Univer­sity of Wife

From Diane de Poitiers to Anne Bo­leyn, how the French court groomed a gen­er­a­tion of Europe’s most pow­er­ful women

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Melanie Clegg

How the Early Mod­ern French court groomed a gen­er­a­tion of queens, from Anne Bo­leyn to Mary Stu­art

For hun­dreds of years the French court was a by­word for so­phis­ti­ca­tion, fash­ion and mag­nif­i­cence, at­tract­ing the bright­est and best from all over Europe. Writ­ers, in­tel­lec­tu­als, philoso­phers and artists all flocked to France to seek em­ploy­ment and in­spi­ra­tion, their ef­forts adding to the pres­tige of the French monar­chy and the op­u­lent court that they presided over.

Through­out the rest of Europe French style and the ex­quis­ite man­ners cul­ti­vated at court were re­garded as the height of re­fine­ment and def­i­nitely some­thing to be as­pired to with both men and women copy­ing French fash­ions and eti­quette. How­ever, while French men could of­ten be ob­jects of ridicule thanks to what was re­garded as their ‘un­manly’ in­ter­est in fash­ion and art, French women were re­garded as the epit­ome of pol­ished, so­phis­ti­cated wom­an­hood and their ap­pear­ance and be­hav­iour was end­lessly copied else­where – in much the same way as it is nowa­days thanks to books that claim to teach us how to be more ‘Parisian’.

While French clothes, art, per­fume and other lux­ury items would al­ways be sought after by those keen to buy them­selves a piece of that cov­etable Parisian so­phis­ti­ca­tion, French women them­selves, prod­ucts of a sys­tem de­lib­er­ately de­signed to make them as grace­ful and cul­ti­vated as pos­si­ble, were the best am­bas­sadors of all and would be wel­come at courts through­out Europe.

At a time when in­ter­est in the ed­u­ca­tion of women was gen­er­ally fairly desul­tory at best and at worst down­right neg­li­gent, the im­por­tance that French aris­to­cratic par­ents placed on the up­bring­ing of their young daugh­ters was con­sid­ered rather un­usual.

While in Eng­land, well-born girls could con­sider them­selves for­tu­nate if they were taught even the most rudi­men­tary lit­er­acy

skills, their French peers were en­cour­aged to read widely, write po­etry and fa­mil­iarise them­selves with in­tel­lec­tual pur­suits such as the dis­cus­sion of phi­los­o­phy, art, lit­er­a­ture and re­li­gion. Along­side this they were also given les­sons in all the usual courtly ac­tiv­i­ties like danc­ing, play­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, singing, rid­ing and hunt­ing – all to the very high­est stan­dard. De­port­ment was also ex­tremely im­por­tant and young French no­ble­women would spend hours learn­ing how to curt­sey, eat and even walk in the most re­fined and el­e­gant way pos­si­ble, the ul­ti­mate aim be­ing to make them both or­na­ments to the royal court and also ex­tremely mar­riage­able.

Al­though French no­ble­men nat­u­rally pre­ferred wives who brought an enor­mous dowry with them, al­lowances were of­ten made for young women who were ex­cep­tion­ally welle­d­u­cated but sadly lack­ing in fam­ily money, which made par­ents all the more keen to in­vest in the ed­u­ca­tion of their own daugh­ters.

It had be­come the cus­tom for noble fam­i­lies to send their chil­dren away to be ed­u­cated in the other grand aris­to­cratic house­holds, with the most pres­ti­gious place­ments nat­u­rally be­ing within the royal fam­ily it­self.

At the end of the 15th cen­tury, par­ents were es­pe­cially keen to have their daugh­ters ed­u­cated in the house­hold of Charles VIII’S sis­ter Anne de Beau­jeu, Duchesse de Bour­bon at the enor­mous Château de Chantelle near Moulins. Not only was it con­sid­ered highly ad­van­ta­geous to be as­so­ci­ated to the king’s sis­ter who, fur­ther­more, acted as his re­gent dur­ing his mi­nor­ity, but par­ents were also drawn to Anne’s own for­mi­da­ble in­tel­li­gence and ded­i­ca­tion to the

ed­u­ca­tion of both her own daugh­ter Suzanne de Bour­bon and the numer­ous well-born young women who en­tered her care.

As Suzanne was Anne’s only sur­viv­ing child and heiress to the enor­mous wealth and es­tates that be­longed to her par­ents, it was only nat­u­ral that the great­est care and at­ten­tion should be paid to her up­bring­ing, which was de­signed to pre­pare her for her fu­ture po­si­tion as one of the great­est ladies in France. To this end, her mother put to­gether a strict ed­u­ca­tional regime that was de­signed to make Suzanne as ac­com­plished, cul­ti­vated and so­cially pol­ished as pos­si­ble with a great deal of em­pha­sis on read­ing, which in­cluded delv­ing into books about hu­man­ism, phi­los­o­phy and re­li­gion, in or­der to broaden her mind as well as all the usual courtly pur­suits such as danc­ing, mu­sic and hunt­ing. Anne was also keen that her daugh­ter and other pupils should learn other lan­guages in­clud­ing, un­usual for girls at this time, Greek and Latin.

Anne was so pleased with the re­sults of her labours that she even wrote a lengthy book de­tail­ing her thoughts and ad­vice about the ed­u­ca­tion of young no­ble­women, which was nat­u­rally a great hit with am­bi­tious par­ents all across Europe. En­ti­tled Les­sons for my Daugh­ter, the book is a trea­sure trove of in­for­ma­tion and in­cludes ad­vice such as “al­ways dress well, be cool and poised, with mod­est eyes, softly spo­ken, al­ways con­stant and stead­fast, and ob­serve un­yield­ing good sense”, “al­ways keep a bal­anced view of ev­ery­thing” and, rather

Mar­guerite d’an­goulême, Queen of Navarre was the sis­ter of François I and thanks to her sharp in­tel­li­gence and ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion was con­sid­ered one of the fore­most in­tel­lec­tu­als of the French Re­nais­sance

The leg­endary royal mistress Diane de Poitiers was the re­sult of Anne de Beau­jeu’s pi­o­neer­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem for girls, which made her into one of the most grace­ful and ac­com­plished women at the French court

A rose­wood lute, dat­ing from 1596. The young women of the French court were ex­pected to be tal­ented mu­si­cians and the lute was one of the most pop­u­lar in­stru­ments

This en­chant­ing por­trait byJan Gos­saert de­picts an un­known young girl, pos­si­bly Princess Dorothea of Den­mark, play­ing with an as­tro­nom­i­cal in­stru­ment

Anne de Beau­jeu, Duchesse de Bour­bon, was the daugh­ter and sis­ter of kings and one of the most in­flu­en­tial ed­u­ca­tors of the pe­riod

When Anne Bo­leyn, fresh from sev­eral years at the French court, caught Henry VIII’S eye it was prob­a­bly due to her pol­ished French man­ners, sense of style and vi­vac­ity

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