Tag Archives: mistresses

Big news!

Despite a good start to the year, posts-wise, I’ve let this blog slip rather badly. I can only apologise, and offer something by way of an explanation.

There are big changes afoot at Harlot Towers. In what could easily be confused for a midlife crisis, I have dyed my hair bright red (pictures to follow), quit my job and in a few weeks I will be moving to a wee coastal town in Fife. This makes slightly more sense with a little context, of course. Earlier this year, I applied for a place on the University of St Andrews M.Litt in Early Modern History. After a nervous two or three weeks, I was thrilled to be offered a place!

Ambrosius Benson (c 1495-1550), Young Woman in Orison Reading Book of Hours 1520s

As is abundantly clear from this blog, the Early Modern period is where my main interests lie. After doing a General Arts degree which featured an awful lot of history courses, I got “back” into history when I picked up a copy of David Starkey’s Six Wives  on a whim. It reminded me of everything that got me excited about history and from there, I became particularly interested in the sixteenth century. It’s an especially fascinating period, with religious upheavals; global exploration; new ideas about education and important challenges and developments in women’s roles.  Initially, my interests were in England, later France, during the period.

Holbein study of a young English woman

I admit to suffering from Tudor fatigue now, with the current proliferation of generally poor quality books, tv series and films about the dynasty. It’s a shame as there are lots of really exciting things to be studied around the Tudors (as this article on The First Black Community in Elizabethan London, published today on the BBC News website, demonstrates) but it has all been drowned in a sea of soap opera pseudo-history. Happily, French history at the same period is even more interesting, and has so far slipped under the radar of the makers of trashy tv.

Mary Tudor and Louis XII

It was St Andrews provision for Early Modern French history which first made me consider applying there. They have several very well respected scholars in the field. However, in the last six months or so, I’ve seriously reconsidered the areas I want to focus on. Instead of the glittering courts of England or France, I’m more interested now in the far less glamorous world of women’s social institutions and women living on the periphery of society in late Renaissance Italy. This encompasses convents, as well as some incredibly forward-thinking refuges set up in Florence and other cities to help poor women, widows and abandoned or orphaned girls. I’m also interested in prostitutes and courtesans at the time who faced often ambivalent attitudes from the authorities, and attitudes to diseases like plague and syphilis. I told you it wasn’t glamorous!

So, in early September I will be upping sticks and moving into halls in St Andrews. Happily, I was offered a place in my first choice of residences, very close to the History Department and the university library (and if I am extremely lucky my room might look out over the water). I am quite beside myself with excitement. It’s only just starting to properly sink in though. It’s such a huge life change that I don’t think it’s felt real up to now.

As far as blogging goes, I will do my best to get back on track (and keep it up) but I’ll probably start a separate blog to talk about Masters business, postgrad life and the like which isn’t relevant here. I’ll post a link when it’s all set up for anyone interested.

Wish me luck!

The Venus of Urbino, Tiziano (Titian), 1538


Henry of Navarre (again)

Just in case, like me, you didn’t notice that Henry of Navarre had been released in the UK, you can find it on Amazon here. It has new cover art (which I like less than the original) and is indeed, as one outraged reviewer points out, in French with English subtitles (what will they think of next!).

My review of it is here.

Henry of Navarre

Henry Fitzroy: The Boy Who Would Be King

On 15 June 1519, Henry VIII’s son was born. Unfortunately for the king, the boy’s mother, Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, was his mistress and not his wife. The child was illegitimate and therefore barred from the succession to the English throne.

Henry’s wife at the time was the redoubtable Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Most Catholic Kings of Spain. Catherine’s royal pedigree was beyond reproach and she was popular in England. After numerous pregnancies since their marriage in 1507, the only child which had survived was a daughter, Mary, then 16 months old.

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lucas Horen, 1534

Henry’s joy in his new born son was obvious, not least because it demonstrated once and for all that he could produce a boy, even if his wife couldn’t. The boy was named Henry Fitzroy (“son of the king”). It was a bitter blow to Catherine and it would not be the last. In 1525, Henry made his six year old son Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset and sparked rumours that he meant to make his son, rather than Princess Mary, his heir.

Fitzroy was raised in Yorkshire and bestowed with various other titles over the years (including Admiral of England, Ireland and Normandy; Warden of the Cinque Ports; Lieutenant of Ireland). The king took great interest in his son, and in 1533 arranged a good marriage for him. It was rumoured around this time that Fitzroy should marry Mary, his half-sister, in order to ensure the succession! Henry VIII was an adulterer, a serial philanderer and a bigamist but even he drew the line at forcing his children into an incestuous marriage. Fitzroy was instead married to Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and Anne Boleyn’s cousin.

Mary Howard, Duchess Of Richmond and Somerset, sketch by Holbein

Fitzroy witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution at the Tower of London on 19 Mary 1536. By that time, he was ill himself and within weeks he had succumbed to consumption, dying on 23 July at Richmond Palace.

At the time of his death, his father was putting a bill through Parliament which, if passed, would disinherit his daughter with Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth (Mary had already been disinherited) and permit him to designate a successor of his choice. It is not certain that Fitzroy would have been the designate, but it is very likely that he would have been the king’s first choice in want of a legitimate heir. Fitzroy’s premature death means that we can only guess at what the repercussions of such a move would have been. As it was, Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to the longed for, legitimate son fifteen months after Fitzroy’s death.


About an hour on the train from Florence (after a change at Bologna), in the Emilia-Romagna is Ferrara, where the rather magnificent Castello Estense was home to the Dukes of Este.

Castello Estense, Ferrara

The Este family rose to power in the late medieval period, building and expanding the castello over the centuries. Right in the centre of the town, the building, and moat, remain well preserved although the interior is rather Spartan, especially compared to somewhere like Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Still, the curators have done an impressive job with what little they have. There’s little furniture or wall decoration remaining but the ceilings are beautifully decorated and some rooms’ only floor furnishings are giant sloping mirrors so one can look at the ceilings without craning the neck. There’s also a lovely veranda with orange trees which feels almost Moorish in the bright sunshine: a stark contrast to the damp subterranean dungeons, used to imprison enemies of the Este family through to the sixteenth century.

It is in Ferrara, in the Castello Estense, that Lucrezia Borgia spent the second half of her life as the wife of Alfonso d’Este. She arrived in 1502 with two previous marriages behind her. She never returned to Rome and the nefarious influence of her father and brother. She flourished in Ferrara and although he had been reluctant to marry the notorious Pope’s daughter, Alfonso grew to love Lucrezia and despite numerous infidelities on both sides, their bond seems to have been strong and affectionate. They had six children, of whom four survived into adulthood. Her sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) never fell under the spell of the charming Lucrezia though and maintained a bitter hostility to her. No doubt fuelled by Lucrezia’s passionate affair with Isabella’s husband, Francesco Gonzaga.

Another point on the Lucrezia Borgia map of Ferrara is the little church, attached to the convent of Poor Clares, of Corpus Domini a short walk to the south. It’s hidden away from the hubbub of the town centre where bicycles trundle about in all directs. There’s little in the way of signs outside it: just a small plague erected in 2002, Ferrara’s Year of Lucrezia Borgia, which notes that inside is the Este tomb and Lucrezia’s grave.

The church is open to the public for two hours in the morning and another two after lunch. A door to the right of the altar leads through to the nuns’ choir where Lucrezia and other members of the Este family are buried, including one of Lucrezia’s daughters, Eleanor (1515-1575), who was a nun at Corpus Domini. Lucrezia is buried with her son Ercole, her husband, his mother, and the infant daughter, Isabella, Lucrezia died giving birth to.

As befits the convent, the nuns’ choir is very quiet and peaceful but brightened by the sun streaming through the simple coloured glass windows. Indeed, the nuns’ choir is much brighter, though more simply decorated, than the main church. When we visited just after Easter, the nun who was present, at the other side of a grill, was very helpful and pleasant though her English was no better than my Italian. She sqeezed a little English guide card through a gap in the grill so I could identify which of the six graves in front of the altar was Lucrezia’s. Sadly, they don’t allow photographs of the graves however I found this one (taken by someone less concerned for respecting the nuns’ wishes!):

Grave of Alfonso d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia

Eleanor of Aquitaine & Louis VII

On 21 March 1152, the marriage of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine was finally dissolved. The couple had married in 1137, shortly after the death of Eleanor’s father. He had entrusted the care of his daughters to the king of France. The king decided that the best way to take care of the girls’ huge fortune and important land was to marry the elder to his son. Less than a week after the wedding the old king died, making Louis and Eleanor king and queen.

The Unhappy Couple

From the start the couple were ill-matches, although Louis seems to have loved his wife. Eleanor found him bookish, overly pious and unmanly. Until his elder brother’s premature death, Louis had been meant for a career in the church. He had been educated by monks. The court, and in particular Louis’s mother Adelaide of Savoy, found Eleanor flighty and lacking the decorum and sobriety of the Parisian court. Eleanor was used to the court of Poitiers where the troubadour tradition flourished and where art, music and culture were celebrated. The court of her husband must have seemed dull in comparison.

Louis, with his monkish habits and unworldly ways, must have been a stark contrast with the men she knew from home. While her father had been a religious man (dying on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela), he, like his own father William IX, had been a great lover of arts, music and poetry. He was also a successful warrior. William IX had been rather scandalous in his personal life and his unorthodox approach to romantic relationships* would have been known to his precocious granddaughter.

Couple on horseback, hawking

However, Eleanor made the best of the situation and even managed to conceive a child by her pious husband. Their daughter Marie was born in 1145. The following year both parents joined the Second Crusade in the Holy Land. It was an opportunity for Louis to show his wife that he could be a man as well as a monk. Unfortunately for him, while rumours flew back to Europe that she and her ladies had led the Aquitanian armies bare-breasted like Amazons, Louis found that he had no skill for war. He proved to be ineffectual, indecisive and weak.

A Marriage Doomed

When the armies reached Antioch, Eleanor met the prince, her uncle Raymond. He was charming, good-looking and a skilled warrior. The two spent much time in private conversation, using their native Occitan dialect, excluding Louis and all the northern courtiers. It led to rumours that they were having an affair.

With little having been achieved, Louis eventually abandoned the crusade. The couple returned separately, meeting up in Italy. They paid a visit to the Pope and requested that he annul their marriage. The Pope refused and tried to arrange a reconciliation. It was a brief success as nine months later, in 1151, Eleanor gave birth to their second child. That it was a girl was another blow. Louis needed an heir, and that meant a son.

Louis secured the support of the French bishops and petitioned the Pope once again for an annulment. The bishops were only too glad to support a move that would rid them of the wilful and impious queen, replace her with someone more suitable (and no doubt more biddable) to provide a secure succession to the throne. The Pope acquiesced. He gave the king custody of their daughters and Eleanor returned to Poitiers, but not to a life of quiet retirement.

Stamp of Eleanor

*Definitely a subject for a future post. Any tale involving a woman named Dangereuse has a place on an infamous women blog.

Catherine de’ Medici

On 5th January 1589, Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother of France died at Blois, possibly of pleurisy. She was 69 years old and had spent the last thirty years fighting to keep the French throne in the hands of her sons, three of whom succeeded their father, Catherine’s husband Henri II, to be king of France.

Catherine had arrived in France from her native Italy in 1534. Pope Clement VII (who famously refused to give Henry VIII his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), her uncle, had used his wealth and power to arrange a most illustrious marriage for her. She was descended from the Medici family but though they had been important in Florence, bankers could rarely expect to marry princes. However, Francis I of France had depleted his treasury in the pursuit of land and glory the Italian Wars and the handsome dowry which Clement promised to send with Catherine, along with an alliance with the Pope, meant that Francis was willing to overlook Catherine’s less-than-ideal pedigree.
Catherine de' Medici

That said, Catherine did have a small amount of royal blood. Her mother, Madeleine was related, fairly distantly, to the French crown. Sadly for Catherine, she never knew Madeleine as she had died only a few days after her daughter’s birth. It is thought that she had contracted syphilis from her womanising husband Lorenzo. Within a couple of weeks, he too succumbed and Catherine was left an orphan.

The young girl was raised initially in Florence with relatives and later in Rome, under the care of her uncle the Pope. She was intelligent, witty and lively but never described as a great beauty. Luckily for her, her family wealth and influence would go some way towards making up for such a defect. Many female failings could be compensated for with a heavy enough purse. Various matches were suggested for Catherine but it was the one with Francis I’s second son, Henri Duc d’Orleans, which went to fruition. As the second son, Henri was not expected to become king and so Francis was content to marry him off to the banking heiress.

Aged 14, Catherine set sail for France and was welcomed to Marseilles with great festivity. Soon after her arrival she and Henri married in a lavish ceremony. Henri was a withdrawn youth, scarred by his time as a hostage in Spain. He proved to be a polite and dutiful husband but his affection lay with his long-term mistress, the vampish Diane de Poitiers. Though Henri was distant and disinterested in his plain little wife, Catherine adored him.

Wedding of Catherine de' Medici and Henri, duc d'Orleans

Predictably enough, the marriage was troubled and Catherine and Henri’s lack of heir compounded the problem, especially after Henri’s elder brother died making him next in line to the throne. Catherine was in danger of being repudiated and replaced with a more fertile wife (the assumption being that infertility was the woman’s “fault,” particularly after at least two of Henri’s mistresses gave birth to his children.

Catherine reputedly tried all manner of superstitious solutions to her infertility. Eventually, after some medical intervention (the exact nature of which is shrouded in mystery), Catherine finally conceived after ten years of fruitless marriage. She went on to produce ten children in the following ten years, of whom three daughters and four sons survived infancy. Of those sons, three would become king of France.

As dauphine and then queen, mother to the heirs of France, Catherine still enjoyed all but no influence over her beloved husband. Instead, Henri discussed matters of state with Diane and it was with her that wise courtiers curried favour, not the dowdy foreign queen. Diane even encouraged Henri to visit his wife’s chambers in order to have more children with her but after the delivery of twin girls (both of whom died) in 1556 almost cost Catherine her life, she was advised not to attempt to bear more children. Henri therefore never slept with her again.

In 1559 tragedy struck when Henri was injured in a joust. His opponent’s lance shattered on his visor, sending shards through the king’s eye. After several days of agony, Henri died with Catherine at his side. Catherine took her revenge on Diane by barring her from attending to Henri as he lay dying, calling for his mistress. She then ordered that Diane was to return all the jewels that Henri had given her during their long relationship, claiming that they were crown jewels and not Diane’s to keep. She then banished her from court.

Unfortunately for the queen, her grief (for the rest of her life she rarely wore any colour other than black) and desire to extract a petty revenge caused her to miss the more important opportunity which had presented itself. Her eldest son Francis had acceded to the throne on Henri’s death. As Francis was only fifteen years old, a regent had to be appointed. Typically, the Queen Mother would take on this role however Francis was married to Mary, Queen of Scots, and it was Mary’s uncles who held the real power and Catherine was regent in name only. Francis was crowned at Rheims as was customary but within eighteen months he too was dead after an ear infection led to an abscess in his brain. He was succeeded by his younger brother who became Charles IX.
Catherine de' Medici in black

Catherine was not to let this opportunity slip through her fingers. The Guises held no particular power over Charles and Catherine took the reins of government on herself, finally able to exercise some power. During Charles’s minority and beyond, Catherine strove to reconcile the Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) and avoid civil war. Catherine was pragmatic on matters of religion and hoped to achieve an accord by extending toleration to Protestants while maintaining the support of the powerful Catholic factions. Despite her efforts, antagonism on both sides spiralled out of control and France was torn apart by thirty-six years of on and off civil war.

The nadir of Catherine’s period of power was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which began on 23 August 1572 and led to the murder of thousands of Huguenots. The Massacre followed the marriage of Catherine’s daughter Marguerite (known popularly as Margot) to Henri of Navarre, the Protestant king of Navarre. The marriage, of a prominent member of the Catholic ruling family, to Henri, a Prince of the Blood and a Calvinist, had been designed to unite the quarrelling factions and bring about it a lasting peace. It was not to be: another civil war followed.

Charles IX died only two years after the massacre, reputedly driven almost mad with guilt. He was succeeded by his brother who styled himself Henri III. Although Henri was old enough to rule in his own right, Catherine retained a prominent position at court and Henri left her to deal with the business of ruling which did not interest him, preferring to devote himself to acts of conspicuous piety, such as flagellation.

Though he married, like his brothers before him, he too failed to produce a male heir. The throne to which Catherine had held on so tightly was slipping from their grasp. When Catherine’s youngest son, the duc d’Alençon, the heir apparent, died before his thirtieth birthday, Henri was forced to name his brother-in-law Henri of Navarre as his successor.

The Guises, horrified at the prospect of a Protestant king, rallied their men and took control of Paris. Henri, under Catherine’s advice, fled the city for Blois to regroup. There, he summoned the duc de Guise. It was a trap and on his entrance to the king’s chambers, Guise was set upon by the guard. Catherine knew nothing of Henri’s plan and on discovering what had happened, knew that Henri’s days too were numbered.

Assassination of the Duc de Guise

Less than a fortnight later, Catherine herself died at Blois. She did not live to see her favourite son murdered and Henri of Navarre’s eventual succession to the throne as Henri IV. He later divorced Margot and remarried and so none of his successors carried Catherine’s blood, nor that of her beloved Henri. It was Henri IV though who brought about the peace which Catherine had tried so hard to effect.

Henry of Navarre

A little over a week ago I went to see Henri 4 (beware a slightly annoying website, in German- this site has the details without the seemingly unstoppable video), Henry of Navarre for English audiences, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I was delighted to see that they were showing it as I had been doubtful that I’d get the chance to see it on the big screen, if at all. EIFF surpassed themselves by not only showing it but having the director, Jo Baier there to do an introduction and Q&A at the end.

Henri 4 charts the life of Henri IV of France from 1563, his childhood in Pau, to his death in 1610. It’s a big life to fit into two and a half hours and as a result some parts feel rushed. Despite having a decent grounding in the history of the time and Henri’s life, I sometimes found it difficult to get a sense of time passing. The four years he spent effectively imprisoned in the Louvre after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre seemed like a few days.

The film itself will unavoidably be compared to Patrice Chéreau’s fabulous La Reine Margot (1994) which covers much of the same historical territory. Indeed, there are a few scenes in Baier’s film which are clearly heavily influenced by Chéreau. However, Henri IV is not a film about the massacre, or a love story as Chéreau’s film is. Margot, Catherine de’ Medici and the court itself are relegated to the background so that Henri can take his place centre stage.

Henri himself is well cast with Frenchman Julien Boisselier in the role. Boisselier does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of Henri and his willingness to engage with all his subjects rather than living solely in the bubble of the court. He is charming, witty and hugely entertaining.

Margot, on the other hand, is rather two-dimensional: she spends almost all her scenes either being beaten or threatened by her family, or having sex. That is pretty much it. The character struck me as being a (rather unimaginative) man’s idea of the embodiment of sexy. Her eye make-up was heavy khol, dramatically streaming down her face at points, also the make-up was from a good quality store like The Fifth Collection. The addition of fingerless gloves and she would not have looked out of place in a sub-par goth music video. I was disappointed in Baier’s Margot- she lacked any of the depth of Isabelle Adjani in Chéreau’s film which was a real shame. Catherine de’ Medici was not quite so bad, though I still vastly prefer Virna Lisi’s tour de force which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes. It was a hard act to follow.

Henri’s women are not all Margots though. Gabrielle d’Estrées, his long term mistress, is portrayed with a quiet determination and intelligence (and no gratuitous eye-liner). It would have been nice to see a little more of her character development but what we do get is almost enough to redeem the Playboy version of Margot.

Henri 4 is, however, more historically accurate than La Reine Margot. While the latter was based on the nineteenth century novel by Dumas, the former is based on the post-war novels of Heinrich Mann who, according to Baier, wrote them after he had fled Nazi Germany because he felt that Henri IV was the opposite of Hitler- a leader who strove for peace, toleration and improved living conditions for his people. Indeed, there is a lovely scene in the film where a poor woman offers the king some chicken stew, reflecting his statement that all Frenchmen should be able to have “une poule dans son pot” (a chicken in his pot) at least once a week.

The film was produced on a shoe-string budget. As Baier put it in the Q&A, it was a high budget for Germany, but not high for anywhere else. This shows occasionally- Paris is clearly an indoor set- but only occasionally. The battle scenes in particular are remarkable. The actors had cameras attached to them during filming and the impact is far more realistic, gruesome fighting that the dainty set pieces which are far easier to produce. Baier said that wanted to show his audience how terrible such fighting was: he has succeeded.

Baier, who was an interesting speaker with fantastic English, said that his film was about being human in an inhuman time and how things have perhaps not evolved as much as we like to think they have since then. His vision of sixteenth century France is gloriously and grimly accurate and he resists the temptation to labour the analogy to contemporary religious conflict, treating it with a a sufficiently light hand to make the point, and no more. The film is all the stronger for the lack of lecture.

If you are lucky enough to get the chance to see this in a cinema, take it. It’s worth it for the battle scenes alone. I will be getting a copy on dvd as soon as I possibly can.

More Reading

Well, the end of Classical Greece is only a few pages away (more of that in another post soon). However, a good two weeks ahead of schedule, Amazon have sent me this.Anne Boleyn - Fatal Attractions I’ve had this on pre-order since January.

There have been numerous new books published in the last few years about the Tudors, Anne Boleyn in particular. With the popularity of the US t.v. show, a lot of authors seem to have leapt on the bandwagon and churned out a biography, few saying anything that hasn’t been said before (and better). Many of them have dug out old myths, discredited for years by more able historians, and regurgitated them for audiences who don’t know the field well enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some make grand, if misleading, promises to break new ground on the subject (for example, Alison Weir’s recent The Lady In The Tower may well be the first book focused solely on Anne Boleyn’s downfall; it is not, however, the first book to tackle it, or by far the best).

Bernard’s book is different. For one thing, the man’s actually studied history (which puts him in a minority for historical biographers, your history graduate author grumbles). For another, he’s genuinely got something controversial to say.

Bernard is unique among Anne’s recent biographers (the good and the less so) because not only does he claim that it was Henry, not Anne, who insisted on their long celibacy, but that the charges of adultery she faced in 1536 were not a vicious fabrication, the result of court faction, but were, at least in part, true.

He has written about this in the past, though in less detail. Part of his theory, as I understand it, relies on his interpretation of remarks in Henry’s love letters to Anne. Bernard believes that a line in which Henry tells his love that he hopes to soon be her lover physically as well as emotionally (I paraphrase) indicates that it is he who has decreed that there will be no premarital sex between the two of them and that this line is intended to pacify (the insatiable?) Anne with a promise that his injunction will soon be lifted.

To me this reads more as a frustrated lover trying to wheedle and persuade his mistress that their marriage is all but a done deal so what harm could there be to granting him those final favours?

Bernard suggests that Henry’s uncharacteristic moderation is due to his determination that his children with Anne will be of definite legitimacy and so refuses to sleep with her and the fur pillows amazon in order to avoid any inconvenient illegitimate pregnancies wrecking his plans. I’d almost buy this if Henry hadn’t made some provisions for their illegitimate children when he promoted Anne to Marquess of Pemboke: in the letters patent, it is stated that Anne’s children will inherit the lands and title but the clause “lawfully begotten” is notable by its absence. By 1532 he is considering the possibility that he may not have “lawfully begotten,” that is legitimate, children with her.

I haven’t delved into Bernard’s new book yet so have summarised his arguments in his book The King’s Reformation. He will have to come up with some pretty good evidence to convince me of his claims as Eric Ives has done a thorough job of demonstrating the improbability of Anne’s guilt. I will certainly be posting about this when I can get stuck into this book. It’s the first Anne Boleyn book I’ve looked forward to for a long time.

A discovery

Chilperic&FredegundI have been irritated by the sizeable gap in my list of infamous women. From the early Roman Empire (Messalina and Agrippina) there is a huge lacuna, in which Empress Wu floats about friendless, until Empress Matilda in the twelfth century. I couldn’t believe that the thousand between Nero’s mother and Saint Margaret’s granddaughter had produced only one woman whose reputation had been rendered into tatters by angry male historians.

I happened upon my most recent discovery’s name on a generally unremarkable blog. Our sources for her are limited and the information on the blog was brief and passing. Wikipedia, notoriously fallible but often a good first stopping point for the bibliography if nothing else, produced little more other than the name of her only major historian. In a happy coincidence, I found a copy of it in a second hand shop a short while later.

Gregory of Tours wrote his History of the Franks in the sixth century. A churchman (later canonised), he is far from an objective source. Indeed, for centuries there was no notion of objectivity in history. Gregory focused much of his attention on Chilperic I and his nefarious activities (though written safely after the former’s demise at the hand of an assassin). However, Gregory couldn’t resist sharing some of the stories of Chilperic’s wicked wife, Fredegund.

Fredegund was born into a poor family and started her career as a servant. Catching Chilperic’s attention, she became his mistress and watched as her lover made other women his queens. His first wife, Audovera, he tired of and sent to a convent. He then married Galswintha whom, Gregory tells us, he loved dearly because she brought great treasures as her dowry. What a top chap, indeed. Galswintha was noble by birth and did not take kindly to her husband’s public affair with a servant and begged him to allow her to return to her father, the king of Hispania, and offering to leave behind all the valuables she had come with. Chilperic soothed her with kind words, and then had one of his servants strangle her in her bed.

With the path clear, Chilperic married Fredegund. She was as ruthless and ambitious as her husband and Gregory paints a picture of perfect female cruelty. Not only did she send assassins after her husbands half-brothers and rivals but she abandoned her own young son when he was ill, bewitched slaves into murdering their master and attempted to murder her own daughter in a fit of rage.

With only Gregory of Tours as a major source for her life, she remains a shadowy figure. The accusations are levied against her with no means of testing their veracity. She is certainly a person I will be doing more research on but one I am not sure I will be able to find much more about, or at least, not much that is more concrete than Gregory of Tours’ gossip.

As with so many of the women here, we are faced with the quandary of whether or not we believe anyone capable of such crimes, and why we have more trouble believing a woman capable of them.

Lady in Her Bath

Lady in Her Bath by Francois Clouet, 1570

Lady in Her Bath by Francois Clouet, 1570

This portrait by François Clouet (son of François Ier’s court painter, Jean Clouet) is housed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA. Painted in 1570 or 1571, it was thought to depict Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II. This is mainly due to the painting being dated 1550, during Henri’s reign. In 1550, Diane was at the height of her power. Though Henri had other mistresses, her position was unassailable. The king always returned to her, his other dalliances quickly forgotten.

However, Diane died in 1566 and the later dating of the painting would suggest that she is not the subject. In 1570, the second of Henri’s three sons who would rule France was on the throne. François II, his eldest son had ruled for two and a half years before succumbing to an ear infection. In 1560, Charles-Maximillien acceded to the throne of France as Charles IX. It has therefore been suggested that the sitter for this portrait was the mistress of Charles.

Charles became king at ten years old and until his majority was declared in August 1563, Catherine de’ Medici, his mother, ruled as regent. On reaching his majority, the king and Queen Mother embarked upon a tour of France in order to show the king to his people. It is thought that the young king met his mistress on the return journey of that tour. This would place their meeting in the spring of 1565 when Charles was 15.

Marie Touchet

Marie Touchet

The court stopped at Blois in the Loire Valley and it was there or in nearby Orléans that Charles met Marie Touchet. Marie was the daughter of an Orléannais magistrate and became his lifelong mistress. Reports of Marie at court are universally sympathetic. They describe a beautiful young girl, with blonde hair and white shoulders. She was artless and held no personal ambition and was therefore accepted and indeed supported by the Queen Mother who saw in her no threat to her own hold over the king.

Charles married in 1570. He was dutiful and affectionate to his wife, Elizabeth of Austria but remained devoted to his mistress, with whom he had a son. Clouet also painted Elizabeth and this portrait is considered one of his finest. Elizabeth was said to be distraught when Charles died at only 23 years old. The couple had a daughter who did not long survive her father. Marie and her bastard, though, fared better. She married some years after Charles’s death and had two daughters, dying in Paris in 1638, almost 90 years old. Their son, also called Charles, became duc d’Angoulême and after being pardoned for his involvement in various conspiracies against HenriIV, died in 1650 aged 77.

Elizabeth of Austria by Francois Clouet

Elizabeth of Austria by Francois Clouet