I am excited to have Sophie Perinot, author of Medicis Daughter (click here for my review of this novel), share a post about Queen Catherine de Médicis l'escadron volant (flying squadron). So interesting!
Dangerous Seductions: The Cautionary Tale of the Baronne de Limeuil
Dangerous Seductions: The Cautionary Tale of the Baronne de Limeuil
At the conclusion of the first French War of Religion, Queen Catherine de Médicis made a calculated decision—the most important place to promote and maintain the tenuous peace was within the French Court itself. Borrowing a page from her father-in-law, King Francis I, Catherine set out to amuse the heads of the great noble houses, hoping that if they were sufficiently distracted by pleasure and good living they would have no further interest in leading armies. As part of her plan Catherine, who up to this point had a pretty unremarkable household, assembled a collection of exquisite women from the best houses in France. These eighty to one-hundred beauties came to be called Her Majesty’s l'escadron volant (flying squadron). Its members dressed to dazzle and made witty conversation. Exactly what they did beyond that provides an excellent illustration of the difference between standards of conduct set at the French Court and behaviors that were, in reality, tolerated and even ordered.
Pierre de Brantôme (worldly abbot and recorder of royal doings) described the members of the Queen’s l’escadron volant as “very polite maidens,” and insisted they were highly virtuous, providing only the most innocent diversions to the gentlemen of the court. It should be noted, however, that Brantôme was an enormous fan of Queen Catherine, and she returned the admiration (showing him profitable favor), presumably because he was a man who knew how to chronicle the court in a way that reflected well on the Valois. So Brantôme’s description of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting must be taken with a grain of salt. The truth is probably closer to a cutting remark made by Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre, that, at the Valois Court, it is “not the men who invite the women, but the women who invite the men.” It is fairly clear from the historical record that Catherine wished her young dames d’honneur to appear as models of decorum in settings where decorum was required, but to act in more lascivious ways—using seduction to both spy upon and control powerful gentlemen—where that was profitable to her.
This dichotomy was one of the unspoken rules that the youthful Princess Marguerite, main character in Médicis Daughter, had to decode when she joined her Mother’s household. As a Royal princess whose virginity was coin of the realm, Margot also quickly learned that no double-standard would be tolerated in her case. Brining dishonor to the family was a dangerous act with frightful consequences. This was true even for those ladies whose duty to the queen encompassed being the mistress of one great man or another. Such women walked a tightrope between reward and ruin and the penalties for slipping and embarrassing Queen Catherine could be very severe.
A case in point—and one which Princess Marguerite would have witnessed firsthand—is the sad story of Isabelle de la Tour, Baronne de Limeuil. The Baronne was a thirty-year-old dame d’honneur when Margot joined the court in 1564. At that point Isabelle had already been mistress to: Claude d’Aumale (brother of the influential Francis, Duc de Guise) and Florimond Robertet, Seigneur d’Alluye (a young secretary of state who was entirely a creation of the Guises). Both of these “placements” had served Catherine de Médicis’ need for eyes and ears within the powerful Guise entourage. But when the old Duc de Guise was assassinated in 1563, the balance of power at the court changed. Ratification of the Peace of Amboise with the Protestant rebels just a month later shifted the balance further still. Scores of Protestant nobles returned to court to take up positions they had vacated to wage war against their king. The House of Bourbon was the most powerful and highly ranked of the returning families because it included the Princes of the Blood—men legitimately descended in dynastic line from France’s hereditary monarchs. Catherine needed a spy among the Bourbons, so that she might hear any whispers of new disloyalties to young Charles IX. So the Baronne de Limeuil was set upon their leader—Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, Huguenot chief, and negotiator of the treaty of Amboise.
So far so good.
Isabelle was where Catherine de Médicis wanted her to be and, while all at the court may have known of the lovely Baronne’s amour, blind eyes could be turned as needed or desired. Unfortunately, the Baronne allowed herself to fall in love with Condé. And then she did something even more unacceptable: she got pregnant. In fact, when Margot arrived at court for the Grand Royal Progress (see my blog post on this journey), Isabelle was already concealing her pregnancy. What de Condé said about the situation is lost to history. But it is quite clear that Isabelle believed she would be taken care of by her lover.
Extraordinarily, Isabelle managed to keep her condition a secret until the fateful moment when—in June 1564, while the Royal Progress was stopped at Lyon—she went into labor. Delivered of a boy, the baby was put in a basket with a note and quickly dispatched to the Prince de Condé (who was momentarily not with the royal travel party). The Baronne was much more roughly treated. Catherine was furious that Isabelle had allowed herself to become pregnant—never mind that it was in direct pursuit of her duties. Such a pregnancy reflected poorly on the morals of the Queen’s household, and on the King’s Court. Isabelle was summarily dismissed from royal service and banished to a convent where she was confined by Catherine’s orders. The Baronne experienced a moment of hope in her captivity when, just a month after her son’s birth, the Prince de Condé’s wife died. Isabelle believed she would be the next Princesse de Condé. But, the Prince did not rescue his former amante. Instead he married a girl from a prominent Protestant family, Francoise d’Orleans (who was only 16). The betrayal of Isabelle de la Tour, Baronne de Limeuil—by her Queen and by her beloved—was now complete.
Eventually, Catherine de Médicis released the Baronne from imprisonment. The price for that freedom? Well, in 1567 Isabelle was married off to one of her Catherine’s wealthy Italian financiers, Sardini Scipio. Thus she was freed only to be turned once again into a “reward” bestowed by her queen upon a powerful man. One imagines Isabelle felt no great affection for Catherine de Médicis at this point. It is certain that she was forever bitter at and furious with the Prince de Condé. When Condé was killed (March 1569), after surrendering at the Battle of Jarnac, the historical record tells us that Isabelle celebrated. Who can blame her?
The dramatic story of Isabelle de la Tour was a subplot in my first draft of Médicis Daughter. Alas, considerations of length and storytelling required me to remove it. But in the near future I will be sharing excerpts at my blog, so keep an eye out.