Suzanne de Bourbon: an intelligent, but sickly, Bourbon heiress

Suzanne de Bourbon was born on the 10th of May 1491 at Château de Châtellerault. Her parents were Pierre II, Seigneur de Beaujeu and later Duke de Bourbon and d’Auvergne, and Anne of France, who both served as co-regents of France during the minority of King Charles VIII of France called the Affable (l’Affable). She was the only surviving child of her parents, and Anne of France, also known as Anne de Beaujeu, was already at the age of thirty, which was considered not a young age for childbearing. According to some contemporary sources, Suzanne could have had her older brother Charles, who did not survive into adulthood.

Portrait of Suzanne de Bourbon made for the Duke and Duchess of Bourbon. It is the right wing of a Bourbon triptych.

Suzanne had Capetian and Valois (in fact, also Capetian) blood coursing through her veins on both maternal and paternal sides. Her maternal grandparents were King Louis XI of France known as the Universal Spider (l’Universelle Aragne) and his cousin-wife, Queen Charlotte of Savoy. Among Charlotte’s ancestors, there were Philippe the Bold, 1st Valois Duke of Burgundy, and Marguerite III, Countess of Flanders. Suzanne’s paternal grandparents were Duke Charles I de Bourbon, and Agnès of Burgundy, who was a daughter of Jean the Fearless (Sans Peur), 2nd Valois Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret of Bavaria. Charles I de Bourbon was a maternal grandson of Jean, Duke de Berry and a Valois prince, and his first spouse, Jeanne d’Armagnac.

Château de Châtellerault in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

On paternal and maternal sides, Suzanne was descended from King Jean II of France called the Good (le Bon). By the end of the 15th century, the intermarriages between the descendants of Louis IX known as Saint Louis and especially those of Jean II formed a complicated web of blood relationships. Most of such unions were consanguineous and, hence, potentially dangerous for the surviving progeny, with relatively high child mortality rates. Spouses in such matrimonies suffered inbreeding depression, together with their surviving offspring. Perhaps at least partly because of the above, Suzanne always had a fragile constitution and a highly delicate health. The girl had an unknown deformity, which the chroniclers referred to simply a ‘deformity,’ which could have been similar to that of her aunt – Princess Jeanne of France, first wife of King Louis XII.

Suzanne’s health was a matter of huge concern for her parents. Pierre and Anne, despite being politicians, loved their daughter a lot and spent as much time with her as possible. Suzanne was educated under the supervision of Princess Anne, who was responsible for the education of many aristocratic girls of the time, including Anne’s niece – Louise de Savoy. Despite her sickly health, Suzanne was quite intelligent, so her parents groomed her for being a capable Duchess de Bourbon. Anne taught her daughter the ways of court life and some politics, what Anne herself, who was described by Louis XI as ‘the least foolish woman in France,’ learned in all matters.

Triptych depicting St Anne presenting Anne de France and her daughter, Suzanne

Suzanne spent much of her childhood at Moulins, where she had a large household and was educated by competent tutors hired by her parents. Just as her mother had access to the great royal libraries, Suzanne could read manuscripts from an excellent library at Moulins and at her parents’ other estates. Anne of France wrote a small book for her only child – ‘Lessons for My Daughter,’ which showed the strong and unemotional Madame la Grande as an educated woman of letters. This book follows a royal tradition: it is the guide to ruling for the successor, for Suzanne was supposed to inherit her parents’ duchy, which was confirmed by Louis XII’s special letters soon after his ascension (he granted them to gain support of Anne and Pierre). Anne’s father wrote a similar treatise for her brother, Charles VIII of France, who accidentally died in 1398.

In this book, Suzanne was recommended that she behave with the utmost dignity, be pleasant with everyone, give her thoughts to nobody, and obey her husband. Anne made an emphasis on the religious side of life: her daughter had to comply with the rules of God, for life on earth was too short, so human beings should always think about the afterlife. Chastity, charity, honesty, and modesty were all required. Anne claimed that Suzanne’s high station would arouse a feeling of envy in many people, who would search for her faults and weaknesses to use them against her. Anne’s work is not a literary masterpiece, but it demonstrated what a French Renaissance woman could write for her offspring. The work was divided into 33 short chapters.

Several letters from Suzanne to her parents are preserved. She had a closer relationship with her father. With her mother, Suzanne appears to have had a formal and quite distant relationship. At the beginning of the 1390s, King Charles VIII of France offered that his niece be married to a Sforza prince from the ruling House of Sforza from the Duchy of Milan. Anne resisted because she was certain that wives were not treated well in Italy. Other matches were considered for Suzanne, including the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, young Philippe called the Handsome who was Lord of the Burgundian Netherlands, and other Italian princes due to Charles VIII’s Italian projects. All of them were rejected, perhaps because of Suzanne’s ailing health.

Suzanne’s parents had in mind different candidates for their daughter. Duke Pierre de Bourbon planned to have his daughter marry Duke Charles IV d’Alençon, who was also Count de Perche, d’Armagnac, de Fézensac, and so on. After the ascension of Louis XII following Charles VIII’s demise, Charles IV d’Alençon was a great favorite of the new monarch, who also supported this marriage. Also, a possible marriage into the Bourbon-Montpensier family, a cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, was discussed. Anne and Pierre considered the sons of Gilbert de Bourbon-Montpensier: Louis II, Count de Montpensier, Charles (future treacherous Constable de Bourbon), and François (future Duke de Châtellerault and a hero of the Battle of Marignano of 1515).

Louis de Bourbon arrived at the ducal castle of Moulins, but his haughty behavior irritated Anne and Pierre. Later, Louis de Bourbon died unmarried and childless in Naples, and he was succeeded by his younger brother Charles. Born in 1490, Charles was only 11 years old at the time, and after a brief meeting with him, both Anne and Pierre liked him enough to let him enter their household at Moulins so that he and Suzanne could grow up together. As Suzanne and Charles were almost of the same age, they frequently spent time together and went on horse riding in the surrounding park and forest, as much as Suzanne’s health allowed her to enjoy such activities.

The ducal castle of Moulins in the Allier department, France

Nonetheless, Pierre de Bourbon remained more inclined towards his daughter’s marriage to Charles d’Alençon. Yet, Anne insisted that they needed to marry Suzanne off to Count Charles de Montpensier to avoid disputes over the Bourbon inheritance. Anne’s arguments were reasonable: Charles was the next male in line to inherit the duchy as an agnatic heir, and they were brought up together at Moulins. However, King Louis XII wished to reward the d’Alençon family for their unwavering loyalty, and Anne did not oppose the plans of the ruler and her husband. The marriage contract was signed in May 1499. Louis stopped at Moulins in 1501 on the way to Italy, and the engagement of Suzanne and Charles d’Alençon was lavishly celebrated in his presence.

Pierre II, Duke de Bourbon and regent of France, presented by Saint Peter

The sly Duchess Anne did not object, for the children were young, and any betrothal could be broken. In the autumn of 1503, Duke Pierre contracted a fever. Anne and Suzanne were taking care of him for 2 months until his death. During his illness, Pierre asked Charles d’Alençon to arrive and marry Suzanne. B the time Alençon appeared, Pierre had already passed away. In July 1504, Anne broke the contract between Suzanne and Alençon after she had paid the duke a hefty amount. Suzanne, who became Duchess de Bourbon in her own right upon Pierre’s passing, was free to marry. Anne acted as her regent while also remaining politically active.

On the 25th of February 1505, the official betrothal between Suzanne and Count Charles III de Montpensier was celebrated at Hôtel de Bourbon in Paris. Even before their wedding, the impatient Charles began using the title of Duke de Bourbon. The couple were married on the 10th of May 1505, at the chapel of Beaumanoir, to the north of Moulins. Then the spouses, accompanied by Anne, went on progress through their vast domains. According to their marriage contract, Anne surrendered all the titles and estates to the spouses in exchange of a dower of 10,000 livres. It must have looked like a tour of a powerful feudal magnate through the lands existing within a far larger and mostly unified realm. Distracted by his Italian campaigns, King Louis XII did not pay much attention to this, but his successor would have a different opinion.

After the ascension of King François I of France, in 1517 Suzanne gave birth to a boy named François in honor of the new monarch. The sickly boy received the title of Count de Clermont, the traditional name of the heir to the Duchy of Bourbon, but the baby died soon. In 1518, Suzanne produced stillborn or short-lived twins. According to some chronicles, poor Suzanne also suffered several miscarriages. These pregnancies and miscarriages had a detrimental effect on her health, and as of 1520, Anne was extremely worried about her daughter’s future. At last, Suzanne died on the 28th of April 1521 at Château de Châtellerault, and she was buried in the family mausoleum in Souvigny Priory. She was mourned by both her mother and her husband.

In her will, Suzanne bequeathed all her estates and title to her spouse. Nonetheless, her right to bequeath the duchy to him was doubtful because of France’s ancient laws which favored male inheritance. A legal dispute followed, which was used by King François I and his ambitious mother, Louise, who wished to enrich themselves and centralize the Crown’s power by annexing the Duchy of Bourbon. Even if the duchy was to be kept in Louise’s possessions, it would eventually be inherited by her son and would revert to the Crown, which would lead to a higher level of centralization in France and to the absence of too powerful magnates within the realm. Anne joined her daughter in the underworld on the 22nd of November 1522.

As a result of legal disputes with Louise de Savoy, Constable Charles de Bourbon eventually betrayed France and his sovereign. He offered his services to François I’s worst foe – Emperor Charles V. When François was apprised of this conspiracy, his rebellious subject had to escape to Imperial territories. Charles was offered by the emperor to marry his sister – Eleanor of Austria – to cement their alliance against France, but this plan never came to fruition. Charles de Bourbon became famous for commanding the Imperial troops during the barbaric Sack of Rome of 1527.

Charles de Bourbon, Duke de Bourbon and d’Auvergne

With the deaths of both Suzanne and Charles, the two senior Bourbon branches – the senior Bourbon branch and the Bourbon-Montpensier one – went extinct. The agnatic heir to both lines was their distant cousin – Charles de Bourbon, Duke de Vendôme, who was Head of the Bourbon- Vendôme junior branch. Since then, they were called the House of Bourbon as the most senior branch. Between 1523 and 1531, Louise de Savoy was suo jure Duchess d’Auvergne and de Bourbon. After Louise’s death, the Duchy of Bourbon merged into the royal domain. In 1544, King François created the duchy again for Charles de Valois, his youngest son, but he died soon. In later centuries, the duchy would be created several times for members of the House of Bourbon, which would come to rule the country with the ascension of King Henri IV of France.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2021 Olivia Longueville

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