The Limits of Chivalry

Caroline Weber

  • Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France by Kathleen Wellman
    Yale, 433 pp, £30.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 17885 2

‘A court without women,’ François I once proclaimed, ‘is like a year without springtime, like springtime without roses.’ By this measure, spring roses bloomed eternal in the châteaux of Renaissance France. From the mid-15th century, when Charles VII anointed Agnès Sorel, the country’s first maîtresse en titre, to the late 16th century, when Gabrielle d’Estrées persuaded her lover Henri de Navarre, later Henri IV, to abjure his controversial Calvinist faith, the French court was home to a series of extraordinarily influential women. As Kathleen Wellman shows in Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France, these royal wives and favourites made much of their proximity to the crown, exerting their influence in diverse and far-reaching ways.

Their achievements were all the more remarkable given the medieval gender paradigms that not only persisted into the French Renaissance, but dominated it. One such was the Salic Law, the Frankish law against female inheritance that regulated the royal succession. Although French queens could act as regents in extenuating circumstances, their political authority otherwise derived wholly from the man on the throne. François I’s sister, the humanist author Marguerite de Navarre, was a case in point. When François I’s arch rival, the emperor Charles V, captured him in battle in 1525, Marguerite travelled to Spain to secure his release from prison, and later helped to negotiate the so-called Ladies’ Peace. François returned the favour by authorising her to represent him in important matters of diplomacy, domestic policy, military strategy and castle building. For nearly a decade, she reigned supreme at his court. But when she clashed with him on the issue of the Protestant Reformation, she fell from grace. Thanks to her marriage to the Protestant king of Navarre and her contacts with humanist scholars and Calvinist theologians, Marguerite had grown sympathetic to the Reformation, whereas François saw it as a threat to his authority as a Catholic sovereign. Ignoring his sister’s plea not to persecute Protestants as heretics, he burned a large number at the stake, and expelled her from his inner circle, to which she would never be readmitted. Her disenfranchisement continued after François’s death in 1547, when his son and heir, Henri II, sent her few remaining allies into exile. Under the Salic Law, this formidable and accomplished queen was powerless against the will of the king.

The second medieval principle to shape Renaissance women’s role at court was the notion of amour courtois, promulgated by the troubadour poets of the 12th and 13th centuries, and exemplified by the legends of Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Isolde. The courtly ideal offered a compelling (if imaginary) alternative to the emotional deadlock of marriage, which among the medieval ruling elite was founded on political expediency, and from which the Church, in forbidding adultery and divorce, allowed no escape. Courtly literature by contrast, frankly granted that love flourished best outside matrimony – Isolde and Guinevere both had husbands – while safeguarding and even strengthening a courtly couple’s moral fibre by imposing on the man an ethos of chivalrous courtesy. When a lovestruck knight like Lancelot or Tristan pledged fealty to his lady, as a vassal would to a feudal lord, he undertook to serve her selflessly, asking for no recompense save the privilege of adoring her. Precisely because she belonged to another man, he had to sublimate his sexual desire through courageous deeds and romantic gestures (medieval versions of paying the bill and holding the door open), all performed in her name. This code of conduct preserved both lovers from sin, enshrined the woman on a pedestal, and consecrated their love as a lofty, spiritual ideal. The constitutive paradox of courtoisie – the idealisation of adultery – was to have tremendous consequences for the royal women of the Renaissance, empowering some and marginalising others.

Most closely associated in the Middle Ages with the courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de France, the chivalric model resurfaced in the Renaissance thanks to the Valois, scions of the senior branch of France’s ruling dynasty. After the Hundred Years War, in which they quashed England’s claims to the French crown, the Valois kings sought to reinforce their authority by making their court a place of unrivalled prestige. François I met this challenge with aplomb. Captivated by the Italian Quattrocento, he claimed its cultural glories for France by collecting the art of some of its greatest masters (Michelangelo and Raphael), directly patronising others (Leonardo, who brought the Mona Lisa to Paris in his luggage), and championing the replacement of classical Latin by the spoken vernacular as the language of government and culture. He also admired the French-language poetry of the Petrarchans and Neoplatonists, and even dabbled in the genre himself. Though quintessentially modern in their use of the vernacular and their rediscovery of Greco-Roman sources, these poets shared the courtly preoccupation with transcendent ideals. This unlikely combination of Renaissance novelty and medieval courtoisie became the distinguishing feature of François’s court.

In practical terms, the Renaissance revival of courtly love derived its impetus from the royal taste for adultery. Charles VII’s recognition of Agnès Sorel as his official mistress had already established this predilection as a proud Valois tradition; François made it his own by cloaking his extramarital affairs in the trappings of courtly romance. Pressing his titular favourite, first Françoise de Foix and later Anne de Pisseleu, into service as his belle idéale, he presided over a dizzying round of feasts, pageants, balls, tournaments, masques, ballets and other revels, all designed to burnish his image as a dashing cavalier-king (le roi-chevalier was one of his nicknames). He declaimed Petrarchan odes to his lady’s charms; showered her with jewels and other precious tokens; granted her pride of place at ceremonial functions, often installing her on a dais, throne or litter to elevate her physically above everyone else; and, symbolically braving death in her honour, sported her colours in jousts, wrestling matches and tilting at rings. Enacted in front of his entire court, François’s ritual gestures infused his reign with unprecedented glamour. They also provided the model for his two most charismatic successors, Henri II and Henri IV, both of whom also postured as cavalier-kings, showily performing chivalric feats in homage to their anointed favourites, Diane de Poitiers and Gabrielle d’Estrées, respectively.

These displays of courtoisie had two notable effects on the gender politics of the court. First, they overwrote, with varying degrees of credibility, the sexual dimension of the king’s extramarital affairs. Some favourites, like Françoise de Foix and Diane de Poitiers, grasped the public-relations value of the chivalry narrative, and cannily played up their supposed virtue to support it. Françoise, herself a gifted French-language poet, enjoined her lover to ‘guard my honour,/Because I give you … my heart,’ while Diane commissioned portraits of herself as Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt. These efforts met the requirements of the Renaissance cultural programme; but their chief importance lay in affirming the cavalier-king’s mystique.

At the same time, the sovereign’s theatrics symbolically elevated his mistress at his queen’s expense. In troubadour tales this problem didn’t arise because the prototypical courtly lover was unmarried, his dedication to his lady too absolute to brook any competing demands on his loyalty. By contrast, the king of France was obliged to marry – and to choose his mate with the same pragmatism that had always determined royal unions. François I accepted this duty as a matter of course, remarking of Claude de France, the meek, hunchbacked, corpulent – and wildly rich – princess he married in 1514: ‘Nothing about her person seduces … But what matter! Question of state! For love, there are others nearby.’ In the name of amour courtois, however, François and his successors vested those others with the ceremonial primacy traditionally reserved for their consorts. Henri IV gave apt expression to this when he styled his mistress ‘Queen of My Thoughts’. The queen of his realm, Marguerite de Valois, ranked much lower in his estimation.

The mistress’s symbolic promotion and the consort’s demotion underpinned the pageantry of all three kings. During the festivities François I and Henry VIII held in 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the French sovereign proudly kept the spotlight on the stunning Françoise de Foix, depriving his queen of the ceremonial honours protocol demanded. (It’s tempting to imagine that the parallel spectacle of Henry VIII humiliating Katherine of Aragon by his attentions to Anne Boleyn, formerly Claude’s lady-in-waiting, emboldened the two queens to trade confidences – especially as Anne had reportedly dallied with François while in France.) Claude died at the age of 24; her husband, whose courtly delicacy went together with a hearty appetite for prostitutes, had infected her with syphilis during his dutiful visits to the marriage bed. Her replacement, Eleanor of Austria, whom François was forced to marry as a condition of the Ladies’ Peace, fared no better. At her coronation, François staged a beauty contest in which etiquette dictated that the new queen take the prize. Instead, he gave it to Anne de Pisseleu, for whom he had recently left Françoise de Foix.

Following the same pattern, Henri II made Diane de Poitiers, who was twenty years older than he was, and with whom he had been infatuated since childhood, the focal point of his public appearances, and conspicuously sidelined his queen, Catherine de Médicis: his triumphal entry into Lyon in 1548 featured a tableau of a beautiful woman dressed as Diana surrounded by nymphs and leading a lion (a figure for both the city and its honoured royal visitor) on a black and white leash (Diane’s signature colours, taming the lion with her chaste allure). It was a hard act to follow, made harder by the fact that Catherine, bound by tradition to make her entrance after the king’s, was ordered not to do so until nightfall. Reporting on this event, the Spanish ambassador wrote: ‘Little could be seen when the queen made her entry, because night came on and the people say that, as she is not good-looking, the king gave orders that her pageant should be kept back until a late hour so that her highness should pass unnoticed.’

The daughter of Henri II and Catherine, Marguerite de Valois, known to readers of Alexandre Dumas as Queen Margot, passed unnoticed for an even more dramatic reason: she was exiled from the court for 19 years. It was not her husband, Henri IV, but his immediate predecessor, Marguerite’s brother Henri III, who originally banished her, having caught her conspiring with ultra-Catholic malcontents against his succession plan. (Though Catholic like the rest of the Valois, the childless Henri III had caused virulent political discord by naming his Protestant brother-in-law, Henri de Navarre, his heir: the grandson of Marguerite de Navarre and son of a prince from the royal family’s junior Bourbon line, Henri IV inaugurated Bourbon rule in France.) Marguerite’s machinations also affronted her husband, with whom she had never got on, and he upheld her banishment for 16 years after Henri III’s death. During that time, Henri IV paraded Gabrielle d’Estrées about in her place. For his first formal entry into Paris with Gabrielle in 1594, he arranged for their cortège to cross the Pont Notre-Dame after dark, with flickering torches lining their path and Gabrielle borne aloft on a magnificent litter. It was a brilliant coup de théâtre, one observer wrote, above all because Gabrielle was ‘covered with so many pearls and such brilliant gems that they outshone the torchlight’: a shimmering incarnation of the celestial ideal.

The favourites’ symbolic enthronement both corresponded to and consolidated their more tangible forms of privilege. Anne de Pisseleu parlayed her status into lucrative appointments for her relatives and a massive property portfolio for herself, not to mention the nec plus ultra of aristocratic titles: duchesse. Henri II made Diane de Poitiers not only a duchess, but his chief political adviser, seeking her advice on virtually every decision of his reign, and allowing her to sign official documents ‘HenriDiane’. Despite Catherine’s vehement protests, he also bestowed on Diane two priceless treasures that technically belonged to the state – the château de Chenonceau and the French crown jewels – while also levying a special tax to increase her personal fortune. Henri IV imposed a similar tax for Gabrielle d’Estrées, and he too sought her guidance in affairs of state, including his momentous decision to convert to Catholicism in 1593. He even gave Gabrielle his coronation ring and pledged to marry her as soon as he could have his marriage to Marguerite annulled. Although Gabrielle didn’t live to see their wedding day, the king’s devotion to her found immortality in the French Renaissance’s best-known painting: the unattributed portrait of a bare-breasted Gabrielle having her nipple tweaked by her sister (also topless). In this image, Henri IV’s mistress brandishes his coronation ring between her thumb and forefinger, inviting the viewer to appreciate the full measure of her triumph.

And yet, if the fate of the other Renaissance queens was any indication, Gabrielle stood to lose far more than she would have gained by becoming Henri IV’s wife. Those consorts who, unlike Claude, weren’t resigned to their inferior position in the courtly love-triangle only managed to assert their ambitions after their husbands died and their sons took the throne. Most notably, Catherine de Médicis emerged as a major political player during the reigns of her sons Charles IX and Henri III. On becoming queen-mother in 1559, one of her first pieces of business was to reclaim Chenonceau and the crown jewels from Diane de Poitiers and banish her from court. It was a victory, but tempered by those two medieval precepts that had plagued her as queen. First, her expulsion of the favourite required the approval of the 15-year-old king – yet another reminder that the Salic Law, about which she was known to complain bitterly, still held sway. Second, her husband sustained the wound that killed him during a joust in which he had been ostentatiously wearing Diane’s colours, and carrying a shield emblazoned with her initials in dazzling white diamonds. A besotted cavalier-king to the end, this was how he passed into legend, taking his lady love with him, and leaving his queen behind as the woman chivalry forgot.