Benedetta Craveri – Mistresses and Queens

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I see the current book as a history of the love triangle in the history of France as of the early XVIth century, and up to the beginning of the French Revolution (XVIIIth century). The Ancien Regime Monarchy was governed by the Salic Law, which allowed only men to reign, being considered even back then as the “stronger sex”. But given that the “stronger sex” had a weakness for the “weaker sex”, there were moments in history where certain women gained the power, aiding their personal endeavors through their ambitions, intelligence, and beauty.

The book is based on the age’s documentation sources, the author offering a still literary presentation, however, one that is not romanticized, but rather one that is objective, chronological, and approachable for the reader, one of the feminine personalities of the Ancien Regime of France. Thus, we find here the women that were queens (only temporary, as widows, and only until the son, rightful heir, became of age), and those who were mistresses, possessors of the title of known royal favorite, that exceeded the title of prime-minister, ruling indirectly through the formidable influence they had on their kings.

The histories of these women are interesting mainly because they are real; there were women that meant enough in the mechanisms of power that they created alliances, distributed favors, succeeded in corrupting individuals, punishing others, and using their presumed weakness as an instrument of domination.

The first love triangle we find is that between Henry IInd – Caterina de Medici – Diane de Poitiers.

In 1533, Caterina de Medici, the niece of Pope Clement the VIIth, at the frail age of 14, became the wife of Henry, the second born of King Francisc I. The marriage was a misalliance, as Caterina was not an offspring of royal blood as her husband, however, their matrimonial connection had strong political motivations, consolidating France’s relations with the popes’ powers, and, implicitly, with European Catholicism. Furthermore, Caterina brought along a substantial inheritance, being the child of a line of Italian bankers. In order to integrate into the court, she learned impeccable French!

Three years after their wedding, Dauphin – the first born of Francisc I died unexpectedly, in the context in which, after the death of Francisc I, the succession would have fallen to the second born – Henry IInd, and the sons that he could have with Caterina de Medici. But Henry was irrevocably in love, since his adolescence, with the court’s beauty – Diane de Poitiers (who was 19 years older than him). For 10 years, consumed by jealousy, and wrongfully accused of sterility (which could have led to her repudiation and her being sent back to Italy), Caterina wanted to, but did not, have children with her husband. Moreover, after the death of her father-in-law, she had to recognize Diane’s ascension and to humbly listen to her, as this is how great the power of the royal favorite was! Diane de Poitiers wore the jewels of the Crown and received as gift the Chenonceaux castle, built for her at the command of Henry IInd.

In order to strengthen the Valois dinnasty, Henry IIndrequired heirs; from political considerations, Diane de Poitiers urged him to settle his conjugal obligations, and thus Caterina de Medici became a mother, three of her sons becoming kings after the death of Henry IInd, having governed successively, interpolated by their mother’s periods of regency.

The first two, Francisc IInd and Carol IXth, reigned for a short period of time and died young, victims the Valois hereditary vices (tuberculosis, syphilis). The reign of Carol IXth and his mother’s name shall be associated in history with the bloody episode known as “St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre” – a religious massacre between Catholics and Huguenots (protestants), a massacre that began in Paris, after the celebrations brought about by the wedding of catholic Margueritte, one of Caterina’s daughters, and Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot prince.

Henry the III, Caterina’s only son to have his health, had a complex, ambiguous, and strained personality. He did not let his mother be involved in choosing a wife, and he died without heirs, killed by a fanatic. Before his passing, the last “option” among Caterina de Medici’s sons also died, that is her youngest – the Duke of Anjou. Under these circumstances, the first in line to the become the successor, as the king’s cousin twenty times removed, was none other than Henry of Navarre, Margueritte’s husband (known due to literature by the name of Queen Margot). The two were separated by the river of blood that filled the streets of Paris on “St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre”, a tragic event linked to their wedding (although, at least apparently, Caterina de Medici had set up this union as a reconciliation between the two religious groups that divided France at that time). When Prince Henry of Navarre became Henry IVth, Queen Margot had already left him, having gone into exile. Great was her despair when she realized that due to her much too grand desire for freedom, she had lost the Crown of France, which had fallen into the hands of the one that once was her rightful husband! Finding himself in this circumstance, Henry IVth asked for the marriage to be annulled. The sole condition with regards to which Queen Margot was unwilling to negotiate while discussing the marriage annulment was that her place be taken by a princess of the country, dignified to wear the French crown, and not by a “woman of low social class”. And upon saying these words, Margot was thinking about the one with who Henry had been madly in love for nine years and who had already given birth to three of his sons – Gabrielle D’Estrees.

Gabrielle D’Estress, a beautiful and cheerful blond (as described by her contemporaries) had not chosen to become Henry’s mistress, she had simply resigned herself to it, having given up under the pressure of her parents. Although in the beginning she had experienced a repulsion towards that small state man, who was thin, with a disheveled aspect, and with the gaze of a satyr, who was 20 years older than her, once he became the lawful sovereign of France, Gabrielle began to see her old and too scarcely loved adorer with different eyes. “If, until then, her life had been a series of coercions and renouncements, now, she had a purpose to fight for, a reasoning to answer Henry’s feelings, and to keep him bound to her: she thought of becoming his wife and ruling alongside him” – underlines Benedetta Craveri in her book.

Gabriella and Henry’s third child had the same honors due to a Dauphin, due to his mother’s ambitions and the king’s concessions. Regardless of how great Gabrielle’s ascension was on Henry, her status remained fragile, random, as she depended on the king’s benevolence who, in turn, was not always completely in charge of his decisions. The king knew that a woman who had been his concubine in a public manner could not be queen, and the sons had with Gabrielle were the fruit of adultery, and therefore, they too were not apt to sit on the throne. Henry put off making a decision, as he found qualities in Gabrielle that he valued, that is gentleness, grace, benevolence. Because of this, the formalities of annulling his marriage to Margot extended over a period of 6 years, the most intense and happy years that Henry had with Gabrille, years during which Gabrielle never ceased to hope. Without keeping her hope of marrying the king a mystery, Gabriella flaunted her power with insolence, intervened upon appointments, and threatened ministers that dared to oppose.

Having gained the title of king by chance, in the case of Henry, his unyielding individualism shall conquer the circumstances, including those regarding the “troubled aspect” of marrying Gabrielle. Perhaps you already know the fate of the king’s mistress, but if not, you can find out by reading the book.

France’s history makes way for Maria de Medici, a new Florentine wife that Henry IVth brought to the altar in Lyon, on December 17th, 1600. At 27 years of age, Maria de Medici was already old, according to the criteria of the age, however, she corresponded to the conditions of annulment imposed by Queen Margot, even more so, she fit the dynasty exigences of the French monarchy, and the political interests of the Great Duchy of Tuscany and the Holy Chair. The extremely wealthy inheritance covered “the debts of a husband who, although had occupied the throne of Europe’s oldest monarchy, came from a minor branch and had needed to conquer his kingdom through the force of weapons“. And with regards to fertility, things could not have been more ideal, as only 9 months and 10 days after their wedding night, Maria gave birth to a male heir, the future Louis XIIIth. France had not seen the birth of a Dauphin for half a century, and the joy with which the people welcomed the birth of the child was unmeasurable.

In accordance with royal mentality, Henry believed that the relationship he had with his new mistress – Henriette d’Etrangues, had nothing to do with his marriage and he acted in an affectionate and understanding manner towards the queen, expecting her to do the same towards him. However, the benevolence and understanding towards the king’s mistress were not the strengths of Maria’s character, who was violently inclined towards jealousy.

The day that followed the one during which Maria de Medici was crowned Queen of France was the day Henry the IVth was attacked by a catholic fanatic, who stuck a dagger in his heart. Transported quickly to the Louvre, Henry was already dead by the time he got there. This is how Maria de Medici began her regency, until Louis XIIIth became of age. However, given that Maria loved power more than anything and wanted to keep it at any cost and for as long as possible, France witnessed a conflict like no other between mother and son. The artisan of their reconciliation was Cardinal Richelieu, who Maria would impose as prime-minister for her son. After 5 years, she understood that Richelieu no longer worked for her, but for himself, thus becoming indispensable for Louis XIIIth.

Due to political opportunity, as well as moral reasonings, Louis XIIIth wished to end the conflict with his mother. She, however, continued the fight against Richelieu, and even more so, she incited her second son, Gaston, to rebellion, Gaston who, in the absence of a Dauphin, would inherit the throne. This limitless egocentrism brought along a treason accusation and authorized Louis the XIIIth to issue an order of exile and to confiscate her goods, leaving her without any means of subsistence. Maria de Medici took refuge abroad and requested political asylum in countries that were at war with France, and, after 11 years of exile, she died in Koln, alone, left to herself, full of debt, after she had assisted from afar to the failure of all plots against Richelieu and the triumph of the prime-minister’s policy.

Maria de Medici was the artisan of her son Louis XIIIth’s marriage to Ana of Austria, Spanish princess. Because of her passion for power, Maria systematically sabotaged her daughter-in-law as she was convinced that, in order to have absolute power on the young king, his wife, Ana of Austria, was not supposed to get along with him. The royal pair had few happy moments, only in the absence of Maria de Medici. “Having returned to Court, Maria de Medici took care to once again disband the royal couple; and then, upon the moment of the definitive exile, her wicked campaign of denigrating Ana was to be continued by Richelieu. For both of them, maintaining Louis’ trust, putting his doubts, suspicions, and the oscillations of his own disposition to rest, were a matter of sufficient difficulty to allow a wife to complicate things even further.“

As Ana possessed infinite seduction, the king sometimes acted courteously, almost gallantly with her, and he gladly joined her at the Court’s parties. “This grace period was not meant to last. Louis was probably being deceived by the fact that the desired heir had yet to be born, and the success that his wife had everywhere due to her gentleness, grace and affability, made him feel as if he, of course, was a long way from possessing such traits.“

Given that even as a child his relationship with his mother had been difficult and tensed, Louis was suspicious in his relationships with women, in general. He had no mistress, in fact, certain historians speculate that he might have had a weakness for beautiful men, having remained unmoved by his wife’s charm, who he had treated with great mistrust.

Ana was believed to be one of the great beauties of the century, and Maria de Medici and Richelieu’s hostility towards her was linked to the fact that few remained not fascinated by the young queen. She became a mother at almost 40 years old, when she gave birth to the one that would become Louis XIVth. “That awaited son was about to be not just her salvation, compensating her for all her suffering, but also the one who would miraculously fulfill her need for affection. In an era where maternal instinct was still uncertain and was often confused with genealogical interests, Ana discovered the joy of loving that being that God had sent to her after many prayers, more than anything in the world.“ After the birth of the Dauphin, both Louis XIIIth and Richelieu were gravely ill, with not much longer to live, and the regency of Ana of Austria seemed inevitable.

After Richelieu’s death, Louis the XIIIth had only 6 more months to live to enjoy ruling alone, finally free of his prime-minister’s tyranny. As opposed to Maria de Medici, Ana of Austria had a different manner of understanding the double duty of being a queen and a mother during her regency. Ana worshiped her son, and spent all of her energy, resisted through the Fronde, in order to transfer the royal authority intact.

What is certain is that, as opposed to his father, having been unconditionally supported from childhood by his mother, Louis XIVth had a different perspective with regards to his relationships with women. “The most adored of sons first and foremost loved himself […] and was preparing to become the most disloyal of husbands and the most arrogant of lovers.”

You have to read the rest of the book to find about how the Louis XIVth, his wife, Maria Theresa of Austria from the Hapsburg dynasty, and Louise de la Valliere – “that small violet hiding in the grass”, then replaced by Madame de Montespan – “a brilliant beauty” love triangle came to be. His direct successor – Louis XVth – formed the love triangle in his relationship with his wife Maria, royal princess of Polish origin, and with those who were successively queens in his heart: the Mailly-Nesle sisters, Madame de Pompadour, and Madame du Barry. The last French king, Louis XVIth was too shy in his relationship with his wife, Marie Antoinette, that he did not have a mistress. The French Revolution eliminated them both, and their children, from the historical limelight.

Benedetta Craveri - Mistresses and Queens
Benedetta Craveri – Mistresses and Queens

Benedetta Craveri
Benedetta Craveri
Benedetta Craveri was born in Rome in 1942. Nowadays Craveri is a famous writer, professor in French literature at the University of Naples ‘Suor Orsola Benincasa’, a visiting lecturer at the Sorbonne as well as a literary critic. Professor Craveri also works as a journalists in some cultural radioshows and contributes to the Italian newspaper ‘La Repubblica’, but also for ‘The New York Review of Books’, ‘Revue d’histoire litteraire de la France’. She is a member of the Italian Encyclopedia Institute. The books of Benedetta Craveri are deeply embedded in the French history and culture. A large part of them have been translated in many languages around the world. Some of her best known works include “Madame du Deffand and her world’, ‘Mistresses and Queens’, ‘Marie Antoinette and the necklace scandal’, ‘The Last Libertines’.

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