A Mistress with the Midas Touch: Her Hunger for Gold Would Be the Death of Her

Diane de Poitiers was a French noblewoman and courtier who lived during the 16 th century. She is best remembered for being the mistress of Henry II, the King of France. This allowed Diane to wield considerable power and influence at the French court. When the king died shortly after a jousting mishap in 1559, however, Diane swiftly fell from power, as her position depended on the king. Diane was then banished from the court by the late king’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici. Diane lived in a château in comfortable obscurity until her death at the age of 66 in 1566.

A portrait of Diane de Poitiers, Unknown artist 16 th century. Source: Public Domain

A Mistress in the Making

Diane de Poitiers was the daughter of Jean de Poitiers, an aristocrat and the Seigneur of St. Vallier. Diane was born in 1499, and at the age of 15, became the second wife of Louis de Brézé, Seigneur d’Anet, who was many years older than her. The couple had two children, and when Louis died in 1531, Diane succeeded in having her late husband’s title of Seneschal (an official appointed by the king) of Normandy pass into her own hands, as opposed to having it returned to the king, as was the traditional practice. This may be said to be a demonstration of Diane’s shrewdness, which would later serve her well when she became the mistress of Henry II.

Diane de Poitiers by Francois Souchon. ( Public Domain )

Lady in Waiting

Diane first entered the French court as a lady-in-waiting to a number of powerful women. She had served under Louise of Savoy, the mother of King Francis I of France, Claude of France, Francis’ first wife, and Eleanor of Austria, the king’s second wife. According to some historians, Diane became a mistress of Francis, so as to obtain a pardon for her father, who had been condemned to death for plotting against the king. These, however, remain as unsubstantiated rumours, and the king had his own favorite mistress, Anne de Pisseleu.

In 1530, the future Henry II and his elder brother returned to France after being held as hostages for several years at the court of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Spain. Diane was appointed to be the tutor of the younger prince. As Henry grew up, he fell in love with his mentor, in spite of the large age gap between the two, and eventually she became his chief mistress.

Henry II of France. 16 th century. ( Public Domain )

King’s Mistress in Waiting

Henry was in fact not originally expected to inherit the French throne, as his elder brother, Francis III, was the Dauphin (heir apparent) of France. When Francis III died unexpectedly in 1536, Henry became the new Dauphin, and upon the death of his father in 1547, became the King of France. Diane’s influence over the king was so great that it even eclipsed that of the queen, Catherine de’Medici, who had married Henry in 1533. For instance, Diane was given custody of the crown jewels, as well as the Château de Chenonceau (which the queen had desired for herself). Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that Diane did not exercise her influence over the king in matters of state. Instead, she was more concerned with increasing her own material wealth, as well as those of her family and friends.

Catherine de’ Medici as queen of France. ( Public Domain )

As powerful as Diane was in the French court, her position was in fact a precarious one, as it was completely dependent on the king. In 1559, Henry was wounded during a jousting tournament. A fragment of a splintered lance wounded the king’s eye. The resulting infection could not be stopped, and the king died shortly after. Diane’s downfall was quick. As the king was on his deathbed, he is said to have called for Diane repeatedly. As it was Catherine’s turn to assume power, she did not allow Diane to see the king.

Diane de Poitiers was Henry II’s chief mistress. ( Public Domain )

Shortly after Henry died, Catherine forced Diane to restore the crown jewels. Diane was also forced to give Catherine the Château de Chenonceau, in exchange for the Château of Chaumont. Diane was then banished from the French court and lived for a while at the Château of Chaumont, after which she spent the rest of her life in comfort at the Château d’Anet. In 1566, Diane died at the age of 66.

Interestingly, in 2009, analyses of Diane’s remains (her hair, to be more precise) led researchers to conclude that the royal mistress was drinking an elixir to maintain her youthful appearance. This elixir was a combination of gold chloride and diethyl ether, and it has been suggested that Diane could have been a victim of chronic gold poisoning.

Top image: François Clouet – Dame au bain (Portrait of Diane de Poitiers) (1570) – Detail ( CC BY 2.0 )