The Well-loved Suzanne de Bourbon

From the moment of her birth, Suzanne de Bourbon was well-loved by both her mother and father. When she married, her husband loved her well too. In this, she was a fortunate woman for her times.

Basic Facts

The well-loved  Suzanne de Bourbon
Duchess Suzanne de Bourbon

Father: Pierre de Beaujeu, later Duke de Bourbon [1488]

Mother: Anne de France, Duchess de Beaujeu-Bourbon, aka Madame la Grande

Birth: Moulins, Bourbonnais, 10 May 1491

Marriage: Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier (17 February 1490 — 6 May 1527, Rome), betrothal 1505; Marriage Château de Beaumanoir, 10 May 1505

Death: Château de Châtellerault, 28 April 1524

Children: François, Count de Clermont, b. 17 July 1517, d. 1517; twins b., d. 1518.

Suzanne de Bourbon’s Early Life

In 1491 as the French-Breton war neared its end and King Charles VIII of France insisted upon more independence from his sister, Duchess Anne de Beaujeu-Bourbon disappeared to Moulins, capital of the Bourbonnais. There, on 10 May 1491, she gave birth to a much-wanted child—the well-loved Suzanne de Bourbon. From the moment of her birth, Suzanne was the apple of her father’s eyes. She was a frail, delicate child with a decided limp, probably a result of the hip problem inherited through the Valois line. The distinguished Mme. de Baternay, Georgette de Montchenu, accepted the role of Suzanne’s Gouvernante and brought her up to adulthood.

Suzanne de Bourbon’s Family

Legitimate siblings

Charles, comte de Clermont (b.d.1476 ?) all details speculative

Illegitimate siblings

Henriette, married to Philibert Barjot, first equerry to Duke Pierre de Beaujeu-Bourbon. [contested]

Suzanne’s Montpensier In-laws

The Montpensier were a younger branch of the Bourbon family, descended from Louis, Comte de Montpensier, brother of Duke Charles I de Bourbon, Suzanne’s grandfather.

Louise, Duchess de Montpensier (1482 – 15 July 1561)her sister-in law. Married 21 March 1504, her cousin, Louis de Bourbon, Prince de la Roche-sur-Yon. [Louise was eventually the heiress of all the Bourbon estates, but not titles].

Louis II, Count of Montpensier, (1483 – 14 August 1501) died in Naples.

François, Duke de Châtellerault, (1492 – 13 September 1515) her brother-in-law. Died at the Battle of Marignano in which her husband was a hero.

Renée, Lady Mercoeur, (1494 – 26 May 1539, Nancy) her sister-in-law. Married Antoine, Duke de Lorraine, 25 June 1515 at the Château d’Amboise.

Anne (1495 – 1510, Spain) her-sister-in-law.

The Greatest Heiress in France — Suzanne de Bourbon

On 21 August 1498, Louis XII agreed to void the clause in the agreement that required the great Bourbon appanage to descend through the male line only. He transformed the duchy into a fief that could pass down through the female line. This made Suzanne the greatest heiress in France. She would receive the vast Bourbon inheritance as well as her mother’s wealth. 

Suzanne de Bourbon’s Education

Suzanne’s mother, Duchess Anne de Bourbon, wrote a book for her called Lessons for My Daughter. Its date is subject to speculation [either1497 or 1505 preferred]. The advice book, which fits within a longstanding tradition, suggests a number of things about Suzanne’s status and education. For example, there is a clear assumption that it is because of her high estate that Suzanne’s behaviour must be beyond reproach. People will be jealous and look for fault, so she must be above criticism.

I draw another conclusion from Madame la Grande’s methodology and style. Every example, every lesson, is laced with references from classical or religious authors. Not only was she well read in the classics and the religious literature of the day, but she expected her daughter to share the same knowledge. Duchess Anne was a well-known patron of the arts, and an early adopter of the Italian Renaissance style in France. These cultural influences would undoubtedly impact her. Her husband’s mother, Clara Gonzaga, came from the distinguished family of the Marquis de Mantua and the widowed Countess de Bourbon-Montpensier was a lady in waiting to Queen Anne de Bretagne.

Who Will Marry the Well-loved Suzanne de Bourbon?

As with all young noble girls, the search for the right marriage alliance started young. Since Suzanne was royal, her uncle King Charles VIII got to decide. In 1493, As part of his plan to conquer Naples, he wanted a marriage with the Milanese Sforza. Duchess Anne who was firmly opposed to the Italian adventure resisted this proposal. Among her reasons to oppose sending Suzanne to Lombardy, she thought Italians did not treat their wives well. Perhaps she drew this conclusion from Countess Clara [Claire] de Montpensier, married to Pierre’s cousin, Count Gilbert de Montpensier. Born a Gonzaga from Mantua, Countess Clara enjoyed a post as a lady-in-waiting in Queen Anne’s court.

King Charles VIII wanted to resolve the rifts with the Hapsburgs created earlier by the French ruptures of the marriages of Emperor Maximilian and his daughter, Marguerite of Austria. He suggested that Maximillian marry Suzanne. When that didn’t work, he proposed Maximillian’s son, Philip of Burgundy. Finally, in 1497, Charles returned to the possibility an Italian marriage as he dreamed again of making war on Naples. Then he died.  King Louis, who followed him, did not want a foreign marriage for this great heiress.

Duke Charles d’Alençon — Louis XII’s Favoured Suitor

In May 1499, when Suzanne was eight years old, her father arranged a marriage contract for her with Duke Charles d’Alençon at King Louis XII’s behest. Although Suzanne’s mother opposed the match, she made no objection. Much could happen before Suzanne was old enough to marry. King Louis, eager to conclude the match, came to Moulins in 1501 to celebrate the betrothal. Knowing the king wanted the marriage completed, Duke Pierre asked Duke Charles d’Alençon to come to Moulin to arrange the final formalities in 1503. Duke Pierre had died on 10 October, however, by the time Duke Charles arrived

By insulting the Dowager Duchess d’Alençon, Madame la Grande succeeded in rupturing that betrothal without annoying King Louis. She also paid an indemnity which eased the pain.

Count Charles de Montpensier —Madame la Grande’s Preferred Suitor

Upon her father’s death, Suzanne became Duchess de Bourbon. Madame la Grande feared her legal arrangements with King Louis XII could be overturned or held up in endless litigation because Suzanne was female. In particular, she wanted to avoid litigation with the Bourbon descendants. Therefore, after Count Charles de Montpensier became the Montpensier heir, she wanted Suzanne to marry him. This would avoid the problem. Besides, he had been brought up at Moulins with Suzanne, and they knew and liked each other.

Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier
Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier

On 25 February 1505, Suzanne betrothed Count Charles de Montpensier at the Hôtel de Bourbon. Charles immediately took the title of Duke de Bourbon. By the terms of the marriage contract, Anne gave all her lands, goods and chattels to the young couple and their heirs. In return, Charles would pay her an annual dower of ten thousand livres.

With the king’s approval, Suzanne de Bourbon and Charles de Montpensier married at Beaumanoir on Suzanne’s birthday 10 May 1505.

Her mother doted on the young Duke Charles, which must have made their lives much more agreeable. He was handsome, athletic, an excellent horseman and warrior. Madame la Grande spared no expense providing him with the best of everything. She had also trained her daughter to be the perfect wife: admiring, dutiful and obedient. In this traditional role, Suzanne as an individual disappears.

Suzanne de Bourbon’s Children

Over the course of the next years, Suzanne and Charles had three children all of whom died young. Suzanne herself died on 28 April 1521, leaving her entire inheritance to her husband. In death as in life, she seems to have faded away, unremarked except by those in her immediate circle.

Who was Suzanne de Bourbon?

Small, frail and overshadowed by her powerful mother and dominant husband, Suzanne is hard to glimpse. The hints we catch are sweet. In the painting of her as a toddler, her long fingers touching in prayer, she looks out solemnly on the world. With big brown eyes, rosebud mouth firmly closed and pearly peach colouring, her chubby cheeks suggest reassuring health.  In the famous triptych by the Master of Moulins, Suzanne appears as she has come to exist in history. Tucked behind her dominant mother, she is a smaller, paler replica. Her head is bowed, she sways, her expression is docile. All contrast with her tensely prayerful hands.

We know a few things about her. She and her Papa loved each other with joyful adoration. She loved dolls and hunting, and she took feminine pleasure in new clothes and dressing up. Her happy life was filled with books, artists, culture, and music. After her cousin, Count Charles de Montpensier, joined the household in Moulins, they shared childhood activities and a schoolroom. He was only two years older than her, so they became friends before they married. She was blessed in this.

Perhaps there is a trove of letters, household accounts or other personal documents among the Bourbon papers that will reveal more about Suzanne as a person. Until then, fiction must take their place.

Books and Articles

Susan Abernethy,  Suzanne, Duchess of Bourbon, The Freelance History Writer.

Jean Cluzel, Anne de France: fille de Louis XI, duchess de Bourbon. Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2002.

Nicole Dupont-Pierrart, Claire de Gonzague Comtesse de Bourbon-Montpensier (1464-1503): Une princesse italienne à la cour de France Presses Universitie Septentrion, 2017.[Available in a Kindle edition.

Jean-Baptiste dit Tristan L’Hermite de Solier l’Histoire généalogique de la noblesse de Touraine (1665) p. 56. Info on Henriette’s marriage

Gilbert, Count of Montpensier, Wikipedia.

Sharon L. Jansen, (translator and editor), Anne of France: Lessons for My Daughter  (Library of Medieval Women), Boydell & Brewer, 2004.

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