Claude of France (1499-1524) was the first wife of King Francis I of France. A beloved and devoted Queen, her charismatic husband kept several mistresses, one of which was rumoured to be Mary Boleyn, a young, high-spirited, and attractive Englishwoman in Claude’s household. Mary, along with her sister Anne Boleyn, made their grand entrance at the French court in 1514, accompanying Mary Tudor’s bridal entourage, and chose to remain in France after the death of Claude’s father, King Louis XII, in 1515. In her seven years spent at the glistening, prosperous French court, Claude played a significant role in shaping a young Anne Boleyn, who, much like her royal mistress, later dazzled the courts of Europe with her cultured, erudite, and sophisticated flair.
Following the death of Claude’s father, and the accession of her husband, Francis I, to the throne, Anne Boleyn joined the new Queen’s household as a maid-of-honour. It has been suggested that Anne served as Claude’s unofficial interpreter when receiving English guests, such as in 1520 at the Field of Cloth of Gold, where the intelligent and diplomatic Claude played an important role in improving French-Anglo relations. Presiding over a number of lavish feasts, dances, and theatrical pageants during this monumental summit between England and France, Claude even played host to Henry VIII during a banquet in the French camp while Henry’s wife Katharine of Aragon simultaneously entertained Francis I in the English camp.
Beyond her deft political currying at the Field of Cloth of Gold, Claude of France was able to wield respect and adoration among her subjects. Though she suffered from chronic ill-health, scoliosis, had languished most of her life in an annual string of uncomfortable pregnancies, and was often eclipsed at court by her influential peers, Claude was described by one contemporary being ‘very sweet to everyone and never showed displeasure to anybody in her court or of her domains.’
As Queen, Claude was also regularly praised for her intellect, generosity, and for her cosmopolitan household, brimming with talented ladies, scoured from across the continent, held to Claude’s exacting moral code.
Groomed for Queenship
As one of only two children of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany to survive to adulthood, Claude of France was groomed from an early age to become queen. Her early-life was inoculated by women employed specifically to prepare her for a life of politics and courtly intrigue. She was greatly influenced by her mother’s intellect (Anne of Brittany, twice Queen of France as the wife of Charles VIII and then to Louis XII, was fluent in Greek and, like her daughter, experienced numerous pregnancies and miscarriages) and impressed by her duty to God, King, and country.
After her mother’s death on 9 January 1514, Claude’s father Louis XII, still without a male heir, hastily entered into his second marriage. His bride was Mary Tudor, only three years older than Claude, the sister of Henry VIII, and celebrated as one of the great beauties of her time, blessed with the signature red-gold hair and fair complexion of her lineage. Claude was said to have been distressed by the union, ‘for her mother had been dead only a short while, and now she was obliged to serve her [Mary Tudor] as she had formerly served the Queen her mother’.
Claude’s fortune mingled potently with grief when, less than a year later, her father Louis XII was dead.
As the late King’s nearest relative, Claude’s husband, Francis I, ascended to the throne. Since Claude and her sister Renée were daughters, Francis was preferred to the succession of the kingdom by “virtue and disposition of the Salic law, a law very ancient in the realm of France, which excluded from the royal dignity all women”. We may well assume that Claude was content to be promoted to queen consort, having been primed for the role for most of her life. She was also able to exert authority and influence as the Duchess of Brittany in her own right.
Francis, on the other hand, may not have been as eager to marry Claude. It was thought by at least one courtier that “Madame Claude [was] deformed in body and unable to bear children”. Although it was feared that Claude might die in childbirth – inadvertently leaving the keen-eyed Francis free to remarry – she went on to produce seven children by her husband, two of whom survived past the age of thirty.
A royal connection
In total, Anne Boleyn spent seven years in service to Claude, who, in turn, greatly enhanced the future Queen’s upbringing with her notoriously strict standards, political savvy, vast education, and immersive travels. Although never destined to be Queen Regnant herself, Claude frequently made political appearances without Francis and appeared at court, side by side with her mother-in-law, in a powerful show of female solidarity.
In addition to her other endeavors, Claude took a weighty role in religious reform, and actively advocated for the restoration of the parish church of Saint-Solenne, which eventually became the Cathedral of Blois. She also campaigned for the resoration of The Augustinian Convent of Saint Jean in Blois, where the nuns, known as the ‘Véroniques,’ provided excellent education to their students under Claude’s admirable championing.
While never praised for her beauty – she was short, overweight, and suffering from a noticeable hunchback – Queen Claude was remembered after her death in 1524 as a ‘pearl of a woman,’ her grace and conduct ‘making up’ for her lack of good looks. The extent to which she shaped a young Anne Boleyn is unknown, although her unwavering example of humility, piety, diplomacy, and scholarship was certainly something Anne sought to emulate in her own brief reign as Queen Consort of England. Like Anne, Queen Claude took an interest in education, the welfare of her people, and was also said to be fashionable, dazzling foreign ambassadors with her rich and striking wardrobe.
On 20 July 1524, Claude died at the age of just twenty-four. Tragically, she never lived to see any of her surviving children mature into adulthood. They, too, went on to lead glittering lives and, like their mother, entered into marriages with far-reaching political implications across Europe. Despite her prolonged battle with poor health, courtiers speculated that her untimely demise had been the result of contracting syphilis from her husband, Francis I. Remarkably, many years later, Francis’ death would also be linked to his philandering.
In her short tenure as queen, Claude played an important role in driving religious reform in France and was widely beloved by the people, leaving her mark on the country and, as may well have been the case, on a young and developing Anne Boleyn. While in Claude’s charge, Anne may have even crossed paths with Leonardo da Vinci, and seen the irresistibly captivating Mona Lisa with her own eyes.
Many decades after the Queen’s death, during the reign of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I, Claude’s sister Renée of France touchingly remembered Anne’s service to the late Queen and their time together at the French court as ‘anciennement amies ensemble‘ – meaning former friends.