Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Plum of a Queen: La Reine Claude

Despite his taste for forbidden fruit, François I felt true affection for his first wife, Claude de France (1499-1524). Claude's father, King Louis XII of France, betrothed her to François in 1506 when it became clear that Francois would inherit the throne. Claude's mother, Anne of Brittany, disapproved of the match--she was still hoping to produce a male heir herself--so the couple was unable to marry until Anne's death in 1514. François and Claude's marriage lasted ten years, until Claude died after a brief illness in 1524. Together they had seven children, five of whom lived past infancy.

Claude was plain, her body contorted by scoliosis--a stark contrast to the stunning women who surrounded François at court. Yet her sweet nature and pleasant conversation made up for her lack of physical beauty. A visitor to court described her thus: "The Queen is young and though very small in stature, plain and badly lame in both hips, is said to be very cultivated, generous and pious." He also noted that "It is a matter of common report that he [the king] holds his wife the Queen in such honour and respect that when in France and with her he has never failed to sleep with her each night."

Constantly pregnant or recovering from birth and by nature drawn to spiritual matters, Queen Claude withdrew from the hedonistic glamor of François's court. Her household, which included Anne Boleyn (Anne was the same age and probably served Claude as an English translator), spent most of the time in retirement at Amboise and Blois. Claude only rarely participated in public events, although she did appear, heavily pregnant, at the Field of Cloth of Gold, the famous meeting between François and Henry VIII of England at Calais in 1520. 

Claude died at Blois in 1524. François, who was a prisoner of Charles V at the time, mourned her loss and claimed "If I could bring her back with my life, I would gladly do so." Her body was embalmed and temporarily housed in the chapel at Blois. It was later moved to the Abbey of St. Denis in Paris in 1527 after François returned to France.

A great patroness of the art of the miniature, Claude commissioned two exquisite works, a Book of Prayers in 1511 and a Book of Hours in 1517. The Morgan Library and Museum has the entire Book on Prayers on virtual display here. The book, which fits into one's hand, is a stunning example of sixteenth-century devotional art. 

Today, a tribute to Queen Claude lives on in the "Reine Claude" plum, a richly flavored cultivar of the fruit introduced into France from Italy during François's reign and named after the queen. They are also known as "la bonne reine," "the good queen," plums, in honor of Claude's gentle disposition. 

(Sources: R.J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron; E. Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn)


Susan Higginbotham said...

Interesting! Poor Claude is usually portrayed in historical fiction as a pious bore; it's nice to know there was much more to her than that and that her husband was better to her than one would have thought.

Anonymous said...

I've always liked Claude, so it is nice to hear more about her. I guess I must have read different HF than Susan!

Julianne Douglas said...

Susan--From the accounts I've read, it seems Francois and Claude shared a true affection (although this did not keep the king from taking mistresses, official and otherwise). They knew each other since they were children, so this probably had something to do with it; also, it sounds as though Claude was hard not to like, she was so sweet and good-natured. I think a lot of writers push Francois and Claude to the extreme--libertine and saint--for the sake of contrast. It says something about Claude's character that her sweetness remained intact during her seemingly endless pregnancies!

Lucy--Do you remember offhand any HF where Claude appears, other than Mademoiselle Boleyn?

Anonymous said...

I'm not certain --- it was probably something I read thirty years ago! Maybe a Jean Plaidy? Is there an old novel about Mary Tudor, perhaps a YA novel? I think that was it but I can't remember the title (and maybe not a Plaidy).

In any case, the view I had of Claude was the one you describe --- sweet and good-natured --- and I am sure I got it from fiction rather than non-fiction.

Bearded Lady said...

Poor Claude. It was all the pregnancies that did her in. The poor woman really never got a break. And yes, I agree that Francis loved her. I actually don't think Francis was as much of a cad as history paints him to be.

Julianne Douglas said...

BL, I so agree with you about François! His amorous exploits are always exaggerated, especially in fiction.

Anonymous said...

A great balanced article. I have seen the book and it is beautiful. What a rare treasure. People are not always aware of how cultivated Claude was and it was to her school that nobles and gentlemen sent their daughters to serve in her sought of finishing school. Anne may have served as a translator but I doubt it; she was not important enough and Henry spoke French. Catherine and she got on fine as well and conversed without any translation. She was an art patroness and it is clear that she was not ugly as Francis had some attraction or affection for her. She was shy and virtuous and he must have sought her wise counsel as well. He was a womanizer and the courts were seperate and much different from each other but both well of note. She obviously made enough impression for ambassadors to be charmed by her. Francis seemed saddened by her loss.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you for your insights, Anonymous! As the daughter of Anne of Brittany, it is not surprising that Claude followed in her mother's footsteps and looked after the education and refinement of the young women invited to her court.