Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Moon Mistress: Diane de Poitiers

The Moon Mistress by Jehanne d'Orliac is a 1930 biography of the beloved mistress of Henri II of France. After reading about Henri's queen, Catherine de Medici, and taking her side, I thought it only fair to see what anyone had to say on Diane's behalf. By the way, I tend to take the side of the legitimate wife in such situations; I do so in the Catherine/Henri/Diane triangle as in the Katherine/Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn fiasco. One thing I have learned in Diane's favor, to put it gingerly, is that if Diane had wanted she could have talked Henri into annulling Catherine and marrying herself.  She could have been Queen. She had complete dominion over her Henri in a way that Anne never had over her own Henry, except perhaps for a passing year or two. Instead, Diane did everything she could to strengthen Henri's marriage by encouraging him to sleep with his wife and beget progeny. There are several practical reasons for this: Diane was twenty years older than Henri and knew that Catherine had a better chance of bearing children for France, which she did. The bottom line, however, is that in spite of her scandalous relationship with the king, Diane was more conservative than Anne; she despised the new religious ideas which fascinated the latter and never wavered in her support for the Roman Catholic Church. Diane, strangely enough, is one reason why France and the royal family remained Catholic.

Why do I keep dragging in Anne Boleyn? Anne and Diane were both ladies-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France and must surely have known each other. Even then, Diane was the more conservative, preferring the the staid household of Queen Claude to the licentious court at large. Anne, according to d'Orliac's book, finding the placid routine of the Queen to be deadly dull, asked to be transferred to the more lively service of the Duchessse d'Alençon. Diane, by that time, was already happily married to Louis de Brézé, a much older man known as the Grant' Sénéchal. He adored his young wife and after his death she wore mourning for the rest of her life, as well as the title of the Grant Sénéchalle.

Until she became Henri's mistress, Diane was known for her chastity and faithfulness to her husband and to his memory, and for her dedication to bringing up her daughters in a proper Christian manner. She was an outdoorsy sort and lived for the hunt, in accord with her name. Her early education had been flawless. Diane had been brought up in the court of the regent Anne de Beaujeu, daughter of Louis XI, who ruled during the minority of her brother Charles VIII. Anne made certain all the girls in her care were thoroughly versed in music, literature, history and the classics. In Anne's household, Diane also learned how to be a great lady and skilled courtier. She was known for her integrity, grace, intellect, and charities. This was no small feat.

The Renaissance, though much-lauded as a time for rediscovering the learning and cultural riches of ancient Greece and Rome, brought with it a renewed fascination with paganism, the occult, and alchemy, as well as a general decadence which permeated the great courts of Europe, including the papal court. Such decadence and total disregard of morality spurred on the Protestant "reformers" who offered a "pure" Christianity. Diane found herself a widow with young daughters caught amid a power struggle with the Reformers for control of the French throne. The mistress of Henri's father Francis I leaned towards the Protestants, whereas Henri's  Catholic wife, the young Catherine Medici, was deeply enthralled with her astrologers and alchemists. Diane, as royal mistress, a queen in all but name, kept Henri, his children, and his court from chaos through her ability to manage people as well as finances and prickly situations. Under Henri II, France recovered from the debts of Francis I while experiencing a flourishing of the arts.

Henri's obsession with Diane began when he was a child and was ready to be sent off to a Spanish prison as a hostage for his father King Francis I. Henri and his older brother were sent as hostages in the place of their father who had lost a war to Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor.  Upon leaving his country the small Prince Henri was embraced by a compassionate Diane la Sénéchalle, and henceforth her face never left his mind. When Francis I broke the treaty he had made with Charles V, his imprisoned sons were moved to harsher quarters where they experienced great suffering. When finally released, Henri, now a teenager, was met by the court, which included Diane. Diane was appointed to help him remember what it was to behave like a prince. Somewhere along the way, Henri declared his love and begged Diane to be his lady. Diane, twenty years older, saw it as an opportunity to secure her future and that of her daughters in an unstable political climate. This is where I fault her. She took advantage of a highly vulnerable and confused teenager who afterwards was never able to really love anyone but her, including the wife who bore him many children. But in those days, they did not even have the word "teenager." Boys came of age at fourteen. Diane herself had married quite young. What we see as psychological dysfunction, Henri and Diane saw as high romance.

Henri put Diane in charge of his children, including his daughter-in-law, the young Mary Queen of Scots. I wonder if Mary received her exquisite taste, and fondness for the simplicity of black and white, from Diane? I must say that the older children of  Henri of whom Diane had charge were more psychologically stable than the younger ones brought up by their mother the Queen. Not to blame Catherine, who had to deal with overwhelming odds in order to survive at all.

The author ridicules the rumor that Diane drank liquid gold in an attempt to preserve her youth, although recent forensic tests on Diane's remains have shown the rumors to be true. D'Orliac also spends pages trying to convince the reader that Diane was not a courtesan, and should never be lumped in with persons such as Agnes Sorel and Madame du Barry. This is because Diane was a faithful wife and after her husband died she never slept with anyone but Henri. After Henri's sudden tragic death, she retired quietly to her country estate where she lived a life devoted to charitable works. Not that she could have done anything else; Catherine would not have allowed it. Ultimately, as I find more and more, it is better and wiser to withhold all judgment and commend all souls to God, Who alone sees all intentions and purposes.

Diane de Poitiers at age 16 after her marriage

Diane's crest

Monogram of Henri II and Diane de Poitiers

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