite’s great-aunt was married to Charles’s great-aunt. As well, on her Bourbon side, her mother was Duke Pierre de Beaujeu’s sister. This is without going back any further into their genealogies. These kinds of entwined lines of descent were common. At the highest royal ranks, the level of interrelatedness is mindboggling. Trying to draw family trees is an exercise in ingenuity, as brothers’ children marry sisters’ children on both sides of a family. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the male lines weakened and failed in several royal families during this century—as we will see.
The reasons for intermarriages are not hard to find. Families were large and parents wanted to keep lands and wealth within family control. As an example, between these two families in one generation, the parents on the Bourbon side had 12 children of whom 10 reached adulthood and 6 married. Of the 6 marriages, children of 4 played a significant role in the events that I am about to discuss. On the Savoyard side, the parents had 19 children, 12 lived to adulthood and 10 married. In their case only 5 played a role during these events. I will spare you the ins and outs of these convoluted relationships and who married whom. Just keep in mind that most of the people were related, closely related. They often knew each other and had spent some part of their youth growing up together either in their own home or in the noble or royal court in which they lived as a page, squire, lady- or maid-in-waiting. They married into this same class, probably to one of their close cousins, uncles or aunts.
Although the Dauphin Charles and the Dauphine Marguerite were now married, they were too young to live together as man and wife. Madame la Grande and her husband, Duke Pierre, who had been living at King Louis’s court, moved to Amboise, where they expanded their own court. Madame la Grande, in particular, wanted to expand their court to increase royal influence over the nobility. She invited the wives, sisters, and daughters of her and her husband’s high-born extended family to join her. Her mother still lived in one wing of the Château. The Dauphin and his household lived in another, with his gouverneur and companions. Dauphine Marguerite, too, was given her own luxurious household in a separate wing of the palace under the care and management of Madame de Segré and the dauphine’s life settled into a regular pattern.
In July the third of the women who will become important to France joined Madame la Grande’s court at Amboise. Her widowed uncle, her Savoie mother’s brother, got in touch with his niece. Pleading that he was unable to bring up his two motherless young children, he begged her to take them into her household. Madame la Grande knew her duty and accepted the charge.
Thus arrived 7-year-old Louise de Savoie. Although first cousin to Marguerite of Austria, now the Dauphine, Louise had a very different experience at her aunt’s court. Though she received an excellent education for the times, she soon learned that as a high-born, but poor, relation, Madame la Grande regarded her as little more than a pawn. As the years went by grey-eyed Louise, with her light brown hair, grew into lovely tall girl. Always quick-witted, she learned how to present herself with humility, hide her thoughts and feelings and use her charm to influence. Quiet and observant, she hid her passionate nature, and took advantage of every opportunity that came her way. She developed her literary, musical and dancing skills, and courtly accomplishments such as card playing, conversation and horse riding. And by watching Madame la Grande she grew up politically astute. She also grew to resent her poverty and became avaricious. And she grew to dislike the cold, and distant Madame la Grande.
Then, on August 30th, 1483, the event that everyone had been expecting occurred. King Louis XI died in his palace a few leagues down the Loire River. He left behind his underage son, Charles, as king. Since Charles was not yet 14 a regency would be required. King Louis also knew that his son wasn’t capable of ruling without strong guidance and support. A few months before his death, he’d made his son swear to retain his father’s advisors. And Louis expected the regency to extend well beyond when the king’s 14th year.
Duke Pierre and Madame la Grande were among the first to be informed that King Louis had died. On his deathbed, in an unprecedented act, King Louis had named them as guardians for the Dauphin Charles, and Regents of France.
Tradition said that either the boy’s mother or the First Prince of the Blood were the ones who should be appointed to this honour. Louis XI had nothing but—quite undeserved— contempt for his wife, Queen Charlotte.
The First Prince of the Blood, the prince who was next in line to inherit the throne if the king died without an heir, was Duke Louis d’Orléans. King Louis XI had compelled Duke Louis to marry Louis XI’s disabled and sterile second daughter Princess Jeanne de France. Not surprisingly, Duke Louis loathed King Louis as a result. He also detested his unlucky wife, whom he treated despicably. Therefore, the late king would probably rather have named a cobra to the regency than this son-in-law, Louis.
King Louis XI had left Madame la Grande with a serious problem. In addition to taking the lands of many of his great nobles during his reign, he had also reduced the power of the feudal lords as a class. To limit his military reliance on them, he began to develop a standing army. He forbade them to call up their vassals for their private wars and revoked their right to mint their own coinage. He shrank their numbers in his royal councils and surrounded himself with advisors of humble origin whom he rewarded with wealth and power. And he sent spies into their homes, bribed their vassals to rebel and warred outright with others. He was still actively using these tactics to undermine Duke François in Brittany, the richest and largest independent duchy, when he died.
Duke Louis did not take calmly the insult of the appointment of his sister-in-law Madame la Grande, rather than himself, to the regency. Enraged, he arrived promptly at Amboise from Blois—leaving behind the despised Jeanne—confronted his sister- and brother-in-law and put forth his claim to the position.
Madame la Grande practised the delaying and distracting tactics she had learned so well from her father. First, nothing could be done until after King Louis’s funeral. Then the Parlement needed to rule on the king’s mother’s right to the regency. Next the king’s mother became seriously ill and died. Then Madame la Grande said it was necessary to call a meeting of the Estates General to decide the matter. The meeting went from January to March 1484. As she delayed, Madame la Grande played a clever game, distributing honours and positions to key nobles teetering in their loyalties. She also planned the young king’s coronation for after the meeting. Duke Louis, on the other hand, when not agitating among the nobles to rebel, spent time at Amboise with his young brother- and sister-in-law trying to persuade Charles to ask the Estates to name him Regent.
At the meeting of the Estates, the results of the vote were conclusive. The Beaujeu regency was confirmed. Two months later on, May 30, King Charles VIII was crowned at Reims. The disgruntled Duke Louis returned to Blois. There he contemplated his grievances and became more and more disaffected.
Duke Louis was convinced he was not the only disgruntled nobleman. Taking a few loyal retainers, he saddled up and set off for Brittany. Soon he arrived in Nantes, his uncle’s capital. Duke François of Brittany welcomed him eagerly. He was quite prepared to face the outrage of Madame la Grande and France, Brittany’s traditional enemy. There Duke Louis proposed that he would divorce his detested wife, Jeanne, now that her father was dead, and marry the Duke’s heir, 7-year-old Anne of Brittany. When Duke François approved, Duke Louis sent a request to the Pope asking that his marriage be dissolved on the grounds of his lack of consent, and for a dispensation to marry young Anne of Brittany since they were related within forbidden degrees. As soon as Madame la Grande discovered this plot she sent a counter demand to the Pope, insisting that he refuse the request for an annulment. This became just another log on the fire of resentment between Louis, and his in-laws, Madame la Grande and King Charles. And it strengthened the alliance between d’Orléans and Brittany.
And with this alliance we meet the last woman who will play a major role in the direction of French affairs over the next thirty years. Anne of Brittany, though only seven in 1484, will show her strength of character by 1488.
Between 1485 and 1491, Madame la Grande faced the greatest challenges of her regency: the struggle over Brittany’s existence as an independent duchy; and the power of the feudal nobility, both of which played out principally in Brittany. She proved she was as capable as her father in advancing the royal interests.
As I leave you in 1484, let me summarize the situation. Duke Maximillian of Austria has been forced to release his only daughter, Marguerite, and two rich provinces to the French and he was resentful of these losses. Young Marguerite herself was living at the Chateau d’Amboise where she was being brought up as a Frenchwoman and as Queen of France. She saw young King Charles regularly and they were becoming fond of each other.
Young Louise de Savoie was also growing up in the Château d’Amboise, but as a poor relation. She was taking advantage of the library and lessons in languages, music, dance, horse riding and anything else that is offered while becoming steadily more envious of the luxuries she sees around her but cannot afford.
Young King Charles was practising to become a ‘parfait gentle knight’ with the companions his father and older brother-in-law had provided for him. He was passionate about all things military. The only literature he liked were romantic tales of heroes doing great deeds of courage to save damsels of pristine purity whom they worshiped from afar.
His sister, as regent, invited him to Council meetings, but he showed little interest. And Madame la Grande ran his kingdom, preparing for the confrontation with Duke Louis d’Orleans and Duke François of Brittany that was coming.
In the next podcast I will take you from Madame la Grande’s 1487 victory over Count Charles d’Angoulême to King Charles VIII’s departure for war in Italy in 1494. The crucial events of these years lead to the rifts among our four women—and I’ll tell you about the consequences that arise from them.
Four Royal Women’s Entangled Lives: Power Shifts—1487 to 1515
Hello everyone. I’m back for Part 2 of the story of the four royal women who played a big role in 16th Century France. This time I’ll cover from 1487 to 1515. Lots happened. France conquered Brittany. King Charles began the French-Italian Wars. Madame la Grande set the stage for a Bourbon disaster. The jilted Hapsburgs married the Spanish royal family. And Archduchess Marguerite found her destiny.
So, let’s begin.
In 1487, Madame la Grande, was still regent for her younger brother, King Charles. She remained the most powerful person in the country because she ruled with a light hand. The war with the feudal nobles had been going on intermittently for three years, and Madame la Grande had already defeated several of the Duke of Brittany and the Duke d’Orléans’s allies
Her most strategic conquest so far had been the Count d’Angoulême. Cousin to Duke Louis d’Orléans, he was the Second Prince of the Blood, and next in line to the throne after Duke Louis, until the king produced an heir.
Since Queen Marguerite was only seven, it would be some time until that occurred. Like her eleven-year-old cousin, lovely Louise de Savoie, they were both growing up was at the Château d’Amboise under Madame la Grandes formal guardianship. But Marguerite was treated as a rich queen, and Louise as a poor relation. Louise, ashamed of her penury and diminished status disguised her envy, her avarice and her dislike of Madame la Grande behind a sweet smile.
The defeated Count d’Angoulême languished in prison while Madame la Grande mopped up that year’s campaign. Because of his closeness to the throne, she then she returned her attention to him. At 29 he was still unmarried, although he had a mistress and three daughters back at his home. No matter. To ensure his loyalty, Madame la Grande made a deal. To regain his lands and freedom he must marry her equally high-born niece, 11-year-old Louise de Savoie. He complied. Their marriage took place in Paris in February 1488.
Avaricious Louise was not pleased to marry a poor noble, though she knew better than to complain. Although the count was closely related to the king, like many nobles he had little disposable income. Moreover, when Louise arrived in Cognac, she found his mistress ensconced as chatelaine, a humiliating experience for which she blamed her aunt. Fortunately, the mistress took Louise under her wing, taught her what she needed to know, and treated her as the lady of the house. Louise was also spared cohabitation until she was 15. But her resentment towards her aunt grew.
In Brittany the war with France intensified now that Madame la Grande had defeated the enemies at her back. On July 28, the French and Breton armies met in a decisive battle. The Breton army was destroyed. To Madame la Grande’s pleasure, her nemesis, Duke Louis d’Orléans was captured, returned to France and imprisoned. He remained in prison for the next three years.
The humiliated Breton Duke accepted vassalage to the King of France. Then, unable to bear the dishonour, he fell from his horse, mortally injured himself, and died. He left his 11-year-old daughter to cope with the disastrous situation. With his death, Duchess Anne of Brittany, began her decisive role in France’s affairs.
She faced a Brittany in shambles. Madame la Grande , as ruthless as her father, wanted to ignore the treaty terms, continue the campaign and defeat the few remaining Breton strongholds. She reckoned without her brother, King Charles, or the Parlement de Paris who would not agree. So, the Treaty stood.
In this breathing space, young Duchess Anne discovered that her guardians intended to marry her to the man of their choice and rule in her stead. Duchess Anne detested the man—Sieur Alain d’Albret. Besides, she intended to rule Brittany herself. So, she refused and by January 1489, Brittany had fallen into civil war. As the situation worsened, Duchess Anne accepted she must marry someone, since Brittany was bankrupt and without an army. She accepted Duke Maximillian of Austria who promised men and money and married him by proxy in December 1490. And yes, this is the same Duke Maximillian who is Queen Marguerite father.
When the rejected Sieur Alain d’Albret learned of the marriage, he was enraged. He made a secret trip to Madame la Grande’s court and made a deal. This Judas would betray his Breton allies for silver. Since treachery was a lot less chancy than battle, Madame la Grande accepted. When the campaign season opened, Sieur d’Albret kept his promise. On a prearranged night, his men opened the gates to Nantes. The city, and soon the whole south of Brittany, fell to the French.
By late August the French army had surrounded Duchess Anne’s single remaining stronghold. Always chivalrous, King Charles offered to let Anne go to her husband though France would have then conquered the whole of Brittany as Anne knew. She had married Maximillian only because he had promised to defend Brittany. He had failed. She refused to leave. Her duchy was her passion. Never, she said, would she abandon her people. Consultations dragged on. It was now October.
To Madame la Grande, arriving to end the dawdling, the solution was painful but simple. Incorporating Brittany into the French demesne had been the whole objective. Therefore, King Charles must marry Duchess Anne. Only two obstacles stood in the way: Duchess Anne’s marriage to Maximillian and King Charles’s marriage to his daughter, Marguerite.
To Madame la Grande these were not obstacles, but inconveniences. Since neither marriage had been consummated, they weren’t valid and could be annulled. She carried the day. Bowing to her people’s pleas, Duchess Anne agreed to marry King Charles. Under the terms of the treaty she could no longer govern nor call herself Duchess of Brittany. And as a pious Catholic she blamed Madame la Grande for the necessity to break her vows. King Charles was equally distressed, and betrothed Duchess Anne reluctantly. When he told 11-year-old Queen Marguerite that he must marry Duchess Anne, Marguerite was heartbroken and furious. She’d been Queen of France ever since she could remember.
Marguerite’s trust in Madame la Grande was destroyed. The regent had now sacrificed all three young girls—Marguerite, Louise and Anne—for political reasons and all three bore her a grudge.
In December 1491 Anne and Charles married in a very private wedding at the Chateau de Langeais in France. When Maximillian, the other jilted spouse in this unpleasant affair, learned of their marriage, he cried foul far and wide and insisted it was a double adultery. The dispensations did not arrive until February 1492. By then time, Anne, now Queen Anne of France, was already pregnant, and had been crowned at St. Denis.
Although Queen Anne fell under the spell of her charming husband, from the start she distrusted Madame la Grande. This isn’t surprising. Both strong and stubborn women, Queen Anne had ruled her duchy during the war and had only surrendered to avoid its further destruction. Her new husband also insisted that she accept instruction from his elder sister. Madame la Grande organized her wedding, selected her ladies-in-waiting and oversaw her health during her pregnancy. Queen Anne did not take well to any of this. But, to her great delight, in October she gave birth to her first child— a boy. All France celebrated the dauphin’s arrival with her.
And then Madame la Grande retired to her domains. For when King Charles turned 21, just before his marriage, his sister’s regency ended, and he began his personal rule.
But in the last few years of their regency, Madame la Grande and her husband, Duke Pierre de Beaujeu had been blessed by some remarkable good fortune. First, Duke Pierre, quite unexpectedly, became the Duke de Bourbon. He acquired the duchies, counties, baronies , seigneuries and other lands that made up the vast and valuable Bourbon inheritance in central France. Madame la Grande was now Duchess de Bourbon-Beaujeu. Take note of this inheritance for it is like the worm in an apple. It became the first plank on a scaffold built on sand that tumbled to pieces in 1523, leading to the Bourbon disaster.
In May 1491, after fifteen years of marriage, Madame la Grande and Duke Pierre were blessed with a daughter, Suzanne de Bourbon. Although she was not the longed-for boy, they were thrilled. So, when their long regency ended leaving the couple at loose ends, they had an heir and their own great duchy to manage. Madame la Grande turned her considerable skills and drive to making Bourbon a modern well-run place. She came more Bourbon than the Bourbons as she incorporated her inheritance into the great Bourbon heritage and worked out a way that her daughter could inherit it all. Suzanne became the second plank in the unstable feudal structure Madame la Grande was creating in central France.
King Charles, now freed from his sister’s supervision, set about organizing his great military adventures. This had been his dream since his youth. He now had the power to carry them out. By going to war in Italy in 1494, he was instrumental in flooding France with Italian influences and beginning a sixty-year period of war. With France’s kings so often away on Italian campaigns, they left in charge the only people they really trusted—their sisters, wives or mothers. This helps explains the power of royal women in France over these years.
While the king was away, Countess Louise also bore a son. From the moment he was born he became the centre of her life, and she was convinced he was destined to become king. She resented anyone who stood between him and the crown. In particular she begrudged Queen Anne her son, the dauphin.
King Charles finally returned in late 1495, after a string of remarkable wins, horrendous losses, and a final pyrrhic victory at Fornova. He brought back much Italian loot, quantities of Italian artisans, a passion for all things Italian, and the worst scourge since the plague—syphilis. Queen Anne tried to hurry the king back to Amboise to see their son but didn’t succeed. Soon, a herald brought them tragic news. The dauphin had died of smallpox. Queen Anne was inconsolable.
Countess Louise heard with satisfaction that the dauphin had died as she and her husband journeyed to court . On their way the count sickened and within a month he, too, was dead. To Louise it meant that her son was now the count and Second Prince of the Blood. Much less agreeably, it also meant that Louis d’Orléans became official guardian to her two children. A lioness determined to guard her den, she fought Duke Louis, until they compromised. Duke Louis retained his official rights; Countess Louise kept the children.
Two years passed, but King Charles and Queen Anne had no more living children. Then, in April 1498, to the astonishment of Europe, the 28-year-old-King Charles hit his head on a low lintel, fell unconscious, and died within hours. The political stage within France rocked as if struck by an earthquake.
Duke Louis’s d’Orléans became King of France, under the name King Louis XII. To Countess Louise’s intense delight, her four-year-old son, Count François d’Angoulême became heir presumptive and First Prince of the Blood. And Dowager Queen Anne was once again Duchess of Brittany, but a Brittany now peaceful, rich, and at peace with France. And she immediately restored its independent institutions.
When King Louis XII ascended the throne, he was determined to annul his marriage to his barren wife, Jeanne. To do so, he knew he would need the Bourbon-Beaujeu’s support. They agreed—for a price. And he paid it. They wanted a legal agreement that their daughter, Suzanne, could inherit those parts of the Bourbon inheritance held in appanage from the French crown. [To clarify, appanages lands were those that returned to the crown when the male line failed.] This agreement flew in the face of all tradition and customary law. With this agreement, Madame la Grande added another level to her rickety edifice.
As King Louis XII set his divorce in motion, he also decided he must take control of his heir, Count François, until he had an heir of his own. Despite Countess Louise’s resistance he insisted on his rights. Furious she gave way as she must, although she hid her feelings as she had learned so well to do. Then King Louis infuriated Countess Louise once again.
Just two weeks after the king divorced Jeanne, he married Duchess Anne of Brittany, making her Queen of France a second time. This made her the richest, most powerful woman in France. She controlled the wealth of her duchy, her widow’s dower as previous Queen of France and the income from the lands settled on her as present Queen. Moreover, King Louis not only admired and respected her, he loved her. She was active in French political affairs. As queen she did her best to persuade the king to abandon his Italian wars—but without success. And when he and Pope Julius II found themselves at loggerheads, she kept Brittany out of it and sent ambassadors to Rome to mediate, though once again without success.
Within weeks of their marriage she was pregnant. Imagine Louise’s relief when the child turned out to be a girl. Although Anne had many pregnancies, she had only one more living child, another daughter. To Countess Louise’s relief, none of her sons lived. The countess’s evident satisfaction caused Queen Anne to loathe her with all the intensity of her direct nature. The feeling was mutual.
Their daughter became the source of the most important conflict between the king and queen. The reason is simple. The princess would inherit Brittany and Queen Anne was determined to keep Brittany independent from France. It had been her goal since childhood.
And this brings us back to Archduchess Marguerite and her father Maximillian. After the unforgiveable French double jilting of the Hapsburgs in 1491, both held deep grudges against the French. Maximillian wanted good marriages for his son, Duke Philip of Burgundy and his daughter, Archduchess Marguerite. The Spanish royal family wanted allies. They offered their crown prince, Juan, for Marguerite and Princess Juana for Duke Philip. Both marriages occurred. Juana and Philip had six children, but only one is important here. Charles, born in 1500, is known to history as Emperor Charles V. After a series of deaths, his parents became King and Queen of Castile. Then his father died unexpectedly, and young Charles became Duke of Burgundy in 1506.
Poor Archduchess Marguerite continued her matrimonial woes. She married Prince Juan of Spain. Within a year she was a widow, and within two she was back in the Burgundian Netherlands. A year later her father, Maximillian married her again, this time to the Duke de Savoie.
Just to remind you of the complexities of interrelationships here, this Duke de Savoie was Countess Louise’s younger brother. Yes, indeed, the couple were first cousins. Louise always made the most of useful relationships. From then on, she kept in touch with the Archduchess by letter.
Happily for Marguerite, the Duke adored her and had no interest in ruling. This suited Marguerite perfectly. She ran the Duchy of Savoie proving herself an excellent administrator and diplomat. But three short years later, one day when the Duke went out hunting as usual, he caught a terrible cold and died of pleurisy. For Marguerite, that was it . She was done with marriage. When her father tried to marry her again, she absolutely refused.
And fate had another role in store for her. When her brother and sister-in-law went to Spain she became guardian for those of their children left in Burgundy, and the very competent Regent of the Burgundian Netherlands for most of the period from 1507 to 1530. She is a key player in the next chapter of this story.
Back in France, once King Louis accepted that François would be the next French king, he insisted that his daughter betroth Count François d’Angoulême. Both Queen Anne and Countess Louise, who loathed each other, and had other matches in mind for their children, protested. But he was adamant. The marriage would ensure that his daughter, as next Duchess of Brittany, would keep the duchy within France.
Meanwhile, Madame la Grande’s husband was growing old. Duke Pierre de Bourbon-Beaujeu died, leaving his vast inheritance and titles to his 12-year-old daughter, Suzanne. Because Louis XII was still king, no-one contested her inheritance. And, Madame la Grande avoided arguments with the Bourbon by betrothing Suzanne to the closest male heir, Count Charles de Montpensier. They married two years later and became known as Duke Charles and Duchess Suzanne de Bourbon-Montpensier. But, by opening the door to inheritance in the female line, Madame la Grande added new weight to her tottering scaffold. In the best traditions of tragedy, she sowed the seeds of her Bourbon family’s destruction,.
I will conclude with the situation for each of the four royal women as we come to the final events that led to the turning point in 1515.
In January 1514 Queen Anne, Duchess of Brittany died. Though her duchy brought great wealth to France, her marriage created an unhealable rift between the Hapsburg and Valois.
Just one year later on January 1, 1515 King Louis XII died too. Louise, now Duchess d’Angoulême, couldn’t have been happier when her beloved son came to the throne as King François 1.
In 1515, too, Duke Charles of Burgundy reached his majority and left for Castile to take up his Spanish inheritance. He would name his aunt Marguerite as Regent of the Netherlands
By 1515 Madame la Grande had created a great semi-independent feudal territory in the middle of France and married her daughter exactly as she wished. But the death of King Louis would usher in problems for she had lost her ally.
Regent Marguerite and Duchess Louise, two women whom Madame la Grande treated badly in their youth, now held positions of power. By 1516 France will be completely surrounded by Hapsburg lands. And worse was yet to come.
Everything is falling into place for the showdown that will soon erupt among the Valois, Bourbon and Hapsburgs.
I will end the series with that next time.
Four Royal Women’s Entangled Lives: The Endgame—1519 to 1529
Hello again. I’m back to wrap up the story of these royal women. This time I will cover the ten-year period from 1519 to 1529 when France went from the great power in Europe to decidedly second place.
I’ll start by bringing you up to date. Anne, Queen of France and Duchess of Brittany had died, after an eventful career, but the jilting of Maximillian now the Emperor created a permanent rift with the Hapsburgs. Since Archduchess Marguerite Hapsburg, the second key royal woman was also jilted, the insulted Hapsburgs married the Spanish royal family. By 1516 because of these marriages, Marguerite’s nephew Charles, became the first King of a united Spain. He was also King of Sicily and Naples and Duke of the Netherlands. And he confirmed his aunt as Regent of the Netherlands.
The third royal woman, Countess Louise d’Angoulême, had become queen mother in 1515, when her son King François de Valois had ascended the French throne. He immediately made her Duchess d’Angoulême and one of his most important councillors.
The last important royal lady, Madame la Grande, lost her protector when King Louis XII died. At first it didn’t seem serious. King François named her adored son-in-law, Duke Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier as Constable of France. Then the king went to war in Italy to reconquer Milan. The rich, handsome, Bourbon Duke, performed brilliantly but he outshone François. It was a mistake, for the vain king was displeased. Then, as the Duke flaunted his wealth and François squandered his, their relationship deteriorated.
Concurrent Events That Intensified Tensions
Several concurrent events occurred that intensified the tensions among the Valois, the Hapsburgs and the Bourbon.
In England, the cautious King Henry VII had died. Flamboyant young King Henry VIII sat on the throne and his wily and ambitious Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, ruled. When François won back Milan, 28-year-old Henry became jealous. And his Spanish wife, Catherine, was one of Regent Marguerite’s former sisters-in-law, and they were still good friends.
Dissatisfaction with the laxity within the Catholic Church had led to Luther’s ‘protestant heresy’ to spread like wildfire throughout Northern Europe. Pope Clement was increasingly distressed about Luther’s attack on the church especially the practice of indulgences.
The increasing power of the Ottoman Empire was threatening European trade. Suleiman the Magnificent had ascended the throne in 1512 when he was 18. His navy was scouring the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and even Italy itself. As the century progressed his armies advanced to the gates of Vienna.
By early 1519, the situation was volatile. An uneasy peace reigned among England, France, the Hapsburgs and the Papacy. But Pope Clement pressured them to unite in a Crusade against the Ottomans. And France was reluctant, extremely concerned about Spain’s expanding conquests in the Americas.
The stage is set. Over the next ten years, events passed through 4 stages:
Rivalries Erupt When Emperor Maximillian Dies
Let’s get into it. On 12 January 1519, Emperor Maximillian died. His death disrupted the fragile balance in Europe. King Charles immediately added Austria and the title of Duke to his vast existing territory. And the title and wealth of the Holy Roman Empire opened for competition. It was an elective title, but had been held by Germans for centuries. Nonetheless, the three rival European monarchs threw their crowns in the ring. Charles and François were particularly keen and bribed heavily among the seven electors. Blessed with the Fugger family as their bankers, the Hapsburgs had deeper pockets; the Valois had no comparable resource. Charles won and is known to history as Emperor Charles V. François could hardly contain himself he was so furious.
King François had hoped to ally with King Henry, and they planned to meet, but the splendid two-week Field of Cloth of Gold held outside Calais in June is still famous today for its ostentation and lack of results. Instead, both before and after, King Henry and Emperor Charles met quietly and more successfully. By the time their envoys’ discussions concluded, they had agreed to war against France. Cardinal Wolsey and Regent Marguerite signed the Treaty of Bruges I n 1521 by which Charles promised to finance it and betrothed Henry’s daughter, Mary, while Henry promised to attack France by 1523.
As the Lutheran heresy strengthened, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther. To bring resolution and restore orthodoxy in his lands, the Emperor agreed to preside at the Diet of Worms from January until May 1521. Luther went to defend his position in April but refused to recant anything and Charles declared him an outlaw of the Empire.
Meanwhile, in revenge for his loss of the imperial election, while Emperor Charles was preoccupied, King François quietly funded military excursions against Charles’s territories in Navarre, Gelderland, and Italy. This was France’s cheapest solution for France’s economic situation was dire.
The Bourbon Inheritance Crisis
Then in April 1521, Duchess Suzanne de Bourbon died leaving her entire estate to her husband, Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier. To Duchess Louise and King François this was an opportunity to solve two problems at once: their need for a vast source of revenue and their concern about the danger to France of a large semi-independent feudal state in the centre of the country. Madame la Grande had given Duchess Louise a sturdy weapon with which to attack Duchess Suzanne’s will: inheritance through the female line. Duchess Louise immediately contested the will, taking arguing that as a closer relation to Duke Pierre de Bourbon than Duke Charles, she should be next in line to inherit the duchies of Auvergne and the Bourbonnais. Her son was king. So, she won. Madame la Grande’s jerry-built structure came tumbling down, and the destructive consequences multiplied.
Naturally, the Bourbon supporters and Madame la Grande accused Duchess Louise of greed, of being in love with the Duke, and so on. Yet it isn’t surprising that the politically astute Duchess Louise decided to undermine the Bourbon inheritance. Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier was as rich and almost as powerful as the king. As such, he posed a grave danger to the monarchy.
Emperor Charles V recognized a golden opportunity in the lawsuit and sent envoys to the Duke to encourage his disaffection by offering him leadership of his military, restitution of his lands and marriage with the widowed Queen Eleanor of Portugal, if Duke Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier turn traitor. When the embittered Madame la Grande encouraged him to do so on her deathbed, he plotted his treason.
France was surrounded by enemies on all sides. English armies attacked France from the north-west through Calais or the Netherlands. Imperial armies attacked in the east through Switzerland or Germany, from the south through Italy or from the west through Spain. The campaigns were usually relatively short, but sharp. Since the Imperial armies were usually made up of mercenaries, they retreated after their battles, so France remained intact, if poorer, after each.
Then, in the spring of 1524 François learned of Duke Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier’s traitorous intentions and war broke out in earnest. The Duke fled, joined the Imperial forces and attacked various French cities including Aix-en-Province and Marseilles. Leaving Duchess Louise as Regent, King François set off to war. His armies secured France and entered northern Italy, recapturing Milan by early 1525. Then he headed for Pavia. There on February 25 the French fought, lost catastrophically with 15,000 men killed and King François was captured by the Emperor’s troops. And the king had only himself to blame for the disaster.
France could not have been in a worse situation. She was without allies, without troops, surrounded by enemies, and close to bankrupt. Almost the entire top military leadership had died or been imprisoned at Pavia.
Regent Louise to the Rescue
In this crisis, Regent Louise proved her capacities. To build loyalty and confidence, she gave the best of the men remaining in France the responsibility to defend the strategic borders. She called the Council into session, called the leaders of the Parlement to join it, and prepared for negotiations with the Emperor. Calling upon the Church and the people for prayers and processions, she joined them and urged all to do so. She transported those few troops that had survived back to France and rebuilt the army. And from the beginning she sought allies and negotiated treaties. She knew everyone’s secret weaknesses and how to play them.
For example, when Cardinal Wolsey agreed to the Treaty of Bruges in 1521, his support had come with a price. He expected Imperial support for his Papal bid. But Charles reneged not once but twice, supporting first Adrian VI and then Clement VII. Wolsey felt bitter and betrayed. Now, the Emperor, betrothed to Henry’s only child, Mary, broke it off to marry his niece, Princess Isabel of Portugal. The English were deeply insulted. And the victory at Pavia was the final straw. The Emperor had alienated Wolsey and England. When Louise’s envoys approached Wolsey, he agreed to negotiate a treaty. France was safe from one threat.
In the Netherlands, the new religion was spreading rapidly and unrest erupted into riots in many cities. When Regent Marguerite, whose country relied extensively on English trade, realized which way the British winds were blowing, she knew she must avoid trouble with England. So, she and Duchess Louise agreed to a six-month truce, much to Emperor Charles V’s annoyance.
In Italy, the unpaid Spanish troops made enemies for themselves. Arrogant and unruly, they plundered from their ‘friends’. Several Italian states secretly allied with Louise, including. Pope Clement.
And Emperor Charles demands were wholly excessive. He wanted revenge for every last insult or injury he felt France had inflicted on the Hapsburgs going back to his great-grandfather’s loss of the Duchy of Burgundy. And he wanted lots of money. As a final insult, he insisted that King François return all Duke Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier’s lands to him. As a guarantee, François must deliver his two eldest sons into captivity to be held as hostages until all the treaty terms had been met. And these are only the highlights. The demands were so enormous one has to wonder if he really expected France to meet them.
As you can imagine, King François was outraged. He became adamant. He would never agree to give up French territory or reward a traitor. He was willing to give up all his claims in Italy, resolve the border issues with the Netherlands, pay a large ransom, to marry Charles’s sister, but he would not return Burgundy or the Bourbon lands. Point final.
When the Emperor proved equally intransigent, France fell into civil unrest and King François suffered from serious illness. Finally, after pleas from his mother, councilors and sister, he decided to sign the treaty. But he swore to his confessor he was under duress and would refuse to carry out its terms.
To Duchess Louise sending her grandsons as hostages was close to unbearable, but she feared that France would fall into civil war otherwise. So, in January 1526 François signed the loathsome treaty. He returned home in March. He had a country to return to because his mother had saved it for him. He acknowledged her role, kept her in his council and trusted her completely. Pope Clement absolved King François from implementing the treaty. And in May, France and the Pope signed the League of Cognac together.
Naturally, war broke out again, once the Emperor realized that King François would not abide by the Treaty. He called him a liar and a cheat, and treated his sons badly. But it made no difference. King François was free. Emperor Charles had gained nothing. In fact, he was worse off. For in August 1526 on the eastern side of the Empire, probably as a result of France’s secret embassy to Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Turks attacked Hungary and won, and Austria was endangered.
The wars staggered on. A year later, Duke Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier, betrayed by Emperor Charles, and no longer hopeful his lands would be returned, led the disaffected Imperial troops to Rome. On 6 May 1527 they sacked the city. Duke Charles probably did not intend this result and he himself died on the city walls, but his was an inglorious death and he is remembered in France as a traitor. He paid a great price for Madame la Grande’s dreams.
By now there was no hope that the Emperor and England would be reconciled. King Henry VIII had lost his heart to Anne Boleyn. He wanted a divorce from Charles V’s aunt, Catherine. Pope Clement, terrified after the Sack of Rome, had fallen back under the Imperial wing and refused him one. France was Henry’s only hope. The French-English alliance was back on, and stronger than ever.
Regent Marguerite was entirely on Queen Catherine’s side—don’t ever forget those family ties. But by late 1528, although Regent Marguerite opposed Henry’s divorce, she knew she must end the on-going dispute between England and the Netherlands
The Ladies’ Peace
Then Marguerite’s envoy went to Louise in Paris to obtain French agreement to the treaty. Duchess Louise was becoming ever more distressed about her grandsons. And she and Marguerite, first cousins and former sisters-in-law, still kept in touch. So, this was a perfect opportunity from Louise’s point of view. As the loser at Pavia, France needed resolution more than Charles. Louise suggested to Regent Marguerite’s envoy that the two ladies meet to come up with a general peace settlement between France and the Empire. Once Regent Marguerite concluded that this was a serious offer, she wrote to her nephew, Charles, in January 1529 to propose it.
In her letter Marguerite justified why the two ladies to should conduct the negotiations. Her arguments are revealing.
First she talks about dignity. Neither Charles nor François could compromise their dignity, she said, but it would be easy and natural for women to concur in an endeavour to ward off the general ruin of Christendom. To review this argument: obviously men could not be expected to injure their dignity for something as minor as the ruin of Christendom.
Second. To negotiate successfully it would be necessary on both sides to forgive all offenses and toss into oblivion of all causes of war and everything that had been written concerning them to enter into the idea of peace. For Princes this would require a sacrifice of their precious honour, and this would be impossible. Ladies, however, would be able to submit the gratification of private hatred and revenge to the more noble principal of the welfare of nations. Let us be clear here: men could not sacrifice their precious honour, desire for revenge or hatred, but women could and should to put the welfare of nations first.
Third. As Sovereigns, Charles and François would be swayed by their promises to their allies, but she and Louise, while completely devoted to their principals would be guided by the general good of Europe and the reconciliation of the two great princes. Once again let us restate this case: it was natural that men must defer to their promises of rewards to individual parties, whereas women would consider the larger goal of reconciliation and the general good.
The timing was excellent for such an initiative. Both countries were depleted from the years of continuous warfare. Emperor Charles wanted to turn his attention to the issue that was to him the most significant—the growing strength of the Lutheran heresy. François wanted to his sons back, to leave governing to others and to focus on the things he enjoyed: building palaces, encouraging the arts, hunting, and dallying with women. His mother was determined to bring her grandsons home. And, as Marguerite knew, every other nation now feared Emperor Charles V, for he had become too powerful.
Despite the fears and mistrust of the men on both sides, by 1529 negotiators for both parties, driven by the ladies, had a memorandum of agreement on which to base their meeting. Both women were determined to obtain a peace, despite the obstacles that kept being thrown up. Although their male councilors wanted to bring armed guards or carry concealed weapons, both women warned their men, in diplomatic language, that this would derail the negotiations. They threatened severe punished if anyone dared to do so.
They met in the neutral Bishopric of Cambrai and gave city officials the responsibility for ensuring that only legitimate and unarmed persons entered the city. On the morning of 5 July Marguerite entered with her highest councilors and court. Two hours later Louise arrived with hers. While festivities went on in the city, the two great ladies, whose habitations were united by covered galleries for privacy and convenience, met quietly and gradually hammered out an agreement. By July 29 they had reconciled their differences. Marguerite and Louise attended vespers in the Abbey, where they took each other’s hands and ratified the treaty. On August 5, 1529 they attended a celebratory mass in the Cathedral.
While the terms were more favourable to the Empire than France, neither the duchy of Burgundy nor that of Bourbon left French hands. France paid an enormous ransom for their royal hostages. The territorial disputes on the Netherlands border were resolved in Marguerite’s favour. And France gave up all claims in Italy. It was a perfect treaty. No one was left happy or fully satisfied. But the principals agreed to it and it met its objective of bringing peace, resolving the major issues, and maintaining male honour and dignity while bringing peace and avoiding general European ruin.
So, this story ends here. Our two remaining royal women Duchess Louise and Regent Marguerite have brought peace to Europe for the time being, which is the most one can ever hope for. And as the 16th century progressed many more women played critical roles in France’s affairs as the political and religious situation deteriorated.
Thank you very much. I hope you’ve enjoyed these.