Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Who are the four women in The Importance of Pawns who dominate the action? At the centre of the plots are Princess Claude and Princess Renée of France, the elder and younger daughters of the French King and Queen.
The third, Baronne Michelle de Soubise, Renée’s Gouvernante*, fights to shield herself and the two daughters from the fourth, Countess Louise d’Angoulême. She is bitterly jealous of the French Queen Anne and defends her own children’s rights like a lioness.
What does history tell us about these four women?
Table of contents
Claude de France: Princess, Queen, Duchess of Brittany
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. They provided her with an excellent humanist education, unusual for girls of the time.
One of France’s richest heiresses, she grew up surrounded by books. She followed her mother’s footsteps as a great patron of scribes and artists. Sincerely devout, she had quietly reformist leanings, but never challenged the Roman Catholic church.
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.
Although she spent little time in the duchy, she was its heiress from birth. 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. 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.
Although Mme de Bouchage became her official Gouvernante at birth, the woman who supervised her care was her mother’s dame d’atour,* Baronne Michelle de Soubise. Later, she became her official gouvernante when Queen Anne died.
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’s residence is unknown from then until she married Duke Ercole de Ferrara in 1528. 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. In fact, he denounced her to the Inquisition.
When he died in 1559, she returned to France to live in Montargis. During her time in Ferrara, she saved every Frenchman she could during the interminable Franco-Italian wars. Her court became a refuge for reformers fleeing France. Montargis too 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
Michelle de Saubonne’s past before she joined Queen Anne’s court is a mystery. She arrived in 1499 and was assigned a place among the ladies of her wardrobe. Highly educated, charmingly diplomatic and with sound principles, she rose rapidly.
By 1503 she had become the queen’s confident. She remained the queen’s closest friend and dame d’atour until Anne’s death. King Louis arranged her marriage to one of his favourites in 1507. He chose Jean de Parthenay-l’Archambault, Baron de Soubise and Seigneur de Monchamps, a widowed Potevin of ancient lineage. The large dowry Anne gave her shows her high favour with the royal couple. She bore de Soubise four children, three girls and a boy, before he died in 1512.
From 1514 to 1518 Mme de Soubise served as Renée’s gouvernante. In 1518, another lady replaced her. Scholars believe this signifies her downfall. But since Mme de Soubise’s daughter, Anne de Parthenay, became a lady-in-waiting in Claude’s court, Michelle’s fall would have been short-lived if indeed it did occur. King François appointed her Princess Renée’s principal lady-in-waiting to accompany the new Duchess of Ferrara to Italy in 1528. She and Marguerite de Navarre were those whose influence led to Renée’s reformist beliefs, although none of them, including the princess, officially converted.
Duke Ercole banished Michelle from Ferrara in 1536 and she returned to Parc Soubise. She vanishes from the record until her death in1549. On her deathbed she asked for an Augustinian who soon converted to Calvinism to hear her last confession. Her family buried her beside her husband in the church in Monchamps.
Afterwards, her name almost disappeared from to history until the late nineteenth century. No portrait of her exists.
Louise de Savoie, Duchess d’Angoulême and King’s Mother
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, known as Madame la Grande.
Unhappy and jealous at her aunt’s court, she used her quick intelligent and beauty to adapt and learn. At eleven, her father and aunt arranged a marriage advantageous for them. Count Charles d’Angoulême, a relatively poor but highborn 28-year-old rebel agreed in return for clemency and a promise of loyalty.
When he died in 1496, she swore never to marry again by choice. He left her with two children, Marguerite and François, ages four and two. She adored them with a protective obsession. 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 held France together, staving 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 adored her grandchildren almost as much as her own children and 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.
Her less admirable qualities have cast a long shadow. They included implacable enmity to those she resented or envied, such as Queen Anne or the Constable de Bourbon. Insatiable greed and avarice caused her to steal from anyone. She removed her enemies without remorse, despite their years of service. For example, her Grand Treasurer, the Baron de Semblançay, hanged, convicted of peculation. Yet many men have done worse and are admired without reservation.
The Women who are in The Importance of Pawns: Facts vs. Fiction
My novel covers a brief period in the lives of these four women. In general, I tried to keep them where they were known to be, doing what the facts tell us they did. (Where I didn’t, I noted it.)
However, one fundamental of fiction states that inessential characters must be eliminated. Why? Because they serve only to confuse the reader. So, for example, Mme. de Bouchage gets no mention. Does this invalidate the novel? I don’t think so. Her role was minor.
The next concern centers on character. The historical record contains even less about children than about women. Almost nothing exists about Renée. And Claude was a particularly retiring queen. More detail exists about Mme. de Soubise and Countess Louise especially, but it is contradictory. So my characterization of the personalities involved comes from my imagination. But isn’t this why we read and write historical fiction; to bring the people of the past to life?
*Gouvernante — the ‘Governess’ of the royal children, recruited from the high nobility, directs and manages the education of the children of the royal couple, including the Dauphin. She often has deputy governors. While the girls remained attached to the Queen’s House, it was customary for princes raised by female governors to “pass to men” at seven (the age of reason at the time) into the care of a governor assisted by a deputy governor.
*Dame d’atour — an important office in the queen’s royal court of France. It existed in nearly all French courts from the 16th-century onward. The dame d’atour was selected from the members of the highest French nobility.