Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, September 11, 2015

Louise of Savoy: The "King's Mother" and Regent of France

Louise of Savoy, regent of France (born 11 September 1476)

Louise of Savoy, the daughter of Philip II, duke of Savoy, and Margaret of Bourbon, may be the most amazing woman you don't know much about.*

Louise of Savoy
Her life is entwined with the lives of many of the women whom we have already met. She was related to Anne of France both by birth and by marriage, for example, and was raised with Margaret of Austria, who would, much later, marry Louise's brother, Philibert of Savoy.

Louise of Savoy was at court when Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's younger sister became, briefly, queen of France. And, later still, Anne Boleyn would arrive at the French court, just as Louise of Savoy was acting as regent of France on behalf of her son, who had become king.

Even so, despite such connections, there was little in Louise of Savoy's early life to suggest the role she would later come to play in French politics and government. 

In France, King Louis XI married Charlotte of Savoy in order to secure his border with Italy. To strengthen his alliance with Savoy, he also awarded his new queen's younger brother Philip of Savoy the title of count of Bresse. In 1478, to strengthen his political alliances, he arranged the betrothal of his two-year-old niece Louise to Charles of Angoulême, twenty years her senior.

Louise's mother Marguerite of Bourbon died in 1483, when the girl was seven years old. After the death of his wife, Philip of Savoy sent his daughter to Amboise to be raised and educated by Anne of France, Louis XI and Charlotte of Savoy's daughter. There Louise joined Margaret of Austria, who had been sent to France at about the same time to be raised as its "queen." 

In a 1972 essay about Louise, John F. Freeman describes the education that she would have received under the "supervision" of her aunt; "one may assume," he writes, "she learned the traditional fare of home management and principles of Christian morality." 

Certainly "home management" and "Christian morality" would have been part of her training, but she certainly learned much more, for in that same year, Anne of France became de facto ruler of France as regent for her brother, Charles VIII. In Anne of France, Louise had found a crucial political model and tutor.

On 16 February 1488, when she was twelve years old, Louise married Charles of Angoulême, to whom she had been betrothed ten years earlier. But Louise apparently did not begin living with her husband until 1491, when she was about fifteen. At that point she joined her husband's household at Cognac, which included his mistress Jeanne de Polignac and several illegitimate children. 

Rather than antagonism, the two women, wife and mistress, forged durable bonds, and it might be said that in her husband's mistress Louise found another influential tutor. Jeanne became Louise's "permanent ally" and companion. Louise took into her service Jeanne's brothers.

She also accepted Jeanne's children into her household, while Jeanne, in turn, raised Louise's children, Marguerite, born in 1492, and Francis, who, according to Louise, had his "first experience of earthly light at Cognac" on the afternoon of 12 September 1494. While Jeanne de Polignac "nursed Francis . . . through his first seven years," Louise would later arrange advantageous marriages for her husband's illegitimate children.

But events far away from Cognac were to affect Louise of Savoy's life and her children's future. In 1496, her  husband died, and in 1498 Charles VIII died, leaving no child of his own to succeed him. His successor, Louis XII, married Anne of Brittany, Charles VIII's widow. But until they had children, Louise of Savoy's son Francis of Angoulême became the king's heir presumptive. 

Louise and her children were moved to Amboise, and the new king appointed a guardian for Francis. Louise herself was offered a number of marriage proposals, including an alliance with Alfonso d'Este and Henry VII of England, but she rejected any inducement to remarry. 

The king, meanwhile, had begun to prepare for the succession if he were to die without a son and heir. A daughter, Claude, had been born in 1499; and April 1505, the king arranged for the betrothal of his daughter to the heir presumptive, Francis of Angoulême.

He also made arrangements for the government of France should he die while his successor was still a minor, planning for a regency to be shared by Anne of Brittany and Louise of Savoy. The betrothal of the king's daughter and the king's heir was celebrated on 21 May 1506, when Claude was seven and Francis twelve. 

On 3 August 1508 the young Francis left his mother and Amboise for the king's court at Plessis-les-Tours. By 1509, her daughter, too, was gone; Marguerite left her mother to be married to Charles, duke of Alençon. 

Even though her son's future looked promising, Louise of Savoy could not be sure that he would become king of France--Anne of Brittany might still provide Louis XII an heir. In late 1509, ten years after Claude's birth, that possibility threatened; the queen was pregnant, but the baby, born in April of 1510, was a girl, Renée. In 1512 the queen was again pregnant. In January 1513 she gave birth to a son who did not survive. 

After the queen's death in January of 1514, Francis--and his mother--grew more confident; the heir presumptive's marriage with Claude was celebrated in May of that year. But, despite Francis's doubt that the widowed king would "commit the folly of marrying again," that is exactly what Louis XII did. The wedding of the "extremely old and feeble" king, as Louise of Savoy described him, and Henry VIII's sister, the "young" Mary Tudor, took place in October 1514.

Louise of Savoy as regent,
taking hold of the rudder of state
Although Louis may still have hoped to produce a male heir of his own to succeed him, by January 1515 he was dead. Louise of Savoy's son became King Francis I, Louise herself recognized as "the king's mother," Madame Mère du Roi.  Her status as mater regis was both acknowledged and appreciated by her contemporaries, among them Pope Leo X.

Charles Brandon, the duke of Suffolk, sent Henry VIII an equally glowing assessment of the king's mother: "Sir, it is she who runs all, and so may she well; for I never saw a woman like to her, both for wit, honour and dignity. She hath a great stroke in all matters with the King her son."

The Venetian ambassador, meanwhile, judged that "the Most Christian King's most illustrious mother . . . would prove the greatest and most faithful friend Venice ever had."

Like the young Henry VIII in England, anxious to win glory for himself shortly after his accession to the throne, Francis I was almost immediately attracted to the possibility of armed conflict. In order to renew French claims in Italy, he began to prepare for a military expedition, designating his mother, rather than his wife, to act as regent of France.

"All the princes and nobles of our blood will accompany us," Francis wrote, "And in consideration of this, we have decided to leave the government of our realm to our well beloved and dear Lady and Mother . . . in whom we have entire and perfect confidence." Because of her "virtue and prudence," she would, he proclaimed, "know how to acquit this trust." 

Francis returned home early in 1516, and thus Louise's first tenure as regent was only a few months' duration, from July of 1515 until the king's return early the next year. Louise continued to be an extremely influential force in her son's government, however, even after the period of her official role ended. Relations with England remained strained, and in 1521 the English ambassador in France suggested to Cardinal Wolsey that he apply to the king's mother for help: 
I have seen in diverse things since I came hither . . . that when the French king would stick at some points, and speak very great words, yet my Lady [Louise] would qualify the matter; and sometimes when the king is not contented he will say nay, and then my Lady must require him, and at her request he will be contented, for he is so obeissant to her that he will refuse nothing that she requireth him to do.
Even so, the ambassador did not consider her influence on her son to be entirely for the good, since he added, "and if it had not been for her he would have done wonders." Francis "eventually agreed" to a "comprimit," or conference, regarding the ongoing dispute, "very grudgingly, and in deference, he said, to his mother." Cardinal Wolsey, for his part, urged English envoys in France to promote "unity, peace and concord": they were to "exhort, stir and move by all means and ways to them possible." Wolsey particularly recommended that they address themselves to Louise of Savoy, "the mother and nourisher of peace."

On 27 April 1522 French troops just outside Milan were defeated by imperial forces at a battle known as "la Bicocca," the name of a nearby country home, and in August English forces invaded Picardy. By October the English were only fifty miles from Paris. Once more Francis went to war. On 12 August 1523 he again appointed Louise of Savoy as his regent. A letter announcing his decision cited Louise's experience and outlined her considerable powers in his absence.

Louise of Savoy's second regency lasted considerably longer than her first, because on 24 February 1525 the French king was defeated and captured at the battle of Pavia. He was taken first to Pavia itself, then on to Genoa. From there he was sent to Naples. By June he was in Barcelona, and in July he was sent on to Madrid, where he would remain until February 1526, when his release was finally arranged.

Just after his capture, Francis wrote to his mother to "inform" her "of the extent" of his "misfortune"; "of everything," he wrote, "nothing is left but my honour and my life." He begged her "not to lose heart," but to "exercise" her "customary prudence." He recommended to her his "little children," who were, he reminded her, also hers. He signed himself her "humble and obedient son." 

Louise responded: "I cannot better begin this letter than by thanking our Saviour that it has pleased him to preserve your honour, your life, and your health." "On my part," she continued, "I shall support the misfortune in such a manner for the succour of your little children and the affairs of your kingdom that I shall not give you occasion for more pain."

To defend France from invasion she mobilized forces for defense, securing the country's borders. She successfully negotiated an alliance with Henry VIII (treaty of the Moore, 1525) and, in Italy, with the pope and the Venetians (League of Cognac, 1526). In upolding the crown's authority, Louise was equally successful. Immediately after the king's capture, some members of the Parlement of Paris were moved to propose an alternate regent, but that effort failed.  

Louise ultimately proved her competency, dealing effectively with the parliament and, to secure her son's release, she made every effort to raise the money needed to ransom the king. The chancellor of France assured the captive king that the "said lady has managed so well that the rea[l]m is on its accustomed footing." 

She then undertook negotiations resulting in the treaty of Madrid, which Francis signed on 14 January 1526. The terms of this agreement were punishing, however: Francis was to renounce all his claims to Italy, his two sons were to be held as hostages by the emperor to guarantee Francis's fulfillment of the terms of the treaty; and, finally, he was to marry Isabel of Portugal, Charles V's widowed sister. 

The French king was finally released from his captivity in March--on the 17th of that month Francis was exchanged for his two sons, the dauphin Francis and his younger brother Henry. With her son's return, Louise's second regency ended.

But, although his sons were hostages to ensure his compliance with the terms of the treaty of Madrid, Francis did not honor his agreement. While negotiating the treaty, Louise had decided that accepting the terms offered was better than the king's continued absence, but once the king had returned to his kingdom, she is said to have advised him "not to observe promises made under duress." 

Peace between Francis I and Charles V was not achieved until 3 August 1529 when the treaty of Cambrai, the so-called Ladies' Peace, was negotiated by the king of France's mother, Louise of Savoy, and the Holy Roman Emperor's aunt, Margaret of Austria. 

A nineteenth-century sculpture of
Louise of Savoy,
now in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris
The two women were more than representatives of their male relatives, however.

They had spent years together as children, both raised by Anne of France; Louise had been sent to the regent by her father in 1483, the same year Margaret had arrived to be raised and educated as "queen" of France.

They were together until 1491, when Margaret was rejected as a wife by Charles VIII. Margaret had ultimately married the son and heir of Isabella and Ferdinand, Juan of Castile and Aragon, but after his early death, she had then married Philibert of Savoy, Louise of Savoy's brother. 

Thus the two women who met to negotiate an end of hostilities knew each other well; each had much to bargain for, and they bargained hard, but the regent of the Netherlands was in the stronger position.

By the terms of the treaty the two women devised, Francis agreed to give up his claims in Italy, to pay a heavy ransom for his sons, and to marry the emperor's sister, whom he had agreed to marry in 1526.

Although the terms were difficult, the treaty of Cambrai was the last political achievement of a determined woman. In a final personal achievement, aging, ill, and increasingly weak, Louise of Savoy traveled to meet the grandchildren whose release she had negotiated, a journey made against the advice of her physicians. The children arrived in France on 1 July 1530, and by Christmas the king was writing that his mother, with "her gout and colics added to her pains of the stomach," was nearing death. She died the next year, on 22 September 1531.