Skip to main content

Queen Claude of France

Queen Claude of France played an important role at the Field of Cloth of Gold, she hosted Henry VIII several times and appeared next to his wife Katherine of Aragon. Read more about this extraordinary young woman.

Queen Claude drawn on to canvas

Credit: RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michèle Bellot

Claude of France (1499-1524), was a beloved queen and played an important role at the Field of Cloth of Gold. While being well known as the dutiful wife of King Francis I (1494-1547), and subject to his many mistresses, there is much more to her role in history. Claude was very well educated, politically savvy, and personally invested in French Catholic religious reform.

Queen Claude in public

Queen Claude was known for hosting a cultured court and often made political appearances without her husband, she regularly appeared side by side with her mother-in-law Louise de Savoie. To allow her to make these frequent appearances Claude would travel extensively and widely, often whilst pregnant. She was present at the public acceptance of the political engagement of their ten-month-old son Francis to Mary I of England, the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, in Paris in 1518.

Perhaps Claude’s most notable public appearances was at the Field of Cloth of Gold where she fulfilled her political duties hosting feasts, dances, and theatrical shows to entertain the royal guests. Most notably these duties saw her individually hosting King Henry VIII for a banquet in the French camp whilst her husband was hosted by the English Queen, Katherine of Aragorn, in the English camp.

Whilst the Queens held limited formal political power they could influence their husbands and, at the Field of Cloth of Gold, also had direct contact with their rival kings. Their prominence was also used to highlight the positive new relationship between England and France so Katherine and Claude appeared side by side at the joust. Beyond her political activities at the Field of Cloth of Gold Claude was known to wield great influence and respect with a number of notable Venetian ambassadors and within the higher echelons of the Roman Catholic Church.

During this period the main role of the Queen was to produce a male heir, or even better, several male children. As such Claude spent much of her short life in a cycle of annual pregnancies, at the time of the Field of Cloth of Gold Claude had already given birth to two sons and was nine months pregnant with her third child, whereas Katherine had not delivered a male heir. So, whilst Katherine was known to be an experienced diplomat and had excelled in her role as consort, in many ways her skills in mediation and political nuances would have been overshadowed by this.

A painting of a joust with two kings and two queens watching riders with a large crowd

Credit: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Claude’s early life

Claude and her sister Renée were the only children of Louis XII, King of France and Anne of Brittany’s  who survived to adulthood (Anne was pregnant 14 times). Despite being female, the sisters were groomed from a very young age for marriages that would create political alliances. Claude and Renée were surrounded by women employed specifically to prepare them for a life in politics and at court.

In 1505, when Claude was just 5 years old, a series of 24 letters were produced in light of her engagement to Francis I. These letters not only demonstrate Claude’s natural intellect, but also how close the young princesses were to this group of staff, particularly their advisor Michelle de Saubonne.  Most notably a letter between Queen Anne’s Treasurer, Jacques de Beaune and Michelle de Saubonne in 1505 notes:

‘You would never believe how much she has learnt since you left and how she has grown in strength and confidence’.

Compliments of Claude’s grace, intelligence and kind nature are a common theme throughout her life. However, they unfortunately come at the expense of her appearance. Other letters from this series in reference to the Princess note:

Her ‘grace in speaking greatly made up for her want of beauty’ and

‘though small in stature and badly lame in both hips, [the young Princess] is said to be very cultivated, generous and pious’.

Education and marriage

There is no doubt Claude’s education helped her assume the role of a beloved queen. It is believed that her mother, Queen Anne, who was literate in Greek, wanted to empower her children through education. Anne was influenced by ancient Greek literature in her day to day life as evidenced by her reading of an ancient Grecian story which denotes a scenario in which the goddess Juno counsels her husband Jupiter, further highlighting the importance of the wife of a king. Some academics believe the subject of Claude’s readings were intentional to highlight to her how much agency was possible as a woman in politics.

Claude was only five years old when it was decided that she would marry her second cousin Francis, who then became the heir to the French throne. Her mother was unhappy as she did not trust Francis’s mother, Louise de Savoie, who she believed would attempt to overpower Claude, despite her being sole heir to the French throne. Anne, as Duchess of Brittany, also wanted independence for the province by keeping Brittany separate from the French crown.

In 1514 Claude lost her mother, not only a very personal blow, but a devastating loss for France whose people mourned her very publicly. One year later in 1515 her father died and, at the age of 15, Claude married Francis I and became Queen of France.

Queen Claude

Having recently lost both of her parents Claude found herself in a difficult dynamic amongst Francis’ family. He quickly appointed his mother Louise to his council, where she twice acted as regent, and formed a very close governing team, his older sister Marguerite also intervened in politics. This created a challenging three against one dynamic which the fifteen-year-old Claude found difficult to manage. However reports expedited by Venetian ambassadors to France during this time suggest a rather different story, with little doubt being shed on the dominance of Louise at court but suggesting that Claude’s physical presence at court proved dogged enough to sway some influence. She also found her way by prioritising her presence in the political spaces she inherited from her mother, including the territories included Brittany, Blois, Montfort, Étampes, Soissons and Vertus.

Alongside a difficult familial dynamic, Claude’s marriage to Francis I itself was challenging.  Their marriage was purely political and was used to cement Francis’ claim to the throne. There was no chemistry between the two and Francis has been quoted saying of Claude that ‘nothing about her person seduces,’ illustrating his lack of respect for Claude herself. Whilst some researchers have suggested this quote is fictional, it is reinforced by Francis’ pursuit of mistresses immediately after his wedding to Claude.

Whilst this was not unusual for the time, as most royal marriages were purely political, Francis was particularly prolific and has been described as a ‘hunter of deer and women’ and his romantic pursuits are well known and documented. Even worse for Claude, many of her husband’s mistresses were often women she knew from the royal court. Despite this she still relentlessly prioritised her political position alongside Francis and with the people of the territories which she ruled over whilst furthering her own religious agenda.

Religious reform

An old Book with illustration around the edge and script in the middle

Credit: Photography by Schecter Lee

After the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, Claude turned her attention to focus on the Catholic religious reformation of France, something that would become her most important piece of work. Despite naturally become involved in politics the Queen had always favoured religion, which is most obviously highlighted through her wearing of a tiny girdle book on her waist, a Book of Hours. This book acted as her prayer book and demonstrates her deep relationship with religion, a physical indication that as she always kept prayer by her side.

Arguably her two main contributions to French religious reform include overseeing the reconstruction of the parish church of Saint-Solenne (today the Cathedral of Blois) and the rebuilding of the Augustinian convent of Saint Jean of Blois for nuns known as the ‘Véroniques’, known for the good education they gave to their boarders.

Although Claude’s life was short, dying at the young age of twenty-four, she still had a large impact as Queen of France and was sure to exercise whatever agency she had. Beloved by her people she prioritised improving their lives, choosing religious reform over a pursuit of power. Despite the power struggles within her family and being subject to her husband’s mistresses, she still fulfilled the important roles, fostering learning and the traditional queenly domains of justice, peace, piety and culture, as well as providing Francis with three male heirs and a solid foundation for his succession.



Related stories

Load more