Anne of Brittany (c. 1477–1514)

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Anne of Brittany (c. 1477–1514)

French queen, patron of the arts, and a powerful force in her brief lifetime. Name variations: Anne de Bretagne; duchess of Brittany. Born in Nantes, France, on January 26, 1477 (some sources cite 1476); died afterchildbirth on January 9, 1514 (some sources cite 1512); daughter of Marguerite de Foix (fl. 1456–1477) and François also known as Francis II, duke of Brittany; married Charles VIII (1470–1498), king of France (r. 1483–1498), in 1491; shortly after his death, married his successor, Louis XII (1462–1515), king of France (r. 1498–1515), on January 8, 1499; children: (second marriage) Charles-Orland (1492–1495); and two daughters who survived infancy, Claude de France (1499–1524), queen of France, and Renée of France (1510–1575), duchess of Ferrara, Italy.

By the age of 22, Anne of Brittany had been engaged countless times, married twice, divorced once, and finally widowed. Since her birth it had been obvious that her father (the duke of Brittany), the Breton nobles, and the rulers of France and other European countries saw her as a means to forge alliances between their countries, through betrothals and marriages. Yet working within the legal and customary restraints of her time, Anne forced the European leaders to recognize her as a powerful force in her own right. And when her first husband, Charles VIII, left her a widow at 22, more than just personal happiness depended on her next actions. What she did, including her second marriage, would decide whether France, and indeed much of Europe, still recovering from the long, bitter conflict known as the Hundred Years' War, would remain in its fragile state of peace.

In the 15th century, the country we call France was made up of several small, independent states. These nations sometimes united against a common enemy, but more often were hostile toward each other. The Hundred Years' War, waged only a few decades before, had increased the enmity between some of the states.

One of the most fiercely independent of these separate countries was Brittany, on the northwest corner of France. At times controlled by England, at times by France, at times independent, in 1477, the year of Anne's birth, Brittany was struggling to maintain its autonomy. Anne's father, Duke Francis II, was a popular ruler whose leadership enabled him to keep his small country out of the control of the French. Aside from his political abilities, he was a cultured man who encouraged the arts, literature, and commerce in his duchy. He must have recognized his daughter's intelligence, for he had her well educated. Like him, she knew both Greek and Latin, and later in life became a passionate collector of books.

But even if he acknowledged her gifts, he could not leave his land and his title to her: Breton law did not allow women to inherit either. So he decided to use her instead as a means to unite his country's interests with those of a neighbor. Anne of Brittany was at one time engaged to a son of England's Edward IV, and at another time to the crown prince of Spain. One of the Breton nobles mentioned that Francis was wise in having each of his two daughters engaged five or six times, providing a multitude of alliances. Many of the nobles of Brittany urged Francis to force Anne to marry a certain Breton lord named Albret; this he refused to do, perhaps seeing little political advantage.

Before he could marry either daughter to his liking, however, Francis was defeated by the French and forced to promise that his children would not wed without the permission of France's king Charles VIII. Francis died shortly after, leaving Anne, a contemporary noted, "the greatest heiress in Christendom."

Only 14 years old, Anne knew she had to marry someone of political importance, and quickly, if she was to retain any kind of control of Brittany at all. The nobles again urged her to consider Albret, but she replied that she would rather become a nun. Her chancellor and some nobles supported her in this refusal, but the situation was proving difficult when Charles sent a messenger to remind them that his permission was needed before any marriage could take place. He further stated that he would have two of his nobles marry Anne and her sister. The Breton nobles did not want to see both of their princesses married to Frenchmen, assuming that these unions would destroy forever Brittany's autonomy. They suggested several other possible matches, but Anne refused them all.

Finally, in 1490, without Charles' consent, Anne contracted a "proxy marriage" with Maximilian I, the son of the Holy Roman emperor. In this form of marriage, both parties need not be present at the wedding ceremony. Anne exchanged vows with a representative of the Holy Roman government, then lay down in a bed fully dressed after the ceremony, while her proxy "husband" slid his naked leg into the bed next to her. This satisfied the legal requirement that a husband and wife share the same bed in order to be considered married.

Charles, however, refused to recognize the validity of this marriage and sent his army to besiege the town of Rennes in Brittany. He then offered to lift the siege and give Anne a large pension if she would marry one of his lords and hand over the duchy to him. Once again she refused,

placing the Bretons and French in jeopardy of a long and exhausting war. Charles made one last offer: Anne was to have her marriage to Maximilian annulled and marry him. Many on both sides supported this proposal, but Anne was undecided. Finally, when her priest convinced her that this marriage would work for the good of her soul and the country, she accepted Charles.

Her divorce from Maximilian caused few problems. The marriage had been by proxy, which was never considered as binding as a real ceremony; and, in any case, the union broke the contract her father had made to secure Charles' permission before allowing her to marry. With these two circumstances, it was easy to declare the marriage invalid. Charles, too, was married, but in his case the wedding ceremony had also been a formality. He had been married to the young princess Margaret of Austria (1480–1530), daughter of Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482) and the same Maximilian with whom Anne had had the proxy marriage. Margaret was a small child and the marriage had never been consummated, so Charles had sent her back to her father with many gifts to ease the insult.

Anne, now 15, and Charles, 20, had a magnificent wedding in 1491. Contemporary accounts say that the royal crown was too large and heavy for the young bride, so it was carried through the ceremony by Charles' distant cousin, Louis, duke of Orléans. By this marriage, Brittany was annexed to France, but Anne did not give up all rights to her throne; she stipulated in the marriage contract that if she survived her husband, Brittany would revert to her. Further, she would marry the next king of France to avoid a repetition of the conflict between the two states.

Charles had been only 13 when his father Louis XI died; since that time, his older sister Anne of Beaujeu had been running the country as its regent. An extremely able administrator who strengthened the country both domestically and externally, Anne of Beaujeu was supposed to release control of France when Charles had turned 14 but had continued to run matters with his apparent consent. She met her match, however, in her new sister-in-law. Anne, as duchess of Brittany, was used to being obeyed in all things, and, in any case, her husband had been of legal age to rule for six years. She stood her ground against Anne of Beaujeu, and her sister-in-law was forced to step down.

Anne of Brittany involved herself in every aspect of court life. She was a great patron of the arts, and had many tapestries, paintings, and sculptures made in France and imported from other countries to decorate the royal family's palaces, especially her favorite, the Château of Amboise. She also continued dealing in matters of state, often serving as scribe for her illiterate husband. Many of her contemporaries thought it odd that the king would allow her so much power and freedom; he replied that "one must surely put up with something from a woman when she loves her honor and her husband." She also received ambassadors from different European states. One of them, the Venetian Zacharia Contarini, saw her in 1492 and left this description:

The queen is short, … thin, lame of one foot and perceptibly so, though she does what she can for herself by means of boots with high heels, a brunette and very pretty in the face, and, for her age, very knowing; in such sort that what she has once taken into her head she will obtain somehow or other, whether it be smiles or tears that be needed for it.

The marriage of the king and queen was evidently a happy one. They had their first child, Charles-Orland, in 1492. He died in 1495. Philippe Comines noted that the queen:

conceived the greatest sorrow from this that any woman might experience, and it lasted with her for a long time…. The king her husband … wanted to comfort her by having a dance performed before her; and several young lords and gentlemen came there in their doublets to dance at the king's invitation. And among them was the duke of Orléans … and at this the lady was extremely sad, for indeed it seemed to her that he was happy about this death, since he was closest in line to the crown after the king. And for this reason [Anne and Louis] did not speak to each other for a long time afterwards.

They had three more children over the next several years, but all died within weeks of their birth. Charles assumed that their deaths were punishment for some sin of his.

It appears that the marriage was successful. Charles had previously been known for his love affairs, but after the wedding Anne began to accompany him on many of his longer trips—to keep an eye on him, some suspected. Despite differences in their interests—Anne was a devout Catholic, Charles less so; Anne was a passionate book-collector, Charles could not read—they spent much time together at their lively court. They sponsored constant jousts, balls, and other celebrations. Fond of hunting, Anne kept a stable with horses and mules, as well as a large collection of hawks and dogs. She also strictly supervised her ladies-in-waiting and made sure they were educated.

Jousting was not the only spectator sport at the royal court. A very popular game of the day was the jeu de paume, a kind of handball that is the ancestor of tennis. The royal couple held many tournaments of this game, and Charles in particular was said to be passionate in his devotion to the sport. One day in 1498, Charles and Anne were walking hand-in-hand through a rarely used corridor to watch a game of paume. Charles, unaccustomed to this hall, struck his head hard on a low arch. Despite the concerns of their attendants, he insisted on continuing on to the game. After a short time, however, he complained of a violent headache, and he and Anne, with some servants, began walking back to their rooms. As he passed under the same arch on which he had hit his head, he fell to the floor in a faint. Terrified, the attendants slid a straw mattress under him—no one dared move him. He lay there unconscious for several hours, and then died.

Anne fled. Her servants, who could not convince her to come out of her room, could hear her sobbing hysterically. She then refused meals until the bishop managed to console her, urging her to eat. She reluctantly agreed, and in a few hours she appeared to return to her old self. Her first thought was of Brittany. She immediately signed a decree restoring the ruling Council to the land, freeing it from France's control once again, and started directing Brittany's affairs of state.

Meanwhile, the question of the succession to the throne of France was raised. Among several contenders, the one that had the most legitimate claim was Louis, duke of Orléans. Popular among his people, he had fought bravely for Orléans against France, even spending three years in prison at the command of Anne's sister-in-law, Anne of Beaujeu. At the time of his succession, he was married to Charles' sister Jeanne de France , a pious woman who was said to be deformed. Aware of the legal requirement that Anne marry the man who inherited the crown after Charles, Louis immediately started divorce proceedings. So in 1499, Anne of Brittany married Louis (now Louis XII) of France—the same man who had carried her crown at her wedding, and whom Anne had resented for his seeming lightheartedness at the death of her son.

Anne's second marriage mirrored, in many ways, her first. Perhaps the most important difference was that this time she retained control over Brittany; at 22, she was able to defend her position more capably than she had at 15. But otherwise, she maintained a similar role to the one she had held when married to Charles. She remained active in politics, even at one time joining her Breton troops with Louis' French soldiers in an unsuccessful campaign against the Turks. Like Charles, Louis was uninterested in books; Anne continued her book-collecting until she had amassed one of the most impressive libraries in Europe. She also commissioned magnificent religious books, some of which survive today as outstanding examples of late medieval illumination.

Just as in her first marriage, Anne had four children with Louis. Their two sons died, but the two daughters survived. Their daughterClaude de France married the French prince Francis who later became France's King Francis I. By this marriage, Brittany was once more allied with France. Their younger daughter Renée of France married the duke of Ferrara, one of the Italian peninsula's most powerful rulers. In 1514, Anne gave birth to her last child. He died almost immediately, but Anne of Brittany lingered a few months before dying herself. She was 37 years old.


Bearne, Catherine Mary Charlton. Pictures of the Old French Court. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1900.

Comines, Philippe de. The Memoirs of Philippe de Commynes. Vol. II. Edited by Samuel Kinser, translated by Isabelle Cazeaux. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.

Echols, Anne, and Marty Williams. An Annotated Index of Medieval Women. Oxford, UK; Berg Publishers, 1992.

Galliou, Patrick, and Michael Jones. The Bretons. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Griffiths, Ralph, and Roger S. Thomas. The Making of the Tudor Dynasty. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Guizot, M., and Madame Guizot de Witt. The History of France from the Earliest Times to 1848, Vol. II. Translated by Robert Black. Chicago: Belford, Clarke.

suggested reading:

Sanborn, Helen H. Anne of Brittany; The Story of a Duchess and Twice-Crowned Queen. Boston, MA: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard, 1917.

Tracy Barrett , Department of French and Italian, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

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Anne of Brittany (c. 1477–1514)

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Anne of Brittany (c. 1477–1514)