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Louise of Lorraine (1554–1601)

Louise of Lorraine (1554–1601)

Queen of France. Name variations: Louise de Lorraine; Louise de Mercoeur; Louise de Vaudemont; Louise of Vaudemont; the White Lady of Chenonceau. Born in 1554 (some sources cite 1553); died in 1601; daughter of Nicolas de Mercoeur also known as Nicolas of Lorraine, count of Vaudemont, and Marguerite d'Egmont; sister of Marguerite of Lorraine (c. 1561–?) and Philippe-Emmanuel, duc de Mercoeur; married Henry III (1551–1589), king of France (r. 1574–1589), on February 15, 1575; daughter-inlaw of Catherine de Medici (1519–1589); no children.

Born into the French aristocracy, Louise of Lorraine was the eldest of the 14 children of Nicolas of Lorraine, count of Vaudemont and member of the noble house of Lorraine. Her mother was Nicolas' first wife, Marguerite d'Egmont , who died when Louise was a year old. Louise was brought up by her father's second wife, the beautiful and intellectual Jeanne de Savoie-Nemours . As a young woman, Louise was described as tall, blonde, and strikingly beautiful, with a modest and quiet personality. It was perhaps her physical attractiveness which caught the eye of the heir to the French throne, Henry of Valois, who met Louise while on a tour of the province of Lorraine in 1573. At the time it was widely known that he was in love with the princess Marie of Cleves (d. 1575), and hoped to marry her. When he succeeded to the throne as Henry III on the death of his brother, Charles IX, in 1574, he still planned to marry Marie. Her death a few months after his succession threw him into a deep depression. When he recovered, he surprised the court by announcing that his future queen had been chosen: he would marry Louise of Lorraine. As yet this decision was unknown to Louise.

The question of Henry's marriage was a pressing concern for the ruling class of France and was watched closely by foreign heads of state. Henry's mother, the former regent Catherine de Medici , had been negotiating for the hands of various princesses for him since he was a baby. It was almost unheard of for a prince to choose a bride for himself; a royal marriage was an alliance and a contract between the families and their states for the political and economic benefit of both, and to ensure that healthy male offspring would result. For a young man, especially a young king, to decide on his future wife alone was unprecedented and widely thought to be dangerous. Although one of Henry's sisters, Claude de France , had married Charles II, duke of Lorraine, Louise's cousin, the house was not considered elevated enough to provide the future queen of France and the mother of its future king. Henry therefore met opposition to his plans from many of his advisors, not least from his mother Catherine, who was clearly displeased but attempted not to let the breach between mother and son be made public. But Henry refused to yield.

Louise's own reactions when two royal envoys arrived at her father's court to inform her that she was to marry King Henry were, naturally, surprise and disbelief. But she did not have any real choice, nor did her father, in agreeing to the marriage. Two weeks later, she left Lorraine for Rheims, where she became queen of France at the magnificent wedding, mass, and public festivities in February 1575. She was then settled at the French court in Paris to fulfill her new roles: as wife to a man she barely knew, queen to an entire state, and daughter-in-law to one of France's most powerful dowager queens.

As the months passed, the difficulty of fulfilling those roles became clear. Catherine de Medici refused to retire or yield to Louise her place as France's first lady, and she attempted to keep Louise and Henry separated in order to minimize Louise's influence over the king. These efforts were largely successful in pushing Louise into the background; even references to "the queen" in chronicles of the time mean the queen-mother, Catherine; Louise is called "the young queen." Louise's new kingdom was also suffering from great unrest. Throughout the 1570s and 1580s, France was in a state of almost constant civil strife as the Wars of Religion divided the state between Catholics and Protestants and threatened Henry's hold on the throne, a violent situation complicated by the intervention of foreign powers.

Louise's marital relationship, which had appeared to be a love match, soon disintegrated as well. It became well known to the court that the royal couple rarely spent time together. King Henry apparently tired of his new wife quickly, perhaps in part due to his mother's efforts to keep them apart; he openly preferred the company of his handsome young courtiers and ladiesin-waiting. He also sought his mother's counsel instead of his wife's on administrative affairs.

Thus Louise, childless, was denied her rightful place: neither a queen, nor a wife, nor a mother of royal heirs, she suffered from a sort of anonymity in the very court which she should have dominated. Yet there was little she could do except tolerate her awkward and humiliating situation, which, according to court chroniclers, she did with considerable grace and forbearance. She divided her days between seeking the leisured company of court ladies and retreating into her religion. Devoutly Catholic, Louise often left the refined atmosphere of the court palaces to perform works of charity among the less fortunate of Paris. She visited hospitals, cared for the sick, patronized charitable foundations, and spent much of her time in prayer.

January 1589 brought the death of Catherine de Medici. Perhaps Louise looked forward to finally taking her place as France's only queen at the center of court. But the death of her mother-in-law was followed only a few months later by the sudden death of her husband. Only 38 years old, Henry III was assassinated in August 1589 by a Catholic extremist angered by his attempts to negotiate a peaceful end to the religious wars. There were no royal heirs, so after a brief struggle with other contenders, Henry's brother-in-law, Henry of Navarre, seized the throne as Henry IV.

The widowed queen, according to witnesses, was devastated by Henry's death, despite their unhappy marriage, and could not be consoled. Although she was given permission by Henry IV and his queen, Margaret of Valois (1553–1615), to remain in Paris, Louise decided to leave the court for good. She spent the remaining 11 years of her life traveling between convents and residing with relatives across France, continuing her charitable activities wherever she was staying. In December 1600, she became ill and died a month later, at age 47, in the town of Moulins. She was first buried in the Paris cemetery of Saint-Fauberg, but in 1610 she and Henry III were re-interred together in the royal necropolis in the church of Saint-Denis in Paris.

sources:

Bertière, Simone. Les reines de France au temps de Valois, vol. 2. Paris: Editions de Fallois, 1994.

Brantôme, Pierre de. Illustrious Dames of the Court of the Valois Kings. Trans. by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. NY: Lamb, 1912.

Laura York , Riverside, California

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