This week, another princess of Savoy has agreed to give us an exclusive interview: we’re joined by the pious Yolande of Montferrat, who will explain why she loves building chapels, but hates admin.
Written by Samuel Metzener / Translation by Amy Reid
Yolande of Montferrat, Print, Burin, 7,2×4,5, Collection of Versaille’s castle, n°INV.GRAV.LP
1330 Marriage to Count Aymon of Savoy in Casale Monferrato, then departure to Chambéry
1334-1341 Gave birth to five children
1342 Saint Catherine chapel constructed
Early December 1342 Birth of a final boy who did not survive
14 December 1342 Health declines, last will and testament given
23-24 December 1342 Death
Yolande of Montferrat, may I ask a silly question? Could you please tell our readers what country you are from?
Yolande of Montferrat: Have you never heard of Montferrat? Che ignoranti gli Svizzeri! The March, or Marquisate, of Montferrat was the best in Italy, because it was governed by my family, who were related to the Byzantine emperors. What…? You haven’t heard of Byzantium either? How about the Eastern Roman Empire? Golden mosaics? Ancient knowledge…? Anyway, my father, Theodore of Montferrat, was the son of II, known as… ‘The Ancient’. Yes, the nickname means what you think it means. But you’re one to talk, when politicians in your country have names like Ueli and Simonetta!
Back to you, Your Highness. How did your father get from an Eastern Empire to a tiny bit of land in Italy?
A tiny bit of land?! Arrogante! My father’s predecessor, whose name was John I of Montferrat, died without an heir. Please no jokes about ‘Jean Ferrat’… I will have your nose cut off! So, John had a sister who had married Andronicus II, making her empress. John was my father’s uncle, do you follow? So, as his nephew, he became his successor. Immediately after taking the throne, he married the daughter of the admiral to the king of Aragon and Sicily… This union bore two children. I’m the eldest, born in 1318, and my brother followed three years later. È bellissimo!
Let’s fast-forward a bit. On 1 May 1330, you married Count Aymon of Savoy. Anything juicy to tell us?
‘Juicy’? Our union was in everyone’s best interests. The Ancient needed support against the Ottoman Turks, who were making his life difficult. My father travelled back and forth, from East to West, to spread the word. The Savoys said, ‘sign me up’! We can all agree that Chambéry is no Paris or London, but it was the best offer on the table, given our means. We wouldn’t have slummed it with the likes of the Swiss, put it that way!
But did you like Aymon? What was he like? A lover? A bad boy? A tough guy?
He certainly wasn’t a ‘tough guy’. He was mostly classy. What he loved most was administration, you know, building up the Savoy archives. Nowadays, you would call that ‘data’. I listened and nodded politely, but I can’t say I didn’t want to strangle him after a while. Do you know what the first thing he did after our wedding was? He got started on my accounting. Ah, what a wonderful wedding night.
Did you at least have hobbies to brighten your day?
A princess’s main concern is getting pregnant. They don’t mention that in the Disney films, do they?! I gave Aymon five children – before the sixth got the better of me. Not to mention the other fruitless attempts. Whenever too much time passed between pregnancies, I went on a pilgrimage to Bourg-en-Bresse to pray to the Virgin Mary. For Byzantines, the Madonna is the most important religious figure… On a par with their love for horse-racing. Given that the Savoy family wasn’t partial to the latter, I stuck to the former (she smiles).
How exactly does religion work as a pastime when you’re not religious?
I cared a great deal about my soul and those of my loved ones. After having suffered through countless nappy changes, I didn’t want my children to end up in hell. I spent a fortune building chapels and having mass recited for our family. I liked the Franciscan Monks, who did good work in Italy. They helped the plebs and the paupers, all while reminding them of the benefits of their sovereigns. True lobbyists before their time. Shortly before my death, I had a beautiful chapel built for them in Chambéry, dedicated to Saint Catherine, the patron saint of virgins and the dying. I clearly had an inkling…
Recumbent of Yolande with her husband Aymon in the abbey of Hautecombe, Samuel Guichenon, Histoire généalogique de la royale maison de Savoie, 1660.
While preparing for this interview, you told me you had visited Chillon Castle. What are your fondest memories?
I spent three days here in October 1336. The colours were charming but my goodness it was cold! Thank God I had my stoat furs wrapped around my shoulders to keep me warm. But the castle itself… quite outdated. Everything was at least 100 years old! At that time, Aymon had not yet had the Savoy bedroom repainted, as you see it today. But that isn’t where I slept. My dearest husband had the Count’s Apartments renovated and made into a suite of my own. This little island made for very close quarters, after all.
Is there anything you would have liked to change?
My public image. Being a good Christian is one thing, but I couldn’t deal with the ‘goody two-shoes’ look! Jean Cabaret d’Orville, the 15th-century Savoy , did nothing but praise my good manners, my kindness and my loyalty. Well, at least I held up my end of the bargain! As for Aymon, not so much… Seven or eight illegitimate children, can you believe! At least it gave me a break from my pregnancies!
Interview based mainly on the scientific publication: Vies de princesses ? Les femmes de la Maison de Savoie (XIIIe-XVIe siècle).