Today is the feast of Joan of France, canonized as Sainte Jeanne de Valois (in English, Saint Jane of Valois), for a short time the Queen of France.
[Of her looks, there are varying descriptions from several modern writers, ranging from "possibly lame" to "a slight curvature of the spine" to "slight, sickly, and to some extent deformed" to "extraordinarily ugly and deformed". I wonder how much of it is true, and how much is based on the reports of her husband. After all, he wasn't unbiased in this. Makes me think of the number of people who still believe that Richard III was a hunchback - Shakespeare said so!]
Joan was born in 1464, the younger daughter of Louis XI, King of France. At the age of 12, she was married to her cousin Louis, Duke of Orleans, the head of a cadet branch of the French royal family and next in line for the throne, if Joan's brother Charles died leaving no son to inherit.
Charles VIII did indeed die childless in April 1498, and Joan's husband ascended the throne of France as Louis XII. First on his list of things to do was to get an annulment from his wife of 22 years. There was a younger cousin named Anne, the widow of his predecessor and Duchess of Brittany in her own right. Should she marry elsewhere, France would lose that valuable bit of land. Quelle horreur! We cannot have that!
Despite her original marriage contract, which stipulated that if her husband died, she would agree to marry the subsequent king of France, the 21-year-old Duchess and Queen Dowager was in no hurry to marry the 36-year-old king. Finally, she said she would do so if he could get an annulment. He wanted Brittany, he wanted Anne, he didn't want the old ball-and-chain.
[Yes, I know the political arguments. If Brittany had become part of, say, the Holy Roman Empire, France would have been surrounded on all sides by anti-French forces. One of the duties of a ruler is to act in the best interests of his subjects, which includes protecting them by all possible means. By dumping his neglected and unwanted wife and marrying more land (in a young and attractive package), Louis was merely acting in the best interests of France. Blah, blah, blah. We can always find good reasons to do what we want and hide our sins under the veneer of piety.]
But how to do it? Too young to have consented to the marriage? No proof. Within forbidden degrees of consanguinity? No proof. Couldn't consummate the marriage? That might work, and if needs be, we'll tell everyone that it was either marriage or death - in other words, a marriage made under duress. That should clinch it.
So Louis published to the world the story that his wife was physically malformed - so much so, that he could not consummate the marriage [sounds so Henry VIII, doesn't it?] - and that she was incapable of having children. Joan fought the annulment and the stories as much as she could, and in a fair world, she would have won. Unfortunately, the Pope at the time was Alexander VI [you know, the Borgia guy that everyone points to whenever they want to denigrate the Papacy]; after careful examination of all the 'facts' (not least of which were some political considerations of his own) he ruled against her by accepting Louis' 'lack of free consent' plea. Louis received his annulment and three weeks later married Anne of Brittany; Joan unhappily accepted the verdict and retired to Bourges with the title of Duchess of Berry, supposedly saying, Job-like, "If so it is to be, praised be the Lord".
There she lived a life serviceable to God and to her people. In fulfillment of a heavenly promise that she heard at her prayers as a young girl, she founded an order of Franciscan contemplatives called the Soeurs de l'Annonciade (Sisters of the Annunciation), which was approved in 1502 [by that same Alexander VI who had dissolved her marriage]. Among other things, the sisters were required to pray for her errant husband, as well as for the souls of her father and brother.
Princess, Queen, and Duchess Joan died February 4, 1505.
As a child neglected by her parents, she turned for consolation to Our Lady, whom she considered as her own Mother, and to Our Lord, Who loved her and considered her beautiful. As a wife, she performed her duties, despite the alternating neglect and ridicule to which she was subjected by her husband and his cronies, going so far as to plead with her brother for his treasonable life. As queen, she fought against the lies that would put her husband in a state of mortal sin. As duchess, she was at the service of her people in both social and spiritual welfare.
She could easily be the patron of those who are scorned and abused for being ugly in the world's eyes; also, the patron of those wives who are shunted aside for younger models, especially under excuses that seem to the rest of the world not only good but necessary.
Louis survived her by 10 years all but one month. His queen, Anne of Brittany, having died in January 1514, leaving two daughters and no sons, Louis cast about immediately for a replacement. Devotees of Tudor history know that the old king married the 18-year-old Princess Mary Tudor, younger sister of Henry VIII, and died three months later in January 1515 - rumor has it from his frantic attempts to engender a son.
I wonder if Henry VIII thought that his unwanted wife (Katherine of Aragon) would also go off into retirement like Joan of Valois, or that the Pope would rule in his favor, so that he could marry his own young Anne and produce sons. After all, it worked for Louis.
Well, sort of. Louis had no surviving sons. I wonder if Henry remembered that as well.