Friday, September 30, 2022

Hidden Histories...

Now that it is getting cold and very wet, it is hard to is believe that on a trip to Paris just a few weeks ago, the glare of the sun and the incredible heat meant that a walk in the shade of the trees was the most inviting option. Given the number of other visitors to Les Jardins du Luxembourg, it was clear that we were not the only ones glad to stroll in the elegant, leafy avenues of the grounds. The gardens surround the Grand Palais du Luxembourg that was intended as an alternative to the Louvre as a royal residence. Designed in reference to the Pitti Palace in Florence, it was home to royalty until the Revolution years at the end of the 18th century whereupon it became a prison and later the State Senate.
It was regent Marie de’ Medici (1573-1642) who ordered the construction of this grand palace around 1612, and she is one of the twenty queens and illustrious females of France represented in a series of statues overlooking the central flowerbeds and pond since the mid-19th century. Each one is notable in its own way, referencing a time span stretching over a thousand years. The women are all commemorated in dignified figures that gaze down from their pedestals, punctuating the avenues with their rather enigmatic forms. Although I must have seen the statues several times prior to this particular visit, I had certainly never wondered who these figures actually were, nor what their significance was. Certainly, I was aware of the powerful role of queen regent reigning in the absence, inability or incapacity of a male sovereign and likewise had a notion of the emblematic importance of queen consort. However, I had never really considered anything about their existence, with lives that had not only gone on to shape history but also be bound into it and by it.
The obligations, confines and restraints imposed on women at the head of a monarchy or empire is now largely common knowledge today. Often of foreign origin, but with the role to safeguard and build French interests in spite of this, these women had the absolute duty to ensure that the royal blood line remained intact, as too the power of the country. Although the salic law prevented female ascension to the throne by setting out the exclusion of women from royal succession, a queen would be called upon to fulfil her sovereign duty as dictated by circumstances. Such women were thus at the disposal of those running the diplomatic, political and financial machines with little change over the centuries, often leading them to occupy exceptional positions. Meanwhile, just as any commoner, they were subordinated by their biological function of childbearing since birth control was virtually non-existent and pregnancy and childbirth fraught with danger. Woe betide those unable to bear an heir to the throne or simply conceive at all. Considered inadequate and ill-omened, such women were thus worthy of divorce – or worse still could be accused of being cursed or having meddled in witchcraft.
While much is made today of the numerous wrongs and hardships women have been subjected to since time immemorial, what emerged above all else from my reading about the figures represented in le jardin du Luxembourg was the incredible lives these women led, due to and/or in spite of these endless challenges. For me, a whole facet of history was opened up – the hidden histories of unbelievably resilient women to be glimpsed or perhaps just simply imagined. Even though their fates were shaped by their duties and those enforcing them, many of the women wielded impressive power and influence in their manner too, and some were not above being somewhat heavy-handed in their authority. Yet regardless of the odd manipulative streak, jealous rage, display of foolishness or wanton greed, the overwhelming impression was one of admiration. Perhaps naively on my part, the first surprise was the young age at which future queens were married off. Most were either still in childhood or early adolescence when betrothed - as were future kings, it should be noted. However, since marriage was anything but a romantic union and was generally set up by anybody but the parties directly concerned, this is perhaps not entirely remarkable, given the context. Indeed, matrimony was a strategic measure to form alliances between states or regions, to bolster diplomatic and trade ties, and so prevent other partnerships from forming. That the bride and groom were in effect minors who had no feelings for each another was largely irrelevant. Thus the young couple would be pushed together and subsequently pushed around like pawns in a sophisticated chess games, where the economic, religious and social stakes dictated the moves.
Through wedded union to a young woman of far nobler birth, William ‘The Bastard’ was able to move above humble origins and give weight and authority to his position, social aspirations and political ambitions as he thus elevated his status and in due course became William the Conqueror. As a descendant of Charlemagne and a Capetian king, his wife Mathilde, duchesse de Normandie (1031-1083), was regent of the duchy during her husband’s invasion of England in 1066 to become rightful king. Legend would have it that Mathilde herself, along with her ladies-in-waiting actually worked on the Bayeux tapestry to celebrate the Norman conquest of England. While this is unlikely, when Mathilde was crowned some two years after the king, her coronation heralded the end of the Anglo-Saxon era in English history. In statue form, Mathilde clutches a scepter and sword, her plain tunic dress and hair attached in long plaits give her a simplicity and air of seriousness.
In le Jardin du Luxembourg, Blanche de Castille (1188-1252) from the following century, looks demure. As niece of Richard the Lionheart, she was used to seal the peace between France and England through marriage to Louis VIII, organised by her grandmother, Aliénor d’Aquitaine. Later as the mother of king Louis IX, Blanche would in turn be instrumental in the union between her son and Marguerite de Provence in the aim of centralizing France and so ‘reining in’ Provence.
Likewise, centuries later, peace between the two sides of the Channel was at the origin of the marriage between Marguerite d’ Anjou (1429-1482) and the king of England, Henry VI. as part of a truce in the 100 Years war between France and England. Presented with her son Edouard standing on tiptoes to clasp onto her, Marguerite strikes a dramatic pose, a fleur de lys visible in her headdress. The destiny of Anne de Bretagne (1477-1514) was linked to that of Brittany itself; yet another ‘troublesome’ independent nation. Faced with royal domination due to the lack of a male heir to the Breton dynasty, the duchy needed protection. Anne soon became a prized good, whose hand in marriage could be negotiated by her father with an impressive number of French or foreign princes, to secure financial and military aide and form secret alliances in the process – all of which could reinforce the position of Brittany. Initially engaged to the son of Edward IV of England when she was only 4 years old, Anne then went on to marry Maximilian of Austria in a union that was subsequently annulled as it afforded too much French territory to the Habsburgs. From there, Anne was wed to not one, but two French kings; Charles VIII and then his cousin and heir, Louis XII, yet she sought to maintain as far as possible the autonomy of the duchy of Brittany. In her sculpted form, Anne looks on in an almost quizzical manner, her rather flat face with Renaissance features stares out as she grasps tassels in her right hand.
Sometimes even a father’s plans for his daughter could be overridden as was the case in the early 16th century, with Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572). She was indeed taken away from Henri II king of Navarre, by her uncle, king François I in order to scupper arrangements to marry her into the family of Charles Quint. By so doing, the Albret worldly goods were prevented from falling into the possession of Spain; an unacceptable prospect. François had other plans for her and at the age of 12, Jeanne was forced into marriage with Guillaume, duc de Clèves, a union she so opposed that she had to be pushed to the altar! She continued to protest until the marriage was finally annulled. Despite her feisty character, in her statue Jeanne appears calm and poised, with her clothing displayed simply, without dramatic folds and frills but rather with intricate decorative cording.
Somewhat on the contrary of this is the sculpted form of Marie Stuart (1542-1567). With her dramatic head attire and sharply raised collar on her cloak, she holds her gaze into the distance. Mary became Queen of Scots on the death of her father, king James V of Scotland, just days after her birth. Determined to see this child queen betrothed to his son Edward, and thus affording Protestant control over Scotland, Henry VIII employed all means at his disposal. To avoid this dilemma, assistance was asked of France, and so it was that Mary spent her childhood in France, in the court of Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici. At 15 years, she was married to their son, the future king, François II, in 1558, thus forging further political ties between Scotland and France. Mary became queen of France at 17 on the accession to the throne of her young husband yet she was left a widow just one year later and soon returned to Scotland. Her statue, I thought, somewhat belies the tragic turns and ending to her life.
The doughty figure of Marie de’ Medici (1573-1642) presents a queen who appears somewhat dour in nature. Her sculpted frise collar and the scepter she holds in the crook of her arm make her seem a little unwielding. Jewellery. Marie was likewise instrumental in providing financial and dynastic security under the reign of French king, Henri IV. ‘La grosse banquière’ was a wealthy member of the House of Medici and could therefore provide Henri with the means to pay off the State debts incurred in 30 years of religious war, and furthermore partly ‘wipe the slate clean’ regarding his creditors – the Bank of Medici, no less.
Following the annulment of his childless marriage to Marguerite de Valois (‘La Reine Margot’) - a union brought about through an attempt to calm hostilities between Protestants and Catholics under the reign of Catherine de’ Medici - Henri wished to put his affairs in order. He was married to Marie de' Medici in 1600 and a year later a dauphin - the future Louis XIII - was born to the great pleasure and relief of king and country. Marie, however, was not crowned queen for almost a decade, becoming regent of the kingdom of France on the death of her husband, the day after her coronation! In a bid to build peaceful relations between the two great Catholic powers of France and Spain, Louis XIII was betrothed, at the instigation of his mother Marie de’ Medici, to the infanta Anne d’Autriche, daughter of Spanish king, Philip III. Here she is the Jardin, with her curly hair, laced bustier and swathes of draped clothing giving her a Mediterranean air.
Anne (1601-1666) was duly engaged at 11 and thus entered a challenging marriage, caught between tensions of childlessness and political divisions, heightened by the mutual dislike and distrust between the queen and Cardinal Richelieu. When war broke out between France and Spain in 1635, Anne was accused of surreptitiously exchanging correspondence with her brother Philip IV. Following the death of Louis XIII in 1643, Anne became regent, in spite of the late king’s attempts to thwart this development. Finally, it was this same desire to cement peace between France and Spain that led to the marriage in 1660 of the young king Louis XIV to Anne's niece, the Spanish Habsburg princess Maria Theresa of Spain.
Was a marriage based purely on sentiment alone even feasible, I wondered. Well, some believed so… While Anne Marie Louise d'Orléans (1627-1693) - duchesse de Montpensier - sought marriage on her terms to a man of her choosing, this long mission led to no greater happiness than the customary marital unions based on political and economic strategy. She may have been one of the richest princesses of Europe following the death of her mother in the days after her birth, but La Grande Mademoiselle seems to have lost out on the affective front throughout her life. Her father, Gaston d’Orléans, brother of king Louis XIII, had hoped for a son who would accede the throne, and appears to have overlooked his daughter. From an early age, she herself had planned to marry her cousin, Louis XIV, but this was thwarted by cardinal Mazarin while later in life, her firm intention to marry the duc de Lauzun was fully opposed by Louis in person. And yet this was a determined, independent woman who threw herself into the political uprising of La Fronde in the mid-century, actively leading the revolt against the monarchy. Having spent much of her childhood in the care of Anne d’Autriche and Louis XIII, this certainly did not go down well! Even less well accepted was her relationship with the cocksure Lauzun with whom she fell madly in love. Marriage to a commoner was out of the question, but that did not prevent Mademoiselle from pursuing the relationship, despite his frequently abject treatment of her. On the day he ordered her to remove his riding boots, she finally banished him; the cad! Perhaps some of this independence is reflected in her statue, as her curly hair hangs down freely, and her cravat-styled collar and simple clothing give her an eternal youthfulness; mademoiselle indeed!
In view of the fact that these queens were married at a young age, under royal obligation to produce an heir, and unable to benefit from any reliable form of contraception, it should come as no shock that many of them bore multiple children. However, shocked I certainly was to learn just how many. How did they deal with the trials of pregnancy, childbirth and infant death when understanding of these was so elementary, medicine rudimentary and pain relief virtually non-existent?
One of earlier queens in the series of statues, dating back to 720–783, was Berthe de Laon. Here she stands with great poise, holding a scepter and a model of Charlemagne, whilst her clothing hangs down in striking folds, worthy of sculpture from Antiquity. Married to the king of the Franks, Berthe went on to give birth to 9 children, one of whom being Charlemagne.
Meanwhile, Mathilde de Flandre (1031-1083), queen of Normandy and England, wife of William the Conqueror, bore 8 offspring. The redoubtable Blanche de Castille (1188-1252), queen of France through marriage to Louis VIII, had 12 children – one of those being Saint Louis. She was in fact pregnant with the twelfth child when her husband died, promptly leading to accusations of adultery. For others, conception was not so a simple affair… Marguerite de Provence, wife of Louis IX, had to wait 6 long years before finally having her first child and thus fulfilling this fundamental duty. As motherhood was the landmark event in a queen’s life, little respect or credibility would be given to a childless woman who failed to produce an heir.
Poor Marguerite must have suffered in the shadow or her mother-in-law, the authoritarian Blanche de Castille, who effectively reigned her country and her son’s affairs – political and marital! Ultimately, Marguerite and Louis IX had 11 children in 20 years. Valentine de Milan (1366-1408), wife of Louis d'Orléans, and sister-in-law to the king of France, Charles VI lost 6 of her 10 children. Little of that tragedy are apparent on her sculpted features however as she gazes on, wearing an almost fairy-tale pronged crown and regal clothes.
How did women cope with such loss and perhaps a sentiment that this had been brought upon them from some personal failing and as such was a divine punishment? Anne de Bretagne (1477-1514), twice queen of France, suffered repetitive losses through miscarriage, at the birth or shortly after, or in the early childhood years. Only 2 of her 9 children survived infancy and since both were girls, this must have been a bitter disappointment; an heir to the crown could only be male. One can only imagine the heartbreak experienced throughout and the physical and mental toll it took on the queen; Anne died at 36. One of the daughters, Claude (1499-1524), did in fact go on to become queen of France through marriage to François I but died at 24 having had 7 children. Bearing children into the world was one affair, raising them in a fitting manner was another, especially when regency was required, with the mother in question governing in the place of the dauphin. The reputation of being a bad mother dogged Marie de’ Medici (1573-1642) who was famously exiled to the château de Blois by one of her 6 children, Louis XIII. This followed a coup d’état to oust her from the throne as queen regent; she had apparently long been ousted from Louis’ heart. The caustic mother-son relations found their origins in her avid hunger for political power and control in court life. Ironically, Marie ultimately died alone, impoverished, in Cologne and never truly benefitted from the splendours of the Palais du Luxembourg that had been built at her behest. The inability to conceive and carry a baby full-term marked the first 22 years of marriage of Anne d’Autriche. Following the wedding ceremony, Louis XIII was forced to consummate the union, on his mother’s orders no less, despite his somewhat young age of 14 years. This was hardly an auspicious start to marriage or procreation, and both he and his inexperienced wife Anne went on to question and perhaps blame themselves and each other over the failure to produce a dauphin. Anne took a vow to build an abbey church if God granted her wish for a son. Finally a son was born when Anne had reached the grand age of 37 and the ‘magnificent temple’ of Val-de-Grâce was duly constructed to fete the birth of Louis-Dieudonné. The arrival of the future Sun King, Louis XIV, was so astonishing that soon rumours circulated as to who had actually sired the child. The king had long before abandoned the bed of his barren wife and Anne herself was said to have had numerous lovers; the most scandalous being a reputed affair with her very brother-in-law, Gaston d’Orléans!
Learning of the difficulties encountered by these queens of very different eras, made their ability to forge roles, responsibilities and identities unique to them all the more fascinating. Focusing solely on all that they were subjected to would, however, do these great women an injustice since it would take away from all that they achieved in spite of these trials and tribulations. Here are women that went on to do remarkable things, both good and bad, with or without their king, or offspring. Despite all the political intrigues and the turmoils which they endured due to religious and social upheavals, the betrayals and infidelities of those often closest to them, the ill health and “women’s issues”, these grandes dames of le Jardin du Luxembourg braved it all. With courage they all seem to have faced the destiny of their lives which were all nevertheless very different one from another since they spanned the centuries. Many of these women actively forged their own futures with incredible determination. Far from being content to play a merely symbolic, largely decorative role as queen consort or regent queen, many were eager to seize every opportunity to wield power from their position, making decisions that would have both political, economic, religious and social ramifications. Some were driven by the thirst for authority, personal gain and ascent of a purely ego-centric nature yet others were indeed ‘saintly’ in their desire to lead and serve their people. As much as some could appear brittle and ultimately ‘bad’ in demeanor, others seem softer and selfless in their approach but never to the point of utter self-effacement, self-abnegation or that modern-day forte; self-pity.
According to legend, Sainte Geneviève has protected the city of Paris for over 1, 500 years. As the object of a veritable cult from the 5th century, she guarded Paris from famine and destruction. Heralded as defensor civitatis she persuaded citizens not to flee from the approach of Attila the Hun and his army. Naturally, her acts were seen by detractors as proof of witchcraft, but that accusation has often been levelled at women throughout History when all else fails… Nevertheless, it would be an error to assume that women were mere sweetness and light personified, incapable of dark thoughts, and even more somber decisions and acts. Sainte Clothilde, known for bringing the Christian faith to her husband, the pagan king Clovis, in the late 5th century, and for founding the monastery of Saint Cloud, was driven to venge her parents’ killing. The subsequent murder of the perpetrator, Clothilde’s uncle, and his heir, on her request, resulted in greater bloodshed through fratricide within her family and in turn the killing of Clothilde’s own grandchildren at the hand of their uncles. None of this thirst for vengeance is apparent on Clothilde’ statue as she props herself against a carved column, her head dress gently flowing down around her.
Other queens used past experience to influence their decisions once in power. Bathilde, wife of Clovis II is a case in point. Indeed, she may have been bought as a child slave, but on finally becoming queen regent on the death of her husband in 657, she was able to put an end to slavery in addition to the sale of children. She stands proud today, her Holy cross around the neck. Blanche de Castille was queen regent until the young Louis IX was of age to reign. Her religious faith was her guiding force and one which she instilled in the future king. So possessive and pious was Blanche in the expression of her maternal love, that Louis was barely able to free himself from her chastising, smothering presence, all the more so as his sense of filial duty was tied to the Christian belief that governed all of his acts, even to the point of excess. He would atone for his unworthiness and weaknesses through flagellation and other practices more commonly associated with martyrs! Although Louis’ marriage to Marguerite de Provence was a political match set up by Blanche, she soon resented the time he spent with this beautiful wife and her jealous attempts to limit this union to a strictly perfunctory tussle in the matrimonial bed are comic. Envious of the youth and beauty of the bride, she would loiter near their chambers, ready to scold and chide whilst the newly-weds sought ever-more inventive ways to foil her intrusions. It is said that it was 3 nights before the marriage could finally be consummated! Eventually they resorted to spending increasing time alone in the Château de Pontoise in order to escape her controlling ways. Nevertheless, without Blanche and her exacting standards, Louis would perhaps never have become the symbol of piety and justice that he was venerated as. Not only did he demand the construction of la Sainte Chapelle to house the relics of the Passion brought back from Jerusalem in 1239, he also reformed the legal system to become more just. Already considered a saint in his lifetime, he was canonized by the Catholic church in 1297. Blanche comes across to me as a rather endearing harridan, almost worthy of Shakespeare! Her skills as queen were not to be doubted, however, and when Louis went on his numerous crusades, accompanied by wife and children, it was Blanche who was left to keep order in the realm.
Leading the Lancastrian army against the House of York in the War of the Roses in the mid 15th century, Marguerite d’Anjou (1429-1482) –queen consort of Henry VI of England - was another figure who defies any notion of the oppressed female. With the king ineffectual and given to lapses of insanity, Marguerite was determined to seize the right to rule England and to hand the crown to her son, Prince Edward of Westminster, thus overthrowing the competing claim to the throne of Richard, duke of York. The subsequent long-draw-out battles between the White and Red Roses in the fight for the English succession resulted in the death of Edward at only 18 years and the imprisonment and subsequent demise of Henry too, whilst Marguerite herself was kept prisoner until ransomed off to the French king, Louis XI. Rather unfairly labelled the ‘she-wolf of France’ by Shakespeare, Marguerite, vanquished warrior queen, returned to the country of her birth. With the ascension of Edward IV to the throne, she had lost everything in England.
The daughter of Louis XI, Anne de France – ‘La Dame de Beaujeu’ (1461-1522), was yet another woman doted with authority and courage, referred to by her father as being “the least idiotic of women, as there are surely no wise ones”. On the death of the latter in 1483, she became regent of the kingdom of France during the childhood of the heir to the throne, her younger brother, Charles VIII. Having learnt her art from Louis XI - ‘The Prudent’ – she was considered one of the most powerful women of Europe at the end of the 15th century, able to join diplomacy and force to achieve her objectives without bloodshed. Yet one woman’s gain in power and political achievement could herald the demise or diminishing of another’s. By betrothing her brother Charles to Anne de Bretagne in 1491, Anne de Beaujeu successfully realised further expansion of the French kingdom through the attachment of the duchy of Brittany to Royal territory.
Perhaps of an even finer intelligence than her brother, François I, Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549) played a significant diplomatic role by the sovereign’s side, often more like a queen consort in her position and influence than a sibling. Louise de Savoie (1476-1531), mother to these two great figures, had ensured that both receive an education quite literally fit for a king. It was Louise who governed during the first 15 years of François’ reign, and later acted as an alter rex. This must have left a lasting impression on her daughter, Marguerite, who would herself use her power to bring about change through the embracing and spreading of Humanist ideas and an interest in the reform of the Catholic church.
However as the wars of religion gripped France , she started to distance herself from politics and took refuge in the Letters, all the while offering refuge to Protestants and Humanists. Her château de Nérac was known as a cultural centre and she herself was referred to as the ‘tenth muse’, writing works of which the most notable was the book L’Heptaméron. It is hardly surprising that similar traits of intelligence, valour and fortitude made up the character of her daughter.
Indeed, Jeanne d’Albret (1528- 1572) was set to become one of the great Protestant figures in France. A 16th century writer remarked of her “She had of a woman, only her female organs”. Headstrong daughter of Marguerite, she embraced the reformed religion that was spreading in France and began openly worshipping in the Calvinist faith. Having left her Catholic-convert husband, Antoine de Bourbon, Jeanne went to the Huguenot stronghold, La Rochelle, in 1569. Here she wished to propose her son, the future Henri IV, as figurehead of the Protestant cause. With the wars of religion having raged across France for years, it was hoped that Henri’s marriage 1572 to Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter, Marguerite de Valois, would calm the tension and end ever-growing hostilities. Nothing could have been further from reality, and it took Henri’s conversion to Catholicism to conclude the civil war and bring peace to France. Fortunately, perhaps, Jeanne was unaware of this; she had died just before the wedding.
And finally back to Marie de’ Medici , the woman greedy for power, beautiful possessions and property. Her lust for power led to her son banishing her from court and country, and such was her love of jewellery that no other queen rivalled her, and yet these were ultimately stripped off her. The huge diamond, Le Beau Sancy, given to her by Henri IV and set into the crown on her coronation as queen regent, was later sold off to pay her debts. Her ambitious plans for a vast royal palace, saw the day, but she never saw Le Palais du Luxembourg fully finished. Nevertheless, for all her errors and failings, here she is now, surrounded by her ‘sisters’, each with their own story to tell, behind their enigmatic sculpted expressions.

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