Suzanne, Duchess of Bourbon

Suzanne of Bourbon as a child
Suzanne of Bourbon as a child

Suzanne was the granddaughter of King Louis XI. While her life was short and full of suffering, she was the apple of her father’s eye and she served as the inspiration for a book written by her mother for her edification. The only issue of contention between her parents was the choice of her husband.

Suzanne was born on May 10, 1491 at the Château de Châtellerault. She was the daughter of Pierre II, Duke of Bourbon and Anne of France, also known as Anne de Beaujeu. Anne was the eldest daughter of King Louis XI. Anne may have been disappointed in the birth of a daughter as opposed to a son as she knew she would probably never have any other children at her age. Even so, she would put great effort into establishing a legacy for Suzanne to inherit.

Suzanne was educated under the supervision of her mother. Three of Suzanne’s letters to her parents survive, one to her father and two to her mother. It is clear Pierre absolutely doted on Suzanne and she loved him in return. He was her confidant, companion and playmate. Suzanne’s relationship with her mother appears to be much more reserved and formal.

Suzanne is described by the chroniclers as having a ‘deformity’ and having a ‘general disposition’. Her health was a great concern for her parents her entire life. We don’t know what she suffered from or what her deformity was. It may have been the same deformity endured by her maternal aunt Jeanne.

From 1483 to just before Suzanne’s birth, Anne and Pierre had acted as unofficial regents of France for Anne’s brother and Suzanne’s uncle, King Charles VIII. As early as 1493, King Charles had proposed a marriage with one of the Sforza’s of Milan. Her mother resisted this notion as she didn’t want Suzanne to go to Lombardy where she thought wives were treated badly. Other marriages being considered for Suzanne included the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian of Austria, Philip of Burgundy and a Neapolitan prince. In January of 1497, Charles once again considered the possibility of marrying her to Ludovico Sforza’s son.

Eventually it was decided Suzanne would not marry a foreign prince after all. A French marriage was considered appropriate, either to the duke d’Alençon or to a son of another branch of the Bourbon family. King Charles died of an unfortunate accident in April of 1498. In exchange for the support of the new King Louis XII, Anne demanded that Suzanne inherit the title and lands of the duchy of Bourbon after her father died and that it not revert back to the crown. Louis agreed.

St. Anne presenting Anne of France and her daughter Suzanne by the Master of Moulins
St. Anne presenting Anne of France and her daughter Suzanne by the Master of Moulins

Possible candidates to marry Suzanne included the sons of Gilbert de Bourbon-Montpensier. The Montpensiers were a cadet branch of the Bourbon family and therefore cousins of Suzanne. Gilbert died in Italy in 1496, leaving three sons. The eldest was Louis whom Pierre and Anne considered the most likely choice. Louis was invited to dine with them at the family home of Moulins but his arrogant behavior and support of the Parlement in opposition to King Charles infuriated the Bourbons. He was written off as a possible son-in-law. Pierre then arranged a marriage contract with a prince of the royal blood, Charles d’Alençon. The contract was signed on March 21, 1501 at Moulins before the king and queen.

In the summer of 1501, Louis de Montpensier died in Italy. The Bourbons called his younger brother Charles to Moulins where he entered the household to be brought up and educated. He grew up next to Suzanne and they would go horseback riding together. Although Charles wasn’t a good student, he was an excellent horseman and accomplished with the sword and the lance. He was darkly handsome, athletic, bold and fearless. His behavior was benevolent if a little taciturn and somewhat arrogant. He came to greatly admire his aunt Anne. Charles attempted to write a poem to Suzanne which survives in one of her notebooks, with some of the lines crossed out.

In the summer of 1503, the Bourbon’s were spending time with the king at Mâcon. On the return trip to Moulins, Pierre became ill with a fever. He insisted on going home where Anne and Suzanne attended him as he lay dying for two months. He asked that Charles d’Alençon and his mother come to his bedside so he and Suzanne could be married, apparently fearful that Anne would not follow through with the contract. But d’Alençon arrived after Pierre died on October 10 and the marriage never took place.

Anne was in no hurry to consummate the marriage arrangement so Charles and his mother returned to Normandy. Suzanne was full of grief when her father died. With his death, Suzanne was the duchess of Bourbon in her own right with Anne acting as her regent.

In July of 1504, Anne took steps to break the marriage contract between Suzanne and d’Alençon. She paid the duke one hundred thousand livres and Suzanne was free to marry. On February 25, 1505, Suzanne and her childhood friend Charles III, count de Montpensier were betrothed at the hôtel de Bourbon. Charles immediately took the title of duke of Bourbon. The terms of the contract stipulated that Anne give the young couple and their heirs all her lands, good and chattels. In return, Charles was to pay her a dower of ten thousand livres. Suzanne was to receive the same amount of income.

Suzanne and Charles were married on May 10, 1505, at the chapel of Beaumanoir, the Bourbon’s country residence just to the north of Moulins. The couple, along with Anne, went on an extended tour of their domains. They would undertake similar progresses at intervals during their marriage. Charles and his mother-in-law were great partners in administering the duchy.

On July 17, 1517, Suzanne gave birth to a boy whom they named François after the new King of France, François I. The child was given the title of Comte de Clermont, the customary name of the heir to the duchy of Bourbon and there was an elaborate baptism. Unfortunately he died a few months later. One year later, Suzanne gave birth to still-born (or short-lived) twins.

During her last years, Suzanne’s health was frail which greatly worried her mother. Suzanne died on April 28, 1521 at the Château de Châtellerault, her health and her spirit broken. She was buried in the family mausoleum in Souvigny Priory.

Suzanne left her entire inheritance to her husband and any children he might have by a second marriage. But the duchy was left open to other claims and a legal tangle. There was a question as to whether Suzanne had the right to give Charles the duchy. Anne died on November 22, 1522. She mentioned in her will that Charles had treated and served Suzanne well.

In July of 1523, information came to King François I that Charles was conspiring with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King Henry VIII of England. The Emperor had promised Bourbon the hand of one of his sisters if he would raise an army against François. François confronted Bourbon and he fled to imperial territory. Charles never remarried and died in 1527. François took the opportunity to annex the Bourbon lands to the crown thereby unifying France even further.

Anne wrote “Lessons for my Daughter” for Suzanne either sometime during 1497-98 or around the time of the death of Pierre. It is filled with traditional advice on the proper behavior of a noblewoman. The “Lessons” included a reading list that probably reflected the books owned by Anne which she had inherited from her own mother Charlotte of Savoy. Anne’s lessons were published at the request of Suzanne, most likely with her mother’s approval, sometime between the years 1517 and 1521. There was a second edition released in 1534. In 1535, another edition was printed and dedicated to Marguerite of Angoulême, sister of King François I.

Further reading: “Anne of France: Lessons for my Daughter” translated by Sharon L. Jansen, “Queen’s Mate: Three women of power in France on the eve of the Renaissance” by Pauline Matarasso, “The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589” by Robert Knecht