I’ve always been fascinated by Diane de Poitiers, the almost unbelievably gorgeous mistress of Henri II of France, a woman of such mesmerising pulchritude that she managed to effortlessly enslave her royal lover despite being twenty years his senior.
Or was it effortless? That Diane was exquisite beyond imagining and also extremely resourceful and intelligent in that charming yet ruthless way that sixteenth century ladies of power seemed to have specialised in is evident, but it’s also clear that she put a lot of effort into keeping Henri’s wandering attention focussed on her luscious self. She was also amazingly adept at a rather melodramatic form of self promotion.
Diane de Poitiers was born into a family of wealth and influence on the 3rd of September 1499 and from her earliest years, she was part of the circle that surrounded the royal family of France. Luckily for the young Mademoiselle de Poitiers, it was all the rage to educate one’s daughters almost as well as one’s sons and so she was taught Latin and Greek alongside lessons in deportment, dancing and conversation. All of this came together to make the lovely Diane one of the most eligible young ladies at court and at the age of fifteen she was married to Louis de Brézé, Seigneur d’Anet and a grandson of Charles VII, who was also thirty nine years older than herself.
The couple seem to have had a reasonably happy marriage and had two daughters together: Françoise and Louise before Louis died in 1531. At this point, his beautiful widow adopted widows weeds of both black and white, colours that she wore to dazzling effect for the rest of her life. Would it be unkind to suggest that young Madame de Brézé discovered that monochrome was the best setting for her exquisite fair haired beauty? No, I don’t think it is.
During her marriage, Diane had served as lady in waiting to a succession of French Queens from Claude and Eleonora, the consorts of François I to his mother, Louise de Savoie. All of this had the effect of drawing Diane further into the famously lascivious French king’s close circle, although there’s no evidence that Diane and François were ever lovers.
Following the French defeat at Pavia in 1525, François’ eldest sons, Henri and François, who were aged just seven and eight at the time, were sent to Spain in March 1526 as hostages of the Emperor in exchange for their father. As he failed to raise their ransom in time, the two young princes were to spend four long miserable years imprisoned before finally being returned to France in July 1530. It must have been terrifying for the two young princes, who didn’t know if they would ever be able to return home, although they seem to have been treated kindly by their captors.
Henri returned to France a shy, nervous boy of twelve and immediately attached himself to the beautiful Madame de Brézé, who had had the honour of kissing him goodbye when he had left France all those years before. It seems likely that the worldly and elegant Diane was chosen by the king to teach his son some courtly manners after spending so much time in prison but their relationship didn’t become sexual until much later on, in 1538, when he was nineteen years old.
On the 28th of October 1533, Henri married Cathérine de’ Medici, who immediately fell madly in love with her young husband. He, however, was in thrall to Diane, who had assumed the role of an urbane, witty female confidante to the young prince. Cathérine and Diane were great rivals for Henri’s attention but Diane, secure in the knowledge that she was the one and only woman who could truly hold his affection, actually did her best for Cathérine, the ignored young bride, by insisting that Henri pay her proper attention in public, visit her bedchamber and do his best to father some children with her. She even personally nursed Cathérine through a bout of scarlet fever. Possibly she was motivated by genuine affection for the much younger girl, but she was probably also thankful that fate had ordained that young Henri’s wife shouldn’t be at all to his taste. She might not be so lucky if a second marriage ended up on the cards…
It was Diane who held the true reins of power though and her position became even more important when Henri’s elder brother, the Dauphin François, died in 1536 and he became heir to the throne and eventually succeeded his father as king in March 1547 on his twenty eighth birthday.
While Cathérine de’ Medici was the nominal Queen of France, it was an empty title as everyone knew that Diane was really in charge of everything from the king to the education of his children to the crown jewels, which were in her possession. Intelligent, flamboyant, keen on art, with excellent taste and well versed in the intricacies of courtly life, she was the perfect consort for an uncertain young king and proceded to dominate everything, while he was more than happy to let her do so. He even allowed her to write and sign official letters for him, using ‘HenriDiane’ as the signature in a Renaissance precursor to Brangelina. Oh yes, there’s really nothing new under the sun is there?
Henri wasn’t always faithful to his lovely Diane, but she treated his occasional affairs with dignity (rewarded by his naming at least one illegitimate daughter after her) in a contrast to Cathérine who was reportedly prone to jealous rages and is even said to have commissioned a carpenter to make a secret spying hole in the ceiling of Henri’s bedchamber so that she could watch him with Diane. Although, I’m not sure how that would have helped matters…
It all came to an abrupt end in 1559 when Henri was fatally injured in a jousting tournament on the site of what is now the Place des Vosges in Paris. Cathérine finally had the power that she had always craved and immediately banned Diane from the dying Henri’s bedside despite his repeated requests to see her. When he finally died, Diane, like many royal mistresses before and after her, was immediately forced to leave court and go into exile into the country. I expect she only narrowly escaped being made to enter a convent, as was the usual practice in these situations.
Instead, she retreated to one of her country estates at Chaumont, having been made to hand over her gorgeous château at Chenonceau to Cathérine, who had always wanted to get hold of it for herself. Diane was eventually to die at the château d’Anet, still beautiful at the age of sixty six.
All of this glory and high living came at a cost though. It’s clear that Diane took a lot of care of herself – having been blessed with a love and ability for sport, she emulated her namesake, the Goddess Diana, who she often evoked in her portraits and rode and hunted every day. She was also remarkable at the time for sticking to a strict diet, going for daily runs and also bathing every day – taking long baths punctuated by massages with perfumed oils and various beauty treatments. How far she went to retain her good looks has only just become clear when her remains were exhumed in 2009 and her fair hair and bones were found to be unusually frail for those of a woman who had led such an active and healthy lifestyle. They also contained 500 times the normal levels of gold, suggesting that Diane, a fearless innovator as well as keen to maintain her hold on a powerful man, twenty years her junior, had resorted to drinking liquid gold as a form of beauty elixir (it would have worked in a way – the gold would have caused anaemia thus giving her that famously porcelain complexion) – a habit that had almost certainly led to her eventual death.
Poor Diane. Was it worth it in the end?