Okay, this is not a TUDOR post, I'll admit, but after finishing Diane Haeger's novel "Courtesan," which takes place in 16th-century France (Tudor times!), I just had to write about this absolutely incredible historical love story. I had actually never paid much attention to French history before now, but recently I have been saying that I would love to branch out a little from my strict Tudor knowledge, and try to explore what was going on in other European countries during the 16th-century. Well, this book was the perfect way to get started with that!
Not only did this book absolutely captivate me, it completely transported me to 16th-century France - a place I've never visited in books before! I knew virtually nothing about King Francis I and his son, Prince Henri, at the time I started this book. However, after meeting Henri through Diane de Poitier's eyes, I could not help but love him! Diane was really an incredible woman for her time. She was a very beautiful noblewoman at Francis' court, and she turned the heads of many noblemen. This brought around hateful and jealous feelings from the King's mistress and favourite, Anne d'Heilly, when it was clear that Francis was becoming quite interested in Diane. Though she apparently kept the King at arm's length, she was the topic of gossip and conversation at the French court - especially when she caught the eye of the King's second son, Prince Henri, who was twenty years her junior. Though many people believed that their relationship was simply that of a mother and her son, it became much more than that. Henri had suffered quite a difficult childhood - being the son his father didn't love, and having lost his mother, Queen Claude as a little boy. He was a difficult child, and claimed to never truly know love until Diane came into his life. It can be thought that, perhaps, he began to cling to her because of his need for love - and maybe it did start as a motherly attachment. However, their relationship developed quickly, and soon Diane and Henri were lovers - attempting to keep it a secret from the rest of the court.
In 1533, Henri married Catherine de Medici - which was a controversial marriage at the time. Henri clearly only saw it as a political move, as he had very little (if any) say in the matter. He swore to Diane that she would always be the only one who had his heart, and surprisingly, it was Diane that made sure Henri visited his wife's chambers at night to provide heirs for the French throne. (At this point, Henri's older brother had died, leaving him as the future King of France). Diane completely understood her love's responsibility to the Crown, and she masked any jealousy she may have had when knowing that he was in his wife's bed. I think she probably always knew that, no matter where he was or who he was with, she was the only woman in his heart.
In another act of kindness and duty to her husband and France, Diane helped nurse Catherine back to health when she contracted the scarlet fever. At this point, she was Queen of France, and although Diane may have been harboring some jealousy towards the woman who wore the crown and sat beside Henri, she acted selflessly and stayed with Catherine until she was well again. She was also in charge of overseeing the education for the royal children - a job that Henri had given her so that she may stay as close to him and his family as possible. Although Henri would never divorce Catherine, and they would produce ten children together, Diane remained his one true love, and for 25 years, she was the most influential woman in France.
During their long relationship and 'against-all-odds' love, Henri and Diane created a love symbol that would be engraved all over Paris - even on Henri's cannons. Their symbol contained two interwoven D's with a line through the middle, forming an H (shown below). Even today, the symbol can be seen on the ceiling of the Louvre Museum, Fountainbleau, Chenonceaux, and the Paris Military Museum. Henry designed his own armor with the symbol - as a sign to France that his true love was not his wife, but Diane. Although they could never marry, he made it very clear that she was the only woman for him. Another interesting fact about this relationship is that Henri cherished Diane so much, and seeing her as the most important woman in his life, he insisted that they sign official letters and state documents together as "HenriDiane." One can only imagine how this must have made Catherine de Medici feel, but it is a beautiful tribute that Henri made to his favourite. Diane became exceptionally well-known around Europe, and whenever the royal family would receive gifts, she was always included. It is possible that, if she was not shown the ultimate respect, Henri would have taken drastic action to make sure people remembered who his heart belonged to. Henri presented Diane with the Crown Jewels of France and showered her with lavish gifts, including the Chateau de Chenonceaux, a house that Catherine had wanted for herself.
However, all beautiful stories must come to an end, and Henri's did in 1559, when he was mortally wounded in a jousting tournament. The heartbreaking part is that Catherine limited access to him at this time, while he lay dying and calling out for Diane. Diane was never admitted to see him, and instead he died in his wife's care. Catherine did not invite Diane to Henri's funeral, and she immediately banished her from Chenonceaux. Diane moved to her chateau in Anet, where she lived in comfortable obscurity for the rest of her life.
So, although this story (as most historical stories do) ends sadly, the relationship between Diane and Henri is undeniably romantic and sweet. One cannot help falling a bit in love with their relationship, and marveling at how such a storybook romance could truly happen in such a dangerous time in history. The 16th century is not typically remembered as a particularly romantic time period, but stories like this show that anything was possible!