Anne The Last Duchess of Brittany

In the medieval world, dominated by men, Anne of Brittany spent her life fighting for her Duchy to retain it’s traditional independence.

Born in 1477, Anne was the daughter of Duke Francis of Brittany. Her older half-brother had died within weeks of birth, and her younger sister died aged twelve. As the eldest of the two girls with no brother following them, Anne was Francis’ heir.

Brittany was an independent Duchy, bordered by France but technically separate. As the French kings expanded their borders, Brittany came under threat. Duke Francis spent his life fighting to keep the Duchy independent, and must have hoped that sooner or later he would have a son who would continue that fight. He had Anne educated, she was his presumed heir after all, but he no doubt believed that he wouldn’t actually have to leave his Duchy to a girl, with all the political problems that would ensue.

At the age of eleven Anne was catapulted into the role of Duchess when her father was thrown from his horse, and died of his injuries. Just days before his death Francis had been forced to sign a treaty stating that his daughter would only be married with the permission of the King of France. This treaty was equally as binding for the new Duchess, which meant that she would only be able to marry a man chosen by the French king. Naturally he would choose someone who would help him gain her lands.

Despite this, Anne and her council put up a fight. In 1490 she went through a proxy marriage ceremony which married her to Maximilian (who was 30 years older than her!), the heir of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. It was a good diplomatic move, Frederick was frequently at odds with the French, and the enemy of Brittany’s enemy should have been a good friend. But the Holy Roman Empire was almost constantly at war with itself and it’s neighbours. They had no time or soldiers to spare in defending a Duchy that was hundreds of miles away and would involve a journey through enemy territory, or a dangerous sea voyage.

The marriage also angered King Charles VIII of France. Anne was not allowed to contract any marriage without his permission, and he could see the danger of her allying with the Empire. The French army eventually besieged the poor Duchess in Rennes, and with her “Prince Charming” far away and unable to help, Anne had to no choice but to surrender. In December 1491 she was married to King Charles himself, and Brittany automatically became part of the Kingdom of France. She was even forced to agree to the condition that if she had no sons and Charles predeceased her, she would have to marry his heir, although at least she would retain Brittany if he died first. Frederick protested against the match, Anne’s proxy wedding to Maximilian was legally binding, and Charles himself was betrothed to Maximilian’s daughter Margaret. But the fact of the matter was that if Frederick really wanted Anne to marry Maximilian then his son should have gone to Brittany himself. As a woman in the medieval period, Anne was unable to lead an army or fight against the King of France in any real way. Maximilian, who was the widower of Mary of Burgundy, would go on to marry Bianca Maria Sforza, of the powerful Milanese Sforza family.

Even though she was effectively forced to marry Charles, Anne made sure her husband didn’t get everything his own way. In their marriage settlement she made sure that it contained a clause stating that while their first son would inherit the French crown, a second son would become Duke of Brittany, a provision that she hoped would keep the Duchy independent. Charles himself banned her from using the title Duchess of Brittany, and although he did have her crowned as Queen of France she was never named Regent in his absence, that honour was given to his sister.

Anne was pregnant multiple times during her marriage, one son lived to the age of three before dying of measles, all her other babies were either stillborn or died within days or weeks of birth. Like any mother she loved her children and was deeply grieved by their deaths. With no living son, Charles’ death in 1498 pushed Anne in to a new problem. Charles’ heir to the Kingdom of France was his cousin Louis. Under the terms of her marriage contract, Anne’s beloved Duchy was now once again free from the French crown. But she was also bound by the same contract to marry Louis himself.

However, Louis already had a wife. Anne had to agree to marry Louis, but she was at least able to bargain one point; Louis must have his first marriage annulled within a year. There was no real time limit for how long annulments could take, Anne must have been bargaining on the hope that the Pope would take his time. So while Louis started the process of annulling his first marriage (he would claim it was unconsummated because his wife was “malformed”, a particularly unpleasant thing to announce about any woman), Anne returned to Brittany. She was already popular, but now she became beloved. She travelled around the Duchy, appointed her own counsellors, and endeared herself to her people, who flocked to see her at ceremonial entries to Breton towns and cities.

Louis managed to get his annulment in time, and she had to return to France for another marriage in 1499. This time though Anne was allowed to her to keep the title “Duchess of Brittany”, and Louis ensured that his orders were issued under her name. By Louis she had six more children, but only two daughters survived.

Anne spent the rest of her life fighting for Brittany. She arranged for her eldest daughter, Claude, to be betrothed to Charles of Austria (the nephew of Catherine of Aragon). She hoped that her daughter could inherit Brittany and would rule it with Charles. When it became clear that he would not have a son by Anne, Louis broke it off and arranged a new betrothal between Claude and her cousin Francis, who was Louis’ closest male relation and therefore his heir. Anne then tried to make her second daughter Renee the next Duchess of Brittany, but after her death Louis ensured the title went to Claude, and would then pass on to her sons by Francis. Brittany would never be independent again.

Anne died on 9th January 1514 at just 36 years old. In her will she stipulated that her heart be returned to Brittany, while her remains were interred in Saint-Denis in Paris. She had spent her life dedicated to the cause of her Duchy, and to this day the Breton people still love their last Duchess.

Written for Sheroes of History by Katie Collins. Katie has written two ebooks about some amazing Sheroes of history! 30 Women of History Volume 1 & Volume 2 are great resources available at a very reasonable price for your Kindle! You can follow Katie on Twitter @CreateHistorian

Find out more…

There is a book about Anne called Twice Queen of France: Anne of Brittany, available here.

There is a project in France commemorating 500 years since Anne of Brittany died in 1514. It brings together many of the châteaux that Anne lived in during her life. The website has a fantastic interactive timeline of Anne’s life.

Here is a short video about Anne of Brittany, it’s in French – but don’t worry, it has subtitles!

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