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