Louise of Savoy was a politically active, assertive woman and a mother of a French king, but she had never been Queen of France herself and was not born into the monarchy. Louise was born to Phillip II of Savoy and his wife, Marguerite de Bourbon. Louise’s father spent most of his life as the younger member of the ducal family and had lost his own small portion of land in Bresse, becoming known as the landless. Therefore the family lived by modest means despite being part of the nobility. After the death of her mother, Louise was sent to be raised at the French court at the age of seven. Her guardian was Anne de Beaujeu, who was regent of France at the time and obviously made a great impression on the young girl.
Louise was married in 1488 when she was eleven years old, although she did not live with her new husband until she reached the age of fifteen. Her husband was Charles, Count of Angoulême who was a member of the Orléans family and was therefore in the line of succession as he was a great-grandson of King Charles V of France. Despite Charles’s prestigious family line, he was not an affluent man and often faced financial difficulties.
The couple lived happily in Cognac despite Charles having a long-term mistress. Charles’s illegitimate children were even raised alongside Louise and Charles’s own children Marguerite and Francis and Louise organised good marriages for Charles’s other children in later life. This happy life was derailed when Charles died suddenly in 1496 after catching a chill while riding his horse in cold weather. Louise did all she could to try to save her husband and fell into deep mourning when she was widowed at just nineteen years old.
As a young widow with two young children, Louise’s prospects were not the best. The only hope for a woman in this situation would have usually been to remarry. Louise, however, was not a regular fifteenth-century woman; she was a woman who was far ahead of her time and decided to take charge of her own destiny. Louise’s skill and determination was fortunately met with luck, as her husband’s cousin soon became King of France. Louise moved to the court of the new King Louis XII with her children, putting herself and the children in place for great opportunities.
Louise understood the importance of educating her children to the highest of standards and was a well-educated woman herself. The family’s move to court coincided with the height of the Italian Renaissance, and the French court was filled with the spirit of learning. Louise made sure her children were well versed in Latin and Spanish and had books commissioned for their education. Marguerite was educated to the same standard as her brother Francis and both children had a good grounding in the arts, politics and sciences. The children thrived under their mother’s guidance and in time became the initiators of the French Renaissance. Francis became a patron of the arts; bringing great artworks to the French court and Marguerite became one of Europe’s first female authors and a supporter of church reform.
Louise always made sure to keep her son Francis close to King Louis, and in 1514 Francis’s popularity led to his marriage to Claude, the King’s daughter. Francis was now a cousin of the King, and his son-in-law and Louise’s place at court was assured. Although Francis was never expected to inherit the throne, Louis XII failed to have a male heir and named the young Francis as his successor. King Louis died aged fifty-two in 1515 and was succeeded by Francis, the first of the Valois-Angoulême kings.
At the accession of her son, Louise became Queen Mother of France, despite never having been Queen herself. Her lack of leadership experience did not hold her back, however, and she was an important part of her son’s regime. Louise was given the titles of the Duchess of Angoulême and the Duchess of Anjou in time. Louise’s first major test was to become regent of France from 1515-1516, during Francis’s trip to Italy. After Francis returned home, Louise continued in her role as ruler as her son was more fond of hunting and pleasure-seeking than governance in his earlier years.
In June 1520 Louise helped to organise one of the most famous meetings in history. A summit was held at The field of the cloth of gold in Calais. At this three-week-long meeting, Francis I and Henry VIII of England met in order to strengthen bonds between their countries. Louise was present at this extravagant event. The meeting did little to improve relations in reality but is historically significant nonetheless.
In 1525-1526 Louise was regent once more. Francis was at war in Italy and also in captivity in Spain during this time, leaving his mother and sister in control of the country in his absence. During this time, Louise initiated peace negotiations with Cardinal Wolsey in England and also began talks for a Franco-Ottoman alliance. In 1529 Louise put her peace-making skills into practice again as the chief instigator behind the truce between France and the Holy Roman Empire: the Treaty of Cambrai, or ‘the ladies peace’. This treaty addressed the balance of power between France and the Habsburgs and was signed by Louise and by Margaret of Austria.
Louise’s life came to an end at the age of fifty-five. The formidable woman drew her last breath after catching a cold when watching a comet. Louise’s lands were absorbed by the French crown and were valuable assets to France. Her children went on to achieve great things because of the wonderful opportunities given to them by their devoted mother. Francis’s line ruled until 1589 when the crown passed on to the Bourbon dynasty who descended from Louise’s daughter Marguerite who had been Queen of Navarre.