Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Rise and Fall of a Royal Mistress

A fascinating and powerful figure at court during the second half of François I's reign was Anne de Pisseleu d'Heilly, the duchesse d'Etampes. Anne was born in 1508 (making her fourteen years younger than the king) and began her career at court as maid of honor to François's mother, Louise de Savoie. When François returned to France in 1526 from his imprisonment in Spain, he discovered the lovely--and ambitious--Anne and took her as his lover. She became his official mistress and for the next twenty years, until his death in 1547, she wielded significant influence in political and artistic circles at court.

The poet Charles de Sainte-Marthe called Anne de Pisseleu "la plus belle des savantes et la plus savante des belles" ("the most beautiful among the learned and the most learned among the beautiful"). Indeed, Anne needed intelligence and a sharp wit, in addition to looks, to keep the attention of François, who prided himself on his learning. She cultivated poets and writers like Jodelle, Magny and Dolet and championed the artist Primaticcio, Rosso's chief competitor at Fontainebleau. She beautified the many properties the king bestowed on her and her husband (in 1532, for propriety's sake, François married her to Jean de Brosse and elevated the couple in rank) and undertook architectural projects. Through her favor, distant relatives and sympathetic friends obtained appointments to court offices and the military. She completely outshone, in beauty and influence, François's second wife, Eléonore d'Autriche, sister of Charles V, whom François was forced to marry as a term of his release.

Though she faced no competition from the queen, Anne did face a real threat to her power and influence from another source: Diane de Poitiers, the dauphin Henri's mistress. As relations between François and the dauphin soured, the court split into factions: those who supported Anne and her circle, those who looked to the future and threw their support behind Henri and Diane (including the powerful Grand Master of France, Anne de Montmorency), and the few who remained quietly on the sidelines with the queen. Anne did all she could to contrast her youth to Diane's age (Diane was only five years younger than François, and therefore twenty years older than Henri); she also differentiated herself by embracing the religious ideas of Luther and Calvin. Whereas Diane remained an ardent Catholic, Anne, along with François's sister Marguerite de Navarre, adhered to the reformed faith and encouraged François's tolerance of it as long as she could. Politically, her circle threw its support behind François's third son, Charles, the son François preferred.

Unfortunately for Anne, Charles died before François and upon the king's death, Henri took the throne. Anne's rivalry with Diane assured she was no longer welcome at court; in fact, she was accused of selling state secrets to France's enemy Charles V, stripped of her jewels and many of her possessions, and banished to her estate in Brittany. She died there in 1580, having outlived both Henri and Diane by many years.

The duchesse d'Etampes, pictured above around the time she became François's mistress and to the right at the height of her influence in the late 1530's, is one of the viewpoint characters in my new novel. Despite her importance, little has be written about her; much of what has been written focuses on her rivalry with Diane. An interesting source in French is this excerpt from a book by Etienne Desjardins; David Potter has written a recent article on the politics of the various court factions. In the novel, I'll be considering whether those rumors of her selling secrets to Charles V just might be true.


Michelle Moran said...

Very, very exciting! I love novels based on historical women, and Anne sounds like a fascinating mistress.

Anonymous said...

Wow! This second book of yours sounds like an espionage thriller, and I love those.
Now I heard that Diane was also Francois's mistress before becoming that of Henri (or maybe around the same time.) What is your take on that?

Tess said...

Ooooh - absolutely fascinating. Interesting that I've heard of Diane, but not much at all about Anne. Thanks for telling her story :)

Julianne Douglas said...

There has been speculation in the past that Diane de Poitiers was Francois's mistress before becoming Henri's. This is based on the fact that Diane's father was pardoned by King François just as said father was about to be executed--contemporaries and historians have conjectured that the lovely Diane traded her favors for her father's life. I don't buy that, for reasons I'll outline in a further post. If Diane ever was François's lover, it didn't last very long and never reached an "official" state. Before Anne de Pisseleu, François's official mistress was Françoise de Foix.

There is meat here for several posts...I'll come back to it soon, I promise!

cindy said...

fascinating! i love your historical posts! and i'm amazed at how similar the second portrait is to one i see of anne boleyn (at least the head piece?) happy weekend, julianne!