Devastatingly beautiful and incredibly cunning, Diane de Poitiers was the most infamous woman in 16th-century France—and for good reason. King Henry II was completely in love with her, Queen Catherine de Medici despised her, and Diane herself courted scandal like she courted men. But between the sheets of all this controversy, there were deep, dark secrets, too.
Born into a very aristocratic family in January of 1500, Diane grew up wanting absolutely nothing and with close ties to the French throne. But she also grew up with a deadly knowledge. Her father Jean de Poitiers was one of the most cunning nobles of his day, and Diane had inherited his intelligence and his ambition—two very dangerous things for a woman of the time. And before Diane could figure out how to use these skills, her family pushed her into a horrific ordeal.
When Diane was only 15 years old, her well-to-do family put her on the marriage market, hoping to cart their girl off into an advantageous match. Their plan worked too well, and Diane caught the eye of Louis de Breze, a grandson of the old King Charles VII. The couple married in 1515, with the de Poitiers rejoicing in the huge fish they had snagged for their daughter. Yet this all came at a heartbreakingly high cost.
While the barely teenaged Diane was naïve and obedient to her parents’ wishes, her wedding was a horror story. After all, her new husband was almost 40 YEARS older than her and, for the life expectancy of the day, practically ready to croak. For a beautiful, spritely girl like Diane, it must have been like a prison sentence. So maybe that's why she began to act out in a big way.
By this point, Diane was famous around town for her boundless energy, and her marriage to Louis increased that nervous activity tenfold. Even after doing her duty and having two children with her husband, she was intent on keeping a trim, fit figure. She went riding and swimming regularly, making her body toned and athletic in a time where people expected women to just sit still and look pretty.
Still, coping mechanisms can only go so far—especially after her husband dealt her an incredibly idiotic betrayal.
In 1523, just as Diane might have been about to settle down as a boring married woman, her life got ripped apart from the inside. Her husband Louis, ever the obedient royalist, uncovered a plot against the current king, Francis I, and tattled on the men involved. Only, he wasn’t aware of one very crucial detail: Diane’s father Jean was right in the middle of the plot.
Yep, Diane’s dumb-dumb husband just sold out her family by accident. The fallout was nightmarish.
The king almost immediately sentenced Diane’s father to execution for his role in the conspiracy, and the whole de Poitiers family had to work overtime to save their patriarch. Always persuasive, Diane and her relatives did eventually convince King Francis to stay the execution. Even so, the damage was done: Jean went to prison for years afterward, and his health was never the same again.
Diane must have been none too happy with her knuckle-headed husband, but don’t worry—she got very even.
Around this time, Diane met her scandalous destiny. Although King Francis’s son Henry was only seven years old when Diane was a blossoming woman in her 20s, she apparently made quite the impression on the boy. When the prince went to Spain in 1526 as a diplomatic hostage, it was Diane—serving as a lady-in-waiting to his grandmother—who gave the boy a ceremonial goodbye kiss. It was a small gesture, and it had enormous effects.
Historians now believe that following this moment, pipsqueak Henry began to develop a massive crush on Diane de Poitiers. As it happened, Henry spent four long years in Spain as a hostage, but he also spent every one of those years yearning for Diane, idealizing her in his mind as the perfect gentlewoman. When he finally did return to France, he showed it to her with one scandalous sign.
In 1531, Prince Henry had his long-awaited homecoming, and he and Diane immediately set tongues wagging. At the coronation of his new stepmother, Queen Eleanor of Austria, all of Henry’s family wore the new queen’s colors as a gesture of respect. Well, everyone except Henry, that is. Instead, the 12-year-old wore Diane’s colors in a public declaration of his weird obsession. And then the plot thickened.
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Just months after the pre-pubescent Prince Henry came back to France and started trying to seduce the grown-as-heck Diane, de Poitiers' elderly husband finally kicked the bucket. At long last, Diane broke free from her patriarchal shackles. But that wasn't all: As a widow, she had a whole lot more room to move in court, and she soon made an iconic decision.
Diane de Poitiers wasted no time reinventing herself as a single woman. In fact, right after her husband died, she turned herself into a goddess. I mean that literally. Modeling herself after Diana, the (ironically) virginal Roman Goddess of the hunt and the moon, de Poitiers made a logo for herself of three intersecting crescents. No, Diane was not subtle, but she was also just getting started.
In an incredibly cunning move, Diane also began exclusively wearing black and white. Why was that so cunning? Well, black and white represented the dark and light side of the moon (see what she did there?). This wasn't just for looks, though: Since they were also the colors of mourning, Diane could present herself as a devoted widow and the perfect lady. The truth, however, couldn't have been more different.
While Diane was building a brand for herself, she was also concocting a devious plot. Even a fool could see how in love Prince Henry still was with her...and, um, Diane was no fool. She craftily used his no-so-little crush for her own benefit, keeping herself at arm’s length from his crib—uh, I mean bed—but nonetheless getting closer and closer and consolidating her power over him. Until there was a big bump in her plan.
Every prince needs a wife, and in 1533, Henry's family married the 14-year old off to Catherine de Medici, an Italian noblewoman from the notorious and notoriously fat-pursed de Medici clan. At first, Diane might have thought she was in big trouble, what with Catherine actually being Henry’s own age and fully endorsed by his royal parents. Only, that’s when Diane really put her plot into action.
In many ways, Catherine de Medici played right into Diane de Poitiers' hand. For one, Catherine wasn’t particularly good-looking, while Diane was a noted babe about town. For another, while Diane came from aristocratic stock, people sniffed at the new bride’s “common” merchant origins. In short, Diane understood that Catherine was an asset she could control—and she sealed the deal in an utterly scandalous way.
Just months after Henry’s marriage to Catherine de Medici, Diane committed an act that has gone down in infamy. At 35 years old, many historians believe Diane bedded the now 15-year-old Henry herself, finally giving the princeling what he had wanted for so long. After years of machinations and playing the long game, Diane de Poitiers was officially a royal mistress. Her reign did not start smoothly.
Poor Catherine de Medici was wild with jealousy when she heard that her husband was sleeping with his much older crush, causing a lot of drama for Diane. Still, she knew exactly what to do. She positioned herself as, if not Catherine’s friend, then at least an experienced advisor to help her learn the ropes of the new court. And Diane’s biggest piece of advice was…quite the doozy.
See, Catherine’s duty as Henry’s wife was to give him an heir—but there was one huge problem. As the months rolled into years, then rolled into a decade, Catherine and Henry were still childless. This was actually very bad news for Diane, too, who feared having to ingratiate herself with a whole new queen if there was a royal divorce. So she took a different tack entirely.
The unlikely gal pal started recommending all sorts of fertility treatments for the increasingly despondent Catherine, including drinking (ugh) mule urine. Soon enough, desperate times called for desperate measures.
Throughout these years, Diane and Henry were still at it like rabbits together, age gap be darned. In fact, Henry was so glued to her side, Diane had to start insisting that he go to Catherine and his marriage bed more frequently in the hopes that he could finally get a legitimate heir. Um, embarrassing. But when even that wasn’t working, Diane went all out.
If there was one thing Diane knew how to do well, it was baby-making. This led to an incredibly infamous moment. According to one story, Catherine de Medici was so desperate to get with child, she drilled holes in the floorboard above Diane’s bed chambers, all so she could spy on how her husband and his mistress got it on and make certain that she was doing everything, uh, properly. Bizarrely enough—it worked.
In 1543, it became clear that Catherine was pregnant at long last, and in January 1544, she gave birth to a coveted boy, Francis. It seems like Diane had done her job a little too well, because incredibly, nine other children followed in short succession, with Catherine pretty much constantly pregnant for over a decade afterward. But if Catherine thought this meant she’d gotten rid of Diane de Poitiers, she was dead wrong.
With Catherine’s fertility issues resolved, Henry proved his love to Diane with a grand gesture. In 1544, the same year Henry’s legitimate son was born, an enemy of Diane’s at court accused her of being involved in a plot against the current King Francis I. Annoyed at the upstart de Poitiers once more, Francis banished Diane from Paris…and Henry’s response was nothing short of deranged.
Henry was absolutely furious at his father for taking away his beloved, and he threw an all-out fit about it. He and his followers took their toys and stomped away from court right into Diane’s new housing, with Henry refusing to even speak to his dear old dad for another year after that. Again, let me remind you that Henry had a months-old newborn back at home. And still, that wasn’t enough for Diane.
In 1547, Diane got what she always wanted. That year, Henry’s father passed, making her boy toy the King of France. The minute he took the reins, Henry swooped Diane back up into the court’s inner circle and banished many of the enemies who had exiled her before. Diane de Poitiers was on top of the world…which meant there was nowhere to go but down.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Diane’s reign as the shadow queen of France started out gloriously. In fact, she even got a legendary dig at the newly minted Queen Catherine de Medici. That’s because when the Pope sent Catherine the customary “Golden Rose” bouquet, a ceremonial floral sculpture, the Head of Church also made sure to include a pearl necklace just for Diane. That one had to hurt, but worse was coming for Catherine.
One of Diane’s most brutal moves wasn’t cruel, petty, or conniving. It was a simple act of kindness. One day, when Catherine de Medici fell ill, Diane quickly martyred herself and took up as the queen’s caretaker, nursing her back to health. If that seems sweet, well, it wasn’t. Diane’s eyes were always on the prize, and she was only affirming her position while Catherine wasn’t well enough to say no.
As Diane settled in as chief mistress to the King of France, she took to the role like a duck to water. After all, she’d always been whip-smart, and had proven it by amassing a tidy fortune over the years. It was only natural, then, that Henry relied on Diane for statecraft advice, even getting her to write letters for him and signing them under the joint name of “HenriDiane.” And there's a kicker.
While Henry was giving Diane political power hand over fist, he staunchly kept Catherine de Medici away from any and all of his affairs. Then the naughty royal couple really twisted the knife in.
Although Diane had managed to stay just on the edge of Catherine de Medici’s good side throughout these years, Catherine was never fully accepting of Diane. Then one act ruined everything in an instant. Mad with lust and love, Henry gave his mistress—not his wife—the literal Crown Jewels of France, infuriating Catherine. Oh, and his bonus “gift” was even more insulting.
Catherine de Medici might have been able to swallow not having the Crown Jewels, but then Henry went and gifted his favorite girl with the gorgeous Chateau de Chenonceau, a palace both Diane and Catherine had their eyes on. Never one for modesty, Diane immediately moved in and started throwing lavish parties, rubbing it in Catherine’s face.
To Catherine, this was the final straw. The gloves were now off—and it would be Diane’s doom.
In public, Catherine de Medici restrained herself, but her private life reveals a dark truth. The Queen of France was spitting with bitterness at Diane, once writing that even when she obeyed Henry’s will to play nice with his mistress, “I always let him know that I was acting sorely against the grain; for never did a woman who loved her husband succeed in loving his whore. For one cannot call her otherwise.” Me-ow.
Then again, Catherine still had youth on her side, while Diane was now approaching her 60s at a rapid pace. So how did she still maintain her hold over Henry? The answer to that is terrifying.
People always considered Diane a beauty, but as she grew older she somehow still kept the glow of youth. Obviously, Diane had good genes to spare—but that didn’t mean she wasn’t getting a little external help on the side. Indeed, rumor has it that Diane would drink liquid gold in the hopes that it would provide her with eternal beauty. Except then, just as Diane was about to turn 60, her whole world changed.
In 1559, Diane was still living her best life as a royal mistress and was attending a jousting tournament to watch her lover King Henry try and best all the men of his court. Naturally, the king was insultingly wearing Diane’s signature black and white colors as he jousted rather than Catherine de Medici’s house hues, but what else is new? Except for that day of all days, karma was finally coming to get them.
As Diane looked on at her knight in shining armor, she was met with the shock of her life. When the king faced the rookie Count of Montgomery, the upstart almost hit the monarch right out of his saddle. Annoyed, the king demanded they ride again so he could prove his dominance. He should have just walked away. The next run, Montgomery’s lance splintered right into the king’s face…and when the dust settled, horror reigned.
In the next moments, Diane watched has Henry’s face gushed with blood, and lance splinters “of a good bigness” embedded themselves right into his eye. The sight was so gruesome, the hardened Diane as well as Catherine de Medici and her son Prince Francis all fainted the minute they realized what they were seeing. Unfortunately, Diane’s nightmare was just beginning.
Attendants immediately rushed to the fallen king and brought him in for a doctor to look at him. The news was brutal. Five splinters of the lance had buried themselves in his head, and one in particular had pierced through his eye and into his brain. The next few days were agony for everyone involved, but Diane’s reaction to the events was utterly tragic.
As King Henry’s life hung in the balance, Diane de Poitiers was nowhere to be found. There was a heartbreaking reason for this. Catherine de Medici had taken full control of the situation by then, and Diane kept away from Henry’s sickbed “for fear” that if she tried to step foot in there, Catherine would just embarrassingly oust her anyway. As we’ll see, Diane was eerily right about that.
Despite not being able to see her lover, Diane likely held out hope that since Henry survived the initial blow of the lance, he would pull through. And for a while, it looked like the king would indeed make a miraculous recovery. Some days he could talk, he often listened to music, and he even dictated letters from his bed. Diane’s prayers were coming true—until it took a cruel twist.
In July, months after the jousting incident, Henry’s health and mental state went into a decline, and he gradually lost everything: His sight, his sanity, and then his life on July 10th. Diane’s constant companion had passed at the age of 40, and her rival Catherine de Medici was now the powerful Queen Mother to Henry’s young, legitimate son Prince Francis. It couldn’t have gone worse for Diane.
Diane’s influence at court depended completely on Henry’s devotion to her, and after his passing, she experienced a very rude awakening. Queen Catherine de Medici was in full-on vengeance mode, and she set her sights squarely on Diane. She not only forced the former mistress to give back those coveted Crown Jewels, but she also yanked back Diane’s beautiful Chateau de Chenonceau. Then Catherine amped it right up.
After watching Diane's good branding moves, Catherine had learned a thing or two about image management herself. In what was almost certainly a dig at Diane (as well as plain good propaganda), Catherine immediately took up an image of a broken lance as her emblem after her husband’s death—yep, the lance that Henry had decorated with Diane’s colors at the time of the accident.
Oof. Catherine got a point in there. But if that all sounds harsh, I haven’t even gotten to Catherine’s real betrayal.
The end of Diane de Poitiers’ life was somehow more tragic than her fall from grace. After losing favor in court, the cunning woman knew it was game over, and she retreated into the background to a chateau in Anet, watching from afar as Catherine de Medici meddled in France's affairs. It’s possible the great mistress could have made a comeback…only she didn’t live long enough to stage one.
Soon after King Henry II’s untimely demise, Diane suffered a horrific fate that mirrored her lost lover. Ever the athlete, she stubbornly refused to stop riding horses with all the vim and vigor of a woman 40 years younger than herself. In this, she was the same as Henry, who didn’t know when to stop a jousting match. And just like Henry, this stubborn arrogance cost Diane the ultimate price.
In 1565, when she was 64 years old, Diane was out riding when she fell off her mount, incurring enormous injuries. She never quite recovered. The infamous mistress tried her best to keep going but passed a year later, all while Queen Catherine de Medici was at the height of her powers in France. Sadly, however, this wasn’t Diane's last indignity. Far from it.
Diane de Poitiers was an unforgettable historical figure, but this didn’t end up serving her well. Hundreds of years after she died, her enemies got one final blow in. During the French Revolution, the citizens opened up Diane’s tomb, desecrated her remains, and then threw them in a mass grave along with other aristocrats of France’s bygone age. Still, this move also opened up a stunning discovery.
With Diane free from her stately tomb beginning in the late 18th-century, modern historians were able to take full advantage of their more liberal access to her remains—and in 2009, their findings shocked the world. French experts reviewed her body and discovered an intense amount of gold traces in her hair. While this may seem simply odd, it was actually extremely alarming.
This discovery of gold was no fusty academic endeavor; it fundamentally alters Diane’s story. Although previously, historians believed her riding injuries led to her demise, the gold suggests something else. Not only are the stories of Diane drinking gold likely true, but this dangerous beauty regime also may have led to her sharp decline and swift end.
Diane de Poitiers was certainly worthy of the obsession that Henry heaped on her…and she DEFINITELY knew it. Of all the royal mistresses in history, Diane may have been the vainest. Seriously, this woman could make anything about her. Following her “Moon Goddess Diana” branding, she even made her likeness into a sculpture of the Roman goddess...and then put the statue in the middle of one of her castles. Um, it gets more “revealing” than that, too.
Another of Diane’s favorite pastimes was posing in the buff for portraits. No, seriously. One of the more famous possible depictions of her is Francois Clouet's A Lady in Her Bath by Francois Clouet. Although experts aren't sure whether the woman is Diane or Mary, Queen of Scots, many historians put their bets on Diane. Why? Partly because nude portraiture was just her M.O. Heck yeah, Diane.
Queen Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers had one of the most bitter rivalries in royal history, but it was Catherine who struck the most hateful blow. We now know that the entire time King Henry II of France knew he was dying, he called out for Diane (as always, not Catherine) to comfort him on his deathbed. Catherine’s response was the epitome of devious.
The house always wins, and the House of Medici certainly always wins. Cold-hearted and bitter, Catherine staunchly refused to let her heart-sick husband even see Diane in his final moments, and the lovers never got to say goodbye. Even more cruelly, Catherine also barred Diane from Henry’s funeral, leaving his most devoted friend bereft at his passing. Cold, Catherine, ice cold.
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