Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566)

views updated

Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566)

French duchess who was married at 15 to a man old enough to be her grandfather, then became, at 37, the mistress of a king who, though young enough to be her son, made her the most powerful woman in France. Name variations: Dianne de Poytiers, la grande sénéchale de Normandie; Duchess of Valentinois.Pronunciation: Di-ANN duh Pooah-TEAY. Born on December 31 (some cite September 3), 1499, in the province of the Dauphiné, France; died at Anet, Normandy, on April 25 (or April 22), 1566; daughter of Jeanne de Bastarnay and Jean de Poitiers, lord of Saint-Vallier and captain of the King's Guard; tutored at home; married Louis de Brézé, in 1515; children: daughters Françoise (b. 1520), and Louise.

Following the death of her mother, went to live with the family of the duke of Bourbon (1509); married and moved to Anet, Normandy (1515); became mistress of Henry II (1536); acquired Chenonceau (1555); following Henry's death, returned to Anet (1559).

Born on the eve of the 16th century, the life of Diane de Poitiers spans the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Reformation. Her father was Jean de Poitiers, the lord of Saint-Vallier. Her mother Jeanne de Bastarnay was the first of her father's three wives. Jeanne died when her three daughters were still young. At the age of ten, Diane, the oldest, went to live at Moulins with the duke and duchess of Bourbon (Charles II of Bourbon and Suzanne of Bourbon ). There, she served as a maid-in-waiting to their daughter. Diane and the other girls were tutored in religion, Latin, dancing and playing the lute. They also studied manners from a book written by the duchess, who admonished: "Love as you will but marry well." Diane followed the advice but reversed the order. She married well, then she loved.

The duchess accomplished a matrimonial coup in arranging a marriage for Diane. However, when the wedding bells rang, the bride had little to celebrate. She hardly knew Louis de Brèzè, the man who was about to become her husband. He was 40 years older, short-tempered, stern, and not at all the handsome knight of her childhood tales. His severe features matched his character. It mattered little to her that he was admired for his courage as a soldier. In choosing the bridegroom, the fact that he was ill-suited for the lively, 15-year-old girl was outweighed in the duchess of Bourbon's mind by his lineage. Louis was a gentleman of the blood royal, being the son of Charlotte de Brézé , daughter of Charles VII through his alliance with Agnes Sorel .

On a wet and windy day in March, Louis de Brézé, count of Maulévrier, grand sénéchale de Normandie, brought the new bride to his home, the castle of Anet in Normandy, near Paris. After the art-filled castle of Moulins, the feudal fortress of her husband's ancestors looked dismal to Diane with its forbidding towers and moat. The room in which the bride and groom slept seemed to be haunted. Years before, Charlotte, Louis de Brézé's mother, had been brutally murdered there by her husband Jacques de Brézé, who, having discovered his Master of the Hounds in bed with his wife, had stabbed both of them to death on the spot. Shortly after the wedding, Diane, a teenager, was left in charge of the dreary fortress when Louis de Brézé went to war. Diane's father accompanied her husband, who was the older of the two men.

The year of Diane de Poitier's marriage, 1515, was also the year Francis I became king. Young Francis was the French counterpart of Henry VIII, his rival across the English Channel. Both princes of the Renaissance were "stirred by beauty," in art, music, literature, and women. Francis was crowned after the death of his cousin and father-in-law Louis XII. Louis had been married only three months to Henry VIII's 18-year-old sister, Mary Tudor (1496–1533), and, it was reported unofficially, died from "kissing her too much."

When not fighting, Louis de Brézé took Diane to court, where she functioned as lady-in-waiting to the king's mother, Louise of Savoy (1476–1531), and later, to Queen Claude de France (1499–1524). From childhood, Diane had developed the habit of horseback riding every morning and soon joined the king's hunting parties at Fontainebleau. She was witty and attractive, her best features being golden hair, a fine figure, and a fresh complexion. She also shared the king's interest in the arts, and he introduced her to the Italian Renaissance. During his Italian campaigns, Francis had been dazzled by the works of the Renaissance artists and had convinced several to come to France. Among them were Benvenuto Cellini and the aging Leonardo da Vinci who had brought with him the famous Mona Lisa.

Brézé, Charlotte de (c. 1444/49–?)

French princess. Name variations: Charlotte de France; Charlotte de Breze. Born between 1444 and 1449; murdered by her husband; daughter of Charles VII, king of France, and Agnes Sorel; married Jacques de Brézé; children: Louis de Brézé (who married Diane de Poitiers).

In March 1519, Louis de Brézé and Diane lit bonfires to celebrate the birth of the king's second

son, who was named Henry (II) to flatter the English king. Diane, of course, had no way of knowing that 17 years later this boy would fall passionately in love with her and change her life. The following year, Diane gave birth to her first daughter. Soon after, Louis de Brézé left to join the king at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in Picardy. This spectacular meeting of the courts of France and England was designed by Francis to seduce Henry VIII into aligning with France against the Spanish king, Charles V. The French extravagance failed. Henry sided with Charles V. In 1523, the powerful duke of Bourbon (at whose house Diane had lived) committed an act of high treason by signing a secret treaty with Henry VIII and Charles V. Diane's father, as a friend of the duke, was implicated.

Louis de Brézé discovered the plot and informed the king, unaware that his father-in-law's name was on the list of traitors. Diane was 24 and the mother of two daughters when her father was arrested and found guilty of helping the duke escape. The public beheading was about to take place when a messenger announced that a royal pardon had been granted. Disappointed, the crowd dispersed slowly. Very likely, Louis de Brézé used his influence with the king to obtain his father-in-law's pardon. Some chroniclers, however, hinted that Diane had done more than shed tears. Protestant historians, who sought revenge from Diane de Poitiers for her persecution of the Huguenots, wrote that she had saved her father's life by offering herself to the king. The story was picked up by Victor Hugo and some early historians. The titillating element of this version was that it made Diane de Poitiers mistress to two kings of France, a father and his son.

In 1525, Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor, captured France's king Francis I in Pavia, Italy. Francis' mother Louise of Savoy and sister, Margaret of Angoulême (1492–1549), entered into a web of negotiations that involved most of the monarchs of Europe and even Suleyman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Charles V agreed to release the king but made the cruel demand that Francis' sons be sent as hostages until all conditions of the agreement were fulfilled. The boys, aged eight and seven, spent four traumatizing years in captivity. Of his two sons, Francis I preferred the older one who bore his name and resembled him. His youngest Henry was moodier and more introverted.

Henry II to Diane de Poitiers">

Madame … I entreat you will remember him who has never known but one God and one love.

—Henry II to Diane de Poitiers

A romantic account of Diane's first meeting with Henry places the event as early as 1525. According to this story, which appears in several texts, she was among those who accompanied the princes to Bayonne, near the French border, for the exchange with their father. The boys' mother, Queen Claude, had died recently, and shy Henry was particularly distraught. Diane kissed him before handing him over to his Spanish captors, and the memory of the embrace is said to have sustained Henry during the long imprisonment.

Three years after his sons' release, Francis I visited Louis de Brézé, at Anet, and from there wrote a letter concerning the negotiations for the marriage of his son Henry to Catherine de Medici . It was dated April 24, 1531. That same year, Louis de Brézé died at age 72. Diane built a monument to her husband and vowed to wear nothing but black and white for the rest of her life. At 30, she found herself a titled widow and landowner. She had radiant good looks, a youthful body, and fine health. Most of all, she was well-informed, smart, and possessed grace and elegance. In 1533, having joined the court at Paris, she attended the wedding of Henry and Catherine who were both 16 years old. It was a joyful occasion for everyone but the groom, who had never met his Italian bride. Catherine's life had been even sadder than Henry's. The daughter of Lorenzo de Medici, duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne , Catherine became an orphan days after her birth when her mother died from childbirth and her father from syphilis. Catherine was raised by her uncles, both popes: Leo X, who excommunicated Martin Luther in 1520, and Clement VII, who refused to grant Henry VIII a divorce to marry Anne Boleyn .

Catherine seemed to have truly loved her young husband, but Henry, though always courteous, was sexually indifferent to her. When he was 17, his older brother died, making him the dauphin (next in line to the throne). Feeling unprepared for the role, he turned to Diane de Poitiers for help and guidance. Their relationship began as one of mentor and student. For Henry, his love would always be mixed with respect and gratitude. He found in Diane, who was 20 years older, the mother he had lost when he was a boy. Diane found in Henry the young husband she had never had. By 1536, it seems likely that they were lovers. Diarists of the day wrote that Henry's melancholy all but vanished at the start of his liaison. Some even claimed they had seen him laugh.

Those who failed to understand that the lonely, neglected second son had finally found a friend, accused Diane of seducing the young prince and using sorcery and satanism to keep him. Diane weathered gossip by ignoring it. The secret of her success, she said, was not witchcraft but healthy living. She attributed her slim figure to her devotion to exercise, and her clear complexion to the daily habit of bathing in cold water. She was an avid reader and collector of art. There is no doubt that she was influential in forming her lover's taste. The ambassador to the duke of Ferrara reported that His Majesty was preoccupied with Madame Diane with whom "he spends at least eight hours a day," adding that he was being led by the tip of his nose. Henry and Diane rode together, hunted, conversed, and read. One of the books they studied was Machiavelli's The Prince. Having managed a large estate in the absence of her husband, Diane had acquired a sound practical sense, and Henry relied on her judgment and on her pragmatic approach. In addition, she knew how to obtain her wants through reason rather then caprice, diplomacy rather than coercion. Catherine, on the other hand, was temperamental and given to outbursts. On an impulse, she once had a hole pierced in the floor above the room where Diane and Henry met.

After ten years of marriage, Catherine de Medici was still childless. She found herself a vestigial member of the royal family: not yet a queen, not yet a mother, and no longer needed at her husband's side. The question of her barrenness became her obsession and the great concern of the court. The matter was discussed at length and the possibility that Henry was at fault was rejected when he offered the argument that while campaigning in Piedmont, he had fathered a child. Born in 1538, she was named Diane (de France) and brought up at court. This led many to speculate that she was Diane and Henry's daughter.

The burden of infertility was on Catherine, who stopped at nothing to increase her chances of giving birth. She swallowed elixirs of mare's milk, rabbit's blood, and sheep's urine. Around her neck, she wore a small sack containing the ashes of a large frog. She even stopped riding a mule as it was known that a sterile animal could contaminate the rider. She finally gave birth to a son on January 19, 1543. Nine more children followed during the next 13 years. A physician was credited for having solved Catherine's problem, but an envoy from Venice claimed that Diane played a large part in the cure by periodically reminding the king of his marital duties toward his wife.

With the birth of the royal children, Diane might have taken second place to the new mother, but the mistress found a way of becoming indispensable to the royal couple. Not only did she ably assist the queen during her confinements, but she also took charge of the growing nursery. Diane's numerous letters to Jean III de Humières, the children's tutor, have survived. Cordial and to the point, they are filled with advice about the hiring of wet nurses, medicine to be given, and other problems. Henry's letters to the tutor are, by contrast, warm and more concerned with the happiness of the children than with household details.

Diane's political influence on the king began early and continued with the years. She was instrumental in bringing about the alliance of France and Scotland through the marriage of Henry's four-year-old son to four-year-old Mary Stuart (1542–1587). Mary, the future queen of Scots, arrived in France two years later to join the royal children and immediately captivated the French court. Henry II, who reportedly said, "She is the most perfect child that I ever saw," asked Diane to supervise Mary's education.

Flemming, Mary (fl. 1540s)

Scottish attendant to Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland. Name variations: Lady Flemming, Madame de Flemming. Flourished in the 1540s; had liaison with Henry II; children: a boy, known as the Bastard of Angoulême.

Mary Flemming was an attendant for the child Mary Stuart , future queen of Scots. The facts seems to suggest that Flemming was encouraged to seduce the king by political rivals of Diane de Poitiers in an effort to minimize de Poitier's influence. But Flemming made the mistake of bragging about her coup to all who would listen, causing her removal from court.

When Henry showed his appreciation for his mistress by granting her the duchy of Valentinois, many objected. He came under even heavier criticism when he made her the recipient of a huge source of revenue called la Paulette, a tax placed on appointments to military, ecclesiastical, and civil offices. When Diane protested, "This seems to me to be all too great a gift," the king replied, "It is my royal pleasure to lay la Paulette as a nosegay at your feet." This new favor made her extremely wealthy and powerful; it also made her many enemies. Although some historians have exaggerated the influence she had over the king, undeniably Diane de Poitiers had great powers over him. The emissary of Edward VI of England wrote, "The Duchess of Valentinois ruleth the roast [sic]." Henry II was not a stupid man; if he relied on her political savvy and her experience it was because in many cases her advice was sound. Her fanatical Catholicism, however, led her to sway the king to use hideously repressive methods towards the Huguenots. Henry had been somewhat tolerant of these French Protestants, but, on this issue, he was opposed by wife and mistress who were able to sway him. Devoutly religious, both believed that anti-Catholic sentiment had to be plucked out immediately. With the backing of the clergy, this attitude caused Huguenots to be burned at the stake. Reportedly, after witnessing the burning of one man, Henry was so sickened that he vowed never to attend such an event again, though Diane thought the punishment fit the crime. On another occasion Diane and Catherine were also in agreement. Henry was not involved in affairs with many women, but he did have a very brief encounter with Mary Flemming , a woman who had accompanied Mary Stuart. This resulted in the birth of a boy who was raised in the royal nursery but was known as the Bastard of Angoulême. Wife and mistress acted in unison to demand the dismissal of Mary Flemming.

There is little question that Diane de Poitiers was Henry's only love. In a letter, he entreats her to "keep in remembrance him who has never loved, nor will love, anyone but you." Henry felt a constant need to display his love with concrete gifts. The most valuable was Chenonceau, a jewel of a castle in the Loire Valley. Because Henry's father had acquired the place in a somewhat shady deal, Diane feared future heirs might claim it, so she arranged a bizarre scheme in which the royal family relinquished its claims on Chenonceau. She then bought it back (with royal funds) at a rigged auction. This shrewd, calculating trait is also evident in the manner in which Diane acquired her fine collection of books. In order to stock the national library, Francis I had established the precedent of requiring that a copy of every published book be sent to the Royal Depot. Diane persuaded Henry to request two books—one of which ended up on her shelf. On another occasion, she reveals herself as being not only rapacious but callous. In a letter written in 1556 to the baron of Chalus, she asks him to negotiate the best price for 480 Spanish sailors captured by a French galley during a storm. Referring to them as slaves, she also suggests the manner of payment.

The only area in which she was extravagant and unrestrained was in the patronage of artists. Her most exceptional contribution was in architecture. Under the keen supervision of the gifted architect Philibert Delorme, the old gloomy fortress of Anet was converted to an immense and graceful castle that was included in a book entitled The Most Excellent Buildings of France. Delorme rejected the Renaissance style and adopted the purer lines of ancient Rome, anticipating the trend toward neo-classicism. When it was completed in 1554, the building was the only one of its kind in Europe since antiquity, and it was a sensation. Most of the grandiose edifice was torn to the ground during the French Revolution.

Diane's improvement of Chenonceau made it a showcase. She spanned the river Cher with a bridge that connected the residence to both banks. Her delicately landscaped gardens were greatly admired and copied. She experimented with exotic plants that included mulberry trees to raise silkworms for the production of silk. She so embellished Chenonceau that when the king died, the queen appropriated it, giving Diane the less attractive château of Chaumont in exchange.

Henry II died shortly after celebrating his 40th birthday. Bravado killed him. On the occasion of the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth of Valois (1545–1568) to Philip II of Spain, Henry had arranged festive events. The last was a jousting competition in which he performed in defiance of his wife Catherine who, having had a premonition of his death, had begged him tearfully not to participate. Henry received a blow in his right eye and the wooden lance remained embedded in his eye socket. The king took ten days to die, while his physicians dressed the wound with coagulated egg whites and tried everything from bleedings to purges. In a desperate attempt to relieve the king's suffering, they ordered four condemned prisoners to be executed prematurely. Their heads were brought to the surgeons who simulated the accident and proceeded to dissect the heads to determine the damage to the brain. In probably the cruelest act of revenge by the queen who had suffered 23 years of jealousy, Diane was excluded from the dying man's sickroom.

Following Henry's death, Catherine de Medici became the most powerful woman on the Continent. Not only was she mother to the new king, Francis II, but mother-in-law to two monarchs, Mary Stuart and Philip II of Spain. Her sons Charles (IX) and Henry (III) would also become kings. Except for having to return the crown jewels that Henry had given her, Diane was not persecuted or forced to end her life in a convent like previous royal mistresses. Allowed to retire to Anet, she spent the rest of her days doing charitable works, founding a hospital, a nursery for abandoned infants, a home for young women in trouble, and another for homeless women. Diane also arranged to train midwives so they would serve in the countryside and provided dowry money for needy girls.

Diane de Poitiers was unique and fascinating. She had charm and patience, was reasonable, calculating, frugal, manipulative, and, when necessary, could be chillingly detached and cold-blooded. Had she been born a man in the 16th century, she probably would have been a diplomat of some stature.


Guiffrey, Georges. Lettres Inédites, Publiées d'après les Manuscripts de la Bibliothèque Impériale avec une Introduction et des Notes. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints (reprinted from 1866 Paris Edition), 1970.

Seely, Grace Hart. Diane the Huntress: The Life and Times of Diane de Poitiers. NY: D. Appleton-Century, 1936.

Strage, Mark. Women of Power: The Life and Times of Catherine de' Medici. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1976.

suggested reading:

Cartland, Barbara. Royal Lovers. England: Marwin Publishing, 1989.

Durant, Will. The Reformation from The Story of Civilization: Part VI. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1957.


Five letters written by Henry II (in his own hand) to Diane de Poitiers, the correspondence of six ambassadors of the Venetian Republic to France during the reign of Francis I and Henry II, and 106 letters written by Diane de Poitiers; all located in the Archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Claire Hsu Accomando , author of Love and Rutabaga: A Remembrance of the War Years (St. Martin's Press, 1993); articles on art and history have appeared in American History Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Ararat and Artweek.