Have a drink with: Anne of Brittany
Iron will, heart of gold, death before dishonor
Ask her about: Being an early modern #girlboss
For Women’s History Month in March, we’re diving into conversation with Rozsa Gaston, the author of a four-book series of historical fiction on Anne of Brittany, the only woman to be twice crowned Queen of France (married to Charles VIII and then to his successor Louis XII). Ruling at the dawn of the Renaissance, Anne was quite a character: wealthy, self-assured and strong-willed, she was devoted to the integrity and independence of her beloved Brittany, then an independent duchy in the northwest region of modern France.
Rosza is here to answer some questions about Anne, what it is like to imagine her life in detail, and what we might learn if we sat for drinks with her today.
How did you first encounter Anne, and what drew you to tell her story?
About six years ago I picked up Mildred Allen Butler’s 1967 book Twice Queen of France, largely because I was struck by the image of Anne as a young girl on the cover. I liked how sure of herself she looked. Her story was beyond belief. She came to power in 1488 at age eleven as ruler of Brittany, then became queen of France at age fifteen – despite losing every one of her immediate family members by age twelve.
Where did she get the strength to go on? How did she get all those older male advisors to back off so she could rule? I had to learn more.
How do you approach fictionalizing a story like Anne’s?
I approached fictionalizing Anne of Brittany’s story gingerly. It was important to me to stick as close as possible to historical accuracy. But most of the documented accounts of her are about what she spent. As a significant patron of the arts, responsible for introducing Italian Renaissance works into France and Brittany for the first time, the accounting ledgers indicate she was a big spender. They do not do justice to the full story of this confident and determined woman.
Little is written about Anne of Brittany in the final five years of her life. This period is covered in the fourth and final book of my series on her, Anne and Louis Forever Bound (coming May, 2021). I felt as if I already knew her so I focused on two areas that lay closest to her heart.
One was her ongoing fight with King Louis XII over the pope. Louis sought to depose Julius II, who was intent on tossing the French out of Italy. Anne felt that a ruler who seeks to supplant the pope risks being overthrown himself. As a result of his actions Louis was excommunicated and France put under papal interdict. But Brittany escaped interdiction due to Anne’s political intervention as its head of state. The second was her matchmaking abilities, which were legendary throughout Europe, to the extent that the pope awarded her a portable marriage altar for her personal use to marry her matches.
What’s a surprising fact or anecdote you uncovered in your research?
Anne hid a limp. One hipbone was higher than the other, causing her to tiptoe on one foot. She had specially-made shoes built for her with a platform heel on one to help her walk without a limp. From the age of four she was trained to conceal her limp, which she did magnificently, perfecting a glide that noblewomen of her court emulated.
Another surprise is that other women before me have been struck by Anne of Brittany. Helen J. Sanborn, heir to the Chase & Sanborn coffee fortune, was taken by Anne of Brittany’s story after traveling in Brittany in the late 19th century with her father. She spent the final years of her life writing a monograph on her which proved an important addition to my research.
Why do you think history has overlooked her?
The French distrusted Anne of Brittany because she was a foreign queen. As a result, they left her largely out of their history books, and what they put in was mostly negative. They felt she prioritized Breton interests over French ones. (Indeed, she did.) I’m sure she rolled over in her grave on Aug. 13, 1532, the day Brittany was absorbed into the kingdom of France, eighteen years after her death.
I feel a passionate sense of purpose in bringing her story to life once more because Anne of Brittany makes a tremendous role model for women. She hid a disability, her limp. She lost 14 out of 16 of her children. Yet she is the only woman in history to be twice crowned queen of France and was beloved by both of her husbands. In general, she wished to have her own way, and got it most of the time. But when she didn’t get her way, she put a good face on it and got on with carrying out her duties to the best of her abilities.
Despite being distrusted by the French, they highly admired her. The more I discover about her, the more I admire her too. When I think about what this woman overcame to become one of Europe’s most respected rulers, I think to myself that I wouldn’t want to let someone like Anne of Brittany down. Just knowing that she existed once upon a time makes me want to do a better job of taking care of whatever I have been entrusted with in life.
What do you want your readers to understand about women and court politics at this time? Is there a modern resonance, too?
There is a modern resonance to Anne’s story. She juggled conflicting aims while attending to her administrative duties as ruler of Brittany while queen-consort to the head of the kingdom of France next door. Her self-possession and self-confidence were legend – her motto was “non mudera,” or “I will not change.” Any woman in a managerial position would learn from her.
According to Gaston, Anne provided an education for the maids of honor she appointed to her court, including grounding in both classical and humanist readings. She also schooled them in estate management to prepare them to run the holdings they would inherit or marry into one day. Gaston commented: “I imagine her as a strict but generous head of school of the best private girls’ school imaginable.”
Some scholars have suggested that the famous unicorn tapestries now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were commissioned by Anne, with cryptic “AE” insignia appearing throughout the images.
When Anne died, she was buried in France according to royal custom, but her heart remained in Brittany – literally. The queen’s heart was removed and placed in a golden box, to be sent home to the family tomb. Anne’s post-mortem story is not without drama: the box was almost melted in the 18th century as part of a seizure of ecclesiastical gold, and thieves stole it from its museum home in Nantes in 2018 (it was, however, recovered soon after).
Rozsa Gaston, Anne and Louis: Passion and Politics in Early Renaissance France (2018)
Helen Sanborn, Anne of Brittany: The Story of a Duchess and Twice-crowned Queen (1917)