Welcome back to the latest post in my Royal Mistresses series! Previously we’ve been looking at some of the many mistresses of the horny despot that was Henry VIII. This week we’re jumping back across the channel to the French court and one of the most famous mistresses from history – Diane de Poitiers, long time lover of Henri II.
Diane was born on the 3rd September 1499 to her parents, Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier and his wife Jeanne de Batarney. Through her mother she was connected to the mighty Bourbon family.
She received a Renaissance humanist education. So in addition to the usual subjects taught to a 16th Century girl she also learnt Latin and Greek.
At the age of 15 Diane was married to Louis de Breze, who was a staggering 39 years her senior. The fact he was a grandson of King Charles VII (by his daughter with his mistress Agnes Sorel) must have had something to do with it! They had two daughters – Francoise (born 1518) and Louise (born 1521).
Louis died in 1531, leaving Diane to manage his estates (of which she did a really good job) and inherit his title as grand-senechal of Normandy. Diane was highly intelligent, and took to the role with ease.
Henri and Diane
Diane and her eventual lover the future Henri II went waaayy back.
When Henri’s father, Francis I, was captured by Charles V during battle in 1525, Henri and his brother Francis were sent to Spain in a sort of hostage exchange so their father could return to France. In possibly one of the worst cases of historic royal parenting, Francis I then didn’t pay the negotiated ransom in time. This resulted in his two young sons being kept political prisoners for an uncertain four years. Diane was the lady-in-waiting that gave Henri his farewell kiss when he was sent to Spain (seriously, psychologists would have a field day with these two!)
In 1533 Henri married Catherine de Medici. She wasn’t exactly a popular pick for royal bride, as many people saw the Medici family as upstarts punching far above their social status. However, Catherine is credited with introducing tight silk stockings, artichokes, truffles and side-saddles to France!
Like many other illicit royal relationships, we can’t be sure exactly when Henri and Diane first became romantically involved. Most historians tend to agree their relationship started only a year or so after his marriage, when he was 15 years old.
Poor Catherine was totally outshone by Diane. Catherine was short, dark and a bit stout. Apparently she had the ‘protruding eyes’ which was a feature of the Medici family. In comparison Diane was tall, slim, strawberry blonde and something of a renowned beauty.
Catherine and Diane’s relationship is an interesting one. There is no doubt that Henri didn’t hide the fact that, in his eyes, Diane was numero uno. But there was barely anything Catherine could do about it. Diane could have totally exploited the situation and rubbed Catherine’s nose in it, but she didn’t.
After ten years of marriage Catherine still hadn’t produced the required heir. People started to gossip and divorce was even discussed. In the overall scheme of things, intelligent Diane realised it was better for her to assist Catherine and Henri in having children then let the king find himself in a situation where he had no choice but to annul his marriage to his barren wife. That might result in a new queen who could potentially have a stronger influence over Henri. And that would put Diane at risk of losing everything.
Apparently one of the methods employed by Diane saw her begin a lovemaking session with Henri, then send him upstairs to his wife’s room to finish the job! Once finished, Henri would go back downstairs to Diane. It must have worked, as the royal couple went on to have ten children.
That wasn’t the only scandal from the royal bedroom. Wanting to know why Henri was so enamoured with Diane, Catherine had a carpenter drill two holes in her floor, directly above Diane’s bedroom, so she could spy on them making love!
Henri became King of France in 1547 after the death of his father (his brother having suddenly died some 11 years earlier). Then Diane’s power really started to rise!
Henri made Diane a double duchess – making her the Duchess of Valentinois in 1548, and the Duchesse de’Etampes in 1553. With the latter title came a whole load of jewels, including a diamond valued at 50,000 crowns.
The most impressive present given to Diane by Henri has to be the spectacular chateau of Chenonceaux, which was gifted to her in 1547. This was also however a humiliating snub for Catherine, who had made no attempt to hide the fact she really wanted the chateau.
In 1559 Diane lost everything.
Henri had decided to take part in a joust that was being held to celebrate peace with Austria. During the joust a splintered lance pierced his eye and entered his brain.
Henri lingered for an agonising 10 days before finally dying on the 10th of July. Diane was barred from seeing the king on his deathbed by Catherine, despite the dying Henri constantly called out for her. When the king finally passed away, Diane returned the crown jewels Henri had given her. She was not allowed to attend his funeral, but instead watched the funeral procession from her window.
It was interesting to note that Catherine didn’t try to exact some ‘formal’ revenge against Diane. However, the latter had actually been a good influence on Henri and the government of France, and couldn’t exactly be accused of treason.
Diane had also married her two daughters into powerful families.These powerful connections helped protect Diane in her later years.
Catherine did however finally claim Chenonceaux, forcing Diane to give it to her in exchange for the chateau at Chaumont.
Diane devoted her last years to good works – including building a hospital. She passed away in 1566 – seven years after her beloved Henri – after a brief illness at the age of 65.
Diane became a member of the French privy council. She made laws and imposed taxes, and she signed official decrees with the king in a joint signature. She appointed ministers, bestowed honours, pensions and titles, and bequeathed great estates. She was basically a queen in all but name.
Diane was so powerful that when when the Pope sent the new Queen Catherine a gift, he made sure to present Diane with a pearl necklace too.
Diane was renowed as a great beauty, even as she grew older.
She kept a trim figure by horse riding everyday. She also wore a black mask outside to protect her skin; bathed in asses’ milk and cold water; and daily drank a potion containing gold that was supposed to preserve her youth (indeed, when her remains were exhumed in 2009 scientists found high levels of gold in her hair).
Despite the amount of material I read in preparation for this post, I didn’t really get a whiff of scandal around Diane like I have with other royal mistresses. Diane wanted Henri to rule well and for France to be secure. From that perspective she could be looked at as a ‘good’ mistress.
Despite the age gap, Diane and Henri were together for roughly a staggering 25 years, it being generally accepted their romantic relationship started in approximately 1534 when Henri was 15 years old to Diane’s 35.
Overall Mistress Rating: ****
A respectable score from of the most famous royal mistresses in history. Diane was a powerhouse while she’s alive, and I have a feeling she’s going to be a power house in this competition!
So what do you think? Do you think Diane will end up being crowned royal mistress supreme at the end of the year? Catch-up with the previous posts from my Royal Mistresses series and let me know in the comments below.