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Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France

Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France

Kathleen Wellman
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France
    Book Description:

    This book tells the history of the French Renaissance through the lives of its most prominent queens and mistresses, beginning with Agnès Sorel, the first officially recognized royal mistress in 1444; including Anne of Brittany, Catherine de Medici, Anne Pisseleu, Diane de Poitiers, and Marguerite de Valois, among others; and concluding with Gabrielle d'Estrées, Henry IV's powerful mistress during the 1590s.

    Wellman shows that women in both roles-queen and mistress-enjoyed great influence over French politics and culture, not to mention over the powerful men with whom they were involved. The book also addresses the enduring mythology surrounding these women, relating captivating tales that uncover much about Renaissance modes of argument, symbols, and values, as well as our own modern preoccupations.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19065-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    The painting of Henry IV’s mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées on the frontispiece of this book illustrates quite dramatically some obvious and distinctive attractions of a royal mistress. This painting, by an unknown artist and now displayed in the Louvre, depicting Gabrielle with her sister at her bath, still takes stunned viewers aback as they try to determine what it conveys and how to respond to this unusual image. It is not simply the subjects’ nudity that is disconcerting. Renaissance painters reveled in the freedom to portray the human body, but they did so most often under the guise of classical motifs....

  6. 1 Agnès Sorel: The First Official Royal Mistress
    (pp. 25-57)

    In 1444, Agnès Sorel became the first officially designated French royal mistress, when the forty-year-old king Charles VII (1422–1461) selected this extraordinarily beautiful, twenty-two-year-old young woman as his mistress. When he presented her to his court and gave her a position within it, he defined a new role for women and a new practice for French kings. This recognition not only brought Agnès into greater prominence than earlier mistresses had enjoyed but also gave her a quasi-official status. That status became common but was initially unique to France. Not all subsequent royal mistresses had an official status, but those...

  7. 2 Anne of Brittany: The Limits and Prospects of a Queen
    (pp. 59-109)

    Anne of Brittany was twice crowned queen of France by virtue of her marriage to two successive kings. The cases of Anne, a prominent queen, and Agnès, a famous mistress, can productively be juxtaposed to consider who had more choices or autonomy and what made one or the other “good” or effective. While one might assume that the status of queen would give a woman more power and authority than a mistress, the situation is not entirely clear. The fifteenth-century French queens immediately prior to Anne did not offer especially inspiring examples of political engagement or effective political or cultural...

  8. 3 The Women of the Court of Francis I: Wives and Mistresses, Sister and Mother
    (pp. 111-183)

    Francis I (1515–1547)—handsome, tall, imposing, richly attired—epitomizes the French Renaissance (fig. 3.1). When he came to the throne as a young man, his vitality offered a striking contrast to the enfeebled Louis XII and embodied hopes for a new reign. His court adapted Renaissance style to a French setting. He patronized the arts and built chateaux in a new, distinctive style. He brought artists of the Italian Renaissance, most notably Leonardo da Vinci, into a court enlivened by an endless chivalric pageant of feasts, balls, tournaments, hunting, sports, and court ceremonies. More than any previous king, Francis...

  9. 4 Diane de Poitiers: An Idealized Mistress
    (pp. 185-223)

    Diane de Poitiers, one of the most famous French royal mistresses, demonstrates just how successfully a royal mistress could assume a queen’s roles and representations. Making strikingly effective use of Renaissance arts, literature, and rhetoric, Diane not only constructed an image of herself as a paragon of virtue but also presented a new image of Henry II, less as family man and more as model of chivalric romance. Renaissance artists were avid to depict a mistress renowned for her beauty, and Diane came to embody Diana, the goddess of hunting, and to epitomize the artistic glory of the French Renaissance....

  10. 5 Catherine de Medici: King in All but Name
    (pp. 225-273)

    When Catherine de Medici died on January 5, 1589, after being integrally connected to the French monarchy for nearly sixty years, Pierre de L’Estoile reported that the following verses, circulating in Paris, could well serve as her epitaph.

    The queen who lies here was a devil and an angel,

    Full of blame and full of praise:

    She upheld the state and brought it low;

    She made accords and no fewer debates:

    She bore three kings and fi ve civil wars,

    Had chateaux built and towns destroyed,

    Made many good laws and bad edicts.

    Salute her passing, heaven and hell.¹


  11. 6 Marguerite de Valois: Scandalous Queen, Femme Savante
    (pp. 275-321)

    Marguerite de Valois, daughter of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry IV and, more popularly, the notorious “Queen Margot,” was a most unusual queen of France. Queen by virtue of her marriage to Henry IV, she was estranged from him before he became king. An accomplished princess, political actor, and renowned intellectual, she may also be one of the most maligned women in French history.The Satiric Divorce, a pamphlet published in 1660, defined an image of Marguerite that has prevailed for centuries, of a woman of deranged, aberrant sexuality. This pamphlet purports to be an account...

  12. 7 Gabrielle d’Estrées: Nearly a Queen
    (pp. 323-356)

    Gabrielle d’Estrées, an officially acknowledged mistress of Henry IV, was preparing for her wedding the Sunday after Easter 1599, when she died on Holy Saturday. Unlike Marguerite, who had often challenged her husband, Gabrielle made Henry’s cause hers and, as a result, nearly became the queen of France. The object of the king’s devotion for nine years, she was the only woman to keep Henry even remotely faithful. She bore him three children and died a gruesome death on the eve of their controversial and problematic marriage. Gabrielle lived a vibrant life in a public setting and, like Marguerite, appears...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 357-372)

    Gabrielle d’Estrées’s death is an appropriate place to end this history of the Renaissance as told through the lives of some of its most prominent queens and mistresses. By 1599, Henry IV was poised to launch the period of political consolidation and cultural preeminence we associate with royal pretensions to absolutism. The year of Gabrielle’s death coincided with the inauguration of a new period in French history, with much stronger state control of politics, economics, and culture and with less openness to politically active women, although, as in all times, there were notable exceptions.

    There are obvious comparisons between Agnès...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 373-420)
  15. Index
    (pp. 421-433)