Today, we are interviewing a princess of Savoy, straight out of the 15th century. Yolande of France is a very busy woman, who humbly explains to us why she was unable to respond to our requests, despite multiple reminders.
Written by Samuel Metzener / Translation by Amy Reid
1436 Engagement and journey to Savoy
1440 Learns to read and write
1451 Marriage to Amadeus IX of Savoy
1453-1472 Birth of ten children, including Philibert in 1465
1465 Yolande of France takes on the regency on behalf of her sick husband
1472 Death of Amadeus IX and Yolande of France takes on the regency until Philibert comes of age
1474 Ensures her daughters learn to read and write
Yolande of France, first of all, could you please tell us more about your family?
First of all, please call me ‘Your Highness’. We did not share the same wet nurse, and your name is not Valois. My dear sir-with-the-German-sounding-name, it is one thing to be high born, but it is another to be the daughter and the sister of two kings of France who drove the English out of our territory and brought an end to the war between our two kingdoms. In short, by the grace of God, I am far superior to you.
Terribly sorry, Your Majesty. You mentioned the Valois, who ruled in France. What fortunate circumstances brought you from their court all the way to Savoy?
My father, King Charles VII of France, made the arrangements years in advance. I’m sure you have heard of him, or at least the uncouth little bumpkin woman who fought for him, Joan of Arc. He wanted to create closer ties with the Savoys, whose princes had gained newfound importance ever since their countship was upgraded to a duchy. It was a very good match. At a very young age, I was engaged to Amadeus of Savoy – the ninth, to be precise, because almost everyone in their family has that name. So, in 1436, when I was two years old, I was sent to his family’s court, so that I could be raised in line with their local customs.
How did they receive you as a young girl?
Remarkably well! In Savoy, future daughters-in-law were really put in the spotlight. For example, our clothing was always the most luxurious. As for me, I was allowed to dress in blue, the most noble of colours, which also gave a nod to my home country. It was a way of highlighting the importance of future marriages within the dynasty. We also received an extremely thorough education. At the age of six, I learnt to read and – contrary to the usual customs in the large western courts – to write!
How did your first meeting with your betrothed go?
Our engagement was veeeeery long. I spent practically fifteen years in Savoy before our marriage was made official, in my seventeenth year. That was when I had time to really get to know Amadeus. Without going into too much detail, he suffered terribly from what we French-speakers called le mal de Saint-Jean or ‘Saint John’s disease’ – which you know as epilepsy. In 1451, when we were married, I knew that I was committing to a man who was not long for this world.
Did you provide him a lot of support through these challenging times?
I went one better than that! Having a deficient husband came with its own unique opportunities! (she smiles knowingly) In 1466, Amadeus became incapable of exercising his power and I was officially named regent. When he died in 1472, I had our son named as the new duke. He was called Philibert by the way – it was time for a change. Seeing as he was not yet seven years old, I was able to continue to reign on his behalf, until he came of age!
As regent, did you have any admirers? And did you host many balls?
I was more inclined to make important decisions than to throw parties, you know? At the time, ruling Savoy wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. There were numerous pitfalls to avoid, owing to the long conflict between the kings of France and the dukes of Burgundy. And yet, we were neighbours to both. If I wanted my Philibert to stand a chance of inheriting anything other than a coffin, it was in my best interest to keep everyone happy. So, I wrote to them, trying to keep both parties sweet. The hours I spent writing – my word! Now you see why it took me so long to respond to your interview requests…
Guillaume Fichet offering his book to Yolande de France, duchess of Savoy, “To the illustrious duchess” Guillaume Fichet, La Rhéthorique, 1471, Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer.
It couldn’t always have been easy…
Easy? Keep your condescending 21st-century attitude to yourself! All that people-pleasing got me kidnapped! But what choice did I have? I didn’t want to anger my brother, King Louis XI of France… But the power held by the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, would certainly have come in handy for us. I was hoping for Philibert to marry his daughter, but nothing became of it. What’s worse, after his resounding defeat at the Battle of Morat, he became paranoid and was convinced I had betrayed him. On 27 June 1476, he had me captured. Philibert managed to escape, but I was thrown onto the back of my kidnapper’s horse like an old sack of turnips! Thank God my brother managed to have me freed.
Faced with this pressure, how did you take your mind off things? Was Savoy partial to a party?
I read! I had an enormous library of over eighty works, covering all kinds of subjects. In my eyes, the crème de la crème was a book by Christine de Pizan! That woman was from a whole other planet! She was of the generation before mine and lived ‘by her pen’ while also advising the ruling class. In some large courts, princesses had formed reading groups. We read passages and gave the works of Christine as gifts to our future daughters-in-law, etc. It was total Christine-mania!
Did you try to leave your mark as a ruler?
I took steps to ensure that my children could read the classics, such as Cicero, Ovid and Juvenal. I also made sure that my daughters, in turn, learnt to write. In short, I showed the other courts across Europe how important my children’s education was to me while representing Philibert as his counsellor. Humbly, of course, in mourning dress, so as not to cause alarm. But, I was still able to remind everyone that I was holding the fort.