The beauty of Diane de Poitiers is one of the most famous in French history. Equally famous was her relationship with Prince Henry II, who, in a great twist of fate, became King of France and made Diane the most powerful woman in the greatest reign of her time. Rival of Catherine de Medici, Diane was effectively Queen and her story will be important in The Serpent Queen, where she will be played by Ludivine Sagnier, so it is worth remembering her.
Diane was born into a wealthy family and part of the nobility, educated within the principles of Renaissance humanism that included studying Greek and Latin, rhetoric, etiquette, finance, law, and architecture. In addition, very tall by the standards of the time (around 1m80), she was attentive to a strict diet and enjoyed sports, being a sharp athlete, riding and swimming regularly, and keeping herself lean and healthy.
As a girl, she was part of the entourage of Princess Anne de Beaujeu, the eldest sister of King Charles VIII, during the period when she was regent, but, at 15, Diana was negotiated into marriage with a man 39 years her senior, the Count. Louis de Brézé, with whom he had two daughters and lived in luxury. The husband was moody, stern, and ugly, but admired for his courage as a soldier and was of royal blood, being the son of Charlotte de Brézé, the daughter of King Charles VII by his mistress, Agnes Sorel.
Diane lived in her husband’s castle, Anet, in Normandy, near Paris. Some say that the place was already haunted (Louis’ mother was a victim of femicide, having been stabbed to death in the same room that was now the couple’s, after being found in bed with her lover), but the Countess did his best to turn the place into a habitable castle.
As Louis lived in battle, he took his young wife to the court of François I, where she served as a lady-in-waiting to the king’s mother, Louise de Savoy, and later to Queen Claude de France, followed by Queen Eleanor of Austria. During this period, Diane became associated with scandal as her father was involved in Charles de Bourbon’s plot against King François and was arrested for treason.
François I’s great enemy was the Spanish Emperor Charles V, and in one of his defeats, he was taken prisoner, making an agreement to “swap” places with his sons. This decision would mark and traumatize the life of little Henry, who was depressed by his imprisonment in a foreign country shortly after the death of his mother, Queen Claude. On the day of the exchange, Diane, who lived with the boys because of her role as the Queen’s escort, took pity on the little prince’s sadness, saying goodbye to him with a kiss. Henry, almost 20 years younger, fell head over heels in love and was definitely there. A fact that no historian has ever questioned. A love story destined for sadness and tragedy.
The irony of fate is incredible. Ytês years later, without even suspecting that the 10-year-old boy was already madly in love, François I decided to arrange his marriage. Henry, as a second son, had little chance of being King. His older brother was already married to Mary Stuart from Scotland and was trained for the job. Still, his position had value and his father agreed with Pope Clement VII that the prince would marry Catherine de Medici, the niece of the religious leader. Do you know where everything was settled? In the castle of Anet, home of Louis de Brézé and Diane de Poitiers.
That same year, 1531, Diane achieved the maximum female freedom of her time: she became a widow. She was only 30 years old, wealthy, and independent, but in order not to be forced into remarriage, she created the image of the devoted widow, dressing only in black and white for the rest of her life. In 1533, he attended the wedding of Henry II and Catherine de Medicis (as we will see in the series). At just 16 years old, he already had the woman of his dreams in his heart (Diane), and marrying the less beautiful Catarina did not change his decision. Biographers place the beginning of their romance around 1536, when Henry II smiled again, thus facing a passionate and frustrated Catherine.
Naturally, given her age and experience, Diane’s ascendancy over Henry was absolute. Everything got complicated when he suddenly became the heir to the Crown, after the death of his brother. The novel that would be inconsequential, came to have strong political relevance. Thus, some see Diane as unscrupulous and manipulative and others as devoted and faithful to her lover. Be that as it may, when Henry II became King, she was Queen in all but paper.
All of Henry II’s free time was spent with his mistress (with whom he had a child). He followed all of Diane’s advice, whether it was reading, exercises, or political decisions. His calm, diplomatic and practical personality was the opposite of the temperamental Catarina, increasing the couple’s estrangement. It is also a fact that Catarina saw the lovers together (through a hole in the wall), becoming desperate to confirm that their physical and intellectual relationship was unshakable.
Catherine’s humiliation became total after – 10 years without children and without relations with her husband – it was with Diane’s interference that Henry II submitted to “fulfill his role as a husband”, finally impregnating the official wife. Until then, the Italian queen did literally everything to reverse the situation, appealing to prayers and magic. All useless energy in front of Diane.
After the first child, in 1543, Catherine would have nine others over the course of 13 years. That’s because Diane was forcing Henry to have sex with his wife. Pregnant with this frequency, a. no longer thin Catarina got even “worse”, in contrast to her husband’s always a slender lover. If love wasn’t enough, Catarina’s children were practically raised by Diane. She witnessed all this in silence.
Naturally, as the king’s favorite, Diane gained titles, jewels, and money, more than the others, generating much gossip and jealousy. Her blind devotion to Catholicism, in a troubled religious period, did not make her very popular in some countries and regions, not least because she defended the execution of those she considered “heretics”.
Henry II was in love with Diane, but not exactly faithful. His romance with Mary Flemming, one of Mary Stuart’s companions, spawned a child and Catherine’s surprising union with her main rival, demanding that the new lover be exiled from court. Diane and Catarina got what they wanted.
If no one questions that Diane de Poitiers was the only love in Henry II’s life, the letters he left for her make a point of confirming it. “Remember him who never loved, or never will love anyone but you,” he wrote. The beautiful castle of Chenonceau, which will be in The Serpent Queen, was a “gift” from the king to Diane and to this day is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. (Ironically, Princess Diana and Prince Charles visited the site in 1988, solidifying the castle’s complicated dynamic. Unfortunately, in this case, Diana was the betrayed wife.)
With the tragic and bloody death of Henry II, shortly after his 40th birthday, at his daughter’s wedding party to the King of Spain, Diane’s life changed radically. He anticipated escaping the wrath of Catarina, who did not even allow a farewell between the lovers. After 23 years of submission, she was now Queen and the most powerful woman in France. He took back Chenonceau’s jewels and castle. Diane stayed in Anet, discreet, away from Court and doing charity. She died at age 66, rich and surrounded by her daughters.
Catherine de Medici went down in history unanimously as a tyrant and fanatic, but Diane, despite her flaws and questionable motivations, is to this day the symbol of beauty and a love that defied all the rules of society. One of the greatest and most romantic stories of the 16th century. Unforgettable.
See her interpretation in The Serpent Queen.