By Natalie Anderson
International Women’s Day takes place this month, and what better way to celebrate than spreading the word about some of the incredible medieval women who have come before us? In this spirit, I thought I would share the final entry in my series on the lives of the women I encountered during my PhD research on Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519).
This one focuses on a woman who never, in fact, met the emperor face-to-face, although she is technically his third wife (falling between Mary of Burgundy and Bianca Maria Sforza): Anne of Brittany. Even though Anne has the weakest connection to Maximilian, I still wanted to share her story, if for nothing else than for the almost comical tale of her spectacularly failed marriage with the emperor.
Born in 1477, Anne was part of the ruling family of the powerful duchy of Brittany. In many ways, Anne found herself in a similar position to that of Maximilian’s wife, Mary of Burgundy. Anne’s father, Francis II of Brittany, died without any male children, leaving Anne the heir to his dukedom, in the same way that Mary was left as the heir of Burgundy upon the death of her father, Charles the Bold. And because of this, like Mary, Anne (and her sizable inheritance) became an incredibly desirable marriage prospect for the powerful men of Europe.
In 1489, when she was only twelve, Anne was crowned Duchess of Brittany, and the marriage offers came thick and fast. (For a brief time, Anne was promised to the son of Edward IV of England – one of the ill-fated ‘princes in the tower’ – who did not survive long enough to follow through on the arrangement.) Shortly thereafter the successful candidate was determined to be Maximilian, then Archduke of Austria and King of the Romans, but not yet Holy Roman Emperor.
The thirty-year-old Maximilian was still mourning the death of his first wife, Mary, but marriage to Anne would have been an undeniable triumph for him. The couple was married by proxy in Rennes in 1490, meaning that one of Maximilian’s courtiers stood in for him at the wedding; the groom was not present to meet his new bride. If he had been, it may have prevented what followed.
King Charles VIII of France was not pleased when he learned of the marriage, the Habsburgs and the French crown having a long-standing enmity. He sent troops into Brittany, laid siege to Rennes, and, when it fell, forced Anne to renounce Maximilian and marry him instead. This was a double blow to Maximilian, since Charles was meant to be betrothed to Maximilian’s daughter, Margaret. Margaret, who had been raised in the French court in anticipation of her marriage, was tossed aside in favour of Anne. Anne herself was not happy with the marriage – Charles essentially abducted her – but both she and Margaret were powerless in this situation, as so many medieval women often were.
Like Margaret, however, Anne also went on to become a respected and beloved ruler and thus to gain back something of what was taken from her. Charles VIII died when Anne was twenty-one, allowing her to take over the rule of the duchy of Brittany, where she cultivated a court filled with famous artists, poets, and musicians. Soon, however, she found herself forced into another undesirable marriage with the new king of France, Charles’ cousin Louis XII. This time, at least, Anne, now an adult, was able to negotiate her rights in the marriage more successfully. Most important to her was preserving the power and autonomy of her homeland, Brittany.
Anne died when she was just thirty-six, after fourteen pregnancies and with only two children, both daughters, surviving to adulthood. She wished for her eldest daughter to marry Charles of Austria, Maximilian’s grandson, and her younger to inherit the duchy of Brittany – both wishes her husband disregarded on her death. In so many ways, Anne’s short life represents the ways in which a medieval woman might wield power and, at the same time, the dehumanising ways in which it might be taken from them.
Recommended further reading: Anne and her court have been the subject of many scholarly publications (and a couple historical fiction ones). One recent work by Cynthia J. Brown, The Queen’s Library (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), explores the role of visual imagery and illustration of Anne of Brittany alongside manuscript patronage.
Follow Natalie on Twitter: @DrMcAnderson