The story of Diane de Poitiers should serve as an inspiration to all of us who feel not-as-young-as-we-used-to-be. Diane was born in 1499, the daughter of Jean de Poitiers and thus a member of a very ancient line. A beauty from a very young age, at 13 she married into another distinguished line when she became the spouse of Louis de Breze who was 39 years older than Diane and a grandson of Charles VII. When she and her husband came to the court of Francois I, she found herself immersed in the wonderful Renaissance atmosphere that she loved. This was a time when France was discovering the new wonders of art and architecture brought back to France by Francois I from his campaigns in Italy, where, of course, the Renaissance was in full swing. In 1531, her elderly husband died, but Diane remained at court. Whilst there she not surprisingly managed to attract the eye of young Henri later to became Henri II. Although she was in her 30s by then, and surrounded at court by many younger women, she was considered to be one of the outstanding court beauties. Shortly before Henri’s arranged marriage to Catherine de Medicis in 1533, Diane became his mistress. Henri was only 14.
At the time of Henri’s marriage to Catherine she herself was something of a looker and she was 18 years younger than Diane. In spite of this, Henri seemed to try to avoid Catherine as much as he could, continuing to pursue his interest in Diane. Catherine de Medicis did not take kindly to her husband’s interest in Diane who was officially acknowledged as his mistress three years after his marriage to Catherine. The age factor added insult to injury, and things just seemed to go from bad to worse for Catherine. As Henri’s wife, it was Catherine’s duty to produce an heir (or better yet, several of them), preferably male, since a daughter could not inherit the throne in France. Catherine appeared to be incapable of fulfilling her duty in this respect. Of course, this failure may have had something to do with the fact that Henri seemed determined to spend all his time, day and night, with Diane.
Now this is where the story gets really good. Diane realized there was no love lost between her and Catherine. She was also aware that if Henri’s marriage were annulled because there was no heir, he might have to marry someone even less accommodating than Catherine. Being something of a pragmatist, she made an arrangement with Catherine, agreeing that on some evenings Henri would spend several hours in Diane’s bed, then go to Catherine’s for a while, then return to Diane’s bedchamber. We are told that Diane also gave Catherine some practical hints which we assume were not directed toward how she could cook a better pot roast. This evidently did the trick, because the future Francois II was born in 1544, followed by the future Charles IX in 1550, and the future Henri III in 155l, plus several other children.
So Diane did not exactly marry a younger man, she did come close, managing to retain Henri’s love and interest until his death in 1559. Although Diane did present an enduring attraction, Henri II managed to squeeze in some other interests. One of them, unfortunately, was jousting. Periodically, Henri would throw a huge fete, which would customarily involve drinking lots of wine, eating the French equivalent of barbeque, and enjoying, as entertainment, a sort of recreation of a medieval tournament. Now this would have been fine, as long as the King just sat in the stands and cheered on his favorites. But that was not the sort of man Henri was. So, on one of these memorable occasions, Henri, always the life of the party, climbed on his horse and prepared to have a go at his opponent with what we believe were tipped lances. This did not turn out to be a good idea. Although the sport was aimed at simply knocking your opponent off his horse, something went wrong. Henri zigged when he should have zagged and the next thing he knew he had been nearly run through by a lance, which pierced deeply into his eye. Henri should have known better than to deliberately expose himself to such danger, because there was really no able heir ready to succeed him. In spite of his heroic efforts to produce children by his wife Catherine de Medicis, none of his sons was yet of age to assume the throne. This meant, of course, that when he succumbed to his injuries shortly after the tournament in 1559, he left France in the hands of at least one of his minor children. In any case, with a new king on the throne, Diane suddenly found herself persona non grata at court. Since Catherine de Medicis was now in a better position to exact her revenge, being the mother of the king instead of simply an out-of-favour wife, she began to pressure Diane to hand over one of the most important presents she had been given by Henri II – the chateau of Chenonceau, something of a sore point between the two women.
Diane loved the chateau of Chenonceau. In 1547 Henri II had made her a gift of the chateau and in 1551, she had become the Duchess of Valentinois there. She is reputed to have ran the place with an iron but artistic hand, turning the already lovely area into a garden spot with plants and trees personally selected by her, including such exotic offerings as artichokes and melons. The balls and hunts given by her at Chenonceau became legendary. By 1552, Henri was spending most of his time, frequently without Catherine, at Chenonceau. Hence, the chateau had become It was probably to be expected that Catherine would want Chenonceau returned if anything untoward ever happened to the man in both women’s lives. But when Henri died, Catherine discovered that Henri had not simply given Diane the use of the property instead, the chateau had been given outright to Diane, in spite of legal restrictions which specified that such royal property could not be alienated. Since it was potentially no longer part of the royal domain, it would be difficult for Catherine to assert a claim to Chenonceau on purely legal grounds. On her side, Diane had not been naive enough to trust that all would be well forever between her and Henri, and she had prudently set about to make her own chateau of Anet quite comfortable just in case. A period of sparring ensued, but since Catherine’s power was clearly on the ascent, Diane did the prudent thing and decided to yield, however painful that may have been for her. There is some reason to believe that Catherine offered to provide her rival with the chateau of Chaumont in exchange for Chenonceau, but in the end, Diane retired to Anet, where she died in 1566, seven years after the death of Henri.
Chateau Chenonceau is open to the public to view and it is the must see chateau during a holiday to the spectacular Loire Valley region in France. A trip to Chateau Chenonceau is all the better enjoyed for knowing a little history of those times before you visit.