Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Anne of Brittany: Twice Queen of France--But Always a Duchess

Anne of Brittany (born 25 January 1477)

Throughout history, many royal women accrued multiple titles by marriage--a rare few, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, to name perhaps the most famous example, achieved the highest possible status through serial marriages.* Eleanor was, first, queen of France--but after fifteen years, her marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled. Eleanor then married Henry II of England, becoming, second, queen of England. But no woman--or at least no woman I know of--had quite the same marital career as Anne of Brittany, who was queen of of France twice.

Anne of Brittany,
c. 1503-1508
The daughter of Francis II of Brittany, Anne became the duchess of Brittany, an independent duchy, in her own right after her father's death in 1488. Although her father had ensured Anne's succession by having her right recognized by the Estates of Brittany, his death resulted in a political crisis.

Three three powerful men sought to control Brittany by means of marriage to the new duchess: the French duke of Orléans (who was already married--but, oh well); Alain d'Albret, duke of Guyenne; and Maximilian of Austria, newly elected king of the Romans.

Although her father had been forced to agree that his daughter could not marry without approval of the French king, Anne acted without consulting France. Because an alliance with the Habsburg duke seemed to offer continued independence for Brittany, the young duchess married Maximilian by proxy in 1490.

But that was not the end of the matter. Anne of France, the powerful regent of France, pursued her own kind of "alliance" with Brittany; her army invaded, captured Nantes, then laid siege to Rennes, where Anne of Brittany had retreated. Although the young duchess could have abandoned Brittany and joined her husband Maximilian, she decided to instead to marry Anne of France's brother, Charles VIII, the king of France.

Under the circumstances, she did the best she could for Brittany. By the terms of the marriage contract, if Anne died before Charles, the province would become part of France; if Charles died first, Brittany would be returned to her to rule. But the contract did contain a clause that limited Anne's options: if Charles were to die without a male heir, Anne of Brittany was to required to "marry his successor and remit to him her duchy."

(This marriage, of Charles VIII to Anne of Brittany, is the reason that Margaret of Austriala petite reine, to whom Charles had been betrothed since 1483, was sent back home, her political usefulness no longer so useful.) 

Although Anne gave birth to four children during her marriage to Charles, including three boys, none of them survived. When Charles died in 1498, Anne was still only twenty-one years old. By the terms of her marriage contract, she was to marry his successor--but that was her old adversary and suitor, Louis of Orléans, now Louis XII. And he, unfortunately, was still married--to Jeanne of France, sister of the dead Charles VIII and of the formidable Anne of France. 

Despite all the complications, the twenty-two-year-long marriage of Louis XII and Jeanne of France was declared void on 17 December 1498--on the grounds of non-consummation. (Louis "rewarded" Jeanne with the gift of the title duchess of Berry; she earned a more enduring title for herself, Saint Jeanne of Valois, establishing a new religious order, the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She died in 1505, her cause of canonization beginning in 1631. She was beatified in 1742 and canonized in 1950.)

Jan Mostaert's portrait of a lady,
"possibly" Anne of Brittany,
painted c. 1520
While Louis disentangled himself from his first wife, Anne returned to Brittany, where she was warmly welcomed. She convened the Estates, toured the duchy, and determined to regain political control. The terms of her marriage contract in 1498 were better than those of the 1491 contract; if her marriage to Louis failed to produce an heir for Brittany, the duchy was to pass to her Breton heirs.

Anne of Brittany became queen of France--for the second time--on 8 January 1499 when she married Louis. Over the next twelve years, she gave birth to six children, including four boys. Only two daughters survived, Claude (b. 1499) and Renée (b. 1510). 

Anne of Brittany died on 9 January 1514, just a few days short of her thirty-seventh birthday. Over the course of her life, she had been twice queen of France and, briefly, queen of Sicily and titular queen of Jerusalem. (Charles VIII had invaded Italy and claimed these titles in 1494.)

But she would be the last independent ruler of Brittany; despite Anne's lifetime of effort, neither of her daughters would inherit an independent Brittany, much less govern there. 

Realizing he would have no male heir, Louis arranged a marriage between his elder daughter, Claude, and the man who would inherit the French throne, Francis of Angoulême. Still trying to maintain Brittany's independence, Anne attempted to make sure her younger daughter, Renée, would become duchess of Brittany. She was not successful. After Anne's death, Claude became queen of France and duchess of a no-longer independent Brittany. Anne's younger daughter, Renée, married Ercole d'Este, duke of Ferrarra.

Anne of Brittany's daughter, Claude,
surrounded by her daughters--
and her husband's second wife

The above portrait was commissioned by Catherine de' Medici in 1550 and is included in her book of hours. Although there are doubts about the identity of the sitters, many believe that the central figure is Anne of Brittany's elder daughter, Claude, queen of France. Claude's daughter, Madeleine of France (b. 1520), on the top right, became queen of Scotland, very briefly, in 1537 (she died just six months after her marriage). There is some doubt about the small figure at the bottom right, below Madeleine--although it may be Claude's daughter Louise, who died at age two (in 1517), there is a more general agreement that this figure represents Claude's younger sister, Renée. The figure opposite, Charlotte, is Claude's daughter who died at age eight (in 1524). Claude's daughter Marguerite (b. 1523), above Charlotte, never knew her mother, who died just months after her birth. She was named duchess of Berry in her own right in 1550. She was married, at age thirty-six, to Emmanuel Philibert, duke of Savoy. The final figure, Eleanor of Austria, became the second wife of Francis I, marrying him in 1530. Interestingly, she was also a two-time queen, first of Portugal, then of France. After Francis I died, she got to retire. But that's another story . . .

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

Update: Thanks to Rozsa Gaston for the comment about the 1520 portrait I have used, above, for Anne of Brittany, by Jan Mostaert. The sitter is unknown--the portrait is "of a lady," with the further note, "possibly Anne of Brittany." The image is on Wikimedia Commons with this information: "Owned by the Collections of the Czartoryski Princes in Gołuchów (Division of the National Museum in Poznań), lost 1941." However, the portrait was auctioned by Sotheby's in 2001

About the history of the painting, the list of "Wartime Losses, Foreign Painting: Oil Paintings, Pastels, Watercolours Lost Between 1939-1945," prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Poland, notes that this painting was not simply "lost" in 1941 but looted from the "Collections of the Czartoryski Princes in Gołuchów." About the Mostaert painting, the registration notes: "In 1997 the painting was offered for sale by Sotheby's in New York. The Polish authorities intervened and the auction house withdrew it from sale. The owner’s heir filed a judicial claim to obtain its return. The proceedings dragged on, so the parties to the dispute opted for a settlement under which they jointly sold the painting. Now in a private collection."