Diane de Poitiers - Famous Royal Mistress
Early Life of Diane de Poitiers
Diane de Poitiers was born in 1499 at the castle of Saint Vallier in the Rhone-Alpes region of France. Her parents were Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier and Jeanne de Batarnay. As was the custom in those days for highly born girls, she was still a child when she was sent to join the retinue of Anne de Beaujeu, who was the eldest sister of King Charles VIII. She was married at the tender age of 15 to Louis de Breze, Seigneur d’Anet, a man who was 39 years older than her. Her new husband was rich and well-connected, being a grandson of King Charles VII and acting as a courtier for King Francis I. This marriage produced two daughters, Francoise born in 1518 and Louise born in 1521. She became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France, and after Claude’s death became lady-in-waiting in turn to both Louise of Savoy and Eleanor of Austria.
Diane de Poitier’s family were hit by scandal and almost brought down in 1524 when her father, Jean de Poitiers, was accused of treason due to his association with Charles III, Duke of Bourbon who was planning to carve up the kingdom of France with the aid of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King Henry VIII of England. Her father’s head was actually placed on the block and the executioner poised to bring his axe down, when a pardon came through at the last minute from King Francis I.
Did Alchemy Kill Diane de Poitiers?
Diane de Poitier's Beauty and Accomplishments
Diane de Poitier’s husband died in 1531, and it was at this time that she started to exclusively wear the black and white clothes, which became one of her hallmarks and served to enhance the attractions of her pale beauty and coppery hair. Unusually for a woman at this time, she was very interested in finance and legal matters, and after her husband’s death she managed to retain his rights as governor and grand-senechal of Normandy, and took up a legal challenge to stop his appanages being returned to the royal estates. In this way she managed to stay a wealthy and influential woman in her own right.
Diane de Poitiers was famous for her beauty and was immortalised in art by many painters, notably by Francois Clouet, who painted her topless in her bath. Diane de Poitiers retained her remarkable good looks until she was well past middle age, with one of the French courtiers describing her as ‘as fresh and lovable’ in her later years as she had been in her thirties and that her skin was ‘of great whiteness’. She was also a very active woman and was a keen rider and enjoyed hunting as a sport. Diane was very well educated and was able to read Latin and Greek, as well as learning dancing, music, manners and the art of conversation. During her life she was to become the patron of many painters and poets, and was renowned for being a very cultivated woman.
Diane de Poitiers and Henri II
Diane de Poitiers had known Henri II since he was a small child, and was part of the entourage that escorted Henri and his brother to the Spanish border, when they were sent as hostages in exchange for their father’s freedom, after Francis I had been captured during the Battle of Pavia in 1525. When he was returned to France at the age of 12, Henri went to Diane for comfort and she was appointed as his mentor to teach him the ways and manners of the French royal court. Even at this age, Henri was evidently very taken with Diane as at the tournament that was held to celebrate the coronation of Francis I’s new wife Eleanor, Henri saluted Diane rather than the new bride as was customary and carried Diane’s colours of green and white.
In 1533 Henri was married to Catherine de Medici. This was not a popular union at the French court, as many believed the Medici to be nothing but upstarts, as they were Florentine merchants. The marriage was, however, promoted by Diane de Poitiers, as Catherine de Medici was related to her through the La Tour d’Auvergne family. Diane was very active in helping to make the marriage a success, so as to further her own political ends and to retain her power at court. It was always useful to have a Queen in your power. When rumours began to abound that Catherine de Medici was to be repudiated as Henri’s wife because she was childless, Diane made sure that Henri paid frequent visits to his wife’s bedchamber so that she would conceive. Diane also nursed Catherine through a bad bout of scarlet fever, to help ensure that she would survive and that Diane would retain her influence. Henri and Catherine eventually had ten children, and Diane was placed in charge of their education until 1551 and Diane’s daughter Francoise was put in charge of Catherine’s servants.
Diane de Poitiers - Royal Mistress
It is believed that Diane de Poitiers became Henri’s mistress in 1538, and their relationship was to last over 20 years until his death in 1559. Henri was devoted to her, and although he strayed occasionally, Diane always remained the most important woman in Henri’s life. Diane could be ruthless in eliminating any woman who she perceived to be a rival, and on the death of Francis I she had his mistress Anne de Pisseleu dismissed from court, because Anne had earlier been the supporter of Philippe de Chabot, while Diane supported Montmorency. As well as being Henri’s lover, she came to wield a great deal of influence over him and became a powerful political force at court. Henri became King of France in 1547 and Diane de Poitier’s place at court was assured as long as she had Henri’s support. Henri II trusted her with all of his business and even allowed her to write his official letters, some of which were jointly signed HenriDiane. In 1548 Henri gave Diane the title Duchesse de Valentinois and in 1553 she became Duchesse d’Etampes.
As you can imagine, none of this made Diane very popular with Henri’s wife Catherine de Medici, who was constantly thrust into the background. She had first had had to put up with Diane managing her life and her relationship with her husband, and then she had to endure watching him spend all his time with Diane, listening to her opinions and showering her with titles and possessions. Henri II gave Diane the Chateau de Chenonceau, which Catherine had coveted for herself, built the Chateau d’Anet for her and even entrusted her with the French Crown Jewels. Diane de Poitiers was all powerful while Henri II was alive, but when he was fatally injured in a tournament, Catherine immediately stopped Diane from having any access to the dying king. Although he reputedly incessantly called out for Diane from his sickbed, Catherine denied Henri the comfort of being with Diane in his last days and Diane was also barred from attending his funeral.
Downfall and Death of Diane de Poitiers
Catherine de Medici ousted Diane from the Chateau de Chenonceau soon after Henri’s demise and banished her to the Chateau de Chaumont. She left there to go and reside in her own Chateau d’Anet, where she lived out the rest of her life in comfortable obscurity until she died at the age of 66. She was buried in a specially built funeral chapel at the Chateau d’Anet, but her grave was desecrated during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century and her remains were flung into a mass grave outside the castle.
One of the great mysteries of Diane de Poitier’s life was how she managed to stay looking so young and beautiful, and how she kept Henri II captivated until his death despite being twenty years older than him. Scientists believe that they may have found the answer to this after Diane’s remains were discovered in 2008 and examined. Diane drank an elixir every day to preserve her porcelain, white skin and to stop her aging. This elixir was a mixture of gold chloride and diethyl ether, with some mercury thrown in as a ‘purifier’. These drinkable gold elixirs were very popular at the French Court during the 16th century, as they thought that the gold was imbued with the powers of the sun, which would be passed on to whoever drank the gold mixture. The scientists think that it was ingesting this gold mixture that eventually killed Diane. One of the symptoms of gold poisoning is very white skin, which is caused by anaemia, and also brittle bones and teeth, and having exceptionally fine hair. Diane’s remains showed all these affects of gold poisoning when examined and when some locks of her hair, which had been preserved at Chateau D’Anet, were tested, they were found to contain more than 500 times the level of gold that would be expected in normal human hair.
Diane de Poitiers' ghost is still said to haunt the Chateau de Chenonceau that she loved so well, her apparition appearing at the time of the full moon alongside that of her rival for Henri II’s attention and affection, Catherine de Medici, who is seen combing Diane’s hair. Diane’s lonely ghost is also sometimes seen forlornly gazing into the mirror in her old bedroom. Diane de Poitier’s remains are soon going to be reburied back in the Chateau d’Anet, so it is to be hoped that she will then finally rest at peace.
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