This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

December 2000

The Duchess in the Wooden Shoes

6 December 1491:  Duchess Anne of Brittany marries Charles VIII of France to secure Breton independence.

When the Breton religious reformer Brother Pierre Morin of Guignen prophesied in the late 1480s that “the King of France and the Duke of Brittany would sit in the same saddle and ride the same horse,” the image no doubt provoked sniggers from some of his listeners, but few realized just how soon this prophesy would come literally true.

For much of the 1400s Brittany was hard put to maintain its independence, squeezed as it was between the warring states of England and France. But by the 1480s it was becoming clear that England had lost the Hundred Years War, and Brittany, racked by international war and internal conflict, found itself facing the territorial ambitions of a resurgent French state.

In 1487, French pressure resumed in earnest when French troops invaded Brittany and besieged the city of Nantes. On 28 July 1488 Breton forces met with disaster at the battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier, and a harsh truce was arranged in which Duke Fransez II was forced to cede chunks of Breton territory to France. In September Fransez died without leaving a male heir, and the weight of Brittany’s precarious independence now rested on the frail shoulders of his eleven year daughter Anne.

With the Breton government in the hands of a regent whose loyalty and reliability were doubtful at best, Anne’s best hope for preserving Brittany’s independence lay in an appeal to European balance-of-power politics. A number of European leaders, notably the German Emperor Maximilian of the Holy Roman Empire, feared that a takeover of Brittany would make France too powerful, especially once she got hold of Brittany’s excellent Atlantic seaports.

With both the French King Charles VIII and various Breton dukes advancing their claims to the throne of Brittany, Maximilian decided on an unusual maneuver to keep French hands off Brittany. Thinking that France would not want to risk a war with the Holy Roman Empire for the sake of grabbing Brittany, Maximilian arranged to marry Anne, with the tacit agreement of the new King of England, the Welshman Henry Tudor. But for the plan to work it was essential that Anne remain in Brittany and head the government with the help of her patriotic Chancellor Philippe de Montauban. Likewise it was most inconvenient for Maximilian to go to Brittany, what with a hostile France lying in the way.

The solution was for Maximilian to marry Anne by proxy. On 19 December 1490, Maximilian’s representative symbolically consumated the marriage by thrusting his bare leg into the Duchess’ bed. Legally and theologically this was a very dubious business, even by the standards of the Middle Ages, and Charles VIII simply refused to recognize the marriage, and continued to assert his own claim to the Breton throne as if nothing had happened.

Maximilian’s bluff was called, for the proxy marriage would only secure Brittany’s independence to the extent that Anne’s new allies could put enough force into Brittany to defend it. As French soldiers entered Brittany in the spring of 1491 it soon became clear that neither Maximilian nor Henry were going to put any troops in their way, and by autumn Breton resistance was overcome. Charles was willing to allow Anne to go to Germany and join her erstwhile husband, but Anne sought for another way to preserve at least a shadow of Brittany’s independence.

The course decided upon was for Anne herself to marry the still-single French King, ostensibly as an equal partner, and through the pre-nuptual agreement insist on some rights and privileges that would maintain Brittany’s distinct existence as a duchy. To carry out this plan Anne would have to cut through a marital tangle worthy of a daytime television show today. Not only was Anne married by proxy to Maximilian, but Charles was engaged to Maximilian’s daughter Marguerite of Flanders.

In the end power politics found a way: Charles jilted Marguerite and the bizarre proxy marriage of Anne and Maximilian was set aside. Unable or unwilling to pose a credible military threat to France, Maximilian was forced to go along and give up Brittany as a lost cause. On 6 December 1491 Anne crossed the border into France and married Charles at Langlais in Maine. Brittany was still a duchy, though now it was by marriage the property of the French king. A formal Act of Union between France and Brittany would be proclaimed in 1532, but the rights and privileges secured in the process of Anne’s marriage to Charles secured a small degree of Breton home rule under an assembly known as the Breton Etats until it was unilaterally swept aside in the French Revolution. Bretons still recall the efforts of the teenaged Anne to preserve their country’s independence, and to this day she is fondly remembered as “the Duchess in the Wooden Shoes.”

The events and people of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann covered in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the Celtic League American Branch’s annual Celtic Calendar, now available.

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