Winner's Lose and Loser's Win
Anne and Louis Forever Bound
The year is 1508. Louis XII, King of France, wants to stamp France’s footprint upon Italy.
Anne of Brittany, Queen of France, and ruler of neighboring realm Brittany, wants to produce a son and heir for Louis and to save the independence of Brittany from France.
Louise of Savoy, the mother of the king’s intended successor, the future Francis I, wants to see her son on the throne of France.
All three have had their fates twisted by Anne de Beaujeu, the spider king’s daughter, who ruled France from 1483-1491. Two shake off her shadow; one does not.
One sees their dreams come true; two do not. But in this game of thrones, winners lose and losers win the greatest prize of all.
She had been gone only a week, but already she missed him. A quick side trip to Tours then she would be back in Blois, berating him over the bad care he had taken of himself in her absence. The moment they were alone he would slip his hand around the back of her neck, working his way up into her scalp. It would be heavenly.
Stretching in her carriage, Anne’s thoughts fell on her rival. Louise de Savoy would have heard of her son’s mishap by now. She could imagine the woman dropping to her knees the moment the news was delivered, begging God not to take him before his time.
Francis d’Angoulême, heir apparent to the throne of France, had arrived at the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud on the third of August 1508 without his mother in tow, mirabile dictu. The strapping young dauphin had been ordered by the king to leave his home in Amboise to join the royal court at France’s most prestigious monastic address, nestled deep in the Loire Valley countryside.
Louis had said it was time for the fourteen-year-old to begin training for the crown he might one day wear as closest male to the throne of France’s ruling House of Valois.
The dauphin had arrived at Fontevraud with only his tutor, unescorted by Louise as per the king’s explicit orders. To Anne’s merriment Louis’ exact words had been that Louise was not to tag along like some sort of attachment to her son’s body. Her overprotection of the boy she referred to as her ‘precious Caesar’ was a topic of rich amusement at court.
All had gone well for the first few days. With his usual bravado Francis had cavorted with his male companions, teasing the demoiselles and showing himself fearless at sword practice. Anne had found herself half-charmed and half-annoyed. Francis d’Angoulême showed none of the humility her husband did, although it was at the king’s pleasure that the youth had been designated his successor. The boy who might one day be king had not yet been checked by a single lash of life’s blows.
But all that had changed two days earlier as members of the court had strolled outside the abbey’s grounds in the golden long rays of a summer sunset. Francis had been up ahead, disporting with a group of youths when gay laughter had turned to cries.
A loose tile from a low-hanging roof had hit the dauphin on the forehead, knocking him to the ground. Anne had rushed to his side, calling for help as her thoughts flashed back to ten years earlier.
“Get the carriage. We’ll bring him to the nuns,” she commanded. Barking orders for water, a cool compress, and a blanket, she guessed the abbess and her capable nuns would nurse him better than any doctor, although not as well as her Breton cook would back in Blois.
While they awaited the carriage, Anne remembered how Charles had first seemed fine after hitting his head on a door lintel, laughing and talking as they took in a tennis match. Then, suddenly, his head had snapped back and he had fallen to the floor unconscious.
France’s former king had been dead before midnight. From sad experience, she knew the twelve hours after a blow to the head were critical. Francis would either wake up feeling better the next morning or not wake up at all.
That evening she prayed for the boy’s recovery. But as she prayed, her mind drifted to prayers for a son of her own to take his place as France’s dauphin. It was the one prayer that blotted out all others.
As queen it was her foremost responsibility, above all else, to produce an heir. God knew she had always sought to do her duty. But in this sole regard, she had not been able to accomplish what her insufferable rival had done—bear a son who lived.
The next morning Francis had awakened with a smile and a jest, sporting a nasty graze above one eye.
“Don’t tell my mother, Your Grace,” he had begged. “She will find out soon enough, and I would not worry her with such a thing as I am now fine.”
“She will hear of it, but I will send the messenger on a slow horse so that she will not rush here against the king’s orders,” Anne promised, glad to have an excuse to prevent Louise from arriving at Fontevraud while she was still there. Due in Tours the day after next, she would watch over Francis carefully before she left, but, already, his bright expression told her the injury was not life-threatening.
“Bless you, Your Grace. It is nothing but a scratch and I will be as good as new in a few days.”
Anne smiled wistfully at the youth’s boundless confidence. She had felt similar confidence at age fourteen. But such assurance had ebbed in her over the years, sucked out by countless unexpected deaths of those she had most loved. Well could she appreciate the pain Louise de Savoy would feel on hearing of her son’s brush with death. A thumbnail or two closer to the youth’s temple might have ended every one of his overreaching mother’s hopes.
Two days later Anne set out for Tours. She had told her entourage she would visit the tomb of two of her princes, then the workshop of the sculptor who had created it to discuss his latest commission.
Guilt pricked her at thought of her lie. Would God forgive her for what she intended to do?
Leaning over, she drew back the carriage curtain with the edge of her fan. Phantoms of her dead children visited frequently; whether to comfort or haunt her, she knew not which. If only she had living sons, thoughts of her dead ones would have no further power over her. Could God blame her for doing whatever she could to make that come to pass?
“Your Grace, allow me.” Madame de Dampierre reached out to help her with the curtain.
“Nonsense, I’ve got it.”
“Are you comfortable, Your Grace?”
“I am thinking of my sons,” Anne said. “Go back to your nap and leave me to my sorrows.”
Madame de Dampierre gave her the sort of deeply sympathetic look that Anne hated.
She frowned until her lady-in-waiting closed her eyes and fell back to sleep. How fed up she was of her courtiers peeking at her with their great cow eyes after the death of yet another son, whispering amongst themselves over her failure to produce an heir for France.
Anne placed a hand on her belly. She always knew when life was inside. But her belly was no warmer than the rest of her body on that hot August day. Since her latest prince had arrived stillborn in January, her womb had not ripened. Was her time up, or was she still in the game?
Snapping shut her fan, she tapped it on the carriage seat as she went over her plan. She would slip out the back door of Colombe’s workshop while her attendants waited for her in the sculptor’s anteroom.
The wise woman’s home was a stone’s throw from his studio. It would take only minutes to visit her then return to the studio without her ladies knowing she had been gone. The moment her mission was accomplished, she would fly home to Louis in Blois.
Thinking of his sure fingers moving up her neck she closed her eyes.
A horse’s loud squeal jolted her awake. Immediately, another joined it in horrible neighing shrieks. With a sickening judder, the front left side of the carriage careened down, causing Anne’s stomach to drop.
Madame de Dampierre fell violently into her lap as men shouted and horses screamed around them.
“Madame, hold steady!” her lady-in-waiting cried.
“God save us,” Anne gasped, clutching at the wooden handle inside the door.
“Cut the straps, quick!” one of her Breton guardsmen shouted.
“Cut the harnesses,” another yelled.
Anne and Madame de Dampierre clung to each other as the front of the carriage lurched down toward the river below the wooden bridge they were on.
“Hold tight, Mesdames! Hold on!” voices shouted from outside.
“Put your hand here and hold fast,” Anne ordered her companion, bracing herself against the back of the carriage which was now higher than the front. Were they about to be hurled into the river? She prayed her time was not yet up.
The door of the carriage flung open and two of her guardsmen appeared.
“Your Grace, come quickly!” the senior one called out, his face pale beneath streaks of sweat and dirt.
Grasping his extended hand, Anne climbed from the carriage and onto what remained of the bridge.
Her throat closed as she gasped. The bridge had collapsed only a few arms lengths ahead and the front left side of the carriage dangled off the end of what remained. Neither of her horses were in sight, but their screams fell on her ears like the cries of souls in Dante’s ninth circle of hell.
Looking down to the river below, Anne took in the ghastly sight. The two beautiful beasts thrashed and whinnied piteously, helpless and doomed in the swirling waters.
“Come, Your Grace,” her guardsman urged, grasping her arm and hurrying her off the bridge, her lady-in-waiting close behind. Focusing on walking well instead of giving in to her limp, Anne tried to blot out the terrible shrieks of the horses behind her. Quickly, they reached the side they had come from.
“Are you hurt, Your Grace?” Her guardsman’s face was a mask of worry.
“I am fine,” Anne replied, running her hands down her gown to restore herself. Order and duty were foremost for her in all situations, save moments alone with Louis. Such self-possession had served her in the past; it would serve her now.
Despite herself, a shudder seized her from head to toe. She had been an arms length from losing her life. Had the accident been a warning that she was on the wrong track?
“Madame, bless God you are safe!” the man cried, relief flooding his features.
“And may God take those poor creatures home to Him.” Anne pointed to where she had last seen the horses, now swept farther downriver.
“Your Grace, it is a loss, but what matters is that you are unhurt!” The guardsman bowed deeply as he wiped the sweat from his brow.
A trunk was taken from the baggage carts and set next to a tree. There, Anne and her lady-in-waiting sat and settled their nerves while the carriage was eased off the bridge and fresh horses were found.
“Your Grace, thank God your time is not yet up,” Madame de Dampierre exclaimed.
Anne started, surprised to hear her lady-in-waiting use the same words she had thought to herself only moments earlier. Her time was not yet up. She was still in the game. But was there a message from above in what had almost befallen her?
Her conscience twinged as she thought of the amulet in Tours she was on her way to pick up. The wise woman had said it would guarantee the future birth of a healthy son.
Yet she knew the Church frowned upon its people turning to soothsayers and amulets. Her confessor had been firm on the point, reminding her of the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Her instincts told her the accident had been a sign that God did not want her to carry out her errand. Had He not called her closer with what had almost happened?
Rising, she shook out her gown then turned to her head guardsman.
“We will change course and go directly to Blois,” she ordered. The message was clear. Her only chance of bearing more healthy children was to remain within His will for her. She would get back to Louis as soon as possible so they could achieve that aim without help from dark sources.
Wait for me here. I wish to pray alone,” Louis told his attendant. The King of France entered the chapel of his ancestral home, genuflected, then went to the altar of the Virgin in the far corner near the main altar. Behind the statue of the Holy Mother, a door hidden by a crimson velvet curtain opened into a corridor that led to a lesser-known section of Blois Castle.
It wasn’t the Virgin Mary he would pray to that day. Instead, he planned to spend a few moments before his grandmother’s portrait in an unoccupied wing of the castle. It was there that Valentina Visconti had lived out her days until her death in 1408, widowed and exiled from the royal court in Paris.
With a backward glance to ensure his attendant had not followed, Louis slipped through the hidden door and set off down the corridor. As he moved deeper into the unused wing, he felt like a boy again, escaping his nurse and scampering to the untouched rooms where the portrait of his mysterious Italian grandmother hung.
Some said the rooms were haunted. Louis thought of them as inhabited by the spirit of one who could not embrace her final rest until her wishes were carried out.
Soon, he reached the bedchamber where the portrait hung. There the daughter of Milan’s first duke, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, had died one hundred years earlier. She had been widowed after the assassination of her husband, Louis’ grandfather, for whom he was named. The powerful Duke d’Orléans had been hacked to death in the streets of Paris in 1407 by murderers hired by his cousin.
Jean of Burgundy had disputed Louis, Duke d’Orléans’ powers as regent of France during the reign of his older brother, Charles VI, who had become insane. The duke’s murder had been a horrendous act, setting off the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war for the next thirty years.
“Madame, bless me and guide me in what I set my hand to,” Louis murmured as he bent his knee to the portrait of his father’s mother, her image as beautiful as it was sad. His blood ran cold at thought of what she had gone through after learning her husband had been toppled from his horse, his hand chopped off at the wrist, then his skull bashed in until his brains decorated the cobblestones of a dark narrow Parisian street.
The stern noblewoman stared down at him, withholding her favors. Gazing at her, he sensed she was waiting.
“Madame, you know I have vowed that as King of France I will not seek to avenge wrongs done to the Duke d’Orléans,” he said. After three years in prison at the hands of France’s regent, the powerful Anne de Beaujeu, he had vowed not to allow thoughts of revenge to imprison his mind, once his body had been set free. He had never forgotten the lesson, and upon ascending the throne of France, he had publicly promised his subjects to leave behind redress of personal wrongs to pursue the greater good of his people.
The eyes of Valentina Visconti’s image remained unmoved as if he had missed her message.
“Madame, do you ask me to claim our lands in Italy for France?” he asked.
At his words, the great lady’s gaze seemed to soften.
Straightening his back, Louis squared his shoulders. As King of France he had the wherewithal to answer her call. He would strive to claim his ancestral rights, not only for his family but for France.
Thinking of his predecessor’s failed efforts in Italy, his determination grew. Charles VIII had tried and failed to claim Naples, based on the flimsiest of distant ancestral claims. But he, Louis, had a direct claim to Milan and Asti, one that his grandfather would have pursued if he had lived, or his father, if he hadn’t been held hostage in England for most of his adult life.
“You are the only one,” a silver bell of a voice tinkled.
Of course, he was. And with no son to whom he could pass on his claim, he was the only male member of his family who could pursue it.
“Only you, Louis. Only you,” Valentina’s voice murmured as if whispering to her murdered husband.
Louis’ insides tightened. He must succeed in Italy where Charles VIII had failed. Then all of Europe would know that he was no accidental king, but one who belonged on France’s throne.
“’Tis the Queen! The Queen is back!” the broad Breton accents of the head cook at Blois rang out as a hubbub of voices floated up from the courtyard.
Louis’ jaw dropped. His wife was not due back from Fontevraud until the day after next. She was no fan of Italy, especially not Italian women. Her first husband had dallied with too many of them while on campaign there.
With his wife’s feelings hardened against Italy, Louis kept secret his visits to Valentina Visconti’s rooms. His Brette would never understand the depths of his desire to claim his hereditary holdings there.
As he rose, his knees creaked with age; he did not have forever to accomplish his dreams. Moving to the portrait hung high on the wall, he brushed his grandmother’s feet with his lips.
Turning, he strode to the main section of the castle, a renewed energy propelling his long legs at thought of seeing his spirited consort. Wondering what her early return was all about, he tucked away his secret thoughts. The call from Valentina Visconti to claim his legacy for France was for him alone. Nothing and no one would ever pry it from his heart.
“My lady, you are back early. Is all well?” Louis asked as he helped Anne from the carriage.
“A change of plans, my lord. My head guardsman will fill you in.”
“My lady, did something happen?”
“It did, my lord. Or almost happened and I’m going straight to my oratory to thank God for what didn’t happen.”
“Speak to me, Wife.”
“My men will tell you. Meet me in my rooms so I may greet you properly once I’m done.”
At the door to her rooms, Anne’s two Italian greyhounds welcomed her with joy that matched her own at still being alive. Giving them each a pat, she quieted them and dismissed her attendants before entering her private oratory. She didn’t trust herself to tell Louis about both accidents before she had unburdened her heart.
“Forgive me, Father,” she prayed. “My thoughts and plans have fallen short of Your glory. Forgive me for my impure heart and for being unable to surrender my will to Yours.”
Even as she prayed, she felt her will override her prayers. “Father in Heaven, how am I to relinquish my desire to bear a son who will be king when it is my duty to do so?” she asked, wondering why God would have made her a queen twice over if He didn’t intend for her to bear an heir to either of her husbands’ thrones.
No answer came, but Anne knew Louis soon would.
“Forgive me for thinking to seek help in dark ways to see my prayers answered,” she confessed, feeling her heart lighten as she thanked God that He had prevented her from carrying out her plans in Tours.
Hearing a rustle in the outer room, she stopped.
“Thy will be done,” she concluded, although all she could think was that she wanted her will done. She and Louis needed a son and heir. Why did God not listen to her when everyone else did?
Dissatisfied, she rose. Once again she had sent up the wrong sort of prayers. No wonder they weren’t being heard.
“M’amie, what is this about a bridge collapsing under your carriage?” Louis burst out as she opened the door of her oratory.
“I just thanked God for saving my life.” And asked Him to forgive me in matters I will not share with you.
“Good God, Wife, I would not have been able to live without you.”
“You would have managed, but poorly.” Her smile was wry.
Louis returned it. “I would rather not, my lady. Life is trouble enough without you to soothe me.”
Anne moved into his arms. “Usually you complain that I rile you,” she challenged, looking at him from under her lashes.
“You are expert at both.”
“Did you tell the attendants to stay away?’
“I did, my lord. You know I think of everything.”
“That you do, m’amie. And how fared you with Francis in Fontevraud?”
Her eyes flickered as she thought of her mixed feelings toward the boy. “He, too, had an accident.”
Louis’ face blanched. “What happened?”
“A loose tile fell from a roof and hit him square on the forehead.”
“Good God, so much like Charles’ accident,” Louis exclaimed.
“Fortunately not.” Anne felt her conscience tug at the thought that she would not have been so sad if the tale had turned grimmer.
“How is he?”
“Fully recovered. The nuns assured me and I saw it for myself before I left.”
“Did someone tell Louise?”
Anne laughed. “I promised Francis I would send the messenger on a slow horse.”
Louis raised a brow, his eyes brimming with amusement. “He didn’t want her there?”
“Your dauphin seemed happy to be out from under her skirts.”
“’Tis a good sign, but the stripling needs supervision.”
“His tutor is with him and there are plenty of attendants to keep an eye on him.”
“Then let us worry no more and thank God you are alive and well.”
“There is another matter, my lord.”
“What is it?”
“You have not yet kissed me.”
With a groan Louis embraced her as Anne of Brittany’s hounds retreated to a far corner.
ROZSA GASTON writes historical fiction. She is the author of the award-winning Anne of Brittany Series: Anne and Charles, Anne and Louis (general fiction winner of the Publishers Weekly 2018 BookLife Prize), Anne and Louis: Rulers and Lovers, and Anne and Louis Forever Bound. Other works include Sense of Touch: Love and Duty at Anne of Brittany's Court, The Least Foolish Woman in France, and Marguerite and Gaston.
Gaston studied European history at Yale, and received her Master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. She worked at Institutional Investor, then as a columnist for The Westchester Guardian. She lives in Bronxville, New York, with her family and is currently working on Margaret of Austria - Governor of the Netherlands.