Diane de Poitiers - A Renaissance Woman
Date: Monday, September 05 @ 05:15:52 CDT
Diane de Poitiers, my twelfth great-grandmother, was the most beautiful and the most wealthy woman in France in her time. But it was her position as the mistress of King Henri II that earned her a place in history. Diane’s story is one of romance and rivalry, love and hate, power and privilege.Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve 1499, at the very end of the century and the very beginning of the Renaissance, a baby girl was born to Jehan de Poitiers and Jeanne de Batarnay. She was born in the Chateau de Saint-Vallier, in the town of Saint-Vallier, Drome, in the Rhone-Alpes region.She was descended from the ancient sovereign family of the Comtes dePoitiers, and was the eighth-great-granddaughter of King Louis IX of France.
Her father, an avid hunter, insisted that she be named Diane, in honour of the mythological Diana, goddess of the hunt. She was to do her father proud. By the age of five, Diane was an expert rider and could even handle her own falcon.When Diane was born, an old village woman predicted that her star would rise higher than a Queen. How true those words would be...Diane lost her mother at the age of six, and her relative, Anne de Beaujeu, Duchesse de Bourbon (daughter of King Louis XI and sister of King Charles VIII), agreed to take charge of her education. Her court was where many girls of noble families were educated. According to humanist ideals, the girls were taught Latin and courtly behavior. The court school of Anne de Beaujeu is known especially for its emphasison religion but also court politics. The girls read the church fathers but were also instructed in diplomatic strategy and the practical virtue of strength of character. Diane could read Latin at seven, and Greek by the time she was nine. It was Anne who shaped Diane's mind, developed her tastes and instilled in her the highest principles of honor and of wisdom, of which Diane remained a living example.When Diane was fifteen, Anne de Beaujeu arranged her marriage to Louis de Breze, a man of fifty-six, and a grandson of King Charles VII. Despite the difference in their ages, Diane would grow to love Louis, and gave him two daughters. The marriage took place at Hotel de Bourbon in Paris on March 29, 1515. The wedding guests included the King and Queen of France.Since her husband was not continually required to be at court, the couple could spend the intervals......
(contd)...at Anet. Louis de Breze liked this manor with its proximity to the forests of Dreux, Roseux and Normandy, for he was a tireless hunter. His friendship with Francois I and their mutual love for the hunt often brought the King, Queen, and entourage to Anet. It was in this ancient manor that Diane made her debut as mistress of the house.
In January of 1518 "La Grande Senechale" gave birth to her first child, a girl, who was named Francoise in tribute to the king. It is from her that I descend. Three years later a second girl was born, called Louise after her father.
Through her marriage Diane was called to the court of France where, thanks to her beauty and intelligence, she had access to the finest circles. The wife if the Grand Senechal was automatically a lady in waiting to the queen. She became Lady of Honor to Queen Claude, wife of Francois I. She was present at the births of the Royal Children, and was especially close to the third youngest, Henri. Henri, whose childhood was marred by years of captivity in Spain, developed a strong affection for Diane which, from his 15th year on, became more and more ardent.
Early in her marriage, Diane had to go to Francois I to plead for her father's life. Jehan Saint-Vallier had been involved in the Conspiracy of the Constable of Bourbon, and was being held in the dungeons at Loches awaiting execution. One version of the story has Diane becoming the King's mistress. In another version, Diane used all of her charms to encourage the king to sign his release, but once he did and she was made aware of what the King expected in return, she graciously declined stating that she was a married woman. Neither version is true; Diane took her marriage vows very seriously. On February 17, 1524, Saint-Vallier was lead to his place of execution, where his head was on the block for over an hour. Finally the king's messenger delivered the reprieve. As he was lead from the executioner’s block, Diane's father was heard to thank God for his daughter's sweet body, which had served him well. Whether or not Francois's fondness for Diane had anything to do with his saving Saint-Vallier's life, it has been generally believed that the king had no intention of executing Saint-Vallier, as he was the least guilty of those involved, and his ties with the family and their service to the crown went back many generations. In any case, the rumours about Diane took on a life of their own. Adding fuel to the fire, seventeen unsigned love letters to the king were discovered and were assumed to be written by Diane. They were in fact written by a former mistress, Francoise de Foix.
These rumours would eventually reach the ears of the king's mistress...
On 23 July 1531, Louis de Breze died, leaving Diane heartbroken. She had a magnificent tomb erected in the cathedral at Rouen and went into mourning which she never abandoned. From that day on, she dressed in black with touches of white, which would become her trademark. Two years later, she returned to Court.
Anne de Pisseleu, the Duchesse d’Etampes, was the mistress of Francois I. She was jealous of Diane, and had most likely heard the stories of how Diane had become the King’s lover in order to save her father from execution. These rumours were untrue, but Anne’s resentment of Diane was strong, fueled by Francois’ admiration of her hunting skills and appreciation of her beauty. Anne began to spread ugly rumours and slander Diane’s name. Diane remained dignified and ignored it all. Finally, Anne accused Diane of using witchcraft to maintain her legendary beauty. Diane became genuinely frightened. A charge of witchcraft would mean that she could be burned at the stake without benefit of a trial. In desperation, she turned to young Henri to protect her. Henri was in love with Diane, although he had been recently married to Catherine de Medici (the marriage had been arranged by Diane’s husband shortly before his death). Diane became his secret mistress.
When, in 1536, his brother died and young Henri became the heir to the throne, Diane's situation was enhanced as much as was the Dauphin's. Henri elected also to appear only in black and white under the pretext of platonic affection, making the crescent (the sign of Diana the huntress) his emblem and adopting the famous monogram with H and D interlaced.
Diane was officially acknowledged as his mistress three years after the marriage. The age factor added insult to injury. As Henri's wife, it was of course her duty to produce an heir (or better yet, several of them), preferably male, as a daughter could not inherit the throne in France. Catherine appeared to be incapable of fulfilling her duty in this respect. Diane realized there was no love lost between her and Catherine, of course, but she was also aware that if Henri's marriage were annulled because there was no heir, he might have to marry someone even less accommodating. She made an arrangement with Catherine that on some evenings Henri would spend several hours in Diane's bed, then go to Catherine's for a while, then return to Diane's bedchamber. Diane also gave Catherine some “practical hints”. This evidently did the trick, because the future Francois II was born in 1544, followed by the future Charles IX in 1550, and the future Henri III in 155l, plus several other children.
The Grande Senechale and Henri's wife, Catherine, were coldly polite to one another. After all, Diane was the official governess of the children finally born to Catherine after eleven years of infertility. Catherine accepted all, resigned herself and bit her lip as she awaited her revenge.
Although Henri was deeply in love with Diane, he was no stranger to temptation. He fathered three children by different women. Diane cared as tenderly for these children as she did those of Henri and Catherine.
Upon the death of Francois I on the 31st of March, 1547, Henri became king of France. Suddenly, Diane was the most powerful woman in France! Within days, Anne de Pisseleu was banished from the court, and Henri made Diane the Duchesse d’Etampes. Henri trusted her to write many of his official letters and to even sign them jointly with the one name: HenriDiane. She was in fact, the "brains behind the throne".
Chenonceau is a magnificent chateau on the River Cher in the Loire Valley. Catherine de Medici desperately wanted it for herself. You can imagine her dismay when Henri gave it to Diane as a coronation gift.
As crown property, Diane knew that upon Henri's death Chenonceau could been taken from her. She took steps to have it made legally hers. She developed an ingenious scheme to have the ruling which gave the chateau to the crown retracted As such, it would return to the Bohier family, now impoverished. She would then purchase it from them. Diane ran her then prosperous estate with unmistakable authority. Receipts from the farm produce, royalties from vassals and fines imposed by the castle court enabled to balance the budget. She had built the beautiful gardens near the entry to the chateau. She was to be happy here, often with the King. In 1555, the profits made through the cultivation of the estate and the confident knowledge that the castle was hers encouraged Diane of Poitiers to further embellish her property. She undertook new works and resuscitated the former ownersâ idea of enlarging the castle and building a bridge to span the river. Diane loved Chenonceau, and devoted much of her time and money turning Chenonceau into one of the finest royal palaces in France. Her bedroom "The Chamber des Reines" is a delightful blend of style and luxury. The room is dominated by Diane’s bed which is believed to have an extraordinary effect on those who lay on it. In addition, she began extensive renovations at Anet, paid for by the king.
In the meantime, Catherine de Medici adopted the motto “hate and wait”. She figured that Diane, nineteen years older then Henri, would die long before him. Then, she reasoned, she would have her husband to herself. It was not to be·
The marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots and the Dauphin Francois was the first of several royal marriages. Princess Claude married the Duke of Lorraine, to be followed by the wedding of Henri II's sister to the Duke of Savoy. On the same day, Henri II's younger daughter, the fourteen-year-old Elisabeth, would by proxy marry King Philip II of Spain. Part of these celebrations was a five-day jousting tournament. On the first day, Catherine begged Henri not to take part as her astrologer had warned that the king would be killed. In panic, Catherine had called for Nostradamus who had described the king's death in even greater detail. He described Henri's death as follows:
CI, Q 35 The young lion will overcome the older one, on the field of combat in single battle, He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage, Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death.
Every day she pleaded with Henri, but he would take no notice. On the third day disaster struck. Henri had successfully taken part in a joust against Gabriel Montgomery and had decided to go just one more time. Catherine grew frantic as she saw the tip of his opponent's lance enter his visor and lodge itself in his eye. It was just as Nostradamus predicted, the golden cage being the golden visor of Henri's helmet. Henri II was fatally wounded. Twelve agonizing days later, on July 10, 1559, Henri II died, crying out the whole time for Diane. Catherine ignored his requests.
At last Catherine de Medici was now in charge. She became Regent for the boy-king Francois II, and one of her first actions was to demand back the Crown Jewels from Diane de Poitiers. This Diane did complete with inventory.
With a new king on the throne, Diane suddenly found herself persona non grata at court. Since Catherine de Medici was now in a better position, being the mother of the king instead of simply an out-of-favor wife, she began to pressure Diane to hand over one of the most important gifts she had been given by Henri: Chenonceau. By 1552, Henri was spending most of his time at Chenonceau. Hence, the chateau had become something of a sore point between the two women. It was probably to be expected that Catherine would want Chenonceau returned if anything were to happen to Henri. But when Henri died, Catherine discovered that Henri had not simply given Diane the use of the property; instead, the chateau had been given outright to Diane, in spite of legal restrictions which specified that such royal property could not be alienated. Since it was potentially no longer part of the royal domain, it would be difficult for Catherine to claim Chenonceau on purely legal grounds. A period of sparring ensued, but since Catherine's power was clearly on the ascent, Diane did the wise thing and decided to yield, however painful that may have been for her. In return she received Chaumont-sur-Loire, which had been Catherine's property.
Rather than destroy Diane's beautiful garden, Catherine simply put in her own garden, intending it as a horticultural challenge to her rival. However, she immediately set out to erase from Chenonceau as many memories of Diane as she could. She was not able to remove the many sets of entwined initials on the walls which testified to Henri's love and made visible his connection to Diane, but she added serif to the ends of the "D" to made "C".
Diane retreated to Anet and devoted herself to the administration of her vast domain. She actively took up the side of the Catholics during the Reformation. The thought of death now moved her to make amends for the life of adultery with the king, in which she made endowments to numerous religious foundations. She also requested that a chapel be built in Anet to contain her tomb. In 1565, one year before her death, Diane de Poitiers hired Claude de Foucques to design the chapel which was consecrated in 1577.
She died on 25 April 1566.
During the French Revolution, Diane's resting place was desecrated. Her coffin was opened and she was buried in a hastily dug grave in the parish churchyard. Luckily, Alexandre Lenoir, an art lover and the founder of the Musee des Monuments Francais in Paris, rescued numerous treasures removed from the chateau. He persuaded the State to buy many of the scattered pieces of Diane's tomb: the funerary statue, the black marble sarcophagus - which was being used as a pig trough at a neighboring farm - and the altar piece by Pierre Bontemps. Diane was reburied at Anet.
About Shari Beck: I am the 12th great-granddaughter of Diane de Poitiers and Louis de Breze, and have been fascinated by Diane's story for many years. As the daughter of a Royal Canadian Air Force Corporal, I travelled extensively as a child, and have lived in Canada's most beautiful cities, including Montreal, Halifax, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Toronto. With my business, Sandcastles, I am an event planner, and I have developed and administrated a certification course for wedding planners. I live just outside Toronto, Canada with my husband Friedrich, who is an Austrian Baron (but that's another story!). My only child, Laura, was married June 11, so Fred and I are emptynesters. That has given me the time to create a web site dedicated to Diane de Poitiers. This is something I have wanted to do for quite a while, to tell her story to the many who have never heard of her. In France, she is a household word. Princess Michael of Kent wrote a book about her last year (the Princess is also a descendant), and I must acknowledge the value of this book in my own research.
Shari’s website, dedicated to the study of Diane de Poitiers, can be found at www.dianedepoitiers.sharibeck.com·.