Joan of Valois: Princess, Queen, Duchess, and Saint

Joan of Valois, Duchess of Berry, formerly a princess and a queen of France and now a founding member of the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, passed away at the Annonciades of Bourges on 4 February 1505.


Although she died a nun, she had not been born to wear the veil. She came into the world on 23 April 1464 as the second surviving daughter of King Louis XI of France and Queen Charlotte of Savoy. Whereas her elder sister, Anne of France, had been born healthy, poor wee Joan was deformed in some way, and so sickly that it surprised everyone that she lived.

In the eventuality that the baby should unexpectedly thrive, the king contracted a marriage between the infant Joan and his 2 year old second cousin, Louis, Duke of Orléans. Considering the new royal daughter’s health problems, the duke’s mother was less than thrilled to be getting a royal princess. However, Louis was in line for the throne – he was the scion of the cadet branch of the House of Valois — and the king was determined to try to make sure at least one of his children would be crowned if no royal son was born.

Joan’s acting foster parents, Baron François de Linières and Anne de Culan, considered the small princess to be a bright source of joy in their lives, and they petted and feted Joan as much as any royal beauty would have been. They also discovered that although her body wasn’t sound, the little girl’s brain was sharp. The Baron and Baroness had her instructed in the normal skills of a well-born damsel, such as painting, embroidery, religious duties, and music, but they also educated her in the ‘masculine’ arts of literature, rhetoric, and mathematics.

Joan would eventually have a younger brother, the future King Charles VIII, to whom she and her sister Anne were particularly devoted. The arrival of a royal heir menat that Joan’s marriage to Louis of Orleans was now considered important because it was thought her supposed adult sterility (due to poor health) would prevent the Duke of Orleans from fathering any future rivals for the throne. Louis and his family were aware that Joan was considered barren by medical experts at the time, and were bitter about the enforced nuptials. Nonetheless, the king compelled the 14 year old Louis to wed the 12 year Joan on 8 September 1476.

Louis would always remain cold to his wife, even though the sweet-natured Joan seems to have done her best to love him. When Louis foolishly joined the the dukes of Brittany, Burgandy, and Berry in the League of the Public Weal against King Charles VIII and was captured in 1484, Joan pleaded with her brother to be good to her imprisoned husband. As a result of Joan’ unceasing efforts on his behalf, Louis was released 1491 and restored to favor at court.

Louis would repay his wife’s loyalty and care by divorcing her in “one of the seamiest lawsuits of the age.”

When Joan’s brother died in an accident without a male heir, Joan’s husband became King Louis XII. The new king wanted to wed Charles’s widowed queen, Anne of Brittany, in an effort to add the massive and rich Duchy of Brittany to the kingdom of France. To marry Anne, first Louis had to get rid of Joan. So he did what every royal of the time period did when they wanted to remarry – he petitioned the Vatican to annul the union.

However, Louis didn’t make the gentlemenly argument that the marriage should be annulled due to the consanguinity of the couple. Nor did Louis stick to the reasonable yet kind excuse that he was below the legal age of consent when they wed. Nope. Louis, being a real twatwaffle, claimed that the marriage to Joan “had never been consummated due to her physical deformity, and provided a rich variety of detail as to how she was malformed.”


Why he went out of his way to humiliate the woman who had been so good a wife is unknown. Was it leftover resentment toward her father and brother? Was it at the urging of his high-born and bitchy mother, who resented Joan’s status above her? Was the king just a coldhearted shithead?

Whatever the reason Louis asked for the annulment, Joan fought back. For one thing, she knew the marriage had indeed been consummated, and produced witnesses to Louis having bragged that he “mounted my wife three or four times during the night.” In response, Louis whinged that all the stuffing had been taken out of his codpiece by witchcraft, and implied that he was merely boasting to save face and shame the Devil. With what I can only assume to be a certain amount of snark, Joan asked how he could know it was witchcraft that had prevented him from doing the deed unless he had been lusty for her and yet still unable to get his soldier to salute.

In short, Joan wanted to know if she was so ugly, why was he trying to bed her? And if he was wanted to bed her, but the marriage was unconsummated via witchcraft, wouldn’t it be better to eradicate the curse and get it on? Or did his ship just not sail? 

Meanwhile, poor Anne of Brittany was waiting in her duchy with baited breath to see if Louis would get free in time to force her to yet again marry the French crown. Her only hope of escaping this dread fate was if the Holy See remained resolute in the face of Louis’s outlandish arguments.

In a just world, Joan would have won her case because King Louis had a very weak argument for the annulment. However, the king had a very strong political reason for his marriage to be voided, and Pope Alexander VI didn’t want to vex the crown of France when the papacy was having such troubles with the God-forsaken Reformation breaking out all of Europe. King Louis further sweetened the pot and gave a large “gift” to the Vatican, after which the pope ruled against Joan of Valois.

On 15 December 1498 the royal annulment was granted by reason of nonconsummation and the youth of the married couple at the time of the wedding. Although she was extremely hurt and surely felt betrayed by both the Church and her husband, Joan took the news with dignity and even said she would continue to pray for the king as a sign of her love for her religion and her country.  She was created the Duchess of Berry by the king, and she went to reside in the duchy’s capital city of Bourges.

In Bourges, the former queen pondered what to do with her life. She had always been exceptionally devout, and she discussed her thoughts on founding a monastic branch of the Poor Clares with her Franciscan spiritual councilor, Friar Gabriel Maria.  With his support and encouragement, she began to lay the groundwork for the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Annonciades.

On 12 February 1502 Pope Alexander VI officially approved of the Rule of Life she had written for the new Order, entitled The Ten Virtues of the Blessed Virgin, and work on the monetary began. Joan and Friar Gabriel Mary made vows to adhere to the Rule of Life of the new order on Pentecost Sunday 1503, and Joan took the veil on 4 June of that year. By the feast of the Presentation of Mary, 11 more postulants had committed themselves publicly and legally to the Annonciades.

After Joan’s death, her childhood friend, the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, became patroness of the order in Joan’s memory. With the lavish support of Margaret and the hard work of Friar Gabriel Maria, “new monasteries of the Order were founded in Albi (1507), Béthune (1516), Bruges (1517), Rodez (1519), Bordeaux (1520), Chanteloup (1529), and Louvain (1530).”

Sadly, Joan’s tomb and the monastery she had built  was destroyed by the Huguenots  when they overthrew the Catholic armies at Bourges on 27 May 1562. Joan’s body was dug up and burned by the Protestant forces, but rumor spread that it had been found incorrupt in the grave. Soon after, miracles were attributed to her intercession.  She was  beatified by Pope Benedict XIV on 21 April 1742 and finally canonized as Saint Joan of Valois on 28 May 1950 by Pope Pius XII.

3 thoughts on “Joan of Valois: Princess, Queen, Duchess, and Saint

  1. By proving the existence of these heroines throughout history, modernity is confronted with our flaws and inspired to correct them. Thanks for your writing; please, never stop!

  2. I love the snarky commentary. Sometimes you’ve just got to tell it like it is: some men were indeed shitheads and twatwaffles and life sucked to be female, unless you were a bitch like her mother-in-law!

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