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The Journal of Louise de Savoie is a remarkable document. The most important woman in France of her time wrote it, yet it went unnoticed and unmentioned for well over a century. We would not know of its existence but for its appearance in the1660 Histoire généalogique de la maison de Savoie, in which he included it as an appendix 130 years after her death. How did that happen?
Who was Louise de Savoie, Countess d’Angoulême?
The most important fact about Louise, both from her point of view and from that of history, is that she was the mother of King François I of France. As his most trusted political advisor, King François included her in his Council and made her Regent twice after he became King in 1515. She was a key player in French internal and foreign affairs until her death in 1531.
She came from the high nobility of Savoy and was closely related to the royal family of France. Her libidinous father, Philippe the Landless, later Duke of Savoy (1438-1497), was relatively poor. When her mother died, he sent her to live with her aunt, Duchess Anne de Beaujeu, at her court in France. At 12, Louise married Count Charles d’Angoulême, 16 years her senior, for political reasons. He, like her father, had several illegitimate children. Although close to the throne, he was relatively poor, a fact that rankled with Louise. Louise was an intelligent, able woman. Her children, especially her son François, became the centre of her life.
What Do We Know about The Journal of Louise de Savoie?
Guichenon, author of the1660 Histoire généalogique de la maison de Savoie, first published The Journal of Louise de Savoie in an appendix. In his introduction to the document, he wrote that he had received the original manuscript from a Minim of the Monastery of the Place Royale de Paris, who had received it from King’s Councillor Hardy of the king’s palace of the Châtelet.
The close relationship between the two royal families of France and Savoy continued throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1619, Henri IV’s daughter married Duke Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy, and she engineered the marriage of her son to her younger brother’s youngest daughter, Françoise Madeleine d’Orléans, in 1663. It is not surprising, therefore, that the royal house of France would provide the 36-page handwritten manuscript (fewer than 5000 words) to the royal house of Savoy. However, it had disappeared before the publication of the next edition of the Histoire généalogique in1753.
Although one imagines the Journal had been in the French royal collection, there is no official information about it before its publication, which has led to controversy over its authenticity. There is no record that it was ever made public, or circulated privately, and the date Louise wrote it is unknown. Even when scholars accept it as Louise’s work, some contend it contains additions by others. Since there is no solid provenance, nothing can be proved, but the two most renowned authorities consider it authentic.
Journals and memoirs were an uncommon written form. Nonetheless, the authors of the few written in France during the century shared them under their own names. Primarily written by men, they are also essentially public documents by public men, such as those of du Bellay, Fleuranges, Bayard, who recount their part in military or diplomatic events. The well-known women memoirists, of whom the most famous are queens Jeanne d’Albret and Margot of Navarre, certainly served a public and political purpose. There is no doubt about who wrote them.
What Is the Journal about?
The Journal begins with a claim that it is being dictated by Louise to her private secretary. She does not explain its purpose but dives right in with the account of an event that occurred on 25 January 1501.
It contains brief records of dated events organized by month. Birthdates, sometimes to the minute, deaths, marriages of key figures in the life of the d’Angoulême family and their spouses, and accidents and successes that occurred to François, predominate. Louise, her daughter, and François himself, are the centre but others who are significant in their lives — the Duke d’Alençon, Emperor Maximilian, King Louis XII, Queen Anne, Duchess of Brittany, and their daughter Claude all figure in the text. Louise records the death of one of her dogs, too. Her husband merits only a passing mention of his date of death.
Many have pointed out that most entries concern events that fall between the years from 1508 to 1522 and theorize from this. It is important to note, therefore, that the text contains several earlier entries. They include 1460 (King Louis’s birthdate), her birthdate in 1476, King Louis’s in 1460, her son and daughters in 1492 and 1494 respectively, Princess Claude in 1499, and the event she begins her Journal with, in 1501.
None extend beyond 1522, however. The last specific date is 15 October 1522, and the last two entries are in December 1522. The penultimate concerns the years from 1515 to 1522 and she complains that the financiers kept her and her son misinformed. The last entry gripes that all men of the cloth (les hypocrites, blanc, noir, gris, etc.) are deceitful.
Many of the events Louise includes are purely familial, birth, marriage and death dates of her children, their spouses and her grandchildren. She also includes many joyful or traumatic events that appertain to François, “mon roi, mon seigneur, mon César et mon fils,” [my king, my lord, my Caesar and my son].
Events as they relate to François are the central theme of the entries. Many of them concern his participation in battles and express her fear for him. Others refer to diplomatic events such as the Field of Cloth of gold, declarations of enmity between England and France, treaty negotiations, and so on.
When and Why was the Journal Written?
No one has answered two of the largest questions about Louise’s remarkable Journal: when was it written and why? One popular theory is that it served as an astrological document. Because most of the events Louise includes fall within the fourteen-year period between 1508 and 1522, and because Louise organized the Journal by month (an entirely remarkable and unique structure); scholars speculate that the purpose of the Journal is astrological. This reasoning is strengthened by her inclusion of the hour and minute of the birthdates of those she includes.
A second element relates to the year of François’s ascension (1515), suggesting that she used the dates of 1508 to 1522 since they are the 7 years prior to and after his succession—7 being a significant astrological number. During this time—the late medieval/early Renaissance period—astrology lived beside Christianity in an uncomfortable but accepted duality. Birth charts were common, and many courts employed official astrologers.
Although the astrological purpose is reasonable, I have read of no charts or set of predictions that were based on the Journal. Not being an expert in the casting of charts, I do not know how the information could have been used to serve such a purpose, but I cannot say it would not have been.
One thing struck me forcefully as I read the document, however. Many scholars have suggested that its purpose was political: to represent Louise as the Reine Mère who deserved and held her power and influence because of her intense concern for her son. If this is true, the document must have been shared publicly, even if only within her own circles. There is no evidence, as I stated above, that its existence was known before its publication in 1660. Moreover, it seems that there was only one copy in the Châtelet, no other copy has ever been found, and I have found no reference to any other copy of it before the 1660 date.
As I read the document, I find it intensely private. I present one entry in evidence, although there are others. Louise states, “Anne Queen of France in Blois on Saint Agnes’ Day 21 of January had a son but he could not delay the exaltation of my Cesar. For he had no life.” Now Louise believed God had destined François to be king, but she—an astute political player—would never have said or written anything so callous in any but a private and personal document. There can be no circumstance under which it would be acceptable.
When did Louise write this remarkable Journal?
The document contains no clues about when Louise wrote it, except that it must have been after the end of 1522. The last specific entry is 15 October and Louise includes two entries at the end of December 1522. There is no indication whether she dictated it in one sitting, over a few days, or over a longer period. She could have written it between January 1523 and September 1531 when she dies. Since it is only about 5000 words, it would not have taken a long time, and it is an orderly document, suggesting an orderly mind.
The Journal of Louise de Savoie is a remarkable document for many reasons. Its contents are private and personal, and all the evidence suggests that Louise kept it completely private. Its monthly structure is unique, yet it is orderly and logical within that structure. Its purpose is opaque, which is perfectly reasonable if she is writing if for her own purposes that she has no intention of sharing.
I speculate that Louise prepared the document because she was deeply concerned about the deepening political crisis into which France and her son were falling. Therefore, I speculate that she dictated the document in 1523 or thereabouts. My reasoning is this.
Louise was obsessed with François’s fate. The political climate in Europe was heating up. In 1521, Emperor Charles V, who was King of a united Spain as well as the Holy Roman Empire and who now held Milan as well as the Netherlands, had allied with England. There had already been skirmishes along the Pyrenees and eastern borders. He and the Constable de Bourbon had fallen out, and the Constable was colluding with the Emperor and in 1523 would flee France and ally with Charles V.
French finances were in a disastrous state, making war hazardous. The Ottoman Turks had just defeated the Hospitallers on Cyprus and Pope Clement VII was calling for a crusade. If there was ever a time when Louise would want to know what the future held, and had time to dictate a document about it, this would be it. Very soon thereafter, she would be plunged into the maelstrom when Bourbon turned traitor, France itself faced civil war and her son departed in 1524 for Italy and she became Regent.
To get your own copy of the printed copy of Louise’s journal that you can download from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, follow this link:
Histoire généalogique de la royale maison de Savoie, justifiée par titres, fondations de monastères, manuscrits, anciens monuments, histoires et autres preuves authentiques. Livres 1-2 / ; enrichie de plusieurs portraits, sceaux, monnaies, sculptures et armoiries. Par Samuel Guichenon,… Guichenon, Samuel (1607-1664). Auteur du texte
John F. Freeman, Louise of Savoy: A Case of Maternal Opportunism, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Oct., 1972), pp. 77-98 (22 pages)
Nadine Kuperty-Tsur, « Le Journal de Louise de Savoie : nature et visées » in Louise de Savoie (1476 to 1531) eds. Pascal Brioist, Laure Fagnart, et Cédric Michon, Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais, 2018
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