Historical Figure of the Week | Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566)
This week’s historical figure is one of my personal favorites. Meet Diane de Poitiers: ruthlessly clever and witty, bombshell muse to artists, runner and hunter extraordinaire, emulator of her namesake the Goddess Diana, fashionista, gold-drinker, cougar mistress and consort of King Henri II of France (wheeeww).
Born into a wealthy and influential French family, the young Diane benefited from a Renaissance humanist education (all the rage at the time), which included music, hunting, manners, languages, the art of conversation, and dancing. She was an accomplished hunter and sportswoman by her mid-teens and continued that lifestyle for the rest of her life.
She was married to the influential Louis de Brézé, Seigneur d’Anet when she was 15 - he was 39 years her senior. The couple had a happy life and two daughters together before comte de Brézé died in 1531. This is the period when Diane adopted her trademark black and white as her colors, which are symbolic colors of the bright and dark sides of the moon.
During her marriage, Diane served as lady in waiting to a succession of French queens, which gave her access to King François I close inner circle. Now, following the French defeat at Pavia in 1525, François’ eldest sons, Henri (7) & François (8), were sent to Spain as hostages of the Emperor in exchange for their father. As his mother was already dead, Diane gave Henri the farewell kiss when he was sent to Spain. They returned to France in 1530 and Diane was put in charge of young Henri’s education. Their relationship didn’t become sexual until later, however Henri was enthralled by his elegant and worldly mentor and confidante.
In 1533, Henri married Cathérine de’ Medici - who immediately fell madly in love with her young handsome husband. Unfortunately for Catherine, Henri was in love with Diane (and had a queue of mistresses) and by 1538 the close relationship between Henri and Diane had evolved into a passionate love affair. After her lover ascended the throne in 1547, Diane used her sharp intellect and shrewd political knowledge to advise Henri on political matters. Henri was more than happy to have her pen many of his official letters, signing them “HenriDiane.” Her likeness appeared on coins and inspired works of art.
Since Henri and Catherine were childless, Diane became concerned by rumors of a possible repudiation of a queen she had in control. So, Diane made sure that Henri’s visited his wife’s bed frequently (ps. they eventually had 10 children) and went as far as helping nurse Cathérine back to health when she contracted scarlet fever. Henri’s death after a 1559 jousting accident brought an abrupt end to Diane’s de facto reign. Diane was banned from visiting Henri on his deathbed even though he called for her frequently, and she was not invited to his funeral. Cathérine spared no time and immediately confiscated Diane’s chateau and banished her to the countryside, where she spent the remainder of her life until she died at the age of 66 — with her beauty still intact.
Diane took meticulous care of herself – but how far she went to retain her youthful looks and porcelain skin became clear when her remains were exhumed in 2009 and her fair hair and bones were found to be unusually frail for those of a woman who had led such an active and healthy lifestyle. Her body contained 500 times the normal levels of gold, suggesting that Diane in her effort to maintain her hold on a powerful man, 20 years her junior, had resorted to drinking liquid gold as a form of beauty elixir – a decadent beauty regiment that ultimately killed her.