Diane de Poitiers, noblewoman and mistress of King Henry II, was born on September 3, 1499. As a girl, she was a member of the retinue of Anne de Beaujeu, who served as regent for her brother King Charles VIII. Anne was a highly intelligent woman; perhaps it was from her that Diane learned to love power and influence at court.
She was unusually well-educated for a woman of the 16th century. In addition to the usual qualities of conversation and dancing, she was also educated in Greek and Latin. She was married off at 15 to a man who was 39 years older than her. As the grandson of King Charles VII, her husband had the right connections. The couple had two daughters. Diane needed her husband’s good connections a few years later when her father was accused of treason. King Francis I pardoned him when the executioner’s blade was literally suspended over his head.
When her husband died, Diane started to wear black and white clothing. These were permitted colors for a widow, but it was also a style statement. She liked to play on the fact that she was named after the Roman goddess of the moon, and the colors represented the dark and light sides. Dressing as Diana the Huntress also became part of her style. This was the phase of her life when Diane really came into her own. She retained her husband’s assets and titles, even challenging the right of the crown to take back some of those holdings. She also served as lady-in-waiting to three successive queens.
The son of Francis I, Henry appears to have developed a fixation on the much older Diane, viewing her as the perfect lady of courtly literature. Their correspondence suggests that they became lovers when she was 35 and he was 16. Henry was married to Catherine de’ Medici to help strengthen alliances with Florence. Catherine and Diane were actually cousins and knew one another prior to the match, but Catherine did not view her as an ally. Diane could control the other woman and helped preserve the royal marriage for her own purposes. She was in charge of the education of the royal children as well as being the king’s mistress and most powerful woman in France. She was so trusted that the King allowed her to write official letters and sign them HenriDiane. The King gave her the Crown Jewels and the Château de Chenonceau, even though Catherine had wanted it.
When Henry was wounded in a jousting tournament, Catherine restricted access to him; when he died, Diane was not permitted to attend the funeral. She was banished from Chenonceau, and Catherine moved in. Une maîtresse (oon maytress) is a mistress. It’s also the word for a trump card. That certainly seemed to be the case between Diane and Catherine. Diane held all the cards until the death of the king, at which point the tables turned rather abruptly.
Her beauty was maintained for posterity in sculpture and paintings. She often appeared topless or representing the goddess Diana. She apparently drank liquid gold to preserve her youth, but tests on her remains in 2009 revealed high amounts of gold in her hair. The theory is that she was inadvertently poisoning herself.
Courtesan : A Novel, by Diane Haeger