The Most Notorious French Royal Ménage à Trois

Written by Expert Contributor, Dr Estelle Paranque

It was on a chill autumn day that Catherine de Medici entered the port of Marseilles, dressed brilliantly in gold and rare sparkling gems, her coach draped in luxurious black velvet. Catherine ­– the niece of Pope Clement VII – was a sight to behold, and having been betrothed to Francis I of France’s second son, Henri, she was seen as “the greatest match in the world”. On the 27th of October 1533, Catherine and Henri signed their marriage contract and the wedding took place.

Corneille de Lyon, Claude; Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), Queen of France; National Trust, Polesden Lacey; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/catherine-de-medici-15191589-queen-of-france-217762

What should have been a “happily ever after” turned into a very unhappy union, however, with Catherine soon being overshadowed by another woman: the beautiful and mesmerising Diane de Poitiers.

Born in 1500, Diane was the daughter of Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint-Vallier, whose mother was a de La Tour D’Auvergne (a noble French dynasty) – just like Catherine’s mother – making the two rivals second cousins. On 29th March 1515, Diane married the Grand-Sénéchal of Normandy, Louis de Brézé, and they were married for sixteen years until Louis died in 1531. Diane was able to retain control of all her late husband’s financial assets, becoming an independent widow.

Diane was seen as being one of the most elegant, seductive, and intriguing creatures at court. Her beauty was so compelling, in fact, that she had great influence over many courtiers ­– but more importantly, over one powerful man: Henri II himself.

It all started when Francis I asked her to become Henri II’s tutor, to make the young prince into a gallant. At the time, she was 31 and he was just 11 years old, but right from the very beginning Henri was subjugated by Diane’s beauty and benevolence towards him. In fact, Diane was so politically important, and her personal relation to Henri grew so much, that she was even consulted regarding the marriage negotiations between himself and Catherine de Medici. Diane was favourable to the union as she knew how much prestige such an alliance would bring to France and the young prince.

When – after his brother’s death in 1536 – Henri became heir to the throne, Diane ensured that she was by his side as he undertook his new responsibilities. By this time, with Diane being 36 and the prince being 16, it was clear that the couple had started a sexual liaison. Catherine, therefore, was completely eclipsed by her rival, especially as Diane singled out Henri for her sexual favours. When Henri became king, she became his official royal favourite and his mistress, making her more powerful and influential than ever.

Clouet, Francois; Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), Duchess of Valentinois; Museums Sheffield; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/diane-de-poitiers-14991566-duchess-of-valentinois-70876

The royal couple suffered from Henri and Diane’s passionate relationship to the point where it was obvious that Catherine was utterly neglected by her husband. Even so, the couple needed heirs, and Diane encouraged Henri to fulfil his marital duties. Diane was a smart woman, however, as she also had her own agenda: she urged Henri to spend more time with Catherine, but only as long as she was present too. Consequently, Diane joined the royal couple during their intimate relations; she would arouse Henri before giving Catherine advice and recommendations on how to keep him aroused. Without a doubt, these must have been some of the most humiliating moments of Catherine’s life.

To make matters worse, Catherine really was in love with Henri, and now, not only was she completely overshadowed by his royal favourite for most of the day, but she also had to endure Diane’s presence in the rare ‘private’ moments she had with her husband too. While this arrangement proved successful – the royal couple had ten children – Catherine’s loathing and hatred for Diane continued to grow. She even declared, “Never did a wife who loves her husband love his whore.”

And, unfortunately for Catherine, the humiliations persisted. Much to her abhorrence, Diane took a great role in the education of the royal children; the royal favourite wrote many letters to the governor and governess of the little princes and princesses, sending them instructions for their education. Of course, she ensured that Catherine was well aware of her involvement. Catherine too sent instructions, not that it made much difference; this was just another affront Catherine had to deal with. It almost seemed as if Diane were trying to play the role of mother to Catherine’s children, as well as stealing the favour of her husband.

Caterina de’ Medici con il figlio re Carlo IX, Margherita detta “Margot”, Enrico duca d’Angiò e Francesco Ercole duca d’Alençon.
Workshop of François Clouet

Henri, Diane, and Catherine were entangled in an awkward ménage à trois that permeated every area of their lives. It wasn’t, however, an equal split: Catherine definitely found herself in the shadows of the primary couple, Henri and Diane, and regardless of Diane’s mature age, Henri continued to favour her over his own wife – and over everyone else, for that matter. He had, of course, other mistresses, but none of them had the influence over him that Diane wielded.

For decades, Catherine had to endure Henri and Diane’s love, being the third wheel in the relationship despite her marital status. However, through her children – and in a drastic turn of events – Catherine was about to have her revenge on them both. On the 30th of June 1559, a tournament to celebrate the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis – which had been signed in April 1559 – was held near the Place des Vosges. This was marked by the double unions of Elisabeth of Valois, eldest daughter of Henri and Catherine, with Philip II of Spain, and Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, with Margaret of France, Duchess of Berry.

At forty years old, Henri was a warrior king who remained in great shape, and so – wearing the colours of Diane – the king took part in the jousting tournament, competing against the younger, dashing Gabriel de Montgomery. For whatever reason – either a moment of inattention or in a deliberate cocky move – the king forgot to close his visor and Henri was wounded by a fragment of the splintered lance, which penetrated his helmet and lodged in his eyes. Despite the efforts of the royal surgeon – the well-known Ambroise Paré – the king remained in agony for ten days before finally succumbing to his wound. He died on the 10th of July 1559.

The end of Henri was the end of Diane, as Catherine no longer had to tolerate her presence at court. The queen refused to let Diane attend the king’s funeral, and she also forced the royal favourite to hand over the Château de Chenonceau – the jewel of the Loire Renaissance castles – to Catherine. She ultimately forced Diane to live in exile.

Finally, Catherine’s reign had begun.

Dr Estelle Paranque

Expert Contributor

Dr Estelle Paranque is Lecturer in Early Modern History at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern, and an Honorary Research Fellow within the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Elizabeth I of England Through Valois Eyes: Power, Representation, and Diplomacy in the Reign of the Queen, 1558-1588 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and has published several essays on Elizabeth I, French monarchs, and other European queens.

Twitter: @DrEstellePrnq

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