Anne of Brittany: Life Story

Chapter 1: A Hazardous Upbringing

Anne was born in 1477 to Duke Francis II of Brittany, and his second wife, Marguerite of Foix. Her maternal grandmother, Eleanor, had been queen-regnant of Navarre, a title which eventually passed to Anne’s cousin, Catherine.

Like Navarre, Brittany in 1477 was an independent state, and also like Navarre, it was viewed with covetous eyes by the French crown. Duke Francis fought a constant battle to retain his duchy’s freedom, particularly against Louis XI, known as the ‘Universal Spider’ for his complex political machinations.

Francis’ weapon of choice was promoting dissension between France and England. England had, historically, been an ally of the duchy, but relations deteriorated after 1471, when Duke Francis gave succour to Henry, Earl of Richmond, and his uncle, Jasper, Earl of Pembroke when they escaped following the Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury.  By holding this potential claimant to the English throne, Francis had a useful bargaining chip in negotiations with both France and England.

Francis had no surviving children by his first wife, and Anne was born three years after his marriage to her mother. It was thus considered likely that she would inherit his duchy, and she was more comprehensively educated than most royal women. She read and wrote in French and Latin, and perhaps some Greek, although that language was only just being taught again in Europe. Her education was supervised by a Breton noblewoman, Françoise de Dinan. In addition to languages, Anne also learnt the usual noble accomplishments of music, dancing, embroidery, hunting, hawking, (real)-tennis, and so forth.

Although Anne had no brothers (only a sister, Isabeau, who died young), within Brittany her rights of inheritance were not firmly grounded. The inheritance of the duchy had been the subject of a civil war in the 1340s, when, on the death of John III, without children, his niece, Jeanne of Penthièvre’s right to succeed him was challenged by John III’s half-brother, John of Montfort. The Montfort branch won the argument, but the treaty agreed that, on failure in the male line, the duchy would revert to Jeanne of Penthièvre’s heirs. At the time of Anne’s birth, the senior member of the Penthièvre line was of whom was Nicole of Blois, Countess of Penthièvre. Louis XI purchased Nicole’s rights (before, presumably, her son was born).

Louis’ action was deeply threatening, so Francis forged an alliance with Edward IV of England in 1481, betrothing Anne to Edward’s son (later Edward V). He also sought alliance with Louis’ other great rival, Maximilian of Hapsburg, who had married Mary of Burgundy, the other territory bordering France to the north, which, like Brittany, sought to resist French encroachment.

Internal affairs in Brittany were not straightforward. Many nobles resented the position of Pierre Landais – a man of relatively humble background, who was Francis’ chief minister, and whose influence was resented by many.

In 1483, there was some respite from French aggression, as Louis XI died, to be succeeded by his son, Charles VIII. Neither Louis, nor anyone else, had a high opinion of thirteen -year-old Charles. Louis’ great minister, Philip de Commines, characterised Charles as ‘a small man in body, with little understanding.’ With little confidence in Charles, Louis had left the governorship of France to his daughter, Anne of Beaujeu.

Whilst Anne of Beaujeu had her late father’s authority to support her, she had a rival for the regency in the King Charles’ cousin and heir, Louis of Orléans, who believed that, as a male, he had a greater right to the governorship than she had.

Meanwhile, Anne of Beaujeu was promoting French interests in Brittany, paying pensions to some of Francis’ nobles, which resulted in a group of them, increasingly angry at the control Landais had over both Duke Francis and Breton policy, promising to recognise Charles VIII as their next duke, in default of a male heir from Francis. French pensioners included Anne’s governess, but there is no record of what Anne made of this.

In retaliation, Francis struck up an alliance with Louis of Orléans. Thus, the French crown had Breton allies, whilst the Breton duchy had French allies. The result was the conflict known as the Mad War, in which Anne of Beaujeu was triumphant. The unfortunate Landais was tried and hanged and the peace treaty required Francis to obtain French consent for any marriage for his daughter.

Francis, in a bid to prevent the disappearance of his duchy, called the Breton Estates-General to accept Anne as his heir. Anne’s betrothed, Edward V of England, having been deposed in 1483 by his uncle, Richard of Gloucester, and subsequently disappearing, Francis looked to the newly-widowed Maximilian of Hapsburg as a potential supporter, and husband for Anne. There was also Alain d’Albret, whose son, Jean d’Albret had just married Anne’s cousin, Catherine, Queen of Navarre.

Anne of Beaujeu objected to Francis’ efforts to find support. She accused him of breaking the treaty between the countries, and gave financial support to sixty Breton nobles, led by the Marshal de Rieux, to rebel, although not to threaten Francis personally.

Francis, although only in his fifties, was suffering mental and physical deterioration, and war broke out. The French invaded, and with their superior numbers captured many important towns. The renegade Marshal de Rieux, faced with the consequences of his actions, suddenly remembered his loyalty but it was too late to save Nantes, which fell to the French.

The culminating battle took place on 28th July 1488, at St Aubin du Cormier, where the Bretons were routed, and Louis of Orléans was captured. Again, the treaty ending the war (that of Le Verger, sometimes known as the Treaty of Sablé) emphasised the French crown’s determination to control Anne’s marriage, and agreed that a commission would be sent to the Pope to rule on her eligibility to inherit.