Transcriber's Note: The Table of Contents was added by the Transcriber.
in all ages and in all countries
WOMEN OF MODERN FRANCE
HUGO P. THIEME, Ph.D.
Of the University of Michigan
THE RITTENHOUSE PRESS PHILADELPHIA
Copyrighted at Washington and entered at Stationer's Hall, London,
and printed by arrangement with George Barrie's Sons.
PRINTED IN U.S.A.
Chapter I. Woman in politics
Chapter II. Woman in Family Life, Education, and Letters
Chapter III. The Seventeenth Century: Woman at Her Best
Chapter IV. Woman in Society and Literature
Chapter V. Mistresses and Wives of Louis XIV
Chapter VI. Mme. de Sevigne, Mme. de La Fayette, Mme. Dacier, Mme. de Caylus
Chapter VII. Woman in Religion
Chapter VIII. Salon Leaders Mme. de Tencin, Mme. Geoffrin, Mme. du Deffand, Mlle. de Lespinasse, Mme. du Chatelet
Chapter IX. Salon Leaders—(Continued): Mme. Necker, Mme. d'Epinay, Mme. de Genlis: Minor Salons
Chapter X. Social Classes
Chapter XI. Royal Mistresses
Chapter XII. Marie Antoinette and the Revolution
Chapter XIII. Women of the Revolution and the Empire
Chapter XIV. Women of the Nineteenth Century
Among the Latin races, the French race differs essentially in one characteristic which has been the key to the success of French women—namely, the social instinct. The whole French nation has always lived for the present time, in actuality, deriving from life more of what may be called social pleasure than any other nation. It has been a universal characteristic among French people since the sixteenth century to love to please, to make themselves agreeable, to bring joy and happiness to others, and to be loved and admired as well. With this instinctive trait French women have always been bountifully endowed. Highly emotional, they love to charm, and this has become an art with them; balancing this emotional nature is the mathematical quality. These two combined have made French women the great leaders in their own country and among women of all races. They have developed the art of studying themselves; and the art of coquetry, which has become a virtue, is a science with them. The singular power of discrimination, constructive ability, calculation, subtle intriguing, a clear and concise manner of expression, a power of conversation unequalled in women of any other country, clear thinking: all these qualities have been strikingly illustrated in the various great women of the different periods of the history of France, and according to these they may by right be judged; for their moral qualities have not always been in accordance with the standard of other races.
According as these two fundamental qualities, the emotional and mathematical, have been developed in individual women, we meet the different types which have made themselves prominent in history. The queens of France, in general, have been submissive and pious, dutiful and virtuous wives, while the mistresses have been bold and frivolous, licentious and self-assertive. The women outside of these spheres either looked on with indifference or regret at the all-powerfulness of this latter class, unable to change conditions, or themselves enjoyed the privilege of the mistress.
It must be remembered that in the great social circles in France, especially from the sixteenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries, marriage was a mere convention, offences against it being looked upon as matters concerning manners, not morals; therefore, much of the so-called gross immorality of French women may be condoned. It will be seen in this history that French women have acted banefully on politics, causing mischief, inciting jealousy and revenge, almost invariably an instrument in the hands of man, acting as a disturbing element. In art, literature, religion, and business, however, they have ever been a directing force, a guide, a critic and judge, an inspiration and companion to man.
The wholesome results of French women's activity are reflected especially in art and literature, and to a lesser degree in religion and morality, by the tone of elegance, politeness, finesse, clearness, precision, purity, and a general high standard which man followed if he was to succeed. In politics much severe blame and reproach have been heaped upon her—she is made responsible for breaking treaties, for activity in all intrigues, participating in and inciting to civil and foreign wars, encouraging and sanctioning assassinations and massacres, championing the Machiavelian policy and practising it at every opportunity.
It has been the aim of this history of French women to present the results rather than the actual happenings of their lives, and these have been gathered from the most authoritative and scholarly publications on the subject, to which the writer herewith wishes to give all credit.
Hugo Paul Thieme.
University of Michigan.
Woman in politics
French women of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, when studied according to the distinctive phases of their influence, are best divided into three classes: those queens who, as wives, represented virtue, education, and family life; the mistresses, who were instigators of political intrigue, immorality, and vice; and the authoresses and other educated women, who constituted themselves the patronesses of art and literature.
This division is not absolute by any means; for we see that in the sixteenth century the regent-mother (for example, Louise of Savoy and Catherine de' Medici), in extent of influence, fills the same position as does the mistress in the eighteenth century; though in the former period appears, in Diana of Poitiers, the first of a long line of ruling mistresses.
Queen-consorts, in the sixteenth as in the following centuries, exercised but little influence; they were, as a rule, gentle and obedient wives—even Catherine, domineering as she afterward showed herself to be, betraying no signs of that trait until she became regent.
The literary women and women of spirit and wit furthered all intellectual and social development; but it was the mistresses—those great women of political schemes and moral degeneracy—who were vested with the actual importance, and it must in justice to them be said that they not infrequently encouraged art, letters, and mental expansion.
Eight queens of France there were during the sixteenth century, and three of these may be accepted as types of purity, piety, and goodness: Claude, first wife of Francis I.; Elizabeth of France, wife of Charles IX.; and Louise de Vaudemont, wife of Henry III. These queens, held up to ridicule and scorn by the depraved followers of their husbands' mistresses, were reverenced by the people; we find striking contrasts to them in the two queens-regent, Louise of Savoy and Catherine de' Medici, who, in the period of their power, were as unscrupulous and brutal, intriguing and licentious, jealous and revengeful, as the most wanton mistresses who ever controlled a king. In this century, we find two other remarkable types: Marguerite d'Angouleme, the bright star of her time; and her whose name comes instantly to mind when we speak of the Lady of Angouleme—Marguerite de Navarre, representing both the good and the doubtful, the broadest sense of that untranslatable term femme d'esprit.
The first of the royal French women to whom modern woman owes a great and clearly defined debt was Anne of Brittany, wife of Louis XII. and the personification of all that is good and virtuous. To her belongs the honor of having taken the first step toward the social emancipation of French women; she was the first to give to woman an important place at court. This precedent she established by requesting her state officials and the foreign ambassadors to bring their wives and daughters when they paid their respects to her. To the ladies themselves, she sent a "royal command," bidding them leave their gloomy feudal abodes and repair to the court of their sovereign.
Anne may be said to belong to the transition period—that period in which the condition of slavery and obscurity which fettered the women of the Middle Ages gave place to almost untrammelled liberty. The queen held a separate court in great state, at Blois and Des Tournelles, and here elegance, even magnificence, of dress was required of her ladies. At first, this unprecedented demand caused discontent among men, who at that time far surpassed women in elaborateness of costume and had, consequently, been accustomed to the use of their surplus wealth for their own purposes. Under Anne's influence, court life underwent a complete transformation; her receptions, which were characterized by royal splendor, became the centre of attraction.
Anne of Brittany, the last queen of France of the Middle Ages and the first of the modern period, was a model of virtuous conduct, conjugal fidelity, and charity. Having complete control over her own immense wealth, she used it largely for beneficent purposes; to her encouragement much of the progress of art and literature in France was due. Hers was an example that many of the later queens endeavored to follow, but it cannot be said that they ever exerted a like influence or exhibited an equal power of initiation and self-assertion.
The first royal woman to become a power in politics in the period that we are considering was Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I., a type of the voluptuous and licentious female of the sixteenth century. Her pernicious activity first manifested itself when, having conceived a violent passion for Charles of Bourbon, she set her heart upon marrying him, and commenced intrigues and plots which were all the more dangerous because of her almost absolute control over her son, the King.
At this time there were three distinct sets or social castes at the court of France: the pious and virtuous band about the good Queen Claude; the lettered and elegant belles in the coterie of Marguerite d'Angouleme, sister of Francis I.; and the wanton and libertine young maids who formed a galaxy of youth and beauty about Louise of Savoy, and were by her used to fascinate her son and thus distract him from affairs of state.
Louise used all means to bring before the king beautiful women through whom she planned to preserve her influence over him. One of these frail beauties, Francoise de Foix, completely won the heart of the monarch; her ascendency over him continued for a long period, in spite of the machinations of Louise, who, when Francis escaped her control, sought to bring disrepute and discredit upon the fair mistress.
The mother, however, remained the powerful factor in politics. With an abnormal desire to hoard money, an unbridled temper, and a violent and domineering disposition, she became the most powerful and dangerous, as well as the most feared, woman of all France. During her regency the state coffers were pillaged, and plundering was carried on on all sides. One of her acts at this time was to cause the recall of Charles of Bourbon, then Governor of Milan; this measure was taken as much for the purpose of obtaining revenge for his scornful rejection of her offer of marriage as for the hope of eventually bringing him to her side.
Upon the return of Charles, she immediately began plotting against him, including in her hatred Francoise de Foix, the king's mistress, at whom Bourbon frequently cast looks of pity which the furiously jealous Louise interpreted as glances of love. As a matter of fact, Bourbon, being strictly virtuous, was out of reach of temptation by the beauties of the court, and there were no grounds for jealousy.
This love of Louise for Charles of Bourbon is said to have owed most of its ardor to her hope of coming into possession of his immense estates. She schemed to have his title to them disputed, hoping that, by a decree of Parliament, they might be taken from him; the idea in this procedure was that Bourbon, deprived of his possessions, must come to her terms, and she would thus satisfy—at one and the same time—her passion and her cupidity.
Under her influence the character of the court changed entirely; retaining only a semblance of its former decency, it became utterly corrupt. It possessed external elegance and distingue manners, but below this veneer lay intrigue, debauchery, and gross immorality. In order to meet the vast expenditures of the king and the queen-mother, the taxes were enormously increased; the people, weighed down by the unjust assessment and by want, began to clamor and protest. Undismayed by famine, poverty, and epidemic, Louise continued her depredations on the public treasury, encouraging the king in his squanderings; and both mother and son, in order to procure money, begged, borrowed, plundered.
Louise was always surrounded by a bevy of young ladies, selected beauties of the court, whose natural charms were greatly enhanced by the lavishness of their attire. Always ready to further the plans of their mistress, they hesitated not to sacrifice reputation or honor to gratify her smallest whim. Her power was so generally recognized that foreign ambassadors, in the absence of the king, called her "that other king." When war against France broke out between Spain and England, Louise succeeded in gaining the office of constable for the Duc d'Alencon; by this means, she intended to displace Charles of Bourbon (whom she was still persecuting because he continued cold to her advances), and to humiliate him in the presence of his army; the latter design, however, was thwarted, as he did not complain.
To the caprice of Louise of Savoy were due the disasters and defeats of the French army during the period of her power; by frequently displacing someone whose actions did not coincide with her plans, and elevating some favorite who had avowed his willingness to serve her, she kept military affairs in a state of confusion.
Many wanton acts are attributed to her: she appropriated forty thousand crowns allowed to Governor Lautrec of Milan for the payment of his soldiers, and caused the execution of Samblancay, superintendent of finances, who had been so unfortunate as to incur her displeasure. It was Charles of Bourbon, who, with Marshal Lautrec, investigated the episode of the forty thousand crowns and exposed the treachery and perfidy of the mother of his king.
Finding that Bourbon intended to persist in his resistance to her advances, Louise decided upon drastic measures of retaliation. With the assistance of her chancellor (and tool), Duprat, she succeeded in having withheld the salaries which were due to Bourbon because of the offices held by him. As he took no notice of these deprivations, she next proceeded to divest him of his estates by laying claim to them for herself; she then proposed to Bourbon that, by accepting her hand in marriage, he might settle the matter happily. The object of her numerous schemes not only rejected this offer with contempt, but added insult to injury by remarking: "I will never marry a woman devoid of modesty." At this rebuff, Louise was incensed beyond measure, and when Queen Claude suggested Bourbon's marriage to her sister, Mme. Renee de France (a union to which Charles would have consented gladly), the queen-mother managed to induce Francis I. to refuse his consent.
After the death of Anne of Beaujeu, mother-in-law of Charles of Bourbon, her estates were seized by the king and transferred to Louise while the claim was under consideration by Parliament. When the judges, after an examination of the records of the Bourbon estate, remonstrated with Chancellor Duprat against the illegal transfer, he had them put into prison. This rigorous act, which was by order of Louise, weakened the courage of the court; when the time arrived for a final decision, the judges declared themselves incompetent to decide, and in order to rid themselves of responsibility referred the matter to the king's council. This great lawsuit, which was continued for a long time, eventually forced Charles of Bourbon to flee from France. Having sworn allegiance to Charles V. of Spain and Henry VIII. of England against Francis I., he was made lieutenant-general of the imperial armies.
When Francis, captured at the battle of Pavia, was taken to Spain, Louise, as regent, displayed unusual diplomatic skill by leaguing the Pope and the Italian states with Francis against the Spanish king. When, after nearly a year's captivity, her son returned, she welcomed him with a bevy of beauties; among them was a new mistress, designed to destroy the influence of the woman who had so often thwarted the plans of Louise—the beautiful Francoise de Foix whom the king had made Countess of Chateaubriant.
This new beauty was Anne de Pisseleu, one of the thirty children of Seigneur d'Heilly, a girl of eighteen, with an exceptional education. Most cunning was the trap which Louise had set for the king. Anne was surrounded by a circle of youthful courtiers, who hung upon her words, laughed at her caprices, courted her smiles; and when she rather confounded them with the extent of the learning which—with a sort of gay triumph—she was rather fond of showing, they pronounced her "the most charming of learned ladies and the most learned of the charming."
The plot worked; Francis was fascinated, falling an easy prey to the wiles of the wanton Anne. The former mistress, Francoise de Foix, was discarded, and Louise, purely out of revenge and spite, demanded the return of the costly jewels given by the king and appropriated them herself.
The duty assigned to the new mistress was that of keeping Francis busy with fetes and other amusements. While he was thus kept under the spell of his enchantress, he lost all thought of his subjects and the welfare of his country and the affairs of the kingdom fell into the hands of Louise and her chancellor, Duprat. The girl-mistress, Anne, was married by Louise to the Duc d'Etampes whose consent was gained through the promise of the return of his family possessions which, upon his father's departure with Charles of Bourbon, had been confiscated.
The reign of Louise of Savoy was now about over; she had accomplished everything she had planned. She had caused Charles of Bourbon, one of the greatest men of the sixteenth century, to turn against his king; and that king owed to her—his mother—his defeat at Pavia, his captivity in Spain, and his moral fall. Spain, Italy, and France were victims of the infamous plotting and disastrous intrigues of this one woman whose death, in 1531, was a blessing to the country which she had dishonored.
At the time of the marriage of Francis I. to Eleanor of Portugal (one of the last acts of Louise), Europe was beginning to look upon France as ahead of all other nations in the "superlativeness of her politeness." The most rigid etiquette and the most punctilious politeness were always observed, fines being imposed for any discourtesy toward women.
After the death of Louise, the lot of managing the king and directing his policy fell to the share of his mistress, the Duchesse d'Etampes, who at once became all-powerful at court; her influence over him was like that of the drug which, to the weak person who begins its use, soon becomes an absolute necessity.
After the death of the dauphin, all the court flatteries were directed toward Henry, the eldest son of Francis. Though his mistress, Diana of Poitiers, ruled him, she exercised no influence politically; that she was not lacking in diplomacy, however, was proved by her attitude toward Henry's wife, Catherine, whom she treated with every indication of friendship and esteem, in marked contrast to the disdain exhibited by other ladies of the court. These two women became friends, working together against the mistress of the king—the Duchesse d'Etampes—and causing, by their intrigues, dissensions between father and son.
The duchess was not a bad woman; her dissuasion of Francis I. from undertaking war with Solyman II. against Charles V. is one instance of the use of her influence in the right direction. By some historians, she is accused of having played the traitress, in the interest of Emperor Charles V., during the war of Spain and England against France. It was she who urged the Treaty of Crepy with Charles V.; by it, through the marriage of the French king's second son, the Duke of Orleans, to the niece of Charles V., the duchess was sure of a safe retreat when her bitter enemy, Henry's mistress, should reign after the king's death. Her plans, however, did not materialize, as the duke died and the treaty was annulled.
The death of Francis I. occurred in 1547; with his reign ends the first period of woman's activity—a period influenced mainly by Louise of Savoy, whose relations to France were as disastrous as were those of any mistress. The influence exerted by her may in some respects be compared with that of Mme. de Pompadour; though, were the merits and demerits of both carefully tested, the results would hardly be in favor of Louise. Strong in diplomacy and intrigue, she was unscrupulous and wanton—morally corrupt; she did nothing to further the development of literature and art; if she favored men of genius it was merely from motives of self-interest.
With the accession of Henry II. his mistress entered into possession of full power. The absolute sway of Diana of Poitiers over this weakest of French kings was due to her strong mind, great ability, wide experience, fascination of manner, and to that exceptional beauty which she preserved to her old age. Immediately upon coming into power, she dispatched the Duchesse d'Etampes to one of her estates and at the same time forced her to restore the jewels which she had received from Francis I., a usual procedure with a mistress who knew herself to be first in authority.
After being thus displaced, the duchess spent her time in doing charitable work, and is said to have afforded protection to the Protestants. Eventually, hers was the fate of almost all the mistresses. Compelled to give up many of her possessions, miserable and forgotten by all, her last days were most unhappy.
Early in her career, Henry made Diana Duchesse de Valentinois. So powerful did she become that Sieur de Bayard, secretary of state, having referred in jest to her age (she was twenty years the king's senior), was deprived of his office, thrown into prison, and left to die. In her management of Queen Catherine, Diana was most politic; she never interfered, but constituted herself "the protectress of the legitimate wife, settling all questions concerning the newly born," for which she received a large salary. When, while the king was in Italy, the queen became ill, she owed her recovery to the watchful care of the mistress. The latter appointed to the vacant estates and positions members of her house—that of Guise. In time, this house gained such an ascendency that it conceived the project of setting aside all the princes of the blood royal.
Having (through one of her favorites) gained control of the royal treasury, Diana appropriated everything—lands, money, jewels. Her influence was so astonishing to the people that she was accused of wielding a magic power and bewitching the king who seemed, verily, to be leading an enchanted existence; he had but one thought, one aim—that of pleasing and obeying his aged mistress. To make amends for his adultery, he concluded to extirpate heretics. Such a combination of luxury and extravagance with licentiousness and brutality, such wholesale murder, persecution, and burning at the stake have never been equalled, except under Nero.
Michelet reveals the character of Diana in these words: "Affected by nothing, loving nothing, sympathizing with nothing; of the passions retaining only those which will give a little rapidity to the blood; of the pleasures preferring those that are mild and without violence—the love of gain and the pursuit of money; hence, there was absence of soul. Another phase was the cultivation of the body, the body and its beauty uniquely cared for by virile treatment and a rigid regime which is the guardian of life—not weakly adored as by women who kill themselves by excessive self-love." M. Saint-Amand continues, after quoting the above: "At all seasons of the year, Diana plunges into a cold bath on rising. As soon as day breaks, she mounts a horse, and, followed by swift hounds, rides through dewy verdure to her royal lover to whom—fascinated by her mythological pomp—she seems no more a woman but a goddess. Thus he styles her in verses of burning tenderness:
"'Helas, mon Dieu! combien je regrette Le temps que j'ai perdu en ma jeunesse! Combien de fois je me suis souhaite Avoir Diane pour ma seule maitresse. Mais je craignais qu'elle, qui est deesse, Ne se voulut abaisser jusque la.'"
[Alas, my God! how much I regret the time lost in my youth! How often have I longed to have Diana for my only mistress! But I feared that she who is a goddess would not stoop so low as that.]
Catherine remained quietly in the palace, preferring her position, unpleasant as it was, to the persecution and possible incarceration in a convent which would result from any interference on her part between the king and his mistress. Without power or privileges, she was a mere figurehead—a good mother looking after her family. However, she was not idle; without taking part in the intrigues, she was studying them—planning her future tactics; in all relations she was diplomatic, her conversation ever displaying exquisite tact.
While France groaned under the burdens of seemingly interminable wars and exorbitant taxes, her king revelled in excessive luxury; the aim of his favorite mistress seemed to be to acquire wealth and spend it lavishly for her own pleasure. Voluptuousness, cruelty, and extravagance were the keynotes of the time. All means were used to procure revenues, the king easing any pangs of conscience by burning a few heretics whose estates were then quickly confiscated.
Diana, even at the age of sixty, still held Henry in her toils; an easy prey for the wiles of the flatterer, he was kept in ignorance of the hatred and anger heaping up against him. In the midst of riotous festivity, Henry II. died, a victim of the lance of Montgomery; and the twelve years' reign of debauchery, cruelty, and shameless extravagance came to an end.
Whatever else may be said of Diana, she proved to be a liberal patroness of art and letters; this was possible for her, since, in addition to inherited wealth and the gifts of lands and jewels from the king, she procured the possessions of many heretics whose confiscated wealth was assigned to her as a faithful servant and supporter of the church.
Her hotel at Anet was one of the most elaborate, tasteful, and elegant in all France; there the finest specimens of Italian sculpture, painting, and woodwork were to be seen. The king, upon making her a duchess, presented her with the beautiful chateau of Chenonceaux, which was so much coveted by Catherine. The latter attempted to make Diana pay for the chateau, thus interrupting her plans for building; upon discovering this, Henry sent his own artists and workmen to carry out Diana's desires. Such was the power of his mistress over the weak king that he respected her wishes far more than he did those of his queen. This was one of those instances in which Catherine saw fit to remain silent and plan revenge.
The death of Diana of Poitiers was that common to all women of her position. She died in 1566, forgotten by the world—her world. In her will she made "provision for religious houses, to be opened to women of evil lives, as if, in the depth of her conscience, she had recognized the likeness between their destiny and her own." Like the former mistresses, she had been required to give up the jewels received from Henry II.; but as this order was from Francis II. instead of from his mistress, the gems were returned to the crown after having passed successively through the hands of three mistresses.
Catherine's time had not yet come, for she dared not interfere when Mary Stuart (a beautiful, inexperienced, and impetuous girl of seventeen) gained ascendency over Francis II.—a mere boy. The house of Guise was then supreme and began its bloody campaign against its enemies; fortunately, however, its power was short-lived, for in 1560 the king died after reigning only seventeen months. At this point, Catherine enters upon the scene of action. Jealous of Mary Stuart and fearing that the young king, Charles IX., then but ten years old, might become infatuated with her and marry her, she promptly returned the fair young woman to Scotland.
The task before the regent was no light one; her kingdom was divided against itself, the country was overburdened with taxes, and discontent reigned universally. All who surrounded her were full of prejudice and actuated solely by personal aspirations—she realized that she could trust no one.
Her first act of a political nature was to rescue the house of Valois and solidify the royal authority. Some critics maintain that she began her reign with moderation, gentleness, impartiality, and reconciliation. This view finds support in the fact that during the first years she favored Protestantism; finding, however, that the latter was weakening royal power and that the country at large was opposed to it, she became its most bitter enemy. To the Protestants and their plottings she attributed all the disastrous effects of the civil war, all thefts, murders, incests, and adulteries, as well as the profanation of the sepulchres of the ancestors of the royal family, the burning of the bones of Louis XI. and of the heart of Francis II.
The Machiavellian policy was Catherine's guide; bitter experience had robbed her of all faith in humanity—she had learned to despise it and the judgment of her contemporaries. At first she was amiable and polite, seemingly intent upon pleasing those with whom she talked; in fact, it is said that she was then more often accused of excessive mildness and moderation than of the violence and cruelty which later characterized her. Experience having taught her how to deal with people, she never lost her self-control.
Subsequent history shows that any gentle and conciliatory policy of Catherine was merely a method of furthering her own interests, and was therefore not the outcome of any inborn feeling of sympathy or womanly tenderness. Whether her signing of the Edict of Saint-Germain, admitting the Protestants to all employments and granting them the privilege of Calvinistic worship in two cities of every province, and her refusal, upon the urgent solicitations of her son-in-law, Philip II., to persecute heretics were really snares laid for the Huguenots, is a matter which historians have not decided.
Inasmuch as the entire history of France plays about the personality of Catherine de' Medici, no attempt will be made to give a detailed chronological account of her career; the results, rather than the events themselves, will be given. M. Saint-Amand, in his work on French Women of the Valois Court, presents one of the strongest pictures drawn of Catherine. We shall follow him in the greater part of this sketch.
According to some historians, Catherine was a mere intriguer, without talent or ability, living but in the moment, often caught in her own snares; according to others, by her intelligence, ability, and strength of character she advanced a cause truly national—that of French unity; thus, she worked either the ruin or the salvation of France. Michelet calls her a nonentity, a stage queen with merely the externals—the attire—of royalty, remaining exactly on a level with the rulers of the smaller Italian principalities, contriving everything and fearing everything, with no more heart than she had sense or temperament. Being a female, she loved her young; she loved the arts, but cared to cultivate only their externalities. In this, however, Michelet goes to an extreme; for no woman ever lived who had so great a talent for intrigues and politics as she—a very type of the deceit and cunning which were inherent in her race. If she were not important, had not wielded so much influence and decided the fate of so many great men, women, and even states, she would not be the subject of so much writing, of such fierce denunciation and strong praise. To her family, France owes her finest palaces, her masterpieces of art—painting, bookmaking, printing, binding, sculpture.
M. Saint-Amand declares that "isolated from her contemporaries, Catherine de' Medici is a monster; brought back within the circle of their passions and their theories, she once more becomes a woman." But Catherine was the instigator, the embodiment of all that is vice, deceit, cunning, trickery, wickedness, and bold intrigue; she set the example, and her ladies followed her in all that she did; "the heroines bred in her school (and what woman was not in her school?) imitate, with docility, the examples she gives them." She was not only the type of her civilization,—brutal, gross, immoral, elegant, polished, and mondain,—but she was also its leader.
Greatness of soul, real moral force, strict virtue, are not attributes of the sixteenth-century woman—they are isolated and rare exceptions; these Catherine did not possess. Nor was she influenced deeply by her environments; the latter but encouraged and developed those qualities which were hers inherently,—will, intelligence, inflexible perseverance, tenacity of purpose, unscrupulousness, cruelty; hence, to say "She is the victim rather than the inspiration of the corruption of her time" is misleading, to say the least. If, upon her arrival at court, "she at once pleased every one by her grace and affability, modest air, and, above all, by her extreme gentleness," she could not have changed, say her defenders, into the perfidious, wicked, and cruel creature she is said to have become as soon as she stepped into power. "During the reign of Henry II., she wisely avoided all danger; faithful to her wifely duties, she gave no cause for scandal, and, realizing that she was not strong enough to overcome her all-powerful rival, she bided her time. She was loved and respected by everyone for her personal qualities and her benevolence." But why may it not be true that all this was but part of her politics, the politics in which she had been educated? Wise from experience, she foresaw the future and what was in store for her if she remained prudent and made the best of the surroundings until the time should come when she could strike suddenly and boldly.
Brought up from infancy amidst snares, intrigues, the clash of arms, the furious shouts of popular insurrections, tempests, and storms, she could not escape the influence of her early environment. Her talent for studying and penetrating the designs of her enemies, for facing or avoiding dangers with such sublime calmness and prudence, was partly inherited, partly acquired. That spirit she took with her to France, where her experience was widened and her opportunities for the study of human nature were increased.
It is not generally known that her mother was a French woman—a Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne, daughter of Jean, Count of Boulogne, and Catherine of Bourbon, daughter of the Count of Vendome; thus, her gentler nature was a French product. Her mother and father both died when she was but twenty-two days old, and from that time until her marriage she was cast about from place to place. But from the very first she showed that talent of adapting herself to her surroundings, living amidst intrigues and discords and yet making friends. She has been called "the precocious heiress of the craftiness of her progenitors."
In her thirteenth year, after being sought by many powerful princes, Clement VII. (her greatuncle), in order to secure himself against the powerful Charles V., married her to Henry, Duke of Orleans, the second son of Francis I. Even at that early age she was fully aware of all the dreariness and danger attached to positions of power, and knew that the art of governing was not an easy one. She had studied Machiavelli's famous work, The Prince, which had been dedicated to her father, and it was from it, as well as from her ancestors, that she derived her wisdom and astuteness. Her childhood had prepared her for the work of the future, and she went at it with caution and reserve until she was sure of her ground.
She first proceeded to study the king, Francis I., watching his actions, extracting his secrets; a fine huntress and at his side constantly, she pleased him and gained his favor. Brantome says she was subtle and diplomatic, quickly learning the craft of her profession; she sought friends among all classes and ranks, directing her overtures specially toward the ladies of the court, whom she soon won and gathered about her.
In 1536 the dauphin died, and Catherine's husband became heir to the throne of France. Though they had been married three years, no offspring had resulted, which unfortunate circumstance made her position a most uncertain one, especially as Diana of Poitiers was then at the height of her power, controlling Henry absolutely. A furious rivalry sprang up between the Duchesse d'Etampes, mistress of Francis I., and Diana and Catherine; the two mistresses formed two parties, and a war of slanders, calumnies, and unpleasant epigrams ensued. Queen Eleanor, the second wife of Francis I., took no active part, thus leaving all power in the hands of the mistress of her husband. (It was at this time that the Emperor Charles V. gained the Duchesse d'Etampes over to his cause.) Poets and artists, politicians and men of genius took sides, extolling the beauty of the one they championed. Catherine, although befriended and treated with apparent respect by Diana, remained a good friend to both women, thus evincing her tact. By keeping her own personality in the background, she won the esteem of both her husband and the king.
Brantome leaves a picture of Catherine at this time: "She was a fine and ample figure; very majestic, yet agreeable and very gentle when necessary; beautiful and gracious in appearance, her face fair and her throat white and full, very white in body likewise.... Moreover, she dressed superbly, always having some pretty innovation. In brief, she had beauties fitted to inspire love. She laughed readily, her disposition was jovial, and she liked to jest." M. Saint-Amand continues: "The artistic elegance that surrounded her whole person, the tranquil and benevolent expression of her countenance, the good taste of her dress, the exquisite distinction of her manners, all contributed to her charm. And then she was so humble in the presence of her husband! She so carefully avoided whatever might have the semblance of reproach! She closed her eyes with such complaisance! Henry told himself that it would be difficult to find another woman so well-disposed, another wife so faithful to her duties, another princess so accomplished in point of instruction and intelligence. The menage a trois (household of three) was continued, therefore, and if the dauphin loved his mistress, he certainly had a friendship for his wife. And, on her part, whenever she felt an inclination to complain of her lot, Catherine bethought herself that if she quitted her position she would probably find no refuge but the cloister, and that—taking it all around—the court of France (in spite of the humiliations and vexations one might experience there) was an abode more desirable than a convent;" this, then, is the secret of her submission. In spite of her beauty, mildness, and distinction of manner, she could not overcome the prestige of Diana.
After nine years, Catherine was still without children and began to fear the fate in store for her; but when she gave birth to a son in 1543, she felt assured that divorce no longer threatened her and she resolved that as soon as she came into power she would be revenged upon her enemies and Diana of Poitiers. When, in 1547, her husband succeeded his father as King of France, she did not feel that the time had yet arrived to interfere in any social or domestic arrangements or affairs of state; not until ten years later did she show the first sign of remarkable statesmanship or ability as a politician.
After the battle and capture of Saint-Quentin, France was in a most deplorable state; the enemy was believed to be beneath the walls of Paris; everybody was fleeing; the king had gone to Compiegne to muster a new army. Catherine was alone in Paris "and of her own free will went to the Parliament in full state, accompanied by the cardinals, princes, and princesses; and there, in the most impressive language, she set forth the urgent state of affairs at the moment.... With so much sentiment and eloquence that she touched the heart of everybody, the queen then explained to the Parliament that the king had need of three hundred thousand livres, twenty-five thousand to be paid every two months; and she added that she would retire from the place of session, so as not to interfere with the liberty of discussion; accordingly, she retired to another room. A resolution to comply with the wishes of her majesty was voted, and the queen, having resumed her place, received a promise to that effect. A hundred nobles of the city offered to give at once three thousand francs apiece. The queen thanked them in the sweetest form of words, and thus terminated this session of Parliament—with so much applause for her majesty and such lively marks of satisfaction at her behavior, that no idea can be given of them. Throughout the city, nothing was spoken of but the queen's prudence and the happy manner in which she proceeded in this enterprise" (Guizot). From this act dates Catherine's entrance into political consideration.
During the reign of Francis II., Catherine de' Medici exercised no influence at court, the king being completely under the dominion of his wife and the Duke of Guise, who was not favorable to the queen-mother's schemes and policies. Catherine, however, was plotting; caring little about religion so long as it did not further her plans, she connected herself with the Huguenots; her scheme was to bring the Guises to destruction and to form a council of regency which, while composed of the Huguenot leaders, was to be under her guidance. As this plan failed, bringing ruin to many princes, she deserted the Huguenots and allied herself with the Catholics.
She is next found attempting the assassination of the Duke of Conde, but she failed to accomplish that crime because her son, the king, refused his consent. Soon after, Francis II. died, it is said from the effect of poison dropped into his ear while he was sleeping; it is probable that this crime was committed at the instigation of the mother, since by his death and the accession of Charles IX. she became regent (1560). She was then all-powerful and in a position to exercise her long dormant talents.
Her first plan was to incapacitate all her children by plunging them "into such licentious pleasure and voluptuous dissipation that they were speedily unfitted for mental activity or exertion." Most unprejudiced historians credit her with the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew; she is said to have boasted about it to Catholic governments and excused it to Protestant powers. For a number of years, she had been planning the destruction of the Huguenot princes, and as early as 1565 she and Charles IX. had an interview with the Duke of Alva (representative of Philip II), to consult as to the means of delivering France from heretics. It was decided that "this great blessing could not have accomplishment save by the deaths of all the leaders of the Huguenots."
That fearful crime, the bloody Massacre of Saint Bartholomew, is familiar to everyone. The only excuse offered for this most heinous of Catherine's many offences is her intense sentiment of national unity; the actual reason for it is to be sought in the fact that as long as the Protestants retained their prestige and influence, Catherine and her Catholic party could not do as they pleased, could not gain absolute control over the government. History holds her more responsible than it does her weak son. The climax came on the occasion of the wedding of Marguerite of Valois with the Prince of Navarre, which meant the union of the branches—the Catholic and the Protestant. This resulted in the first breach between the king and Catherine; the latter at that time perpetrated one of her dastardly deeds by poisoning the mother of the Prince of Navarre—Jeanne d'Albret, her bitter enemy.
After the death of Charles IX., Henry III. was the sole survivor of the four sons of Catherine. Although her power was limited during his reign, she managed to continue her murderous plans and accomplished the death of Henry of Guise and his brother the cardinal, which crime united the majority of the Catholics of France against the king and was the cause of his assassination in 1589. This ended the power of Catherine de' Medici; when she died, no one rejoiced, no one lamented. Wherever she had turned her eyes, she had seen nothing but occasions for uneasiness and sadness; she had retired from court, feeling her helplessness and disgrace as well as the decline in power of that son in whom her hopes were centred. She decided to reenter the scene of action and save Henry. The stormy scenes of the Barricades and the League and the murder of the Duke of Guise hastened her death, which occurred in 1589.
Catherine de' Medici may rightfully be called the initiator and organizer of social and court etiquette and courtesy—of conventional and social laws. However great her political activity, she made herself deeply felt in the social and moral worlds also. She taught her husband the secret of being king; she introduced the lever audience; in the afternoon of every day, she held a reunion of all the ladies of the court, at which the king was to be found after dinner and every lord entertained the lady he most loved; two hours were spent in this pleasure which was continued after supper if there were no balls; bitter railleries and anything that passed the restrictions of good company were forbidden.
Her ladies of honor obeyed her as they would their God. Marguerite of Valois said of her: "I did not dare to speak to her, and when she looked at me I trembled for fear of having done something that displeased her." Ladies who had been delinquent were stripped and beaten with lashes; for correction—frequently for mere pastime—she would have them undressed and slapped vigorously with the back of the hand. Francoise of Rohan, cousin of Jeanne d'Albret, wrote the following poem:
"Plus j'ai de toi souvent este battue, Plus mon amour s'efforce et s'evertue De regretter ceste main qui me bat; Car ce mal-la m'estait plaisant esbat. Or, adieu done la main dont la rigueur Je preferais a tout bien et honneur."
[The more often I have been struck by you, the more my love struggles and strives to regret the hand that beats me; for that punishment was a pleasant pastime for me. Now farewell to the hand whose rigor I preferred to every fortune and honor.]
The following portrait and poetry, taken from M. Saint-Amand, does the subject full justice: "Catherine de' Medici represented with a sinister glance, deadly mien, mysterious and savage aspect—a spectre, not a woman—is not true to nature. Her self-possession, cool cunning, supreme elegance, imperturbable tranquillity, calmness, moderation, noble serenity, and dignified poise, gave her an individuality such as few women ever possessed. Gentle in crime and tragedy, polite like an executioner toward his victim—this Machiavellianism which is equal to every trial, which nothing alarms or surprises, and which with tranquil dexterity makes sport of every law of morality and humanity—this is the real character of Catherine de' Medici." The following burlesque poetry was composed for her:
"La reine qui ci-git fut un diable et un ange, Toute pleine de blame et pleine de louange, Elle soutint l'Etat, et l'Etat mit a bas; Elle fit maints accords et pas moins de debats; Elle enfanta trois rois et trois guerres civiles, Fit batir des chateaux et ruiner des villes, Fit bien de bonnes lois et de mauvais edits. Souhaite-lui, passant, enfer et paradis."
[The queen lying here was both devil and angel, blamed and praised; she both put down and upheld the state; she caused many an agreement and no end of disputes; she produced three kings and three civil wars; she built castles and ruined cities, made many good laws and many bad decrees. Wish her, passer-by, hell and paradise.]
With the reign of Henry IV.—the first king of the house of Bourbon, and the first king of the sixteenth century with a will of his own and the courage to assert it—begins a period of revelling, debauch, and the most depraved immorality. Three mistresses in turn controlled him—morally, not politically.
Henry was master of his own will, and, had he desired to do so, could have overcome his evil tendencies; instead, he openly countenanced and even encouraged dissoluteness and elegant debauchery, as long as he himself was not deprived of the lady upon whom his capricious fancy happened to fall. His advances were but seldom repulsed; but upon making his usual audacious proposals to the Marquise de Guercheville, he was informed that she was of too insignificant a house to be the king's wife and of too good a race to be his mistress; and when the king, in spite of this rebuff, made her lady of honor to his wife, Marie de' Medici, she continued to resist him and remained virtuous. Such types of purity, honor, and moral courage were very exceptional during this reign.
The three principal mistresses of this sovereign represent three phases of influence and three periods of his life. Corisande d'Andouins, Comtesse de Guiche and Duchesse de Gramont, fascinated him for eight years, while he was King of Navarre (1582-1590); to her he was deeply attached, and recompensed her for her devotion; this is called his chevaleresque period. The beautiful Gabrielle d'Estrees, Duchesse de Beaufort, was called his mate after victory; "she refined, sharpened, softened, and tamed his customs; she made him king of the court instead of the field." It was she who ventured to meddle in his politics, she whom Marguerite of Valois, his wife, so detested that she refused to consent to a divorce as long as Gabrielle (by whom he had several children) remained his mistress. The latter even went so far as to demand the baptism, as a child of France, of her son by the king. Sully, in a rage, declared there were no "children of France," and took the order to the king, who had it destroyed; he then asked his minister to go to his mistress and satisfy her, "in so far as you can." To his efforts she replied: "I am aware of all, and do not care to hear any more; I am not made as the king is, whom you persuade that black is white." Upon receiving this report, the king said: "Here, come with me; I will let you see that women have not the possession of me that certain malignant spirits say they have." Accompanied by Sully, he immediately went to the Duchesse de Beaufort, and, taking her by the hand, said: "Now, madame, let us go into your room, and let nobody else enter except Rosny. I want to speak to you both and teach you how to be good friends." Then, having closed the door, holding Gabrielle with one hand and Rosny with the other, he said: "Good God, madame! What is the meaning of this? So you would vex me from sheer wantonness of heart in order to try my patience? By God, I swear to you that, if you continue these fashions of going on, you will find yourself very much out in your expectations! I see quite well that you have been put up to all this pleasantry in order to make me dismiss a servant whom I cannot do without, and who has served me loyally for five-and-twenty years. By God, I will do nothing of the kind! And I declare to you that if I were reduced to such a necessity as to choose between losing one or the other, I could better do without ten mistresses like you than one servant like him." Shortly after this episode, Gabrielle died so suddenly that she was supposed to have been poisoned. Immediately after her death the divorce was granted, and Henry married Marie de' Medici.
The third mistress, Henriette de Balzac d'Entragues, Marquise de Verneuil, who led Henry IV. along a path of the worst debauchery, gained control over him by lewd, lascivious methods. While negotiations were being carried on for his divorce from Marguerite, only a few weeks after the death of Gabrielle, he signed a promise to marry Henriette; this, however, he failed to keep. She, more than any other of his mistresses, was the cause of national distress and of more than one ruinous war. When, after the marriage of the king to Marie de' Medici, Henriette began to nag, rail, intrigue, and conspire, she was disgraced by Henry, who at least had the courage to honor his own family above that of his mistresses. She is accused of having had, solely from motives of revenge, a hand in the death of the king.
Thus, around the queens-regent and the mistresses of the kings of France in the sixteenth century there is constant intriguing, murder, assassination, immorality, and debauchery, jealousy and revenge, marriage and divorce, honor and disgrace, despotism and final repentance and misery. The greatest and lowest of these women was Catherine de' Medici; Diana of Poitiers was famed as the most marvellously beautiful woman in France, and she was the most powerful and intelligent mistress until the time of Mme. de Pompadour. Amid all this bribery and corruption, elegant and refined immorality, there are some few types that represent education, family life, purity, and culture.
Woman in Family Life, Education, and Letters
The queens of France exerted little or no influence upon the cultural or political development of that country. Frequently of foreign extraction and reared in the strict religious discipline of Catholicism, they spent their time in attending masses, aiding the poor and, with the little money allowed them, erecting hospitals and other institutions for the weak and needy. Thus, they are, as a rule, types of gentleness, virtue, piety, and self-sacrifice.
The little information which history gives concerning them is confined mainly to their matrimonial alliances. To them, marriage represented nothing more than a contract—a union entered into for the purpose of settling some political negotiation; thus they were often cast upon strange and unfriendly soil where intrigues and jealousy immediately affected them.
Seldom did they venture to interfere with the intrigues of the mistress; in their uncertain position, any manifestation of resentment or opposition resulted in humiliation and disgrace; if wise, they contented themselves with quietly performing their functions as dutiful wives. Such women were Claude, daughter of Louis XII., and Eleanor of Spain—wives of Francis I.; lacking the power to act politically, both passed uneventful and virtuous lives in comparative obscurity. The wife of Charles IX.—Elizabeth of Austria, daughter of Maximilian II.—had absolutely no control over her husband; however, he condescended to flatter himself with having, as he said, "in an amiable wife, the wisest and most virtuous woman not only of France and Europe, but of the universe." Her nature is well portrayed in the answer she gave to the remark made to her, after the death of her husband: "Ah, Madame, what a misfortune that you have no son! Your lot would be less pitiful and you would be queen-mother and regent." "Alas, do not suggest such a disagreeable thing!" she replied. "As if France had not afflictions enough without my producing another to complete its ruin! For, if I had a son, there would be more divisions and troubles, more seditions to obtain the administration and guardianship during his infancy and minority; all would try to profit themselves by despoiling the poor child—as they wanted to do with the late king, my husband." Returning to Austria, she erected a convent, treated the nuns as friends and refused to marry again even to ascend the throne of Spain.
Louise de Vaudemont, wife of Henry III, was a French woman by birth and blood. After the death of the Princess of Conde, whom he passionately loved and desired to marry, Henry conceived an intense affection for Louise, daughter of Nicholas of Lorraine, Count of Vaudemont—a young lady of education and culture—"a character of exquisite sweetness lends distinction to her beauty and her piety; her thorough Christian modesty and humility are reflected in her countenance." Brantome wrote: "This princess deserves great praise; in her married life she comported herself so wisely, chastely, and loyally toward the king that the nuptial tie which bound her to him always remained firm and indissoluble,—was never found loosened or undone,—even though the king liked and sometimes procured a change, according to the custom of the great who keep their full liberty." Soon after the marriage, however, Henry began to make life unpleasant for the queen, one of his petty acts being to deprive her of the moral ladies in waiting whom she had brought with her.
Louise de Vaudemont was a striking contrast to the perverted woman of the day; the latter, no longer charmed by the gentler emotions, sought the exaggerated and the eccentric, extraordinary incidents, dramatic situations, unexpected crises, finding all amusements insipid unless they involved fighting and romantic catastrophes. "Billets doux were written in blood and ferocity reigned even in pleasure."
In the midst of this turmoil, Louise busied herself with charity, appearing among the poor and distributing all the funds which her father gave her for pocket money; the evils of her surroundings threw her virtues, by contrast, into so much the brighter light. Though she held herself aloof from intrigues and rivalries, favoring no one and encouraging no slander, she was, strange to say, respected, admired and honored by Protestants and Catholics alike.
Calumny and all the agitations about her did not disturb Louise in her prayers. "The waves of the angry ocean broke at the foot of the altar as the queen knelt; but Huguenots and Catholics, leaguers and royalists, united to pay her homage. They were amazed to see such purity in an atmosphere so corrupt, such gentleness in a society so violent. Their eyes rested with satisfaction on a countenance whose holy tranquillity was undisturbed by pride and hatred. The famous women of the century, wretched in spite of all their amusements and their feverish pursuit of pleasure, made salutary reflections as they contemplated a woman still more highly honored for her virtues than for her crown." That she was not a mother was, with her, an enduring sorrow; even that, however, did not alter her calmness and benign resignation.
Louise de Vaudemont was indeed a bright star in a heaven of darkness—one of the best queens of whom French history can boast; she is an example of goodness and gentleness, of purity, charity, and fidelity in a world of corruption, cruelty, hatred, and debauch—where sympathy was rare and chastity was ridiculed. Although a highly educated woman, the faithful performance of her duties as queen and as a devout Catholic left her little time for literature and art; she remains the type of piety and purity—an ideal queen and woman.
A heroine in the fullest sense of that word was Jeanne d'Albret, the great champion of Protestantism; she was the mother of Henry IV. and the wife of the Duke of Bourbon, Count of Vendome, a direct descendant of Saint Louis. This despotic, combative, and war-loving queen reigned as absolute monarch, and was as autocratic and severe as Calvin himself, confiscating church property, destroying pictures and altars—even going so far as to forbid the presence of her subjects at mass or in religious processions. "Her natural eloquence, the lightning flashes from her eyes, her reputation as a Spartan matron and an intractable Calvinist, all contributed to give her great influence with her party. The military leaders—Coligny, La Rochefoucauld, Rohan, La Noue—submitted their plans of campaign to her."
Though Jeanne was, perhaps, as fanatical, intolerant, and cruel as her adversaries, she was driven to this by the hostility shown her by the Catholic party—a party in which she felt she could place no confidence. Her retreat was amid rocks and inaccessible peaks, whence she defied both the pope and Philip II. She brought up her son—the future Henry IV.—among the children of the people, exercising toward him the severest discipline, and inuring him to the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer; she taught him to be judicious, sincere, and compassionate—qualities which she possessed to a remarkable degree. Chaste and pure herself, she considered the court of France a hotbed of voluptuousness and debauchery, and at every opportunity strengthened herself against its possible influence.
The political and religious troubles of Jeanne d'Albret began when Pope Paul IV. invested Philip II. of Spain with the sovereignty of Navarre—her territory; she resisted, and, following the impulses of her own nature, formally embraced Calvinism, while her weak husband acceded to the commands of the Church, and, applying to the pope for the annulment of his marriage, was prepared, as lieutenant-general of the kingdom, a position he accepted from the pontiff, to deprive his wife of her possessions. His death before the realization of his project made it possible for Jeanne to retain her sovereignty; alone, an absolute monarch, she declared Calvinism the established religion of Navarre. After the assassination of Conde she remained the champion of the Huguenots, defying her enemies and scorning the court of France.
So great were her power and influence over the soldiery that Catherine de' Medici, her bitter enemy, desiring to bring her into her power, or, at least, to conciliate her, planned a marriage between Jeanne's son and Marguerite of Valois—sister of Charles IX. When the suggestion that the marriage should take place came from the king of France, Jeanne d'Albret suspected an ambush; with the determination to supervise personally all arrangements for the nuptials, she set out for the French court. Venerated by the Protestants, and hated but admired by the Catholics, she had become celebrated throughout Europe for her beauty, intelligence, and strength of mind; thus, her arrival at Paris created a sensation.
She was so scandalized at the luxury and bold debauchery at court that she decided to give up the marriage; she had detected the intrigues and falsity of both the king and Catherine, and had a foreboding of evil. She wrote to her son Henry:
"Your betrothed is beautiful, very circumspect and graceful, but brought up in the worst company that ever existed (for I do not see a single one who is not infected by it) ... I would not for anything have you come here to live; this is why I desire you to marry and withdraw yourself and your wife from this corruption which (bad as I supposed it to be) I find still worse than I thought. Here, it is not the men who invite the women, but the women who invite the men. If you were here, you could not escape contamination without a great grace from God."
In the meantime, Catherine, undecided whether to strike immediately or to wait, was redoubling her kindness and courtesy and her affectionate overtures; her enemies were in her hands. Although Jeanne suspected that Catherine was capable of every perfidy, she at times believed that her suspicions were unjust or exaggerated. The situation between these two great women was indeed a dramatic one: both were tactful, powerful, experienced in war and diplomacy; both were mothers with children for whose future they sought to provide. Jeanne's hesitancy, however, was fatal; physically exhausted from suffering and sorrow, worry and excitement, she suddenly died, in the midst of her preparations for the marriage. While it is not absolutely certain that her death was due to poison, subsequent events lead strongly to the belief that Catherine was instrumental in causing it—that, probably, being but the first act toward the awful catastrophe she was planning.
"A few hours before her agony, Jeanne dictated the provisions of her will. She recommended her son to remain faithful to the religion in which she had reared him, never to permit himself to be lured by voluptuousness and corruption, and to banish atheists, flatterers, and libertines.... She begged him to take his sister, Catherine, under his protection and to be, after God, her father. 'I forbid my son ever to use severity towards his sister; I wish, to the contrary, that he treat her with gentleness and kindness; and that—above all—he have her brought up in Bearn, and that she shall never leave there until she is old enough to be married to a prince of her own rank and religion, whose morals shall be such that the spouses may live happily together in a good and holy marriage.'" D'Aubigne wrote of her: "A princess with nothing of a woman but sex—with a soul full of everything manly, a mind fit to cope with affairs of moment, and a heart invincible in adversity."
It was in deep mourning that her son, then King of Navarre, arrived at Paris; the eight hundred gentlemen who attended him were all likewise in mourning. "But," says Marguerite de Valois, "the nuptials took place in a few days, with triumph and magnificence that none others, of even my quality, had ever beheld. The King of Navarre and his troop changed their mourning for very rich and fine clothes, I being dressed royally, with crown and corsage of tufted ermine all blazing with crown jewels, and, the grand blue mantle with a train four ells long borne by three princesses. The people down below, in their eagerness to see us as we passed, choked one another." (Thus quickly was Jeanne d'Albret forgotten.) The ceremonies were gorgeous, lasting four days; but when Admiral Coligny, the Huguenot leader, was struck in the hand by a musket ball, the festive aspect of affairs suddenly changed. On the second day after the wounding of Coligny, and before the excitement caused by that act had subsided, Catherine accomplished the crowning work of her invidious nature, the tragedy of Saint Bartholomew.
Peace and quiet never appeared upon the countenance of Catherine de' Medici—that woman who so faithfully represents and pictures the period, the tendencies of which she shaped and fostered by her own pernicious methods; and Charles IX., her son, was no better than his mother. Saint-Amand, in his splendid picture of the period, gives a truthful picture of Catherine as well: "It is interesting to observe how curiously the later Valois represented their epoch. Francis I. had personified the Renaissance; Charles IX. sums up in himself all the crises of the religious wars—he is the true type of the morbid and disturbed society where all is violent; where the blood is scorched by the double fevers of pleasure and cruelty; where the human soul, without guide or compass, is tossed amid storms; where fanaticism is joined to debauchery, superstition to incredulity, cultured intelligence to depravity of heart. This wholly unbalanced character—which stretches evil to its utmost limits while preserving the knowledge of what is good, which mistrusts everybody and yet has at least the aspiration toward friendship and love, if not its experience—is it not the symbol and living image of its time?"
Marguerite de Valois, sister of Charles IX. and wife of Henry IV., by her own actions and intrigues exercised little influence politically; she was, above all else, a woman of culture and may be taken as an example of the type which was largely instrumental in developing social life in France. Famous for her beauty, talents, and profligacy, it seems that historians are prone to dwell too exclusively upon the last quality, overlooking her principal role—that of social leader.
She first came into prominence through her relations with the Duke of Guise who paid assiduous court to her for some time; for a while, no topic was more discussed than that of their marriage. When, however, Charles IX. heard that the duke had been carrying on a secret correspondence with his sister, he exclaimed, savagely: "If it be so, we will kill him!" Thereupon, the duke hurriedly contracted a marriage with Catherine of Cleves. That Marguerite, at this early date, had become the mistress of Henry of Guise is hardly likely and becomes even less probable when it is considered how closely she was watched by her mother, Catherine de' Medici.
Her marriage, previously mentioned, to Henry of Navarre was a mere political match, there being absolutely no love, no affection, no sympathy. This union was looked upon as the surest covenant of peace between Catholicism and Protestantism and put an end to the disastrous religious wars that had been carried on uninterruptedly for years; both the parties to this contract lived at court, leading an existence of pleasure and immorality. Remarkably intelligent, Marguerite was a scholar of no mean ability; she displayed much wit and talent, but no judgment or discretion; though conveying the impression of being rather haughty and proud, she lacked both self respect and true dignity. Her beauty was marvellous, but "calculated, to ruin and damn men rather than to save them."
Henry, the husband of Marguerite, was constantly sneered at and taunted by the Catholics; although Catholic in name he was Protestant at heart and keenly felt his false position. During Catherine's short term as queen-regent, he was held in captivity until the arrival of Henry III., when he escaped to his own Bearn people; for this, Marguerite was held responsible and kept under guard.
Although hating his religion, his wife went to live with him, tolerating his infidelities while he refused to tolerate her religion. The unhappiness of this marriage was not due to Marguerite alone; the first trouble arose when she discovered his love for his mistress, Gabrielle d'Estrees, and, thinking herself equally privileged, she began to indulge in the same excesses. The result of so many annoyances and debaucheries, so much vexation, was an illness; as soon as she became convalescent, she returned to her mother at court where she speedily gained the ill will of the king by her profligate habits, her quarrels with both Catholics and Protestants, her intimacy with the Duke of Guise, her plottings with her younger brother, her cutting satires on court favorites.
She was sent back to Henry, upon the way meeting with the mishap of being insulted by archers and, with her maids, led away prisoner. Her husband was with difficulty persuaded to receive her, and, finding him all attentive to his mistress, Marguerite fled to Agen, where she made war upon him as a heretic; unable to hold her position there on account of her licentious manner of living and the exorbitant taxes imposed upon the inhabitants, she fled again and continued moving from one place to another, causing mischief everywhere, "consuming the remainder of her youth in adventures more worthy of a woman who had abandoned her husband than of a daughter of France." At last, she was seized and imprisoned in the fortress of Usson; here she was supported mainly by Elizabeth of Austria, widow of Charles IX.
When her husband became King of France, he refused to liberate her until she should renounce her rank; to this condition she refused to accede until after the death of her rival, the mistress of Henry—Gabrielle d'Estrees, Duchess de Beaufort. After the annulment of the marriage, Marguerite said: "If our household has been little noble and less bourgeois, our divorce was royal." She was permitted to retain the title of queen, her debts were paid and other great concessions granted. Her subsequent relations with Henry IV. were very cordial and fraternal; she even revealed political plots to him.
When, after nearly twenty years of captivity, Marguerite returned to Paris (1605), she gained the favor of everybody—the king, dauphin, and court ladies. She was present at the coronation of Marie de' Medici, and, by being tactful enough to keep apart from all intrigues, quarrels, and jealousies, she managed to win the good will of the king's favorites. She became the social leader, the queen inviting her to all court ceremonies and consulting her on all disputed questions of etiquette—even going so far as to intrust her with the reception of the Duke of Pastrana, who had come to ask the hand of Elizabeth of France. It is reported that in her last years she led a worse life than in her earlier days—she had become a woman of the bad world, resorting to every possible means to hide her age and to gain any vantage ground. In order to be well supplied with blond wigs, she kept fair-haired footmen who were shorn from time to time to furnish the supply. In the latter part of her life, spent at Paris and its vicinity, she fell a victim to hypochondria, suffering the most bitter pangs of remorse and terrible fear at approaching death. To alleviate this, she founded a convent where she taught the children music. She died in 1615, in Paris, "in that blended piety and coquetry which formed the basis of a character unable to give up gallantries and love."
One of the very few historians who give due credit to her social importance and assign her the position she may rightfully command among French women of the sixteenth century is M. Du Bled. According to him, she was the leader of fashion, and in all its components she showed excellent taste and judgment. Forced to marry the king of Navarre, she said, after the ceremony: "I received from marriage all the evil I ever received, and I consider it the greatest plague of my life. They tell me that marriages are made in heaven; heaven did not commit such an injustice;" and this seems to be the secret of her "vicious life."
As soon as she discovered that the king's favorites were determined to make life hard and disagreeable for her, she sought consolation in love and the toilette, in balls and fetes, in ballets and hunting, in promenades and gallant conversations, in tennis and carousals, and in an infinite variety of ingeniously planned pleasures. The spirit of chivalry, the habits of exalted devotion, were again in full sway about her. She worried little about virtue: "She had the gift of pleasing, was beautiful, and made full use of the liberality of the gods. Whatever may be said of her morals, it can truthfully be stated that she showed art in her love and practised it more in spirit than with the body." Music was a favorite art with her; she encouraged and rewarded singing, especially in the convent which she founded and where she spent almost all of her later days instructing the children.
Her court at Usson, where, as a prisoner, she lived for twenty years, was the most brilliant and least material of all France; there poets, artists, and scholars were held in high esteem, and were on familiar footing with Marguerite; the latter showed no despotism, but, with the most consummate skill, directed conversations and proposed subjects, encouraging discussion, and skilfully drawing from her friends the most brilliant repartees. She received people of distinction without ceremony.
She introduced the two elements which were combined in the eighteenth-century salon: a fine cuisine and freedom among her friends from the restraint usually imposed by distinction. She was, also, one of the first to have a circle—well organized according to modern etiquette—where the highest aristocracy, men of letters, magistrates, artists, and men of genius met on equal terms and in familiar and social intercourse; Montaigne, Brantome, and other great writers dedicated their works to her. She also directed a select few, an academy, to instruct and distract herself. It is said that every coquette, every bourgeois woman, and almost every court lady endeavored to imitate her. When she died, at the age of sixty-two, poets and preachers sang and chanted her merits, and all the poor wept over their loss; she was called the queen of the indigent. Richelieu mentioned her devotion to the state, her style, her eloquence, the grace of her hospitality, her infinite charity. "She remains, par excellence, the one great sympathetic woman of the sixteenth century; her admirers, during life and after death, were legion. She shared in the lesser evils of the century, but it cannot be said that she participated in the brutalities, grossness, or glaring immoralities of her time; her weaknesses, compared with the great debauches of the age, seemed like virtues."
Such is this great woman of the sixteenth century, who has received almost universal condemnation at the hands of historians. It is to be taken into consideration that she was forced to marry a man whom she did not love, and to live in a country utterly uncongenial to her nature and opposed to the religion in which she was reared; furthermore, that her husband first defiled the marital union, thus driving her to follow the general tendencies of the time or to seek solace in religious activity, for which she had too much energy. After due consideration of the extenuating circumstances, her faults and vices, such as they were, may easily be condoned. Because she was the wife of a powerful Protestant king, she was condemned by Catholics and by them regarded with suspicion; and, in order to save herself, she was forced to commit unwise acts and even follies.
In fine, whatever may be said against Marguerite de Valois, whom despair drove to acts which are not generally pardoned, she stands foremost among the social leaders and cultured women of the sixteenth century, a century whose prominent women were notorious for their licentiousness and lack of conscience rather than famous for their virtue and womanly accomplishments. Undeniably powerful and brilliant, these unscrupulous women were never happy; usually proud, they finally suffered the most cruel humiliations; "voluptuous, they found anguish underlying pleasure." Their misfortunes are, possibly more interesting than those successes of which chagrin anxiety, and heavy hearts were the inseparable associates.
Religion, which in the sixteenth century was so badly understood, and practised even worse—obscured and falsified by fanaticism, disfigured and exaggerated by passion and hatred—was the secret cause of all downfalls crimes, horrors, intrigues, and brutality. Yet, it alone survives, and all the important figures of history return to it after a period of negligence and forgetfulness. In their religious aspect, the women of the sixteenth century differ as a rule, from those of the eighteenth, who, though equally powerful, witty, refined, sensual, frivolous, and scoffing, were far less devout; for "'tis religion which restores the great female sinners of the sixteenth century 'tis religion which saves a society ploughed up by so many elements of dissolution and so many causes of moral and material ruin, rescuing it from barbarism, vandalism, and from irretrievable decay;" but the women of the eighteenth century clung, to the end, to the scepticism and material philosophy which served them as their religion, their God.
Among the conspicuous women of the sixteenth century to whom, thus far, we have been able to attribute so little of the wholesome and pleasing, the womanly or love-inspiring, there is one striking exception in Marguerite d'Angouleme, a representative of letters, art, culture, and morality. With the study of this character we are taken back to the beginning of the century and carried among men of letters especially, for she formed the centre of the literary world. She, her mother, Louise of Savoy, and her brother, Francis I., were called a "trinity," to the existence of which Marguerite bore witness in the poem:
"Such boon is mine—to feel the amity That God hath putten in our trinity Wherein to make a third, I, all unfitted To be that number's shadow, am admitted."
Marguerite inherited many of her qualities from her mother, "a most excellent and a most venerable dame," though anything but moral and conscientious; she, upon discovering that her daughter possessed rare intellectual gifts, provided her with teachers in every branch of the learning of the age. "At fifteen years of age, the spirit of God began to manifest itself in her eyes, in her face, in her walk, in her speech, and in all her actions generally." Brantome says: "She had a heart mightily devoted to God and she loved mightily to compose spiritual songs. She devoted herself to letters, also, in her young days and continued them as long as she lived, in the time of her greatness, loving and conversing with the most learned folks of her brother's kingdom, who honored her so greatly that they called her their Maecenas." Tenderness, particularly for her brother, seemed to develop in her as a passion.
Marguerite was a rare exception in a period described by M. Saint-Amand as one in which women were Christian in certain aspects of their character and pagan in others, taking an active part in every event, ruling by wit and beauty, wisdom and courage; an age of thoughtless gaiety and morbid fanaticism, and of laughter and tears, still rough and savage, yet with an undercurrent of subtle grace and exquisite politeness; an age in which the extremes of elegance and cruelty were blended, in which the most glaring scepticism and intense superstitions were everywhere evident; an age which was religious as well as debauched and whose women were both good and evil, innocent and intriguing. Everything was fluctuating; there was inconstancy even in the things most affected: pleasure, pomp, display. The natural outcome of this undefined restlessness was dissatisfaction; and when dissatisfaction brought in its train the inevitable reaction against falseness and immorality, Marguerite d'Angouleme stood at the head of the movement.
With her begins the cultural and moral development of France. It was she who encouraged that desire for a new phase of existence, which arose through contact with Italian culture. The men of learning—poets, artists, scholars—who soon gathered about the French court received immediate recognition from the king's sister, who had studied all languages, was gay, brilliant, and aesthetic. While her mother and brother were in harmony with the age, no better, no worse than their environment, Marguerite aspired to the most elevated morals and ideals; thus, she is a type of all that is refined, sensitive, loving, noble, and generous in humanity, a woman vastly superior to her time; in fact, the modern woman, with her highest attributes.
In Marguerite d'Angouleme contemporaries admired prudence, chastity, moderation, piety, an invincible strength of soul, and her habit of "hiding her knowledge instead of displaying it." "In an age wholly depraved, she approached the ideal woman of modern times; in spite of her virtue, she was brilliant and honored, the centre of a coterie that delighted in music, verse, ingenious dialogues and gossip, story telling, singing, rhyming. Deeply afflicted by the sad and odious spectacle of the vices, abuses, and crimes which unroll before her, she suffers through her imagination, mind and heart." Serious and sympathetic, she was interested in every movement, feeling with those who were persecuted on account of their religious opinions.
Various are the names by which she is known: daughter of Charles of Orleans, Count of Angouleme, Duchesse d'Alencon through her first marriage, and Queen of Navarre through her second, she was called Marguerite d'Angouleme, Marguerite of Navarre, of Valois, Marguerite de France, Marguerite des Princesses, the Fourth Grace, and the Tenth Muse. A most appreciative and just account of her life is given by M. Saint-Amand, which will be followed in the main outline of this sketch.
She was born in 1492, and, as already stated, received a thorough education under the direction of her mother, Louise of Savoy. At seventeen she was married to Charles III., Duke of Alencon; as he did not prove to be her ideal, she sought consolation in love for her brother, sharing the almost universal admiration for the young king, whose tendency to favor everything new and progressive was stimulated by her. She became his constant and best adviser in general affairs as well as in those of state. The foreign ambassadors sought her after having accomplished their mission, and were referred to her when the king was busy; they were enraptured, and carried back wonderful reports of Marguerite.
The world of art was opened to the French by a bevy of such painters and sculptors as Leonardo da Vinci, Rosso, Primaticcio, Benvenuto Cellini, and Bramante, and they were encouraged and feted by Marguerite especially. In those days a new picture from Italy by Raphael was received with as much pomp and ceremony as, in olden times, were accorded the holiest relics from the East.
Men of letters gathered about the sister of the king, forming what might be termed a court of sentimental metaphysics; for the questions discussed were those of love. This refined gallantry, empty and vapid, formed the foundation of the seventeenth-century salon, where the language and fine points of sentiment were considered and cultivated until sentiment acquired poise, grandeur, and an air of dignity and reserve.
The period was one in which, during times of trial and misfortune, the presence of an underlying religious sentiment became unmistakable. In such an atmosphere, the propensity toward mysticism, which Marguerite had manifested as a child, grew more and more apparent. When Francis I. was captured at the battle of Pavia, his sister immediately sought consolation in devotion, the nature of which is well illustrated in a letter to the captive king:
"Monseigneur, the further they remove you from us, the greater becomes my firm hope of your deliverance and speedy return, for the hour when men's minds are most troubled is the hour when God achieves His masterstroke ... and if He now gives you, on one hand, a share in the pains which He has borne for you, and, on the other hand, the grace to bear them patiently, I entreat you, Monseigneur, to believe unfalteringly that it is only to try how much you love Him and to give you leisure to think how much He loves you. For He desires to have your heart entirely, as, for love, He has given you His own; He has permitted this trial, in order, after having united you to Him by tribulation, to deliver you for His own glory—so that, through you, His name may be known and sanctified, not in your kingdom alone, but in all Christendom and even to the conversion of the infidels. Oh, how blessed will be your brief captivity by which God will deliver so many souls from that infidelity and eternal damnation! Alas, Monseigneur! I know that you understand all this far better than I do; but seeing that in other things I think only of you, as being all that God has left me in this world,—father, brother, husband,—and not having the comfort of telling you so, I have not feared to weary you with a long letter, which to me is short, in order to console myself for my inability to talk with you."
After his incarceration in the gloomy prison in Spain where he was taken ill, Francis asked for the safe conduct of Marguerite; this was gladly granted. Ignorant of her future duty in Spain, she wrote: "Whatever it may be, even to the giving of my ashes to the winds to do you a service, nothing will seem strange, difficult or painful to me, but will be only consolation, repose, and honor." So impatient was she to arrive at her brother's side that she could not travel fast enough.
Her presence only increased his fever and a serious crisis soon came on, the king remaining for some time "without hearing or seeing or speaking." Marguerite, in this critical time, implored the assistance of God. She had an altar erected in her chamber, and all the French of the household, great lords and domestics alike, knelt beside the sick man's sister and received the communion from the hands of the Archbishop of Embrun, who, drawing near the bed, entreated the king to turn his eyes to the holy sacrament. Francis came out of his lethargy and asked to commune likewise, saying: "It is my God who will heal my soul and body; I entreat you that I may receive him." Then, the Host having been divided in two, the king received one half with the greatest devotion, and his sister the other half. The sick man felt himself sustained by a supernatural force; a celestial consolation descended into the soul that had been despairing. Marguerite's prayer had not been unavailing—Francis I. was saved.
She then proceeded to visit different cities and royalties, endeavoring to secure concessions for her brother. From the people in the streets as well as from the lords in their houses, she received the most unmistakable proofs of friendly feeling; in fact, her favor was so great that Charles V. informed "the Duke of Infantado that, if he wished to please the emperor, neither he nor his sons must speak to Madame d'Alencon." The latter, unable to secure her brother's release, planned a marriage between him and Eleanor of Portugal, sister of Charles V.; her successes at court and in the family of the emperor furthered this scheme. Brantome says: "She spoke to the emperor so bravely and so courteously that he was quite astonished, and she spoke even more to those of his council with whom she had audience; there she produced an excellent impression, speaking and arguing with an easy grace in which she was proficient, and making herself rather agreeable than hateful or tiresome. Her reasons were found good and pertinent and she retained the high esteem of the emperor, his court and council."
Although she failed in her attempts to free the king, she succeeded, by arranging the marriage, in completely changing the rigorous captivity to which Charles had subjected him. Finally, by giving his two eldest sons as hostages, the king obtained his release, and in March, 1526, he again set foot, as sovereign, on French soil. Thus the king's life was saved and he was permitted to return to his country, Marguerite's devotion having accomplished that in which the most skilled diplomatist would have failed.
All historians agree that Marguerite d'Angouleme was a devout Catholic, but that she was too broad and liberal, intelligent and humane, to sanction the unbridled excesses of fanaticism. The acknowledged leader of moral reform, she protected and assisted those persecuted on account of their religious views and sympathized with the first stages of that movement which revolted against abuses, vice, scandals, immorality, and intrigue. With her, the question was not one of dogma, but concerned, instead, the religion which she considered most conducive to progress and reform. It grieved her to see her religion defile itself by cruel and inhuman persecutions and tortures, by intolerance and injustice. She felt for, but not with, the heretics in their errors. "She typifies her age in all that is good and noble, in artistic aspirations, in literary ideals, in pure politics—in short,—in humanity; in her is not found the chaotic vagueness which so often breaks out in license and licentiousness, cruelty, and barbarism."
During the absence in Spain of Francis I. and Marguerite, the mother-regent sought to gain the support and favor of Rome by ordering imprisonments, confiscations, and punishments of heretics; but upon the return of the king and his sister, the banished were recalled and tolerance again ruled. When (in 1526) Berquin was seized and tried for heresy, he found but one defender. Marguerite wrote to her brother, still at Madrid:
"My desire to obey your commands was sufficiently strong without having it redoubled by the charity you have been pleased to show poor Berquin according to your promise; I feel that He for whom I believe him to have suffered will approve of the mercy which, for His honor, you have had upon His servant and your own."
Marguerite had saved Berquin and had even taken him into her service. Her letter to the constable, Anne de Montmorency, shows her esteem of men of genius and especially of Berquin:
"I thank you for the pleasure you have afforded me in the matter of poor Berquin whom I esteem as much as if he were myself; and so you may say you have delivered me from prison, since I consider in that light the favor done me."
When on June 1, 1528, a statue of the Virgin was thrown down and mutilated by unknown hands, a reversion of feeling arose immediately, and even Marguerite was not able to save poor Berquin, and he was burned at the stake. Upon learning of his imminent peril, she wrote to Francis from Saint-Germain:
"I, for the last time, very humbly make you a request; it is that you will be pleased to have pity upon poor Berquin, whom I know to be suffering for nothing other than loving the word of God and obeying yours. You will be pleased, Monseigneur, so to act that it be not said that separation has made you forget your most humble and obedient sister and subject, Marguerite."
Encouraged by their success in that instance, the intolerant party began furious attacks upon her, one monk going so far as to say from the pulpit that she should be put into a sack and thrown into the Seine. Upon her publication of a religious poem, Miroir de l'ame pecheresse, in which she failed to mention purgatory or the saints, she was vigorously attacked by Beda, who had the verses condemned by the Sorbonne and caused the pupils of the College of Navarre to perform a morality in which Marguerite was represented under the character of a woman quitting her distaff for a French translation of the Gospels presented to her by a Fury. This was too much even for Francis, and he ordered the principal and his actors arrested; it was then that Marguerite showed her gentleness, mercy, and humanity by throwing herself at her brother's feet and asking for their pardon.
After but a short respite the persecution broke out anew, and with the full sanction of the king, who, upon finding at his door a placard against the mass, went even so far as to sign letters patent ordering the suppression of printing (1535). While away from the soothing influence of his sister, Francis I. was easily persuaded to sign, for the Catholic party, any permit of execution or cruelty. The life of Marguerite herself was constantly in danger, but in spite of persistent efforts to turn brother against sister, the king continued to protect and defend the latter; and though she gradually drew closer to Catholicism, she continued to protect the Protestants. She founded nunneries and showed a profound devotion toward the Virgin; although realizing the dangers and follies of the new doctrine, she had too much humanity to encourage cruelty.