Who are the real women behind the a bit about the novel and the truth about its four principal characters.
Table of contents
Importance of Pawns Plot
Danger lurks beneath the glitter of the sixteenth Century French court for Claude and young Renée, heiresses to the rich duchy of Brittany. Their mother, Queen Anne, lies dying. King Louis, their father, knows he has little time to live.
Countess Louise d’Angoulême, guardian to the girls, is mother to the next king. For years she has envied the dying queen. She plots to marry wealthy Claude to her son. Her unexpected guardianship presents a golden opportunity, but only if she can remove Baronne Michelle, their protectress.
The Importance of Pawns covers the period between Jan 1514 and July 1516, a brief period in these women’s lives. I stayed as true to the facts I knew as possible and stated variations in the appendices where I didn’t.
The character of these women is all my creation. I think there is no choice here. Although contemporaries or relatively close contemporaries left their opinions, the writers are not reliable. The most famous, Brantôme, in his Lives of Famous Women, has his favourites. He also lived far enough from the present that we no longer speak his code. We do have information about their actions, and the judgement of generations of historians. From these I built my interpretations of their personalities.
Claude de France: Princess, Queen, Duchess of Brittany
Claude became the heroine of The Importance of Pawns quietly over several drafts. In life she didn’t like to be the centre of attention and she resisted the role in the novel, too. But the truth will out. She proved herself to have a strong will behind that gentle demeanour.
Born in 1499 just ten months after her parents’ marriage, Claude’s parents surrounded her with love and attention even when they could not be present. Lively as a child, she later developed a gentle disposition and refused to be the center of attention. Her generosity and genuine kindness and interest in others won her the hearts of both the French and the Breton people. Married at fifteen, she bore seven living children in nine years. She died in 1524 at twenty-five.
Renée de France, Duchess of Ferrara
The second living child and daughter of King Louis and Queen Anne, Renée was born in October 1510. As an orphan in The Importance of Pawns, both people who love her, Claude and Baronne Michelle, struggle to protect her.
Although a great disappointment because of her gender, her parents loved her as wholeheartedly as they did Claude. She, too, received an excellent humanist education under the guidance of Baronne Michelle de Soubise who became her gouvernante in 1511. Renée lived at her sister’s court until Claude died. After 1525 she stayed at Duchess Marguerite d’Alençon’s court until she married King Henri de Navarre.
She was more outspoken than her sister and strongly influenced by her aunt’s reformist religious beliefs.
Renée married Duke Ercole de Ferrara in 1528 for King Francois’s short term political gain. Theirs was an unhappy marriage. Nonetheless, they had five children. Renée favoured both the French and the Reformers while Ercole supported the Spanish and was adamantly Roman Catholic. He denounced her to the Inquisition in 1554.
When he died in 1559, she returned to France to live. Montargis became a haven for Huguenots during the French Wars of Religion. She resented the loss of her Breton inheritance and sued to recover it, but failed. She remained in Montargis where she died in 1574.
Michelle de Saubonne, Baronne de Soubise
In The Importance of Pawns, Baronne Michelle de Soubise appears first as the dying Queen Anne’s dearest friend. This is fact. Her origins are unknown before she joined the queen’s court in 1499. By 1503 she and the queen had become close and she remained so until the queen’s death. Queen Anne named her Renée’s gouvernante in 1511.
In the novel the Baronne plays an important role, as I imagine she did in Renée’s real life. Renée’s mother died when she was four and her father a year later. Her gouvernante was the most stable and loving figure in her life and this is the role she plays in the novel. And in the court intrigues she always supported Quen Anne and King Louis.
Mme de Soubise served as Renée’s gouvernante from 1511 to 1518. In 1518, one of the king’s cousin’s replaced her. After this we know nothing more about the baronne, until King François appointed her Princess Renée’s principal lady-in-waiting when the new Duchess of Ferrara went to Italy in 1528. Her daughter, Anne de Parthenay, who accompanied the party, was a maid of honour in Queen Claude’s court until the queen died. We know that both mother and daughter favoured religious reform, as did the young duchess.
Baronne Michelle succeeded too well in Ferrarese society for Duke Ercole’s liking. He banished Michelle from Ferrara in 1536, much to Duchess Renée’s chagrin. Then the Baronne returned to Parc Soubise. She vanishes from the record until her death in 1549.
No portrait of Michelle survives, so I chose this contemporary painting to represent her to myself.
Countess Louise d’Angoulême, the Girls’ Guardian
Countess Louise appears as a possessive mother and dominating mother-in-law in the Importance of Pawns . In truth, she adored her son, François, as did his sister, Marguerite. Marguerite appears as a minor character as Louise takes centre stage. Her envy of Queen Anne leand her greed for the late queen’s wealth leads her to dark places.
Born in 1476 to Philippe of Savoie and Marguerite of Bourbon — the second family in France — Louise grew up relatively poor. When her mother died in 1483, her father sent her to live with the regent, Anne de France.At eleven, her father and aunt arranged a marriage advantageous for them. Count Charles d’Angoulême, a relatively poor but highborn 28-year-old. When he died in 1496, she swore never to marry again.
He left her with two children, Marguerite and François, ages four and two. Her son, François, became the focus of her life and she was determined he would become king.
When Francois was crowned in 1515, Louise came into her own. She served as his most loyal councilor and his wiliest, cleverest negotiator. Twice he left her regent when he went to war. She staved off total defeat after the Imperial army took him captive. Her diplomacy with Regent Marguerite of Austria brought an end to that war with ‘the Ladies’ Peace.’
Louise continued as François’s advisor until her death. Yet when she lay dying in1538, he was such an ingrate he did not make it to her deathbed.