A pink ribbon for Anne of Austria

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A reminder to all of us that, when it comes to cancer, vigilance, early detection and aggressive treatment are key to survival.

Anne of Austria RubensThis brings us to Anne of Austria. Like two of her successors, Queens Marie-Thérèse (wife of Louis XIV) and Marie-Antoinette, she was a Hapsburg. Daughter of King Philip III of Spain, Ana Mauricia married King Louis XIII of France when they were both fourteen. It was by all accounts an unhappy union, marked by grave personal and political disagreements. Louis XIII disliked his wife and shunned her bed for months or years on end.

The royal couple would briefly reconcile on occasion, but all of Anne’s pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Her situation at Court became still more precarious when France and her native Spain found themselves at war. The Queen’s secret correspondence with her brother, now Philip IV of Spain, was discovered, and she was accused of conspiring with the enemy. This is the backdrop for The Three Musketeers: the defense of a beleaguered Queen against the wily and all powerful minister Cardinal de Richelieu.

Louis XIV and His Brother Duc dOrleansNow should I mention the part my region of Auvergne played in Anne’s destiny, and that of France? Anne had reached middle-age, and it was considered highly unlikely that she would ever bear a child. So she went to Auvergne, took the waters in Vic (the setting of the first part of my novel, Mistress of the Revolution) and like my heroine Gabrielle, and me, attended the pilgrimage of Notre-Dame de Consolation in the nearby town of Thiézac. If you happen to visit the beautiful Church of Thiézac, you can still admire a lace altar cover donated by Anne in gratitude.

For the miracle did happen: in 1638, at age 37 and after 23 years of a childless marriage, Anne gave birth to a healthy boy, named Louis-Dieudonné (“Godgiven.”) Another son, Philippe, ancestor of the Orléans branch of the royal family, was born two years later. Here are the two children, Philippe still in his baby’s robes.

Her relationship with her elder son was – and remained till her death – one of mutual adoration. I, for one, find the physical resemblance between mother and child striking. Louis-Dieudonné was only four when his father died and he became Louis XIV. Anne became Regent of France. Her late husband had tried to limit her role after his death (he apparently disliked and distrusted her till the very end) but she had the provisions of his will stricken by the Parliament – meaning Court of Appeals – of Paris.

Assisted by a new minister of her own choosing, Cardinal de Mazarin, she was an able ruler. Some French historians even speak of her “political genius.” What is sure is that she defeated the Fronde, a revolt of the nobility and the people of Paris against the Crown (a strange foreshadowing of the French Revolution.)

Then Louis XIV came of age, married Anne’s niece, assumed power, transformed the modest château of Versailles into the royal palace we know. Anne retired to the abbey of Val-de-Grâce in Paris, where she died in 1666, at the age of 64, from breast cancer. At the time the only thing her physicians could have done for her was to alleviate her pain, but they insisted that she undergo useless and barbaric treatments and surgeries.

Yet another reason to count modern medicine among our many blessings.

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