Anne was born in 1508 in Picardy, France, to parents Guillaume de Pisseleu, seigneur d’Heilly, and his second wife Anne Sanguin de Meudon. The family were noble but not particularly wealthy. Anne’s father was married three times, and Anne was one of 23 siblings (though some sources say there were more). After her mother died, the family relocated to the château d’Heilly. Anne was raised and educated to a high standard by her stepmother; she was also instructed in courtly etiquette.
At the age of fourteen, Anne put her education to good use and moved to the French court in the early 1520s, becoming a Maid of Honour to Marie of Luxembourg, Countess of Vendôme, and later Louise of Savoy, the mother of King Francis I of France.
Louise of Savoy held great power at the French court and was behind many political decisions made by her son Francis. On two occasions, Louise was even made regent for her son when he was unable to rule for himself; the second regency was when Francis was held prisoner in Spain between 1525-1526. When Francis returned from captivity, it is believed that Louise began introducing him to Anne as a potential new mistress in the hopes he would get rid of Françoise de Foix. Louise disliked the de Foix family, and Françoise had already been his mistress for a decade by this point.
King Francis either fell for Anne naturally or followed his mother’s wishes and took Anne as a mistress, dismissing Françoise. Anne was soon made Lady-in-Waiting to the king’s new wife Eleanor of Austria and governess to his daughters. Around this time, King Francis also began to wear Anne’s colours which was a clear public display of favour. At this early stage, Anne did not hold much political influence and remained in the shadow of Louise of Savoy, though her family was elevated in rank by her relationship with the king.
When Louise of Savoy died in 1531, theoretically, Anne could have filled the void and begun to wield more power politically, yet at this point, this did not happen. Anne was still the King’s official mistress, and he professed his love and favour for her by marrying her to Jean de Brosse in 1532, which made Anne the Duchess of Étampes. However, politically the Grand Master of France, Anne de Montmorency, and his faction controlled the king during this time. King Francis was obsessed with the idea of regaining lands he had lost in Italy, and Montmorency was working on negotiating this for the King.
Anne was part of a different political faction to Anne de Montmorency, and she spent much of her time with Francis’ sister Marguerite of Navarre, who was always by her brother’s side. The quarrels at court also put Anne against Francis’ son Henry (the future Henry II) and his mistress Diane de Poitiers who was always seen as Anne’s rival. When Anne de Montmorency fell from favour in 1540, Anne the mistress seemed to suddenly step into the spotlight. Looking at reports and letters from ambassadors, however, we can see that Anne had been mentioned as a high-ranking figure in correspondence with the courts of King Henry VIII of England and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor for some time, yet now seamlessly transitioned into a more political role without it seeming inappropriate.
By 1540, Anne was often entertaining ambassadors and other dignitaries and was recorded alongside the Queen of Navarre in documents and held in the same regard. Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, often sent Anne to speak to the King about some matters instead of doing so herself because “if she herself intervened she would be thought too partial.” Before long, Anne dominated court life; she outshone the Queen of France at all royal functions and those wishing to gain favour with the King knew they had to first gain her approval and friendship. Anne’s influence was so strong that as a Protestant, she managed to convince Francis to be lenient on French Huguenots. Anne attended council meetings alongside the King and was called “the real president of the King’s council.”
Anne used her power and influence to promote her brothers and sisters into leading church roles throughout France but also used her power to support the arts by financing poets and writers and renovating many of the King’s properties. Anne’s influence could be seen everywhere.
In the later years, Anne became more known for her rivalry with Diane de Poitiers, which became quite embarrassing to the King. Anne backed certain poets and artists, Diane backed others, Anne was Protestant, Diane was Catholic, Anne was by Francis’ side, and Diane was the lover of his estranged son Henry. As a result, the court began to split into factions that surrounded these two women. As the King became more advanced in years, however powerful Anne was, it was clear that Diane would come out on top of this power struggle.
In 1547, King Francis I of France died, and Henry became king. Anne was removed from the court by Henry and narrowly escaped being charged with treasonable offences. Her power had been cut off overnight, and people began to turn against her and look to Diane for favour. Even Anne’s husband accused her of disgracing his family and of theft and had her locked up in a castle for a time. Anne lost many of her properties, and the gifts and jewels given to her by the King were then given to Diane instead.
Despite much of the French court turning against her, Anne managed to keep hold of many of her assets and remained a very wealthy woman. In addition, Anne used her wealth to broker good marriages for her nieces and nephews, who she remained close to and she died in 1580 on her estate in Brittany. Thus, Anne far outlived King Henry II and her rival Diane de Poitiers.
Anne, Duchess of Étampes, completely changed the role of the royal mistress in France. No longer was a mistress just a sexual partner and companion, Anne showed that a mistress could be highly educated and that court factions could revolve around the mistress. Following on from Anne, France’s mistresses became highly visible patrons of the arts, they controlled courtly functions and headed political factions in a way that had never been seen in earlier mistresses.1