On the 18th of May 1514, François d’Angoulême, the future King François I of France, married his distant cousin Claude, the eldest of the two surviving daughters of Queen Anne and King Louis XII. The quiet ceremony took place in the atmosphere of lament in a chapel at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which François described shortly as ‘niggardly ceremony, without the pomp due to a royal marriage even in mourning’. The reason was that Queen Anne had died in January 1514, so the court was still in mourning for the deceased woman.
There was no love story with the matrimony of Claude and François de Valois. Louis XII had no surviving sons, and as in accordance with the Salic law the kingdom of France could not have been ruled by a woman, Claude was destined to marry François, who was the next one in line to the throne in case her parents didn’t have any surviving male issue. Her mother, Anne, resisted this marriage, but after her death, Louis quickly arranged this union to proceed. When Louis’ own third marriage to the English Princess Mary Tudor didn’t produce any son, François succeeded him as King of France with Claude as his consort. Claude brought the formerly independent Duchy of Brittany to the French crown and gave it to her husband into management.
Famous for his amorous escapades, François did not love Claude, who could have been fond of him, but if it was so, her feelings were unreciprocated. Her mission was to give birth to the Valois male progeny for the Valois throne and live in the shadows of François’ intelligent and strong female relatives – his mother, Louise de Savoy, and his sister, Marguerite de Valois (the future Queen Marguerite de Navarre). Additionally, Claude tolerated the king’s first official maîtresse-en-titre – the beautiful Françoise de Foix, Countess de Châteaubriant, whom François favored a great deal. Yet, François always performed his conjugal duties, and Claude found herself almost annually with child, spending most of her time at Château de Amboise or Château de Blois away from the world.
The chroniclers are united in their assessment of Queen Claude as the epitome of the ideal, fertile, and pious queen. Claude was not beautiful, through smart enough, while her husband was attracted to both gorgeous looks and female intelligence. The Austrian ambassador described Claude as a young woman with a pale complexion, thin, a little sickly, slightly hunchbacked and unattractive. The diplomat also mentioned that she was very petite with an odd corpulence, although Claude’s grace in speaking and her kindness compensated considerably for her lack of beauty. Regardless of her looks, the dutiful Claude delivered the young monarch’s offspring almost every year.
Perhaps the only interest Claude and François shared was their passion for building. Claude was involved in the construction of Renaissance architectural châteaux and monuments, with her husband’s eager approval. The “François I wing” of Château of Blois was created under her supervision, and her ideas were implemented there. Reserved, quiet, and yet moderately amicable, Claude could not shine at the Valois magnificent and merry court, especially when being at the side of her young, brilliant, flamboyant, and handsome husband King François. Claude’s mother-in-law was domineering, and her sister-in-law, Marguerite, unconventional. It must have been truly hard to survive in such an unusual and brilliant family for Claude, who, unlike her relatives, was never involved in her husband’s politics and tolerated her situation with grace.
Claude made very few appearances at court during her tenure as François’ consort. Due to her frequent pregnancies, her health was steadily deteriorating, and as she carried the king’s heirs, it was difficult for her to travel together with the nomadic French court and to fulfill ceremonial duties, which were done by Louise de Savoy or Marguerite. Claude had seven children in eight years, but only five of them survived into adulthood. Dauphin François was born in 1518.
With each pregnancy, Claude was getting weaker and weaker, but she had never been strong. Becoming also more obese, she completely removed herself from public life. Her limp, which had been slight in her early adolescence and was caused by her scoliosis and deformed hips, became more pronounced to a point that it was painful for her to move. Claude began leading a cloistered life at Blois together with her ladies-in-waiting, one of whom was Lady Anne Boleyn, becoming more pious and even joining the Third Order of Franciscans. Claude loved illuminated manuscripts, and Anne might have taken liking of them during her service to the Queen of France.
The birth of her last daughter, Marguerite, in 1523 depleted Claude of her strength. Feeling that she would not live for long, she made her will and passed away at Blois on the 20th of July, 1524. She was only twenty-four when she faded away like smoke, like a rose on a winterday, though not a pretty one! The cause of her death is highly debatable: some think that she died in childbirth or after miscarriage, while most historians believe that her untimely passing happened because of her total exhaustion after her many pregnancies.
Despite his lack of love for his consort, François mourned for Claude, although at the time he was preparing for war against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. François ordered that his late wife had a lavish funeral, and then she was buried at the Basilica of Saint Denis. There was even some suggestion that François had given Claude syphilis, which had caused her death, but this cannot be proved for a certainty, and I personally don’t think that it is true.
Years later, when François would die in 1547 at the age of 52 probably from kidney failure, his heart and entrails would be interred in the abbey at Hautes-Bruyères near Rambouillet in the funereal urn carved by Pierre Bontemps. The monarch’s body would be buried at the Basilica of Saint-Denis with his first wife Claude. The ancient practice of evisceration would survive until the 16th century, and then the urn would be placed in the Basilica. Unfortunately, François and Claude’s tomb would be desecrated during the French Revolution in October 1793.
By Olivia Longueville, copyright 2020
All images are in the public domain.