Jeanne de Valois was the daughter, sister, and wife of kings. She was born with disabilities and suffered through a miserable marriage. In the end she became devoted to and died in a religious life, eventually becoming a saint.
Jeanne was known as Jeanne de France, Jeanne de Valois and Joan de France. She was born on April 23, 1464, the second daughter of King Louis XI, the Spider King and his second wife Charlotte of Savoy. While she was still an infant, a marriage was discussed between her and King Louis’ second cousin, Louis, Duc d’Orleans who was a child of two at the time. The King was often way from court, administering the kingdom and he entrusted Jeanne and her older sister Anne to the care of François de Beaujeu, Seigneur de Lignière and his wife Anne de Culan for their education. The Seigneur and his wife had no children so they doted on Jeanne who suffered from a visibly hunched back. They taught the girls poetry, mathematics, genealogy, embroidery, painting and how to play the lute. Jeanne is described as having a dark and plain face and a short, deformed figure. The Seigneur would hide her behind his robes when the King was approaching them on a visit. The king would exclaim how ugly Jeanne was. As Jeanne became older, her deformities became more evident.
The tutors were deeply faithful Catholics and imparted a solid grounding in faith for their entire household. When Jeanne was very young, King Louis asked his daughter to name the confessor she wanted assigned to her. The only name she knew was Friar Jean de La Fontaine, Guardian of the Franciscan community in Amboise. The king approved and La Fontaine became her confessor. Jeanne began to take great comfort in prayer and would spend many hours in the castle chapel. The Seigneur even had a path paved between the castle and the chapel to make the walk easier for Jeanne in poor weather. The Friar admitted Jeanne into the Third Order of the St. Francis. In 1471, King Louis required everyone in the kingdom to practice praying the “Hail Mary” in an effort to gain peace. Jeanne became fervently attached to this prayer. That same year, she wrote that the Virgin Mary gave her a prophecy that before she died, Jeanne would found a religious order in her honor.
Louis, Duc d’Orléans was the great-grandson of King Charles V and the son of Charles, Duc d’Orléans and had a claim to the French throne. When Louis was fourteen and considered of marriageable age and Jeanne was twelve, their marriage was discussed. The Duc was against the marriage and made this known to the king. King Louis threatened to make him a monk and hinted he could easily be killed in the guise of a monk’s habit. The Duc finally resigned himself to the marriage but told his friends it would be a marriage in name only. Jeanne approved of the marriage but was under no illusions. She was devoted to the Duc but he paid no attention to her.
The couple’s wedding celebration was performed on September 8, 1476 in Montrichard. During the ceremony the bridegroom supposedly said he would be better off dead than marrying Jeanne. After the wedding, King Louis intimidated the Duc and compelled him to visit and sleep with his wife several times a year. When the Duc once threatened to end the marriage early on, King Louis put him in prison.
Jeanne’s father died on August 30, 1483 and her mother died four months later. King Louis was succeeded by his son, now King Charles VIII. Charles was only thirteen so his sister Anne de Beaujeu became his regent and Jeanne joined the court at Amboise. Jeanne’s husband Louis continually fought against Anne’s regency in a conflict that was known as the “Mad War”. He stayed away from Jeanne as much as possible. He fought in Italy and made some gains there. In 1488, Louis was taken prisoner by Charles’ troops. While he was incarcerated, Jeanne managed his estates, especially Milan and Asti in Italy. Louis would be released in 1491 and he would join King Charles when he waged war in Italy in 1494.
King Charles married Anne, the Duchess of Brittany in 1491. There had been many years of conflict between France and Brittany as the French kings tried to annex the Duchy into their domains. The marriage contract between Charles and Anne stipulated that if Charles died first and had no male heir to succeed him, his successor was to marry Anne of Brittany. This was meant to guarantee that the large and rich Duchy of Brittany stayed under French rule.
On April 7, 1498, King Charles was making his way to watch a tennis match through a low gallery at the castle of Amboise when he violently struck his head on the doorway. He managed to view the tennis match and even talk to his companions and wife. Suddenly he fell backwards, never to speak again. He died that evening. Jeanne’s husband, Louis, Duc d’Orléans, was now King of France as Louis XII and she was his Queen. Less than three months later, Louis had applied to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Jeanne so he could marry Anne of Brittany, the former Queen.
Louis cited four reasons for the annulment. The first was the degree of consanguinity, the usual excuse for royal divorce. He was the second cousin of King Louis XI, Jeanne’s father. Next he claimed there was a spiritual relationship. Louis XI was Louis’ godfather. Third, he claimed he married Jeanne under duress. And lastly, he claimed the marriage was never consummated. Jeanne maintained there were dispensations for the first two reasons and was insistent they had sexual intercourse. In the end, the sworn testimony of a consecrated king carried great weight with the Pope and the annulment was granted on the grounds of coercion.
The powerful Cardinal Roderigo Borgia had become Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He was more than willing to give Louis his annulment but there was a price to be paid. An ersatz trial was convened before three papal commissioners and on December 18, 1498, the annulment decree document was handed to Louis at Chinon by Cesare Borgia, the Pope’s natural son. Cesare wore cloth of gold and priceless jewels and was followed by a magnificent retinue. Louis made him Duke of Valentinois in the Dauphiné, gave him a pension of 20,000 gold crowns and promised him the hand of one of his relatives. Louis was now free to marry Anne of Brittany.
Louis immediately made Jeanne Duchess of Berri which included the domains of Châtillon-sur-Indre, Châteauneuf-sur-Loire and Pontoise as well as an income of 12,000 crowns. Jeanne would use this money to pursue good works. She retired to the town of Bourges and confided to her spiritual director Gabriel Maria her call to monastic life. With his blessing and the help of the hermit François de Paule, she began to work on founding the Order of the Virgin Mary, a new enclosed religious order dedicated to the Annunciaton, and an independent branch of the Poor Clares. She wore the habit of the nuns which was a grey robe, the symbol of repentance, the white cloak of purity and the red scapulary, representing the blood of Christ. She ministered to the sick and the poor and performed pious works. The hospitals, churches and colleges shared in her beneficence.
In May of 1500, the first eleven postulants arrived in Bourges and became the nucleus of the Order. She wrote the Rule of Life for the Order herself and it was approved by Pope Alexander VI on February 12, 1502 and the following year construction began on the monastery. Jeanne and Gabriel Maria took vows to follow the Rule on Pentecost Sunday, 1504, effectively making themselves co-founders of the Order.
Due to repeated penances which she inflicted on herself, Jeanne’s health suffered greatly. On January 10, 1505 she wrote her will. On the 22nd, she made her last visit to the convent and then fell ill. When she died on February 4, 1505, her body was found to be covered with bruises under a hair shirt and iron chains. She had five nails embedded in her chest. She paid homage all her life to the Virgin Mary and when she died, Pope Alexander granted ten thousand days indulgence to all who said the rosary of ten aves composed by Jeanne in honor of the ten virtues of Mary which she strived to imitate: chastity, prudence, humility, faith, obedience, devotion, poverty, patience, charity, and compassion.
Louis did not grant a funeral service for Jeanne, apparently not wanting to show regret. She was buried in the chapel of the Annonciade monastery. Soon after her death, miracles and healings were attributed to her. In 1562, the Huguenots sacked Bourges, desecrated her grave and burned her body which had been found to be incorrupt. The opening of her beatification was started in 1632 and was granted in 1742 by Pope Benedict XIV. She was canonized on May 28, 1950. The nuns of the order of the Virgin Mary are still living according the Rule of the Order in monasteries in France, Belgium, Costa Rica and Poland and some of the sisters serve in Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guatemala.
Further reading: “A Twice Crowned Queen: Anne of Brittany” by Constance Mary Elizabeth (Cochrane-Baillie) Sackville De La Warr (countess), “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” by Kathleen Wellman, entry on St. Joan of Valois –Saints and Angels on the Catholic Online website