As a dominating mother, did Louise de Savoie rule for King François I? She played a powerful political domestic and international political role in his Council. Twice she acted for him as Regent. Many say Louise de Savoie was the ruling force behind King François’s government until her death in 1531.
Louise’s Early Life
In 1476, Louise was born in the Château at Pont d’Ain near Bourg-en-Bresse, then part of Savoie. She lived there until her mother died in 1483. Tall and pretty, she had light brown hair and grey eyes. Her philandering father sent her and her younger brother, Philibert, to live at the court of her maternal aunt-in-law. Duchess Anne de Beaujeu had just become the powerful Regent of France.
Family was the most important element in defining a person at this time. For women, this was particularly true. Louise was related to many of the highest-ranking nobles in Europe. She milked these relationships in diplomatic affairs for all they were worth, which was a lot. The list of her closest kin below gives only a hint of the breadth of her affinities.
Father: Philippe (b. 5 February 1438 at Chambéry, d. 7 November1497 at Chambéry). Count de Bresse, later Duke de Savoie. m.1 Marguerite de Bourbon, 6 April 1472. m. 2 Claude de Brosse, 11 November 1485.
Mother: Marguerite de Bourbon (b. 1438, m. 6 April 1472, d. 1483)
Gouvernante: Anne de France (1461–1522), elder sister of Charles VIII (1470–1498)
Birth: b. September 11, 1476, Countess, later Duchess, d’Angoulême
Marriage: Charles d’Orléans (1459–1496), Count d’Angoulême
Children: Marguerite (1492–1549), poet, m.1 1509 Charles d’Alençon [Duchess d’Alençon]. Duchess de Barry, m.2. 1527 Henri d’Albret, Roi de Navarre [Queen of Navarre].
François (1494–1547), Duke d’Angoulême and Valois, King François I. m.1 1514 Claude d’Orléans, Duchess de Bretagne, m.2. 1530 Eleanor d’Autriche.
Guardian to François: Louis XII (1462–1515) insisted upon joint custody of François and compelled Louise and her children to live at Amboise.
Death: 22 September 1531, Grez-sur-Loing
Philibert (le Beau) by Marguerite de Bourbon: Duke de Savoie, (b. 1480, m.1 1496 Yolande-Louise de Savoie (d.1499) m.2. 1501 Marguerite d’Autriche (d. 1530), d. 1504)
Charles by Claudine de Brosse: Duke de Savoie (b. 1486, m. 1521 Beatrice de Portugal, d. 1553)
Louis by Claudine de Brosse: (b. 1488, d. 1502)
Philippe by Claudine de Brosse: Duke de Nemours. (b. 1490, d. 1533)
Philiberte by Claudine de Brosse: (b. 1498, m. Jan. 1515 Julien de Medici, d. 1524)
René (le Grand Bâtard de Savoie) by Libéra Portinara, Count de Villars-en-Bresse et Tende; Governor of Nice and Provence. (b. 1473, legitimized 1496, d.1525)
Antoinette by Libéra Portinara. (b.?, m. 1486 Jean II Grimaldi, Prince de Monaco, d. 1500)
Pierre by Libéra Portinara, Bishop de Genève. (b.?, d.?)
Claudine by Bonne de Romagne. (b.?, m. à Jacques III, Count de Horn, d.1528)
Marguerite by Bonne de Romagne. (b.?, m. Count Costa di Chieri, d.?)
Jeanne by Bonne de Romagne. (b.?, d.?)
Michel, by Bonne de Romagne, priest. (b.?, d.?)
Jean d’Orléans, Count d’Angoulême, 26 June 1399–30 April 1467)
Marguerite de Rohan (b. 1412, m. 31 August 1449, d.1497)
Step-children [Illegitimate Children of Charles d’Angoulême]
Jeanne by Antoinette de Polignac. (b.?, m 1 Jean Aubin, Seigneur de Malicorne, m. 2, Jean IV de Longwy, Baron of Pagny, d.?)
Madeleine by Antoinette de Polignac. Abbess of Fontevraud. (b.?, d. 26 October 1543).
Souveraine by Jeanne Le Conte. (b.?, m.1 1513 Michel II Gaillard Seigneur de Chilly, m.2 1534 Louis de Perreau, Sieur de Castillon, d. 23 February 1551)
Louise de Savoie’s Experience of Marriage
Louise married the impoverished 29-year-old Count Charles d’Angoulême in 1488 when she was eleven . Her gouvernante Madame la Grande wished to tie him to the crown after his rebel role in the Breton War. Louise’s father agreed to marry her to the count and dowered her with a meager 35,000 livres. Although her recent husband wasn’t old, he was unhealthy.
When Louise arrived at their main château in Cognac, she discovered the count’s mistress installed as his chatelaine with their children. Antoinette treated the young Louise kindly and with respect, teaching her to run a household. The poet count valued books, music and the new learning, and she enjoyed her life in the small, cultivated court. They occasionally attended King Charles VIII and Queen Anne’s court. It did not take long for Duchess Louise and Queen Anne to develop an aversion for each other.
Children of Louise de Savoie
Except for the dauphin, Charles-Orland, Queen Anne’s children were born dead or died shortly after birth. Louise was more fortunate. The count waited until Louise was fourteen (the traditional age) before engaging in marital relations. In 1492, Louise gave birth to their first daughter, Marguerite. Then in September 1494, she bore François, the boy who was to become her life focus. Ambition for him consumed her. In December 1495, dauphin Charles-Orland died. Louise saw the hand of God in this since her son moved one step closer to the throne.
Louise’s Rule as a Widow
On their way to Lyon in December 1495, Count Charles caught a fever and lay ill for a month. The doctors recommended that they remain at the inn where they had stopped. Louise de Savoie nursed him assiduously, but on 1 January 1496, he died. When Louise returned to Cognac, she campaigned to keep the guardianship and control of her children’s lives. She succeeded despite the opposition of male members of Charles’s family, including Duke Louis d’Orléans, François’s closest male relation. Passionately attached to her children, she taught them many subjects herself and chose learned humanists for the remainder. One cleric, François Demoulins, continued as her secretary for many years. For François, training in skills of arms was also important, and he excelled at these, though he terrified his mother with his reckless courage.
Mother to the Heir Presumptive
In April 1498, King Charles VIII died unexpectedly. When King Louis XII ascended the throne, François became heir presumptive, until the king and queen produced a male heir. Louise was delighted and apprehensive in equal measured. Since François was now the heir, King Louis insisted on his guardianship rights. He insisted that the family move to Amboise, which was closer and more secure. Then he appointed the Marshal de Gié as his Gouverneur. The marshal took his responsibility seriously and was loyal to Louis rather than Louise. Since he interfered with her maternal rule, Louise quickly came to hate him.
The enmity between Queen Anne and Countess Louise increased during the years that King Louis ruled (1498–1515). Always ambitious for her son, Louise wished Anne ill every time she was pregnant and delighted each time she lost her son or gave birth to a daughter. However, when Queen Anne, furious with Marshal de Gié, instigated a treason trial against him, Louise joined forces with her. Together they removed the man they both loathed and forced him to retire from court. Louise also encouraged those among François’s entourage who were enemies of the marshal. For example, when Guillaume Gouffier’s sister married, it was to René de Cossé, the marshal’s adversary. Then she got Queen Anne to intervene with Jacques de Brézé to sell the seigneurie of Brissac to Cossé, not Gié. This kind of ongoing revenge was characteristic of her.
Role as François’s Mother
In a series of strategic decisions, Louise strengthened her role in her son’s life. She provided him with luxuries so he could shine at court. He had a generous income, dashing clothing, the best quality armour andsporting gear, fine horses and servants. She borrowed against her late husband’s meagre estate to support Francois’s life. When this was insufficient, she wheedled sizeable sums from King Louis. This was quite a feat since he was notoriously stingy. King Louis even made François Duke de Valois with the income it produced to support his lifestyle. To achieve results, she displayed her charm, manipulativeness, and steely determination to do anything necessary for her son.
As a widow, Louise received several advantageous offers to marry. She refused them all, even when King Louis applied some pressure. Entirely devoted to her son’s destiny, she saw her role as mother of the heir to the throne, later king of France. She was head of the family, replacing the dead pater familias. She was and would remain the exemplary widow determined to show prudence, wisdom, culture and chastity. That she also showed greed, manipulation, and revenge, she probably hoped to hide under a patina of diplomacy and charm.
Louise was not at court when François 1 became king on 1 January 1515. When she learned, she saw it as the culmination of his destiny. His coronation on 25 January 1515 was probably the greatest day of her life. From the beginning of his reign, Louise was a member of his ruling Council. When François left France in 1516 to fight to recapture the Milanese, she governed France at his appointment as regent. She was the first woman officially appointed regent, although neither daughter nor wife of a king. During the first fifteen years of her son’s reign, she dominated the Council and royal diplomacy, received foreign ambassadors, and negotiated with princes and princesses of the time. Often, François signed his letters with the words ‘the King and Madame’.
To gain these ends, she negotiated with England and various Italian states. In August 1525, she signed with Henry VIII of England, the Treaty of the More, which broke the Anglo-Imperial alliance. The Traicté de la paix perpetuelle, published in September 1525, announced the agreement between the King of England and Madame, Regent of France. She was also ultimately successful in negotiating another accord for France with various Italian states. Her success came in part because the Imperial forces rapidly made themselves odious on the Italian peninsula. Louise also sought support from the sultan Soliman the Magnificent. A military alliance against the Emperor in the Mediterranean later crowned this initiative.
Louise de Savoie’s Rule for King François
In 1523, when King François went to war, he gave Louise de Savoie full rights to rule as Regent. The regency extended through the king’s captivity after his defeat at the Battle of Pavia in February 1525 until March 1526. Louise, living near Lyons, ruled with a Council and Chancellor Antoine Duprat. In her first immediate challenge, the Parlement of Paris tried to limit Louise’s power. It invited Duke Charles de Bourbon-Vendôme, a Council member and the king’s closest [non-rebel] male relative, to replace the Duchess as Regent. The Duke refused loyally to divide a realm already in crisis.
This was the most dangerous period of Louise’s regency. France’s main military leaders and most of its army had died in Italy. The enemy countries surrounding France saw it as beaten — an isolated target without allies. Yet Louise ruled for the captive king with an iron hand. She had a triple goal: to release her son from captivity, to maintain stability inside France and to prevent external attacks that would destroy the country.
Negotiating to Prevent External Attacks on France
Negotiating King François’s Freedom
To release her son, Louise sent her daughter Marguerite to negotiate directly with the Emperor. Louise’s efforts were successful in maintaining peace and securing the release of François I.
This added pressure on Charles V. However, problems within France forced François to agree to Emperor Charles’s excessive demands. In January 1526, he signed the Treaty of Madrid that required him to give his two elder sons as hostages. When he crossed to France and repudiated the treaty, his sons remained as hostages for the next four years. This led to Louise’s greatest success.
A Lasting Peace
In 1529, Louise and Marguerite d’Autriche negotiated the Treaty of Cambrai, named the ‘Ladies’ Peace’. It ended the second war between François I and Charles V. Their most faithful advisers represented François I and Charles V: his mother for François, and his aunt for Charles. Each woman had served as regent of her respective realm. Empowered by the rulers themselves, their authority was unchallenged.
On 5 July, Louise arrived at Cambrai with her daughter and key Council members. Marguerite d’Autriche came with various Council and court members, and deputies from the Estates. A delegation from England, led by Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, and representatives from some Italian states joined them. The King of France went hunting. The Emperor stayed In Barcelona.
To remain in the background was astute. François and Charles could reject the agreement at any moment. After intense debate, the negotiators reached a compromise on 29 July. Both sides signed the treaty on 3 August. Two days later, François 1 attended mass in the Cathedral of Cambrai to celebrate the treaty. It was the culmination of his mother’s rule.
The Assessment of Louise’s Contemporaries
Ambassadors and other writers of the times reported that Madame had significant influence in affairs of state. Many blamed her, then and since, for her greed. Certainly, she was acquisitive. Her 1522 lawsuit over the inheritance of Suzanne de Bourbon, late wife of Duke Charles de Bourbon, may have pushed the duke into rebellion. She is widely held to be responsible for the disgrace and death of the financier, Jacques de Beaune in 1527. I have already highlighted her role in the downfall of Marshal de Gié. These are but the most notorious examples.
Still, many rulers did all this and worse and we do not vilify them as Louise has been. She is another example of the double standard that is applied to women who rule. Attractive, intelligent and capable, Louise ruled France for her son King François twice officially. Unofficially, she took on many functions of rulership that he delegated to her. Negotiating the Treaty of Cambrai is only one, albeit the most well-known, example.
Religious Reform and Louise de Savoie
Educated and cultivated, she was interested in the new humanist philosophy. Before the Lutheran upheaval [1517 and after], she and her daughter agreed on the need for reform in church practices. They and many leading humanists, opposed the obvious abuses of simony, nepotism, and poorly-educated clergy. Louise was not one of those reformers demanding a Bible retranslated from early texts or revisions to theology or church liturgy. As reform movements became more disruptive, she had to contend with opposition from the universities and parlements. As a result, for political reasons, she became opposed to religious reform.
Who was Louise de Savoie as a Person?
In her portraits, Louise often appears in widow’s clothing. It typically comprised a dark-coloured gown, usually brown or black, adorned only by ermine- or sable-lined bombard sleeves. A black headdress, often reinforced with a broad white band that, like the nun’s bandeau, hides the forehead, falls into long panels. Even in this garb she looks attractive, with fresh, rosy unlined skin, and wide-opened blue-grey eyes.
She had never been a queen or dowager queen; she made the role of widow and king’s mother uniquely hers. The court addressed her as Madame, whereas all others were distinguished by their names. For example, her daughter was either Madame d’Alençon or Madame de Navarre.
Above all, Louise was mother to her adored and indulged son. As she lay dying, she waited despairingly for him to arrive, while her daughter sat unregarded by her side. The ingrate never came. Yet he provided her with a magnificent funeral.
Various epitaphs, published soon after her death, praised Louise’s greatness. Even François recognized that she had saved his country by achieving peace.
Books and Articles
Brioist, Pascal (dir.); Fagnart, Laure (dir.); et Michon, Cédric (dir.). Louise de Savoie (1476-1531). Nouvelle édition [en ligne]. Tours: Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2015. Disponible sur Internet:<http://books.openedition.org/pufr/8342>. ISBN: 9782869065413. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/books.pufr.8342.
Fagnart, Laure and Mary Beth Winn, “Louise de Savoie The King’s Mother, Alter Rex,” in Women and Power at the French Court, 1483–1563. Broomhall, S. (ed.), Amsterdam University Press, 2018, 85-114.
Jacqueton, G., La Politique Extérieure de Louise de Savoie, Émile Bouillon, Éditeur, Paris, 1892.
Llewellyn, Kathleen M, “Louise de Savoie (1476-1531),” in Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France and England, eds. Diana Robin, Anne R. Larsen & Carole Levin; ABC CLIO, 2007, 331-332.
Louise of Savoy, Duchess of Angoulême and Regent of France
Mallett, Michael and Christine Shaw. The Italian Wars1494-1559: War State and Society in Early Modern Europe. New York Routledge, 2014.
Matarasso, Pauline. Queen’s Mate: Three women of power in France on the eve of the Renaissance. Ashgate, Vermont, 200l. [Out of print. I haven’t found for sale online second hand, but one of the best books ever on Anne of France, Anne of Brittany and Louise of Savoy. Worth looking for.]
Michon, Cédric (ed), Les Conseillers de François 1er, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2011.
Potter, David L., Politics and Faction at the French Court from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance: the development of a political culture, Paris, Cour de France.fr, 2011. Article inédit mis en ligne le 1er juin 2011 (http://cour-de-france.fr/article1883.html).