Bona Sforza

Bona in 1517

One would generally think the Queen of Poland would be….well….Polish.  In this case, she was not.  Bona Sforza, as her name would indicate, was Italian.  However, as the wife of King Sigismund I she exercised great power over the country.

A member of the powerful Sforza family of Milan, Bona was born on February 2, 1494 the second child of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, sixth Duke of Milan and his wife Isabella of Naples.  Fun fact, Isabella is thought be some to be the inspiration for the Mona Lisa.  Raised in Bari and Milan, she was educated by the imminent Italian humanists Antonio de Ferraris and Crisotomo Colonna.  From them she learned mathematics, history, classical literature, Latin, , law, theology, geography, natural science, and how to play several instruments.  Bona was also raised on stories of the dangers of the Ottoman Empire and the great explorers of the day.  In short, she was a perfect Renaissance princess.  Sadly, Bona was the only one of her four siblings to live to adulthood.

As part of a powerful family, Bona was expected to make a good marriage.  One problem.  Her great uncle  Ludovico Sforza was constantly at odds with everyone.  He was in a feud with both France and the Pope, so options in France, Italy or Spain were extremely limited.  So the family turned east, and with the help of the House of Hapsburg secured a match for Bona with the widowed Sigismund I of Poland.  The prospect must not have been that exciting for a young girl as her future husband was called “Sigismund the Old”.  Bona was no spring chicken herself, being unwed and 24, but Sigismund was twenty-seven years older than her and quite rough around the edges to the polished Italian lady.  Despite all this, the two were married on April 18,1518 and Bona was crowned Queen of Poland.

As can be expected, the first few months were difficult.  Bona was coming into a culture and climate that was vastly different than the sunny Italy of her youth.  Even the food was different as the diet was heavy on meat and missing the vegetables she was used to.  Bona became known as the Culinary Queen, as she introduced  “włoszczyzna”, literally Italian vegetables, to the area.  She planted a garden near Wawel castle complete with celery, carrots, parsley and leeks.  These vegetables made their way into the Polish and Lithuanian diets along with the words for these vegetables.  She also introduced Italian artists to Poland, including her court favorite Bartolommeo Berrecci.  HIs masterpiece is the Sigismund Chapel at Wawel Castle Cathedral in Kraków.  It is considered “the most beautiful example of the Tuscan Renaissance north of the Alps”.

Bona and Sigismund had six children, however, if the Polish court thought Bona was only going to be a mother of heirs, they were sadly mistaken.  Raised in the centers of power in Italy, Bona began building her own base of support from the Polish nobility.  She was also able to leverage her relationship to the Medici Pope Leo X to influence clerical appointments in her favor.  Despite her upbringing and the help of the Habsburgs in securing her marriage, Bona came down on the side of the Ottoman Empire against the Habsburgs.  Her correspondence with Hurrem Sultan, the legal wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, is thought to have been critical in saving Poland from attempted invasion by the Ottoman Empire.  This correspondence has been lost to time, however, Hurrem sent personal gifts to both Sigismund and his son.  Hurrem was originally from Poland, and all signs point to them having a close relationship.  

Of her children, one son and four daughters survived to adulthood.  Her daughters went on to become powerful in their own rite:  Queen Isabella of Hungary, Duchess Sophia of Brunswick-Lüneberg, Queen Anna I of Poland and Queen Catherine of Sweden, Duchess of Finland.  However, her son and heir became her greatest disappointment.  Sigismund II August succeeded his father after his death in 1548.  However, Sigismund August did not inherit the ruling ability of either his father or his mother.  He concentrated on romance and art rather than running the kingdom.  His first wife was the choice of his father and Bona bitterly opposed it.  Elizabeth of Austria was a Hapsburg, and was in frail health.  The journey from Austria to Poland exacerbated her epilepsy and she began having daily seizures.  Her father-in-law was sympathetic, but Bona was openly hostile.  Sigismund August was indifferent.  He found his new wife unattractive and busied himself with affairs.  Elizabeth made the mistake of calling Bona by her title “the Old Queen”, which Bona detested.  Not a great way to get in good with your mother-in-law.  The poor girl died two years into the marriage.

At this point Sigismund August was on the marriage market again, and Bona expected to get him a more suitable wife this time.  However, that was not on Sigismund August’s mind and he married his outstandingly beautiful mistress Barbara Radziwiłłówna.  Not only was she not Bona’s choice, but she was a Lithuanian Calvinist from an ambitious family.  Bona had worked diligently to keep Protestantism from taking root in Poland, even though she allowed Protestant views to be discussed.  Having one as Queen?  Not happening.  Bona was livid and was not quiet about it.  She headed the campaign to annul the marriage, which included slut shaming Barbara, accusing her of poisoning her first husband and witchcraft to seduce the young king.  The marriage was recognized despite Bona’s efforts and Barbara was crowned Queen of Poland on December 7, 1550.  Bona was removed from court and moved to Mazovia, and was supposedly content with her farms and orchards.  However, when beautiful Barbara died mysteriously in May 8,1551, rumors went round that she had been poisoned on Bona’s orders.  Then rumors went round that this was not the first time Bona had removed a distasteful daughter-in-law.  Remember poor sickly Elizabeth.  Bona was Italian.  They did those things, you know.

Eventually the rumors got to be too much and Bona returned to the Bari of her childhood eight years after the death of her husband.  Her son had married another Hapsburg, this time Catherine of Austria, and she wasn’t going to fall into the line of suspicion if another daughter-in-law got sick.  However, Bona herself was the one who became ill and died under mysterious circumstances.  It is believed that at the instigation of her old enemies the Habsburgs, she was poisoned by her trusted officer, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda.  Apparently, Philip II owed Bona quite a little bit of money.  Pappacoda forged the will the day before to forgive the debt.  He was rewarded with a title and an annual salary.

Sigismund August died without an heir, so all of Bona’s consternation about his bride was for not.  His sister Anna and her husband Stefan Batory took the throne and ruled as King and Queen.


Louise of Savoy- The King’s Mother Part II

Louise of Savoy symbolically taking over the “rudder” in 1525, and requesting the help of Suleiman the Magnificent, here shown lying at her feet enturbanned.

As we discussed in Part I, Louise of Savoy was a huge influence on her son and instrumental in bringing him to the throne of France.  (Please see here for this post: ).  So in 1515, Francis ascended the throne of France, but he went off to enjoy the pleasures of being king and left the governing in the capable hands of his mother.  Louise was prepared for the job as she watched Anne of Beaujeu run the country in her youth.  Ambassadors and other notables of the court knew to go to her and treated her as if she was the crowned queen.  However, she was always careful to defer to the actual queen- Claude, daughter of her old rival Anne of Brittany.  There are reports that Claude and Louise did not get along.  It would make sense as Louise and her mother were on terrible terms.  Pierre de Bourdeille Brantôme in his Book of the Ladies, claims Louise treated Claude very harshly.  Claude was extremely popular while Louise did not gain the love of the people, and was described as a “a most terrible woman” by the Venetian ambassador.  That probably didn’t help either.  Despite this, the two were in constant company for the most of their lives, even when Claude was a child.  In her journal, Louise referred to Claude as “my daughter”, which might have just been courtesy for the time or could hint at a closer relationship.  I imagine this relationship was much more complex than simple rivalry.

Francis had his mother elevated to the title of Duchess of Angoulême and later Duchess of Anjou.  She made a claim to the Duchy of Bourbon, which was disputed with Duke Charles III.  The easiest way out of the difficulty was for the two to marry.  Louise was still considered an attractive woman.  An Italian ambassador describes her by saying she looked young for her age and she was “an unusually tall woman, still finely complexioned, very rubicund and lively.”  However, Duke Charles did not agree and turned her down.  Well, that didn’t go over well.  Louise use every bit of influence she had, which by this time was considerable, to take him down.  Eventually, he was exiled, punished for rebellion and lost his titles and lands.  Guess who got them?  I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

Although Louise was only technically regent while Francis was off fighting in Italy, she appointed men to offices who followed her lead.  These men stayed in power even after Francis returned in 1516, and as such her influence was strong in the government.  In 1520, the young English king and the young French king met for the first time at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  Louise did much of the planning of the display for Henry VIII.  Although she was not technically the queen, Louise arrived in splendor riding in a black velvet litter with a considerable number of ladies dressed in crimson velvet with sleeves slashed with gold.  Relations with England were always iffy at best.  Although she negotiated The Treaty of the Moor, worked out with the ever present Cardinal Wolsey  (more on him in this post: ) to pay England to cease hostilities with France, relations were never very good.

Louise was in charge at this time because Francis had taken up fighting in Italy again, and at this time was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor.  He was imprisoned in Spain, and wrote a sorrowful letter to his mother saying “nothing is left but my honour and my life.” He begged her “not to lose heart,” but to “exercise” her “customary prudence.” He recommended to her his “little children,” who were, he reminded her, also hers. He signed himself her “humble and obedient son.”  Louise was distraught, but she mobilized her forces to free her son and protect his lands.  The Treaty of the Moor kept England off their backs for the time being, and undertook the tricky charge of raising the ransom to get Francis out of prison.  Parliaments are touchy about money and the Parlement of Paris tried to get a different regent installed.  They failed.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with.  Even the chancellor of France assured the captive king that the “said lady has managed so well that the rea[l]m is on its accustomed footing.”

Looking for allies, Louise thought outside the box and sent overtures to Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.  The Turks had long been a scourge on the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, and Louise was happy to make a deal with them to free her son.  Her first set of ambassadors were lost in Bosnia, but the second set arrived in Constantinople in December 1525.  This was the first steps in the Franco-Ottoman alliance, which held until the Napoleonic campaign in Ottoman Egypt in 1798.

The Treaty of Madrid in 1526 negotiated to free her son was punishing, but she signed it.  They had to relinquish the territory of Burgundy to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, renounce all claims to Italy and Francis was to marry the widowed sister of Charles V, Eleanor of Portugal.  The most heartbreaking condition of all was Francis’ two sons were to be held hostage for their father at the Holy Roman court.  The treaty was signed on January 20, 1526, but neither Francis or his mother intended to keep any of the promises made.  At first he played for time.  He was in mourning for his first wife, Claude, who had died while he was on campaign.  FInally, the matter was settled at the Treaty of Cambrai.  Louise negotiated for France and her son, and her old companion Margaret of Austria negotiated for her nephew Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire.  As such the treaty was called Paix des Dames or Peace of the Ladies.  In it Francis gave up claims to Italy, but claims to Burgundy were restored.  His sons were escorted back to France by Eleanor, who became Francis’ wife.

Legend has it, Louise felt a chill while watching a comet in Grez-sur-Loing.  She died shortly after on September 22, 1531.  She was entombed at Saint-Denis in Paris.  A just reward after a life of service to her country, king and son.


Louise of Savoy- The King’s Mother Part I

The royal line of France is somewhat of a tangle because of their insistence on Salic Law, which said the crown could not be claimed through the line of female descent.  (For more on why this was enforced, see this post: )  This did not stop French history from being full of powerful and strong women.  They just remain ostensibly behind the scenes.  Louise of Savoy was one such woman.

Born on September 11, 1476 at Pont-d’Ain, Louise was the daughter of Duke Philip II of Savoy and Princess Marguerite of Bourbon.  Louise is described as vivacious and tall with light brown hair and blue eyes.  Louise’s mother died of tuberculosis when she was seven.  After this tragic event, Louise and her brother Philibert left Pont-d’Ain to be raised at the French court.  They went into the household of Anne de Beaujeu, the formidable daughter of King Louis XI and the unofficial regent of her younger brother King Charles VIII.  Louise was given an excellent education and was able to rub elbows with the court.  Some notables included Margaret of Austria who was engaged to Charles although it was later repudiated and Diane de Poitier (see more about her in this post: ).  Although she was a poor relation of “Madame la Grande”, as Anne of Beaujeu was called, she was receiving a bird’s eye view of how to run the country from an expert.

Louise was an eligible prospect and her marriage was soon arranged at the tender age of 12.  She was to mary Charles, Count of Angoulême who was seventeen years older than she was.  Louise was frightened of marrying such an older man, and expressed her fears to her father who later wrote of them to his second wife.  He writes. “My daughter says she is still too narrow, and does not know whether she might die of it; so much so that she asks every day how big and how long his thing is, and whether it is as big and long as her arm.”  Her father wrote this as a humorous anecdote, but how scary this business of marrying off young girls was.  Poor little thing.  The living situation was less than ideal as her husband had not one but two mistresses in his household.  This was not unusual and the advice of the day was for a wise wife to ignore it, even befriend the mistresses.  Eventually, his illegitimate children with these women were raised in the household along side his legitimate heirs.  I would have made a terrible medieval wife.   Moving on.

The marriage went on as planned, but when Louise was not pregnant two years later at the ripe old age of 14, she went on a pilgrimage to Plessis-lez-Tours, where the Italian hermit Francis of Paola lived.  He was believed to work miracles especially those concerning childbirth.  At their meeting, Francis of Paola prophesied Louise would give birth to a son who would be king.  There was not a straight line from her child to the throne, but it was a hope Louise never gave up for her son born September 12, 1494.  She named him after the hermit, and guiding Francis to the throne of France was her all consuming drive.  She called him “her pacific Caesar”.  When Charles of Angoulême  died in 1495, Francis took his place in line for the throne.  Weirdly, Charles VIII died after hitting his head on a low hanging doorway in 1498, which moved Francis one space closer.

Louis XII was the successor to the throne and married Anne of Brittany, making her Queen of France for the second time as she was Charles VIII’s widow.  These family trees look like spider webs.  However, they only had daughters.  Louis doted on Francis, who became the heir presumptive and was betrothed to their oldest daughter, Claude.  Louise and Anne of Brittany hated one another.  Anne was determined to keep Francis from the throne and have a son of her own, but had miscarriage after stillbirth.  Louise kept track of these birthing adventures in her journal with a cold calculations.  Anne died in January 1514, and left her children in Louise’s care.  Even though they had been bitter rivals in life, Anne knew Louise would put Claude on the throne just to get Francis on the throne.

It looked like there was a clear path to the crown, but old Louis decided to take a young bride, the beautiful Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.  She was eighteen, healthy and unbelievably gorgeous.  If this young woman bore a son, Francis was out of luck.  However, Louis tried much too hard to keep up with his vigorous young bride and “died of his pleasure” on January 1, 1515.  Mary was put into seclusion as la Reine Blanche or “the White Queen”, ordered to wear white gowns and wait for a month to see if she was carrying the next heir to the throne of France.  In her seclusion, Francis visited her and asked her frankly if she was pregnant.  Mary assured him she was not, and Francis was proclaimed king.  In gratitude or perhaps to deprive Henry VIII of a valuable pawn on the marriage market, he helped facilitate Mary’s secret marriage with Charles Brandon.  (For more on this, please see post: )

Francis was crowned king of France on January 1, 1515, and decided to take full advantage of being king.  The country he left in his mother’s capable hands.  More on that in the next post.  (Part 2 of this post is here: )



Diane de Poitiers

Diane de Poitiers, noblewoman and infamous mistress of King Henri II of France, was born on 2 September in 1499.

Diane de Poitiers was born to Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier and Jeanne de Batarnay at the Château de Saint-Vallier in the province of the Dauphine. As a young woman, she was educated in the typical Renaissance manner for young women. She studied music, hunting, languages, and continued her love of hunting throughout the rest of her life.

Diane married Louis de Brézé, Seigneur d’Anet, at the age of fifteen. Her husband was thirty-nine years older and was a grandson of King Charles VII and had served as a courtier to King Francis I. While the pair were married, Diane served as lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude. The couple had two daughters before he died in 1531. Diane was 32 years old at the time of his death and took to wearing white and black in mourning. These colors would be her fashion for the rest of her life.

The relationship between Henri II and Diane began while Henry was a young prince. In 1525, he and his brother Francis were held as hostages when King Francis I was captured by Charles V’s troops at the Battle of Pavia. Diane bid the seven-year old goodbye with a kiss as he was sent to a forelorn castle in Spain in exchange for their father.

When Henri was ten he returned to France and Diane became his mentor. Diane was twenty-eight.

In 1533, Henri married Catherine de’Medici. The coupling was not supported by the French, as the Medicis were not a popular family. Diane was related to Henri’s new bride, with both being descendants of the La Tour d’Auvergne family. Catherine immediately saw Diane as a rival, but when the royal couple failed to immediately conceive Diane would send Henri to his wife’s room instead of her own. The royal pair would go on to have 10 children, although Diane was never far from Henri.  (For more on Catherine de’Medici, please see this post:

Henri would go on to have numerous dalliances with other women, but he always returned to his favorite. Despite their age difference, Diane was never far from Henri’s thoughts. For 25 years, she was the most powerful woman in France, above even the queen. It is not certain when the pair began to have a sexual relationship, but based on their correspondence it is believed their affair began when Diane was 35 and Henri was 16.

As their relationship grew and their affection for one another deepened, Henri began to trust her in all of his affairs. She would often write letters for him, and they would even sign both of their names as one: HenriDiane. She became so important that when Pope Paul III sent Queen Catherine the Golden Rose, he sent Diane a pearl necklace as well. She was given many titles by Henri, including Duchess of Valentinois in 1548 and Duchesse d’Étampes in 1553. This of course inspired much jealousy on the part of Queen Catherine, especially when Henri gifted Diane with the Crown Jewels of France and gave her such properties as Château de Chenonceau. This particular property was one that the queen had desired herself. Diane and Henri were so close that they created a symbol which can be found all over Paris – two interlocked D’s with a line in the middle, forming an H. This symbol can be found on the ceiling of the Louvre, among other buildings.ee2b65c8aef5e286d338763d9f790ab7

As powerful as this mistress had become, of course her welfare and power relied solely on the king. In 1559 Henri was wounded in a jousting tournament. According to legend, he was wearing her favors on his armor, instead of his wife’s. The queen quickly stepped into her rightful role and restricted any access to the king as he was treated. Although it is said that the king repeatedly asked for Diane, the queen never allowed her entry into the king’s sick chamber. Henri died on 10 July 1559 without bidding adieu to his favorite mistress.

After Henri’s death, Diane’s downfall was swift and merciless. Queen Catherine banished her from the Château de Chenonceau and sent her to the Château de Chaumont. She stayed there only a short while and lived the rest of her days in quiet anonymity at her chateau in Anet, Eure-et-Loiur.

When Diane died on 25 April 1566 at the age of 66, she was buried in a chapel near her home. During the French Revolution, her body was disinterred and thrown into a mass grave. However, in 2009, when her body was exhumed and studied, high levels of gold were found in her hair. Diane was said to have drank gold in order to maintain her youthfulness and good looks. In the end, it may have been her vanity that took her life.


Agnes Sorel-   First “Official Mistress”

Portrait of Agnès Sorel as Madonna with child by Jean Forque Photo Credit- Public Domain
Portrait of Agnès Sorel as Madonna with child by Jean Forque Photo Credit- Public Domain

Men have had mistresses since the beginning of time.  However, Agnes Sorel was the first one to parlay that into a position.  She was the acknowledged mistress of the French king, the first woman to hold that semi-official position which was to be of so great importance in the subsequent history of the old regime.   So how did the so called La Dame de Beauté capture the eye of the king?

Born in 1422, Agnes became a lady in waiting to Isabelle of Lorraine, queen of Sicily and wife of René of Anjou, who was the brother-in-law of Charles VII.  Agnes met the king in 1444 and Charles was smitten.  Legend has it she wore a creation of uncut diamonds by Jacques Coeur to draw attention to her decolletage inventing the diamond necklace.  Charles showered her with money, land and jewels cut and set by the wealthy Jacques Coeur.  He even gave her Château de Loches, where he was first convinced by Joan of Arc to be crowned king, to Agnes as her private residence.  Agnes, in turn, helped Charles finance his endless wars against the English.  One such financier was Jacques Coeur, whom she had thrown so much business to.  It was a perfect partnership, and Charles created the title of maîtresse-en-titre for her.  Together, the two had three daughters, Charlotte de Valois, Marie de Valois and Jeanne de Valois.

Along with diamonds, Agnes set other fashion trends at the French court.  She was known for wearing very low cut gowns, so low in fact that one or both of her breasts were exposed.  This was scandalous but set a trend.  Her bosom was so magnificent she served as a model for Jean Fourquet in a portrait of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin and the Child surrounded by angels features the Virgin offering her breast to the Christ Child.  Using the king’s mistress as a model for the Virgin Mary did not go over very well with the clergy.

The great influence Agnes had on the king as well as her outrageous tastes earned her many enemies at court.  It is not surprising that her sudden death in 1450 was treated as suspicious.  Agnes was pregnant with Charles’ fourth child, but did not let that stop her from journeying from Chinon to join Charles on campaign.  It was important for her to lend moral support, so she did not let her pregnancy or the winter weather stop her from traveling to Jumièges in Northern France.  While there, she became ill and gave birth to the child.  Both Agnes and her newborn child died.  Charles was devastated and had Agnes interred in the Church of St. Ours at Loches and her heart was buried in the Benedictine Abbey at Jumièges .

Reconstruction of Agnes Sorel's face Photo Credit-
Reconstruction of Agnes Sorel’s face Photo Credit-

Her death was officially said to be from dysentery.  However, rumors flew that it was murder.  Charles’ son, the eventual Louis XI, was in rebellion from his father and was accused of murdering Agnes to remove her influence from his father.  It was also said that her old friend Jacques Couer poisoned her, however, this was thought to be a rumor to discredit Couer as he had no motive.  In 2005, French historians led by Phillipe Charlier exhumed Agnes’ body and did a forensic analysis on it.  High levels of mercury were found in her body.  Mercury was used in both cosmetics and as a cure for parasites.  However, Charlier’s team found a high amount of mercury in Agnes’ hair, which indicated she ingested a large amount of mercury right before her death.  Charlier believes she was murdered, and it is highly suspicious.  However, we will never know for sure.

Charles got over his grief and replaced Agnes’ in his bed with her cousin, Antoinette Maignelais, who was said to resemble Agnes strongly.  Charlier’s team did do a forensic reconstruction of Agnes’ face, so we can still gaze on the beauty that bewitched a king.    


Sources available on request