The final portrait of the late Queen Joan of France and Abbess of Bourges, which she commissioned just prior to her death in 1505. Swiss National Museum / Musée du Louvre

The Lady Behind the Mask: Joan of France 

The exquisite death mask of Joan of France (1464-1505) mirrors the grace, courage, and moral convictions of a long-suffering disabled woman who was briefly queen of France and later canonized as a saint.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

Born in 1464, Joan of France was the youngest daughter of Louis XI of France and Charlotte of Savoy. After the loss of so many children, Louis XI and Charlotte had anticipated the arrival of a son and heir. The fact that Joan was a girl and born with a clubfoot and severe scoliosis only added to their grief. Joan spent her earliest years in the Loire Valley until Louis XI put her in the charge of distant relatives, Baron François de Lignières et d'Amplepuis and his wife, Anne de Culan, shortly after her fifth birthday. The couple showered Joan with love and attention as they had no children of their own. They gave her an excellent, comprehensive education, and it was under the care of her sympathetic guardians that Joan first became devoted to the Virgin Mary and interested in religious observance.  
A miniature presumably of Joan praying in her famous Book of Hours.
A miniature presumably of Joan praying in her famous Book of Hours. Wikimedia
Joan’s disabilities became more pronounced as she grew older: One shoulder stood higher than the other, and Joan limped heavily when walking. Joan would never conform to emergent Renaissance standards of feminine beauty; she was cruelly disparaged as “Joan the Lame” or “Joan the Cripple.” Nonetheless, Joan’s contemporaries noted that she had a pleasing countenance despite her physical frailties. Joan had a warm, engaging personality too, which delighted those who met her.

Marriage in the Name of Politics

Louis XI – known across Europe as “the universal spider” for his calculating statesmanship – first betrothed Joan to her second cousin, Louis of Orléans, within days of her birth. As Joan entered adolescence in the 1470s, the betrothal was reaffirmed. A modicum of Realpolitik likely motivated Louis XI’s decision as salic law prohibited female succession in France. Louis of Orléans was a political rival of Joan’s family, as he belonged to a cadet branch of the House of Valois and had a claim to the French throne.  

I have resolved to make the marriage of my little daughter Joan and the little Duke of Orléans because it seems to me that the children they will have together will cost nothing to feed. I warn you that I hope to make this marriage and those who oppose it will not be sure of their lives in my realm.

Extract from an alledged letter that Louis XII claimed Louis XI wrote to the grand maître, Antoine de Chabannes, in September 1473, regarding Joan of France
The fact that Louis of Orléans additionally had a strong claim to the rich duchy of Milan only increased the danger he posed. Louis XI may have believed that Joan was infertile as a result of her disabilities. It was thus possible that she could eliminate the threat posed by the Orléans claim if she were to marry and never conceive a child. However, if Louis XI’s son and heir, Charles, were to die without issue, Joan would become queen of France upon the accession of her husband. Her position would be secured. One way or another, the wily Louis XI was determined to bind Louis of Orléans closer to his family. Louis XI threatened Louis of Orléans and his mother, Marie of Cleves, with severe repercussions should they hesitate to agree to the union. A marriage contract was signed in 1473. When Louis of Orléans caught a glimpse of his fiancée  for the first time, in Tours in 1475, he reportedly uttered, “I didn’t believe she was so ugly!” Joan, aged 12, married Louis of Orléans, aged 14, at the Château de Montrichard in 1476. Louis XI was not in attendance. Joan’s handsome dowry of 100,000 gold crowns did little to induce Louis of Orléans to care for his new wife. He sobbed throughout the wedding feast, and he avoided her as much as possible over the next seven years. Joan resided in Lignières, in close proximity to Saint-Armand-Montrond, while her husband was frequently absent. She devoted herself to the relief of the poor and acts of religious charity – a stark contrast to the dissipated lifestyle of her husband.
Joan of France, portrayed before 1530.
Joan of France, portrayed before 1530 as founder of the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Wikimedia
Louis of Orléans, later Louis XII, portrayed around 1514.
Portrait of Louis of Orléans as Louis XII, King of France, around 1514. Wikimedia

Unsteady Times

When Louis XI died in August 1483, Joan immediately returned to Amboise to be close to her family. Though the relationship with her father had been colored by politics rather than affection, Joan was close to her siblings. As her brother, Charles VIII, was just 13, Joan’s older sister, Anne, and her husband, Pierre de Beaujeu, became regents during his minority. This incensed Louis of Orléans who openly challenged their authority, which the States General of Tours confirmed in 1484. Fear of reconsolidated royal power incited Louis of Orléans and other feudal lords into open rebellion in 1485, prompting the so-called Mad War. Throughout the conflict and even after Louis of Orléans’ capture in 1488, Joan repeatedly pleaded clemency for her husband.

I beg you to bear the case of my husband in mind and to write about him to our brother […].

In a letter written to Anne, Joan tenderly requested her sister to support a reconciliation of the case of her husband Louis of Orléans.
Joan dutifully managed Louis of Orléans’ complex finances, and extensive estates across France and Lombardy during the revolt. She even stayed with him while he was under house arrest in Bourges, ensuring that he received fresh fish, oranges from Italy, as well as a continuous supply of clean linens and new clothes. Joan’s efforts were not in vain even though Louis of Orléans never acknowledged her invaluable assistance: Charles VIII eventually pardoned Louis of Orléans in 1491 after administering an oath of loyalty. Louis of Orléans, thereafter, became one of Charles VIII’s chief advisors during the First Italian War (1494-1498).

Ascending to the Throne

Charles VIII died unexpectedly in 1498, hitting his head on the lintel of a door at the Château d'Amboise after a game of tennis. His marriage to Anne of Brittany in 1491 had left no surviving heirs – all six of their children had died young. As a result of these strange circumstances, Joan found herself queen of France. Louis of Orléans, now Louis XII, desired to set Joan aside because of an unusual clause found within Anne of Brittany’s marriage contract. Charles VIII had specified that if he were to die without heirs, Anne of Brittany should immediately wed his successor. This would allow the French to retain control over Brittany.
Miniature of Anne of Brittany, between 1503 and 1508.
Miniature of Anne of Brittany, between 1503 and 1508. Wikimedia
Following his coronation, Louis XII sent one of Joan’s oldest friends, Louis II de la Trémoille, to pressure her into dissolving the marriage. Joan refused steadfastly – she would neither dishonor herself nor her family with an annulment. One wonders if Joan’s earnest challenge to her husband was perhaps also rooted in a personal desire to force him to treat her as his wife or induce a reconciliation. A papal tribunal soon convened in which Louis XII declared that Joan was deformed and that sexual intercourse was impossible. He argued that he had been forced to marry Joan and remained so simply out of fear of Louis XI and Joan’s siblings. When Joan’s turn came to testify, she addressed the tribunal with courage and poise, declaring that while she understood that she was not attractive, she believed she could still have children. She fiercely denied that her marriage had been coerced and swore it was consummated. As a bull from Pope Sextus IV had provided the proper dispensation, given the degree of consanguinity between Joan and Louis XII, there were no impediments to their union. When asked to undergo an exhaustive physical examination, Joan refused as she was a royal princess by birth, adding further that nobody ought to be subjected to such lurid treatment.

Had I thought that there was no real marriage between the king and me, I would beg him to leave me to live in perpetual chastity because that is what I desire the most […] to live spiritually with the Eternal King and be His spouse.

Joan of France’ reply to Louis XII’s request for an annulment of their marriage in 1498
French public opinion favored Joan in what was quickly becoming a tawdry divorce trial. The leading theologians of the day, Olivier Maillard and Jean Standonck, maintained that Joan was the true queen, while satirists derided Louis XII in verse and song. Legal experts across Europe believed that Joan would win the case. It was solely through clandestine diplomacy that Louis XII was able to procure an annulment. Louis XII placated the Papacy with an anti-Milanese alliance and a promise to give Pope Alexander VI’s notorious, illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia, a French title and the hand of the heiress, Charlotte d’Albret in marriage. Joan had lost the fight. Louis XII granted Joan the courtesy title of Duchess of Berry and returned her dowry.

From Queen to Saint: Joan’s Legacy

When Louis XII married Anne of Brittany in 1499, Joan withdrew to Bouges in order to undertake an active role in the administration of the duchy of Berry. Away from the presence of her husband and the royal court, Joan became increasingly religious. She sought and received approval to create a new religious order of women – The Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary – in 1501, but she only took vows in 1504 as she still considered herself Louis XII’s wife. Joan died in 1505 and was buried with full honors. The Catholic Church canonized her in 1950. Just prior to her death, Joan requested a final portrait – a plaster death mask. When gazing at Joan’s death mask, one is struck by its grace and serenity. It recalls the fashionable bronze portrait medals, masks, and busts made by the Croatian-Venetian sculptor, Francesco Laurana, whose works Joan must have seen first-hand when Laurana worked in France.
Death mask of Joan of France.
Death mask of Joan of France, 1505. Swiss National Museum / Musée du Louvre
Bust of a princess, usually identified as a posthumous portrait of Infant Leonor of Aragon, by Francesco Laurana, around 1471.
Bust of a woman, considered to be a posthumous portrait of Eleanor of Aragon, by Francesco Laurana, around 1471. Wikimedia
The French historian Antoine de Lévis-Mirepoix justly referred to Joan as the “Cinderella of the Valois”. Sacrificed on the altar of political expediency and subjected to near-constant humiliation, Joan’s life was filled with trial and tribulation. Yet it is true too that her fortitude, dignity, and kindness inspired considerable admiration across Renaissance France in her lifetime. Joan’s death mask reminds us that physical beauty is not nearly as important as an individual’s intellectual, emotional, and spiritual qualities.

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