Who was Queen Claude de France ? First, she was daughter of Queen Anne and King Louis XII of France. Next, she was Duchess of Brittany in her own right. Third, she married François I, possibly France’s most well-known king. Yet she is practically unknown. And she remains for many either a cypher or an enigma.
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For some historians, Claude is a failure as Brittany’s Duchess and nothing more than a baby factory who produced an heir and several spares for a philandering king. Are they right? Is there no more to say about a daughter of France and one of the richest heiresses of her time than this?
Princess Claude’s Early Life
Claude’s mother named her after St. Claudius of Besançon. Queen Anne’s five children from her previous married had all died. So, she invoked St. Claudius for help to give birth to a living child. Born heiress to the Duchy of Brittany, she kept this status her whole life. It made her one of Europe’s richest heiresses.
As a child, she lived in royal Château of Blois served by her own staff under the watchful eye of her governante, Madame de Tournon. A group of noble children her age lived with her. A merry child who easily amused others, her parents doted on her. She enchanted her father, and as she grew older, he delighted in taking her hunting with him.
Claude revered and loved her mother. Queen Anne wrote to her every day when they were apart, for her parents travelled frequently as was typical of royalty.
Queen Anne’s strict Roman Catholic practice featured strongly in her life. Later Claude’s own court emphasized piety. So, we can conclude that religious instruction and practice formed an important part of Claude’s education. She received a well-rounded education for the time. It included reading and writing, French history and literature and the courtly skills of music, dance, riding and hunting and sprightly conversation. The feminine arts of embroidery, home management, the making of simples, the care of others, suitable games such as cards, and chess formed part of her everyday informal education.
Father: King Louis XII of France
Mother: Queen Anne of France, Duchess of Brittany
Birth: b. 13 October 1499 in Romorantin-Lanthenay
Siblings: Renée, Born xx September 1510
Marriage: 18 May 1514 to Duke François de Valois (later King François I) at Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Death: 20 July 1524 at Blois, probably of tuberculosis
Louise (19 August 1515–21 September 1517): died young, engaged to Charles I of Spain almost from birth until death.
Charlotte (23 October 1516–8 September 1524): died young, engaged to Charles I of Spain from 1518 until death.
François (28 February 1518–10 August 1536), succeeded Claude as Duke of Brittany, but died unmarried and childless.
Henri (31 March 1519–10 July 1559), succeeded Francois I as King of France and married Catherine de’ Medici with whom he had ten children.
Madeleine (10 August 1520–2 July 1537), married James V of Scotland and died within six months.
Charles (22 January 1522–9 September 1545), died unmarried and childless.
Marguerite (5 June 1523–14 September 1574), who married Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, in 1559 and had one child.
François’s mother: Countess, later Duchess Louise d’Angoulême (or Savoie) (1476-1531)
His father: Charles d’Orléans (1459–1496), Count d’Angoulême
François’s sister: Marguerite d’Angoulême, (1494-1549) m. 1 Duke Charles d’Alençon [d. 1525] m. 2. Henri d’Albret, King of Navarre [d. 1555]
1525] m. 2. Henri d’Albret, King of Navarre [d. 1555]
Betrothals and Marriage
Queen Anne was determined to keep Brittany separate from the French crown. She wanted to marry Claude to a foreign monarch. Her choice was Charles, Duke of Luxembourg. A year younger than Claude, heir to Austria and the Duchy of Burgundy, she believed he would keep Brittany safe from France.
In 1501 at Lyon, ambassadors of Charles’s father signed the marriage contract between Claude and Duke Charles. The contract promised Brittany to Claude and the couple’s children. In 1504, King Louis and Duke Philip signed the first Treaty of Blois. King Louis dowered Claude with the Duchies of Milan and Burgundy, the Counties of Blois and Asti, and the Republic of Genoa if he died without male heirs. It is an astonishing dowry when one adds the Duchy of Brittany and the rest of Queen Anne’s wealth. With this marriage, France would surrounded by Hapsburg lands concentrated in the hands of one man.
The following year King Louis XII fell so ill that everyone, himself included, feared he would die. Since he would not leave France in such a vulnerable political situation, he signed a secret document cancelling the betrothal. Instead, he betrothed Claude to his heir. (According to Salic Law, the crown of France could pass only to and through male heirs.)
After he recovered, despite Queen Anne’s opposition, he persuaded the Estates General at Tours to formalize the betrothal. His wife blamed this and several other events on Marshal de Gié. From then on, she exerted herself to ensure his conviction for treason. Although forcing the Marshall to retire to his estates in disgrace, she could not break the popular betrothal.
When her mother died on 9 January 1514, Claude became Duchess of Brittany. Four months later, she married François at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Unless King Louis produced a male heir, Brittany would fall under France’s hegemony.
King’s Mother and King’s Sister
On I January 1515 King Louis died and François I became king. Both Louise the Savoie and Marguerite d’Alençon, his mother and sister, played dominant roles as counsellors and hostesses in his court throughout their lives.
Duchess Louise played an active political role in France and surrounded herself with a lively court that welcomed humanist writers, scholars, musicians and priests, her court. King François preferred to focus his attention on military adventures, women, hunting and other entertainments. Notorious for his amorous exploits, he kept official mistresses from 1518 to the end of his life but enjoyed the favour of many other women. Although many French histories exalt him as the glorious King of the French Renaissance for the intellectual, cultural achievements that flowered during his reign, his sister, mother and wife deserve more credit than he except possibly in architecture.
Duchess Claude of Brittany as Wife
As the wife of the new King François I, Claude became queen of France. Claude coronation did not take place until 1517. When it occurred, the magnificent occasion took place at St. Denis Basilica on 10 May. Cardinal Philippe de Luxembourg, the Cardinal du Mans conducted it. The people of France who loved her acclaimed Queen Claude as she rode through the streets at her official Entrée into Paris.
Until recently Queen Claude de France has been little recognized except as a mother and producer of heirs. She was a notable success in this area — providing France with seven living children of whom three were sons. This must have been a relief to her, her mother-in-law and her husband, given her mother’s repeated tragedies. (Though we may speculate that she had blood incompatibilities with both her husbands — a factor unknown then).
Despite King François’s notorious infidelity, he held his wife in high regard and insisted everyone treat her with respect and delighted in his many children. At court functions she attended, he and she always presided together. When Queen Claude died, shortly after he set out on the journey that resulted in the disaster of Pavia, he was heartbroken and ordered her a magnificent royal funeral. He said to his sister, “If I could buy her life with mine I would do it with all my heart. Never would I have believed that the bond of matrimony enjoined by God would be so firm and so difficult to break.”
Duchess Claude as Queen of France and Religious Reformer
Historians such as Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier who study Queen Claude credit her with a sympathy for reform as active as that of her sister-in-law, Marguerite. Wilson-Chevalier cites Claude’s knowledge of the New Testament, as a sign of her reform tendencies. Claude also reformed convents and employed a reformist confessor. She allowed publication of the reformist writing of Jean Gerson, in Nantes, another indication. And, after living for several years in Claude’s court, Anne Boleyn returned to England, where she favoured reform.
Wilson-Chevalier also emphasizes her role as an advocate of justice for her people. She did not make a great display of her good deeds, but acted quietly and subtly. Yet Queen Claude’s popularity stood in sharp contrast with King François’s marked disfavour .
What was Queen Claude de France like?
As a child, sources say Claude was charming and lively though plump. As an adult, they called Queen Claude plain and short. She had inherited her mother’s hip deformity, so she had one short leg. Since she limped, she wore shoes to hide it. Afflicted with scoliosis, her hunched back worsened with age and constant pregnancy. With each child she gained weight. Foreign ambassadors noted her corpulence, limp, squint, small size, and plain face, but they praised her excellent qualities.
She loved books and inherited a magnificent library. An example still exists, The Prayer Book of Queen Claude, at the Morgan Library (available online).
Her gentle personality contrasted with Duchess Louise’s overpowering presence and dominant political role. Claude preferred to steer away from involvement in French politics. Neither did she feel a need to challenge her sister-in-law as an active reformer. She preferred to maintain a low profile in her religious activities and her acts of justice and mercy.
Brantôme says,“… Madame Claude of France … was very good and very charitable, and very gentle to all, never doing any unkindness or harm to anyone either at her court or in the kingdom. She was much beloved by King Louis and Queen Anne, her father and mother, being their good and best-beloved daughter….”Pierre de Bourdeïlle Brantôme, “Madame Claude de France,” The Book of the Ladies
How Influential was Queen Claude de France?
During her life, people loved Queen Claude, Duchess of Brittany. Even Anne Boleyn spoken highly of her. I conclude that the lack of evidence does not reflect her lack of influence. In my novel, The Importance of Pawns, she is the heroine. I think that is who Queen Claude de France was.
Susan Abernathy, Claude de Valois, Queen of France, The Freelance History Writer
Pierre de Bourdeïlle, Abbé de Brantôme, “Madame Claude,” Book of the Ladies. H.P. & Co., 1899. [Available in English on Project Gutenberg]
Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier, “Claude of France: Justice Power and the Queen as Advocate for her People,” in Textual and Visual Representations of Power and Justice in Medieval France. Ashgate Publishing Co., Vermont, 2015.
Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier «Denis Briçonnet et Claude de France: L’Évêque, Les Arts, et une Relation (Fabriste) Occultée,» Seizième Siècle 11, 2015, 95-118.
Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier, «Trinités royale» et «quadrangle d’amour »: Claude de France, Marguerite de Navarre, François Ier, Louise de Savoie et la réforme fabriste de l’Église
Dorothy Moulton Mayer, The Great Regent, Louise of Savoy 1476-1531, Funk & Wagnalls, New York 1966.
Morgan Library and Museum, The Prayer Book of Claude de France.
Wikipedia, Claude de France.