This article was written by Keira Morgan.
Although Queen Claude of France was beloved and successful when she lived, history has not treated her kindly. She is better remembered as the mother of seven, wife of King Francis I of France or daughter of King Louis XII France and Queen Anne, Duchess of Brittany, than as herself. Yet there is more to her than this.
Princess Claude’s Early Life
Born 13 October 1499, only 10 months after the marriage of her parents, both her mother and father were delighted that she was strong and healthy. Because Queen Anne had lost so many previous children, she invoked St. Claudius of Besançon for a living child. Thus, she named Claude after the saint.
As a child, Claude lived in the Château of Blois served by her own staff under the watchful eye of her governante, Madame de Tournon. A merry child, her parents doted on her. She enchanted her father, and he delighted to take her hunting. She had one sister, Renée, born in October 1510.
Betrothals and Marriage
Determined to keep Brittany separate from the French crown, Queen Anne wanted to marry Claude to Charles, Duke of Luxembourg. She believed he could keep Brittany safe from France. Thinking they would soon have a son, King Louis agreed at first.
In 1501, ambassadors for the Duke of Burgundy and King Louis signed the marriage contract. In 1504, King Louis and Duke Philip renewed the betrothal. Claude’s dowry included the Duchies of Brittany, Milan and Burgundy, the Counties of Blois and Asti, the Republic of Genoa and Queen Anne’s remaining lands in France. With this extravagant dowry, Habsburg lands would have surrounded France.
As soon as King Louis XII fell ill and feared death, he signed a secret document cancelling the betrothal. Instead, he betrothed Claude to his heir, Francis. After he recovered, despite Queen Anne’s opposition, he called the Estates-General to Tours and formalized the betrothal.
When her mother died in January 1514, Claude became Duchess of Brittany. Four months later, she married Francis.
Claude of France’s Public Functions
On 1 January 1515, King Louis died, and Francis succeeded him as King and Claude became Queen. Despite her title, Claude only nominally fulfilled the role of first lady since her mother-in-law held political power and the King’s mistresses kept him company.
Yet Claude was an extremely successful Queen. Most importantly, she was a notable producer of heirs — giving France seven living children, of whom three were sons. It must have been a relief given her mother’s repeated tragedies.
The second critical function of Queens was ceremonial. Brought up royal, Claude was trained to the role and was popular with the French. Although her coronation was delayed until 1517, it was magnificent. It was held on 10 May at the Basilica of St. Denis, and Queen Claude rode through the Paris streets the next day at her official Entrée with the people of the city cheering her wildly.
In 1518, when France and England allied, Francis and Claude attended the public betrothal in Paris of their infant son, the Dauphin Francis, to Princess Mary, the only legitimate child of King Henry VIII of England.
In June 1520, Queen Claude accompanied King Francis to the elaborate but hollow Field of Cloth of Gold. Already over seven months pregnant, she fulfilled her ceremonial duties, hosting feasts, dances, and events for their royal guests. This included hosting King Henry VIII at a banquet in the French camp, while Queen Catherine hosted King Francis in the English camp.
Despite King Francis’ notorious infidelity, he held his wife in high regard. He delighted in his many children and insisted everyone treat her with respect. When she attended court functions, he and she always presided together.
When Queen Claude died on 26 July 1524 at Blois – aged only 24, he was heartbroken. He said to his sister, “If I could buy her life with mine, I would do it with all my heart. Never would I have believed that the bond of matrimony enjoined by God would be so firm and so difficult to break.”
Queen Claude’s Role in Religious Reform
In the early years of the 16th century, early proponents of church reform had strong connections to the French court. Claude grew to adulthood during this time, and important women in her life, including her sister-in-law Marguerite and Michelle de Soubise, professed reformed beliefs. There is evidence Queen Claude shared these views.
Her two main public contributions to the reform included overseeing the reconstruction of the parish church of Saint-Solenne and the rebuilding of the Augustinian convent of St. Jean of Blois for the ‘Véroniques’ nuns. She also employed a reformist confessor and permitted the publication in Nantes, the capital of her Duchy of Brittany, of the reformist writing of Jean Gerson.
Appearance versus Personality
Claude was labelled as plain and short. She had inherited her mother’s hip deformity, leaving her with one short leg. Afflicted with scoliosis, her hunched back worsened with age and constant pregnancies. With each pregnancy, she became fatter. Foreign ambassadors noted her obesity, limp, squint, small stature, and plain face, but they admired her many excellent qualities.
Brantôme says, “… Madame Claude of France … was very good and very charitable, and very gentle to all, never doing any unkindness or harm to anyone either at her court or in the kingdom.”1
How Influential was Queen Claude of France?
Consensus reigns among those as diverse as the Venetian ambassadors, Anne Boleyn, private letter writers and the Abbé de Brantôme. The French people, members of the court, and her family loved the Queen. Even her unfaithful husband bitterly mourned her loss.
- Pierre de Bourdeïlle Brantôme, “Madame Claude de France,” The Book of the Ladies
Books and Articles
Susan Abernathy, Claude de Valois, Queen of France, The Freelance History Writer
Pierre de Bourdeïlle, Abbé de Brantôme, “Madame Claude,” Book of the Ladies. H.P. & Co., 1899. [Available in English on Project Gutenberg]
Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier, “Claude of France: Justice Power and the Queen as Advocate for her People,” in Textual and Visual Representations of Power and Justice in Medieval France. Ashgate Publishing Co., Vermont, 2015.
Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier «Denis Briçonnet et Claude de France: L’Évêque, Les Arts, et une Relation (Fabriste) Occultée,» Seizième Siècle 11, 2015, 95-118.
Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier, «Trinités royale» et «quadrangle d’amour »: Claude de France, Marguerite de Navarre, François Ier, Louise de Savoie et la réforme fabriste de l’Église
Wilson-Chevalier, Kathleen. “Claude De France and the Spaces of Agency of a Marginalized Queen.” In Women and Power at the French Court, 1483-1563, edited by Broomhall Susan, 139-72. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. Accessed February 27, 2021. doi:10.2307/j.ctv8pzd9w.8.
Dorothy Moulton Mayer, The Great Regent, Louise of Savoy 1476-1531, Funk & Wagnalls, New York 1966.