The Significance of the Siege of Rennes, 1491

Musketeers training at shooting on the Papegaut Oak Tower in Rennes, 16th Century
Musketeers training at shooting on the Papegaut Oak Tower in Rennes, 16th Century

Of all the entities making up the kingdom of France, Brittany was special. The Duchy of Brittany refused to accept French suzerainty. The Bretons had their own language, laws and institutions. Breton history and traditions were a result of centuries of freedom. Brittany sent no representatives to the French Estates, she paid no taxes into the French treasury and lawyers of Brittany claimed independence from the French tribunals. Breton churchmen disputed every attempt to force inclusion in the Gallican Church and claimed the right to issue their own Papal Bulls.

Brittany was a friend of every foe of the French. Any disaffected Frenchman found refuge at the court of the Duke of Brittany. The Austrian Habsburgs, the Castilians and the English were always happy to come to the aid of the Bretons as they had their own political and economic reasons for wanting to see Brittany remain independent. There were many campaigns by the French to beat the Bretons into submission and annex the entire territory.

After the death of King Louis XI in 1483, disaffected nobles fought against the government of Louis’ successor, King Charles VIII. Charles was a minor at the time of his father’s death and his sister Anne and her husband Pierre de Beaujeu acted as regents. This series of conflicts was called the “la guerre folle” or the “Mad War”. The first phase of the war saw Louis II, Duke of Orléans and Duke Francis II of Brittany attempt to depose Anne de Beaujeu. The Duke of Orléans was next in line for the throne if Charles VIII had no heirs so he had a particular ax to grind.

Anne de Beaujeu managed to maintain her power base during this conflict with hostilities ending on November 2, 1485 with the Peace of Bourges. The next phase of the struggle was called the “War of the Breton Succession”. Duke Francis II of Brittany’s health was fast declining to the point where when he spoke, no one could understand him. He had no male heirs to inherit his dukedom, only two daughters, the eldest of which was named Anne. If her father died, she stood in line to inherit all of Brittany.

In June of 1486, Maximilian of Habsburg, King of the Romans invaded northern France. His maneuver quickly fizzled out because he lacked the funds to pay his troops. But, his attack sparked a new insurgence by some disaffected French nobles, namely Louis of Orléans who joined forces with some of Brittany’s nobles. The Beaujeu’s wanted to overrun Brittany before the Castilians, the Austrians or the English came to their aid. The Bretons managed to recapture some of the towns that had fallen into French hands.

In March of 1488, King Charles appointed Louis de La Trémoille his lieutenant-general in Brittany. He brought troops and supplies from Anjou and the campaign took a decisive turn. Trémoille captured Châteaubriant, Ancenis and then Fougères which was believed to be impregnable. On July 28, Trémoille won a conclusive victory at Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier. Louis of Orléans was captured along with many Bretons. This was followed by the Treaty of Le Verger or the Peace of Sablé signed on August 20. Duke Francis II agreed to recognize the King as his overlord, he was compelled to actively work to rid Brittany of foreign troops and he promised not to marry his daughters without the king’s consent. King Charles agreed to withdraw his troops. Anne de Beaujeu and the council wanted total surrender by Brittany but they were overruled by the King and the chancellor Guillaume de Rochefort.

The treaty was ratified in September by Brittany but it was humiliating to Duke Francis and he died a broken man on September 9, 1488. The eleven year old Anne of Brittany and her sister were now orphans. Francis’ will gave guardianship of his daughters to Marshal de Rieux but on September 18, King Charles claimed he was their guardian due to their common kinship. De Rieux tried to marry Anne to Alain d’Albret but she found the thought of the marriage to be so odious she had a falling out with the Marshal. She shut herself up in Rennes with a force of German troops while Rieux occupied Nantes and appropriated the Breton treasury.

On December 28, France declared war on Brittany. French troops seized a few cities. But King Henry VII of England, Ferdinand of Aragon and Maximilian of Habsburg came to the aid of the Duchess of Brittany giving her the advantage. But then some of the Breton nobles turned coat and joined the French. On July 22, 1489, Maximilian signed a treaty with France which stipulated that the question of Brittany be referred to a papal court for arbitration. A truce was signed in October of 1490 calling for hostilities to end in Brittany until May 1, 1491.

In early 1490, Rieux had brought up the idea of marrying Anne to Maximilian of Habsburg. Maximilian enthusiastically agreed and sent four proxies to marry Anne in March of 1490. The Breton estates agreed to the match and the proxy ceremony was celebrated on December 19 in Rennes. Of course, this wedding was in direct violation of the Treaty of Le Verger. D’Albret, the former suitor of Anne, was incensed he had been jilted and entered into a secret agreement with King Charles, offering him the keys to the principal city of Nantes. Charles and his French troops entered Nantes on Palm Sunday and as soon as the truce expired, they resumed military operations and captured Vannes, Concarneau, Guingamp and Redon. The only independent city left was Rennes with Anne and her fourteen thousand men, chiefly made up of English and German troops and Spanish archers.

Memorial plaque in Rennes commemorating the marriage by proxy of Anne of Brittany with Archduke Maximilian of Austria concluded in 1490 but annulled after the French-Breton war when Anne was forced to marry Charles VIII of France
Memorial plaque in Rennes commemorating the marriage by proxy of Anne of Brittany with Archduke Maximilian of Austria concluded in 1490 but annulled after the French-Breton war when Anne was forced to marry Charles VIII of France

King Henry VII of England gallantly offered fifteen ships to take Anne to the Netherlands. She refused. She may have held out hope that her husband Maximilian would come to her relief but he had troubles of his own. The French commander Louis de La Trémoille surrounded the town with fifteen thousand troops. Three thousand horses were used to bring the heavy artillery into place which was used to threaten the town. A strange incident occurred during the siege that was indicative of late medieval warfare. The chronicler Jean de Molinet reported on this scene.

The Bastard of Foix, a French nobleman, approached the walls of the town mounted and dressed like Saint George, asking if any knight would break a lance with him in honor of the ladies. He was told that he would be received. A Breton nobleman, very well accoutered, answered Foix’s call and they both entered the lists which had been set up in the trenches of the town. The Duchess had scaffolding erected and along with her retinue, she sat down to view the combat. After the two men broke four or five lances they used their swords and fought very well with no death on either side. After the spectacle was finished, the Duchess ordered hippocras and spices to be given to the French and then all retired.

The next day, something not so chivalrous happened. Some of the defenders of the town decided to make a sortie into the French lines. The German defenders attacked a part of the army commanded by the valiant French knight François d’Ursé. The Germans caused an inordinate amount of slaughter and thinking they had gained a great victory began to plunder and hauled off with booty and prisoners. The French were now alerted and retaliated so speedily and violently the German troops abandoned their plunder and killed their prisoners. They barely made it through the gate of the town to safety.

Portrait of a Lady, presumed to be Anne of Brittany, c. 1520 by Jan Mostaert
Portrait of a Lady, presumed to be Anne of Brittany, c. 1520 by Jan Mostaert

After this incident, the French moved in closer and carried out the siege with greater vigor. Conditions in Rennes deteriorated rapidly. Food and money became scarce and the unpaid German and English mercenaries began to mutiny. Anne was forced to sell her jewels and plate and to issue debased coinage. She borrowed from her officers to offset her household expenses. She was suffering the deprivations along with her soldiers. Knowing Maximilian was not coming to her rescue, it was becoming clear she must surrender. Everyone was advising her to marry the French king.

Anne refused. There were two great obstacles to Anne and Charles marrying: their spouses, Maximilian and Margaret of Austria who was Maximilian’s daughter. On the condition that Anne give up the government of Brittany, Charles offered to pay off Anne’s foreign troops, give Anne one hundred and twenty thousand livres and have her escorted respectably to Maximilian. Anne was not keen to be delivered to a total stranger who had abandoned her in her time of need. Charles offered her marriage to one of three French lords and a free residence in Rennes or Nantes. Anne said no, if she were free, which she was not, she would only marry a king or a king’s son.

On October 13, the city of Rennes surrendered, was declared neutral and given to the guardianship of the dukes of Orléans and Bourbon and to the prince of Orange. Anne was allowed her freedom. The lords of her council tried in vain to convince her to marry King Charles. She only gave in when her confessor convinced her that God demanded she make this sacrifice for the happiness of her country.

On November 12, a royal commission discreetly entered the town to see whether Anne was physically able to bear children. The fifteen year old duchess was required to walk naked in front of Louis of Orléans, Anne de Beaujeu and Bérard Stuart d’Aubigny. Her congenital limp was noted by the commission. On November 15, Charles made a pilgrimage with his whole court to the chapel of Nôtre-Dame-de-Bonne-Nouvelle near the gates of Rennes. He made his devotions and entered the town accompanied by his sister Anne de Beaujeu, a hundred armed men and fifty yeomen of his guard.

The next day he asked for a private audience with the Duchess which was accepted. This first meeting lasted a long time and was followed by others. The result was a betrothal on November 17 in the chapel of Nôtre-Dame-de-Bonne-Nouvelle before many Breton nobles. While theologians maintained that the existing marriages of Anne and Charles were valid, they agreed that an unconsummated union could certainly be annulled. Neither marriage had been consummated so papal dispensations were easily acquired. Charles told Margaret she was no longer his wife and arranged to send her back to her father Maximilian. Charles and Anne were married at the château of Langeais on December 6, 1491.

The marriage for all intents and purposes terminated the independence of the Duchy of Brittany. To put an end to the war that had desolated Brittany and France, a contract was drawn up where Anne and Charles both agreed to renounce their rights to the ownership of Brittany. If Charles died first, Anne agreed to marry his successor. If he died without a male heir, Anne would regain possession of the Duchy. As unlikely as all this seemed, all of these clauses were eventually fulfilled.

On April 4, 1498, King Charles died, possibly of an embolism after hitting his head on a door beam. The Duke of Orléans became King Louis XII. At the time, Louis was married to Charles’ sister Jeanne but he quickly obtained a divorce. Anne was once again in possession of Brittany and married Louis. Together, they had two daughters. The eldest daughter Claude became the new Duchess of Brittany upon the death of her mother. Since women were not allowed to inherit the throne of France, Claude eventually married François of Angoulême, King Louis XII’s successor.

When Louis died, François became King François I and he sought to make the annexation of Brittany legal. He formally invited Brittany to become joined to the French crown and on August 13, 1532, an edict of union was signed by the Estates of Brittany in Nantes. The title of Duke of Brittany was bestowed on François’ son Henri. When Henri became King Henri II upon the death of his father in 1547, the kingdom of France and the dukedom of Brittany were united under one ruler.

Further reading: “A History of France From the Death of Louis XI” by John Seargeant Cyprian Bridge, “A Twice Crowned Queen: Anne of Brittany” by Constance Mary Elizabeth (Cochrane-Baille) Sackville De La Warr (countess), “The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589” by Robert Knecht, “Queen’s Mate: Three women of power in France on the eve of the Renaissance” by Pauline Matarasso