Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Anne of France, "Madame la Grande"

Anne of France, duchess of Bourbon and regent of France (died 14 November 1522)

One of the most powerful women of the late fifteenth century, Anne of France is relatively unknown today, at least to those of us whose first language is English.* While she is occasionally mentioned in the political biographies of her father, Louis XI of France, and her brother, Charles VIII, her own story remains unfamiliar--there have been no lavish feature films, costumed television dramas, or best-selling novels about her life, as there have been for her contemporaries in England, who fought so savagely during the Wars of the Roses.

Anne of France, detail,
Master of Moulins
Yet in the waning years of the fifteenth century, Madame la Grande, as she was known to her contemporaries, controlled the government of France for eight years, guiding it through a series of political crises that threatened the state from without and, perhaps more ominously, from within. 

Born in 1461, Anne was the third child of Louis of France and his second wife, Charlotte of Savoy, but the first to survive more than a few months after birth. Although we know where she was born—at the chateau of Genappe, some thirty miles north of Brussels—we do not know exactly when, only that her birth preceded the death of her grandfather Charles VII on 22 July of that year. 

Only a few months after her father became king, he began the process of securing political alliances through her marriage. On 27 November 1461, Louis betrothed his only child to Nicholas, the grandson of René of Anjou; by the end of 1462, that alliance was abandoned in favor of an Aragonese match, that project, in turn, giving way to proposals for her marriage to Edward IV of England, then to Francis of Brittany, and even to the French king’s own brother, Charles, duke of Berry.

Meanwhile, we have very few details about Anne’s childhood. On becoming king, Louis XI had installed his mother, his wife, and his infant daughter in the chateau of Amboise; there, the princess was attended by a demoiselle d’honneur, at least two chambermaids, several nurses, and a woman hired to rock her cradle. This female household has not been kindly assessed by Anne’s French biographers, who variously describe Amboise as a prison, an isolated fortress, or as a “royal gynecium”; we might instead regard it as a kind of “city of ladies,” a remarkable environment that made possible the development of a remarkable woman. 

Just as little is known about Anne’s life at Amboise, little has been written about her mother, Charlotte of Savoy, but that “little” is very negative. One contemporary noted that while she was “an excellent princess in other respects,” she was “not a person in whom a man could take any great delight,” another that she failed to inspire the king’s sexual desire. 

Modern historians, at least the few who have mentioned her, have been no more kind, dismissing her as a charming but lifeless non-entity, as a sad, prematurely aged romantic, as a saint-like figure “crowned with a halo of sweetness and modesty” who knew nothing about politics, or as “feeble in health and weak in character.” But surely she was something more. As the daughter of Anne of Lusignan, Charlotte of Savoy was raised by a mother of considerable political influence and skill, while the contents of her personal library indicate the breadth of her intellectual interests. 

Louis XI’s mother, Marie of Anjou, was also part of the Amboise household for the first years of Anne’s life. The dowager queen was the daughter of the formidable Yolande of Aragon, who for fifteen years ruled Anjou as its regent; while Marie may have been “delicate,” as one modern biographer has described her, she is also credited with having been the source not only of her son’s good sense but also for the “discreet work” of diplomacy that reconciled her husband and her brother.

Whatever else happened in the chateau of Amboise during Anne’s childhood, her biographer Jehanne d’Orliac seems rightly to have concluded that her intelligence was “ripened” there. Meanwhile, her father may certainly have abhorred the “intrigues” and “coquetries” of women in general, and the person of his wife in particular, but he must also have recognized both the political expediencies of a female regent and the ability of women to succeed in such a role. 

His paternal grandmother, Isabeau of Bavaria, had been regent of France, and, as we have seen, his maternal grandmother had ruled Anjou for her son. One sister, Yolande of Valois, was regent of Savoy for her son, Philibert, another, Madeleine, was regent of Foix for her daughter, Catherine, who inherited the throne of Navarre as queen regnant; in England, the king’s cousin Margaret of Anjou played an active role in the battle to preserve the throne of England for her son, Edward.

St. Anne, Anne of France,
Suzanne of Bourbon,
part of triptych
by the Master of Moulins
Whatever he felt about his queen, Louis left his son, the dauphin Charles, in the female universe of Amboise, while his daughter Anne became part of his court at Plessis-les-Tours; after her marriage to Pierre of Beaujeu in November of 1473, Anne seems to have spent much of the next ten years in the company of her father. “She is the least foolish of women,” he is famously to have said, “—and as for wise women, there are none.” 

When Louis XI died in 1483, his son and heir Charles was thirteen years old, arguably old enough to succeed to the French throne in his own right, but the aging king circumvented the argument. Just before his death, Louis transferred custody of his son to his daughter and her husband. His son-in-law was a loyal and firm presence, but lacked political skill or insight; Louis named Pierre of Beaujeu lieutenant-general of France. 

The twenty-two-year-old Anne, on the other hand, was different. To this “least foolish of women,” he entrusted the dauphin’s care and education, leaving to her the responsibility to govern France, if not the title of regent. Lacking the name of regent, Anne of France was nevertheless recognized as controlling the person of the king, the finances of the state, and the power of the realm. In his account of her role during the period from 1483 to 1491, historian John Bridge concludes, “We can affirm . . . that the lady of Beaujeu really governed France during the first years of the nominal reign of her brother.” 

When Anne of France left the court in 1491, she was thirty years old, but rather than retiring, she was, instead, beginning a new phase of her political career. In the years following her marriage, she and her husband had been rewarded and enriched first by her father and then by her brother; when the duke of Bourbon, Pierre of Beaujeu’s oldest brother, died without an heir, she acted quickly and ruthlessly. In securing the title for her husband, she “gave herself alone the duchy of the Bourbons.” 

In gaining Bourbon, she secured independence for herself, and for her daughter, Suzanne, who was born on 10 May 1491. In her chateau of Chantelle, not far from the Bourbon capital of Moulins, Anne reigned as sovereign, signing acts with the royal formula Car tel est notre plaisir (“for such is our pleasure”) and reorganizing and codifying the laws of the Bourbonnais. 

She also recreated the “city of ladies” of her childhood at Amboise, educating and training a generation of young girls as they grew into women. As the inveterate gossip Pierre de Brantôme noted, “there were no ladies or daughters of great houses in her time who did not receive lessons from her, the house of Bourbon being one of the greatest and most splendid in Christendom”; on this point he had good authority, since his grandmother Louise de Daillon was among those daughters who had been brought up by Anne of France. 

And she also remained involved in affairs of state. When her brother invaded Italy in 1494, he arranged for his sister, not his wife, to manage in his absence, and like his father, in making this unorthodox arrangement he avoided the official designation of regent; instead, by the “express order of the king,” his queen Anne of Brittany was placed in his sister’s guardianship, and the government of France was “transported” to her court at Moulins. 

By the time the king returned from Italy in 1495, his son, the French dauphin, was dead; three years later, Charles VIII of France, not quite twenty-eight years old, was also dead. The new king was Louis XII, whose rebellion in the first years of Charles VIII’s reign had culminated in the aptly named “Mad War.”

At least one observer thought that Anne of France might intervene in the succession—it was reported that “she thought for a moment to claim the crown for herself, saying that ‘she was the first among the descendants of the kings of France.’” Although she had no such intention, the new king decided “to call his old adversary to his aid”; in exchange for her support, he awarded her more land, more titles, more revenue and, more important, the assurance that her daughter Suzanne would inherit Bourbon after Pierre’s death.

Although Anne of France would also survive Louis XII, we will end our discussion of her life here. It is important to note, however, that she never withdrew entirely from the political center of government; she regularly attended affairs of state, like Louis XII’s entry into Paris, to name only one example, and in 1503, when he fell ill, it appeared as if the king might called upon her to take control of the government of France once more. 

Although he survived this illness, when his death was imminent in 1514, he designated Anne of France to take charge of any posthumously born prince. She was in Paris in 1515 when Louis XII died, and it was again said that she would take control of the government herself. But that was just a rumor; she was in Reims for the coronation of Francis I and in Paris to witness his entry into the city. She herself would live until 1522, her life spanning the reigns of four French kings. 

By the time she died at the age of sixty-one, on 14 November 1522, Anne of France had outlived all her contemporaries, and Madame la Grande had become Madame la Vielle, “the old Madam.” Her brother had died in 1498, her sister in 1505. Isabella of Castile, with whom Anne had conducted business for eight years, died in 1504. Ludovico Sforza, who had lured her brother to Italy and who had tried to arrange for the marriage of one of his sons to Suzanne, died in 1508. Anne saw her one-time enemy Louis of Orléans succeed her brother as king of France; Louis died in 1515. Anne of Brittany, married first to Charles VIII and then to Louis XII, was also gone; she died in 1514. And in what must have been a terrible series of blows, Anne’s grandson François, born in July 1517 and named after his royal godfather, died within months of his elaborate baptism. Just a year later, Suzanne gave birth to stillborn twins. Suzanne herself died in 1521, just thirty years old.

Her biographers have viewed the last months of Anne’s life as a period of “darkness and despair”: “She fell victim to the blows of a malady that remains mysterious to us,” comments one, adding that it was a malady “doubtless fed by grief.” Another concludes that “agony of mind and heart finished her off.” 

But one of Madam’s formidable contemporaries faced her own losses and defeats with the unflinching gaze so characteristic of Anne herself. “I am habituated to grief,” wrote Caterina Sforza, “I have no fear of it.” Surely Anne of France would have agreed.

And at some point in her life, probably toward the end of the fifteenth century, Anne of France composed a series of enseignements, or "lessons" for her daughter, Suzanne. Several years ago, as I was working on an English translation of her Lessons, I found myself remembering the words of Virginia Woolf.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf suggested that “we think back through our mothers if we are women.” I found myself thinking of this claim as I was at work translating Anne of France’s lessons for her daughter. The process was a strangely intimate one: slowly, word by word, sometimes even letter by letter, I was deciphering the admonitions, advice, and warnings a fifteenth-century princess directed to her daughter, all the while and against all logic hearing my own mother’s voice in my mind. 

And then one day, midway through the process of turning French into English, I looked away from my pile of dictionaries to the framed portraits of Anne and Suzanne that sat on the desk where I was working. Studying their faces, I knew I had to find the quotation that I remembered. 

I did find it, about three quarters of the way through the slim volume, as Woolf was describing the struggle of women writers. Although they were confronted by “discouragement and criticism,” Woolf wrote, “that was unimportant compared with the other difficulty which faced them . . . when they came to set their thoughts on paper—that is that they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help.” And then the sentence: “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.”

Anne of France’s text seems at first to challenge Woolf’s claim, for in composing a series of lessons for her daughter, Anne did have a tradition of women behind her, and a rather long one. As she wrote, she could “think back” to Christine de Pizan’s The Treasure of the City of Ladies, written a hundred years earlier, a book that Anne had owned and read, a book that, in fact, she had inherited from her mother, Charlotte of Savoy, queen of France. 

And, although Anne addressed her lessons to her daughter, she clearly came to see herself contributing to the tradition she inherited, since her book was passed on to other daughters of other mothers: her lessons were published “at the request” of Suzanne, doubtless with her mother’s approval.

The opening page of the
first printed edition
of Anne of France's
This first edition, printed between 1517 and 1521, was followed by a second printing in 1534. A third edition was published the next year, this time dedicated to Marguerite of Angoulême, a daughter of another powerful mother, Louise of Savoy, and herself the mother of Jeanne d’Albret, who would become queen regnant of Navarre.

But, despite the status of Anne of France and her daughter Suzanne, and despite the fact that the book went through three editions within thirty years of its composition, her work disappeared. The tradition she had inherited was also lost—Christine de Pizan’s Treasure of the City of Ladies, composed in 1405 and widely circulated in manuscript, was printed in Paris in 1497, 1503, and 1536, but, in the words of Sarah Lawson, who published the first translation of Christine’s work in English, “by the seventeenth century hardly anyone had heard of her.”

We almost surely would not be able to “think back” to Anne’s text today if it weren’t for the work of one man, a nineteenth-century scholar named A. M. Chazaud. Chazaud never tells us how or why or when he became interested in Anne’s lessons for her daughter—it’s not even clear that he knew of the existence of her work before he traveled from France to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. 

As archivist of the department of Allier, formed from the old province of Bourbonnais, he may have gone to the Hermitage to work with a manuscript of the chronicles of Louis I, first duke of Bourbon; Chazaud returned to France to publish an edition of that fifteenth-century text in 1876. Whether or not he knew about Anne’s work before he arrived in St. Petersburg, while there he transcribed not only the chronicles of the duke of Bourbon but her text; he added an introduction, appended a discussion of her language, compiled a glossary, and published Les Enseignements d’Anne de France . . . à sa fille Susanne de Bourbon in 1878. 

While he does not tell us how he came to edit Anne’s text, Chazaud does explain how the book that Anne had given her daughter came to be in Russia, for the manuscript he found there was, in fact, Suzanne’s own copy of the book: Ce livre est à moy, Susanne de Bourbon, et l’ey eu de la meson de Bourbon was written on the first folio (“This book is mine, Susanne of Bourbon, and it comes from [literally 'I have had it from'] the house of Bourbon”).

The story of the manuscript’s journey from France to St. Petersburg is fascinating, and starting from the information Chazaud supplies, we can fill in a few more details of the manuscript’s odyssey. After the death of Suzanne’s husband in 1527, the Bourbon library became the property of King Francis I and was transferred from the library of Moulins to Fontainebleu. 

Later, the manuscript was a gift to Diane de Poitiers, who had been educated by Anne of France, and it became part of the library at her chateau of Anet. Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566) was not only raised by Anne of France, but her marriage was also arranged by Anne; after the death of her husband in 1521, Diane became the mistress of Henry II of France, son of Francis I, who probably presented her with the manuscript. There is no indication when she received the gift or when the manuscript left her library at Anet. 

Two brief notes in the manuscript indicate that on “the last day of the month and year of 1632” a certain Monsieur Baillet de Sainte-Barbe from the town of Dreux gave the book to an unnamed but very happy recipient who lived on Chantre street in Paris; once in Paris, the manuscript passed to the library of Pierre Séguier, chancellor of France under kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV. 

From the library of the chancellor, the book passed to his grandson, Henri-Charles du Cambout de Coislin, bishop of Metz, and from him to the library of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In 1791, in the midst of the French Revolution, some fifty of the Saint-Germain manuscripts were acquired by a Russian diplomat, Peter Dubrovsky, who was in Paris purchasing books for Catherine II, empress of Russia, and, ultimately, for his own growing collection. Anne’s manuscript was among Dubrovsky’s acquisitions; in 1805, it was transferred to the Imperial Public Library. 

And there it remained, at least for a time. The few scholars who have written about Anne’s text have assumed that the manuscript is still there, preserved for us, waiting for us to pick it up and touch the very pages that Suzanne turned as she read her mother’s words. But the manuscript is there no longer—it was sold at some point during the 1930s, and its current location, if it still exists, is unknown.**

And so, in the end, Anne of France’s book seems to illustrate rather than to challenge Woolf’s view that the “tradition” women have inherited is a fragmented and disrupted one. Like so many medieval texts, the survival of her work seems entirely a matter of chance—passed from hand to hand, the manuscript copy of her lessons also passed through more than four centuries of disaster, war, and revolution, only to be sold and then to disappear. 

And yet, despite the odds, her text did survive—one copy of the first printed edition, one of the second, two of the third, and, luckily, a careful edition of the manuscript itself, made before its disappearance. Chazaud’s 1878 edition, which itself survives in only a handful of copies, was reprinted in 1978, ensuring that Anne’s lessons could be passed on to a generation of scholars intent on recovering women’s history and enabling them, in Woolf’s words, to begin rewriting the “short and partial” tradition they inherited. 

From Anne of France to Suzanne of Bourbon to Diane de Poitiers to Catherine the Great to us. 

*This post has been adapted from material in The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan) and from Anne of France: Lessons for My Daughter (Boydell & Brewer).

** For the specific date the manuscript came into the possession of the Imperial Public Library, I am indebted to A. P. Romanov, Chief of Foreign Acquisitions, National Library of Russia, personal letter, 22 July 2002.  According to Romanov, the manuscript (then catalogued as MS. Fr. Q.v.III.2) remained at the Imperial Public Library from its receipt until 1849, when a group of illuminated manuscripts was transferred to the Hermitage Museum as part of a display. The manuscripts remained there until 1861 when, Romanov writes, “all illuminated manuscripts were returned from the Hermitage to the Public Library.” Then, according to Romanov, the manuscript was sold “through the ‘Antiquary,’” which was either “an antique store or an auction”; the library knows “nothing about its location.” 

One further query produced a confirmation from Marie-Elisabeth Boutroue, Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes (Centre Nationale de la Recherche), Section de l’Humanism (Paris), who indicates that nothing further is known of the manuscript, but who holds out the hope that “with luck” it may perhaps be found someday (Email, 17 January 2003). 

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