Was there scandal at the French court in 1515? What was it? Those historians who study Princess Renée of France, say that her guardian Duchess Louise de Savoie dismissed her gouvernante Mme. Michelle de Soubise in June 1515. She made accusations, and Mme. Michelle and her entourage left under a cloud. She only regained her position when Renée married and recalled her in 1528. Mme. de Soubise, aka Mme. Michelle de Saubonne accompanied the Duchess to Ferrara as her senior Dame d’honneur.
Historians argue that Princess Renée retained such a warm memory of her gouvernante that she recalled her as soon as she became a married woman. They attribute this remarkable appointment to the shared Calvinist leanings of the two noblewomen.
[For an example see Nicole Vray, Renée de France et Anne de Guise : Mère et Fille entre la Loi et la Foi au XVIe Siècle, Editions Olivétan, 2010, p. 24.] Who was Mme. Michelle?
Would Duchess Louise Dismiss Mme. Michelle?
Mme. Michelle de Soubise was the trusted Dame d’atour of Queen Anne de France, Duchess of Brittany, from 1499 to 1514. When she was dying in January 1514, Queen Anne named her gouvernante to the young Princess Renée [b. Oct 1510]. Queen Anne left Duchess Louise de Savoie as the administrator of her estate and guardian of the princess during her minority despite their long-standing rivalry with the understanding that the Duchess would retain Mme. Michelle as Princess Renée’s gouvernante.
Evidence from the Soubise Letters
M. Giraud-Mangin claimed that instead, Duchess Louise dismissed her in June 1515. He based his case on five letters that he transcribed and included in his article Michelle de Saubonne, dame d’atour d’Anne de Bretagne. Although I do not have access to the original documents, I am using those M. Giraud-Mangin transcribed in the article. I base my case on internal evidence from the letters and from more recent sources unavailable to him.
Giraud-Mangin states he found the series of letters as copies only in the private archives of the House of Soubise at the Château de Blain. King François I, Queen Claude de France and Duchess Louise de Savoie apparently wrote and sent the first three letters from Angers addressed to M. de Bouchage. The dates indicated for their writing are the 28, 29 and 30 of June 1515 respectively. Mme. Michelle de Saubonne sent her replies to King François and Mme. Louise from Amboise on July 11.
Evidence from the Royal Itineraries
We have information for the location of King François throughout this entire time period from the court itineraries. In June 1515, he and his mother, Mme. Louise, were deeply involved preparing for the first Italian war of his reign. They were both in Amboise from the 10 of June until the 2 of July. After they departed Amboise on 2 July, they arrived at Blois on 4 July. They stayed in Blois until 10 July, after which they moved to Romorantin, where they arrived on the 13th. Next, they left on the 18th for Lyon. Queen Claude, about to give birth, stayed in Amboise while the king and Mme. Louise journeyed south. Yet he wrote his letter in Angers.
So, details of the itinerary for 1515 indicate the royal court was in Amboise on 28, 29, and 30 June. Yet the letters are superscribed as written from Angers. [Base de données, Cour de France.fr All information about King Francois’s itineraries comes from this invaluable source.]
Did the king’s court visit Angers during a year that matches these dates? The Royal Itineraries database for King François shows 1518 as the first time the king was in Angers on the specified dates. It was the only year he was there at the end of June before his captivity in Spain .
Evidence from Mme. Michelle’s Replies
Furthermore, when Mme. Michelle replied, the internal evidence suggests that the court was not at Amboise [as would only be reasonable]. In her reply to the king dated July 11, Mme. Michelle says that she wishes he had informed her when he was ‘here’ [i.e. in Amboise]. In 1518, he had been there earlier in June [2 June and before] but had moved on. However, he was in Amboise until the 2 of July and even then, had only moved as far as Blois.
More to the point, why would he write a letter to her on 28 June, if he were still in Amboise? Why would she wait until 11 July to reply? Even if the king, the queen and Mme. Louise wrote letters in Amboise in 1515, presumably, a servant would deliver the letters promptly [i.e.before the court left.] Even if Mme. Michelle replied in writing, why did she wait so long to answer?
Internal Evidence from Letter Content
The next significant anomaly relates to the contents of Mme. Louise’s letter. Mme. Louise asks about her grandchildren “the dauphin and the girls.” Even if she wrote the letter in June 1518, it would raise some questions, since only the Dauphin François (b. 28 February 1518) and Princess Charlotte (b. 23 Oct. 1516) were alive. (Princess Louise had died on 21 September 1517.) Other possibilities include: she wrote the letter much later, after the birth of Madeleine in 1520; or the other girl referred to was Princess Renée since Mme. Louise was her guardian.
Since the dauphin was not born until February 1518, she could not write the letter before 1518. This also rules out the date of June 1515, for none of Duchess Louise’s grandchildren had been born then. Finally, a mistake in assigning the year of the letter would not be remarkable, because at that period it was uncommon for letters to include the year in their date. [La pratique épistolaire de la noblesse française au temps des guerres d’Italie] So, once again, no scandal in 1515. Probably not later either.
Giraud-Mangin’s article contains a number of dating errors. For example, he cites a letter written by Michelle’s hand to Chancellor Jean de Ganay in 1516 and signed by Queen Anne [p. 77]. This is obviously incorrect. Queen Anne died in 1514. He dates the marriage of Duke [later King] François and Duchess [later Queen] Claude as 28 March 1516. It occurred on 5 May 1514 [p. 78]. These errors do not instill confidence. He also stated that Mme. Michelle married Jean V de Parthenay-Larchembault and their son was Jean VI. In fact, she married Jean IV de Parthenay-Larchembault and their son was Jean V.
So, I conclude that if the letters are authentic and the correspondence occurred as Giraud-Mangin suggests, it did not occur until June or July of 1518. At that time Princess Renée would have been eight years old. It is slightly more possible she would remember Mme. Michelle twenty years later than would a five-year-old. Even so, it is hard to believe that a child of five or eight, would retain so strong a recollection of someone she had not seen for twenty plus years that she would appoint her as Dame d’honneur.
A newly married woman about to leave her home and country would not have a great deal of power. The appointment of the Dame d’honneur was an honour that either the King or Mme. Louise would control. While it is unlikely they would appoint someone she disliked, it is also unlikely the new Duchess could appoint a person in disfavour with either of them.
Mme. Michelle in Ferrara
The King of France married his sister-in-law to the Italian Duke of Ferrara to cement an alliance to further his Italian claims. He could not know that the alliance would not prove useful as soon as the following year. Princess Renée paid the price in an unhappy marriage that served little purpose for France.
Mme. de Soubise blended well into Ferrarese society. She lived at the Ducal Palace with the new duchess, while her daughter Anne married an eligible French parti, M. Antoine de Pons. [zum Kolk, Caroline « Les difficultés des mariages internationaux : Renée de France et Hercule d’Este », in I. Poutrin et M.-K. Schaub (dir.), Femmes et pouvoir politique.]
Mother and daughter continued to receive French court favours. Mme. Michelle served as an unofficial French envoy on behalf of King François within Duke Hercules’s court, a situation that displeased the Duke. She would not have been appointed or represented King François if Duchess Louise opposed her. In 1536, when Duke Hercule d’Este, annoyed with his wife, insisted that Mme. de Soubise leave his court, the French court at Lyon welcomed her before she returned to her own estates at Parc Soubise.
Did Duchess Louise Dismiss Mme. Michelle?
Therefore, I hypothesize that, if indeed Mme. Michelle did suffer an eclipse for a period of time, she and her family had returned to favour well prior to Princess Renée’s marriage. I base this opinion on the following considerations.
First, Queen Anne and King Louis arranged Michelle de Saubonne’s marriage to Jean IV de Parthenay-Larchembault du Parc-Soubise, one of the king’s favourites. The family was a wealthy, well-connected provincial Potevin family. King François with all his political ambitions and financial needs could not afford to alienate families such as this who made up the backbone of the provincial administration and the leadership of his army.
Second, Queen Claude’s mother favoured Mme. Michelle who lived at her court with her daughters. One of them, Anne de Parthenay, is listed among Queen Claude’s Dames d’honneur in the Base de données at Cour-de-france.fr. Moreover, when Mme Michelle was appointed as Dame d’honneur to Duchess Renée, King François gave her a liberal gift of 10,000 Livres tournois “in recognition of her services to the late Queens Anne and Claude and to Mme. Renée.” In addition, he granted her 2460 Livres tournois to cover their travel expenses. As well, he promised a generous annual payment of 1200 Livres tournois as her stipend as well as a summer and winter clothing allowance.
Was Mme. Michelle Dismissed?
So, to conclude, this was not a scandal at the French court in 1515. It is that probable (and if the letters are authentic, certain) that Duchess Louise removed Mme. Michelle de Soubise from her position as gouvernante to Princess Renée in 1518 for some period, possibly to provide the position to a relative of King François. She did not remain out of favour for long. After returning to the court of Queen Claude with her eldest daughter Anne de Parthenay, who was a friend of Princess Renée, she became a Dame d’honneur to Queen Claude.
Because of her valued role, quite possibly with the princess, Mme. Michelle was selected to accompany Princess Renée to Ferrara as her Dame d’honneur. Mme. Michelle and her daughter lived at the court of Ferrara until caught in the middle of a quarrel between the Duke and Duchess. At that point  Duke Hercule banished Mme. Michelle. She went to the French court, then in Lyon, where she stayed for an unknown period before she returned to Parc Soubise. There she remained until the end of her life as far as we know.
Was there a scandal at the French court in 1515? Not this one. In this article, I present and interpret material I discovered during research on French Renaissance women. I hypothesize that Mme. Michelle de Soubise was not dismissed as gouvernante of Princess Renée de France in June of 1515 as is commonly stated in materials about her life. If the event occurred at all, it could not have happened before June or July 1518. Even if it did take place, the removal was not permanent for there is evidence that Mme. de Soubise and her daughter, Anne de Parthenay, joined the court of Queen Claude de France before 1523, well before Princess Renée’s marriage to Duke Hercule d’Este (1528), when both formed part of the entourage that accompanied the new Duchess to Ferrara.
I draw my conclusions from documents, primarily secondary sources, I have located during my research. Nonetheless, I believe my reasoning is sound. I look forward to your comments.