Anne of Brittany was the eldest of the two daughters of Francis II, Duke of Brittany and Marguerite de Foix, aunt of Catherine I of Navarre. She was born in the ducal chateau at Nantes, where she spent much of her childhood in the care of her governess, François de Dinan.
Francis II had had a stormy reign. His nobles frequently quarrelled amongst themselves, and in particular, objected to his choice of chief minister, Pierre Landais. They might have done better to present a united front against the neighbouring kingdom of France, whose king, Louis XI, wished to incorporate the duchy within his territory.
Francis hoped to marry Anne to a strong husband, who would defend her territories – the son of Edward IV of England was mooted (later Edward V who disappeared in 1483); Maximilian of Hapsburg (after the death of his wife, Mary of Burgundy) and Alain d’Albret.
Anne was recognised by the Estates General of Brittany as her father’s heir, but the French were still circling. Louis’ heir, Charles VIII, was a minor, but his sister, Anne of Beaujeu, Duchess of Bourbon, was an effective and tenacious regent. She worked with disaffected Bretons to promote French interests.
However, there were disaffected elements within France too, led by Louis of Orléans, Charles VIII’s heir. These various disputes culminated in the Mad War, which Anne of Beaujeu largely won, but Francis identified Louis of Orléans as another possible spouse for his daughter. By the treaty which ended the war, Francis was obliged to gain French approval for any marriage for Anne.
Hostilities were reignited and the Bretons suffered a major defeat at St Aubin du Cormier in July 1488. Francis died within months, and eleven-year-old Anne was left to pick up the pieces. Her various ministers disagreed as to the right action to take, beyond ensuring that she was recognised and instated as duchess.
Anne herself sought protection from the French by offering herself in marriage to Maximilian. A proxy wedding took place in early 1490. Maximilian, penniless, and always dilatory, did not follow up the proxy marriage – and the French pressed forward. Anne was besieged at Rennes. Terms were offered to her, including a pension and permission to leave Brittany to join Maximilian (had she done so, she would have become Holy Roman Empress). She declined. Eventually, the offer of a marriage to Charles himself was mooted, and Anne, after some deliberation, accepted.
She was still only fourteen, and the French were in control – the terms of her marriage strongly favoured the French. If she had no heir of her body by Charles, Brittany was to fall to France. Only if they had no children before his death could she retain her sovereignty, and in that case, she must marry his heir, still Louis of Orléans.
The wedding took place in the chateau of Langeais in November 1491. Two months later, Anne was crowned as queen of France at the Basilica of St Denis in Paris. Whilst French chronicles claim that Anne was devoted to Charles, it hardly seems likely. She certainly did not like Anne of Beaujeu, and strove to reduce her influence.
Anne and Charles had several children, but none lived beyond the age of three. During his life, Anne was relegated to subordinate status, even in her own duchy, with edicts being issued in Charles’ name only.
In 1494, Charles began the foolhardy invasion of Italy that would set Europe at war for sixty years. He was initially successful, and Anne became, in theory at least, queen of Naples, when he was crowned there in 1495.
Charles died suddenly in 1498, after cracking his head against a stone lintel at his chateau of Amboise. Anne, as soon as her period of mourning was over, made arrangements to return to Brittany.
The question arose as to whom she should now marry – she was only twenty-one, and needed an heir. Her marriage treaty obliged her to marry Charles’ heir, but Louis of Orléans had been married, childlessly, to Jeanne of France, for twenty years. Perhaps hoping he would never achieve freedom, Anne agreed to marry him, if he could obtain an annulment within a year.
The Pope, Alexander VI, proved amenable to having his palm greased, and Louis was freed. Anne had little choice but to fulfil her promise, and she once again became queen of France, in 1499. The terms of the contract were better – she could leave her duchy to a second son or a daughter, and Louis would rule in her name.
By the end of the year, Anne had borne the first of her children to survive – a daughter, Claude, who was now her heir - but not Louis’.
Like Charles, Louis had ambitions in Italy, and he made several expeditions there, being recognised as Duke of Milan, but giving up Naples to Ferdinand II of Aragon. Anne apparently disapproved of these jaunts to Italy – either fearing for her husband’s safety, disagreeing with French expansionism, or disliking the waste of money and men. She became particularly strong in her opposition to the wars towards the end of her life, when Louis found himself in conflict with the Pope. Anne was extremely religious, even in a religious age, and despaired at the thought of her husband being in conflict with the Vicar of Christ.
Another bone of contention between the couple (who seem generally to have been on good terms) was the marriage of Claude. Anne was eager for her to marry the grandson of Maximilian, Charles (later the Emperor Charles V). Louis was at first amenable, and a treaty was agreed. Later, he changed his mind and insisted that Claude marry his heir, François of Angoulême. A formal betrothal took place in 1507.
Anne, probably in response to this disappointment, withdrew to Brittany, where she stayed for some months. Eventually, she returned to France, and the cycle of annual child birth resumed. In 1510, she was delighted when a second daughter, Renée, lived.
The frequent pregnancies told on Anne’s health. There was another stillbirth in 1512, and she does not seem to have fully recovered after it. She died in January 1514, on her wedding anniversary. Louis ignored her request to allow Brittany to pass to Renée, and confirmed Claude in the duchy, before hastening her marriage to François.
Although all of Anne’s grandsons died without children, and the throne of France passed to the house of Bourbon-Vendôme, her descendants include Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, and the house of Piedmont Savoy, which came to the Italian throne in 1861.