Today we’re speaking with the matriarch of the Guise clan and a woman with an illustrious genealogy, Anna d’ Este.
Q: You’ve been in France through momentous change, since 1548. Few people saw so many changes to the country firsthand as you did.
Guise: Sometimes it feels as if I can’t believe how long I’ve lived or what I’ve seen. When I was a girl, my mother would talk about France, and I think she always wanted me to find a marriage in her home country. I know that those of us to whom God has given much are expected to endure much, but in my case, I think I’ve seen more than most.
Q: As an Italian, have you felt discriminated against while at court?
Guise: Personally, no. I think most people are afraid of offending a princess of my stature. Then there’s the fact that I’m a woman. I’ve overheard enough insults against other people that sometimes I feared for my fellow Italians. The amount of childish resentment at court is sometimes just too much to witness.
Q: What did your mother Duchess Renee tell you about life at French court?
Guise: She told me that France very much admired the Italians, and wanted to emulate them as much as possible. Of course, in Italy our domains are usually just one city and it’s surrounding lands, but France is a nation that is constantly adding to itself. That gave her a world view that made it easier to marry into a foreign court.
Guise: The truth is that for many long stretches, I and my siblings were kept away from my mother. My father was determined to do whatever he could to keep her from adopting the Reformed faith. The few times I got to spend with her growing up I treasure. Once I married and my mother eventually returned to France, we were able to reconnect, but by then I had my own children to raise.
Q: You negotiated the temporary truce between your eldest son and Henri III.
Guise: This is an example of how difficult motherhood can be. The king trusts my judgement, and knows that the Queen Mother and I are close. So he trusts me to speak with my son when there is a conflict between the two. As a Catholic, I hate seeing the members of our faith fighting one another. We’ve had another conflict with the Protestants, which has torn our kingdom apart. I want to do whatever I can do to steer my son into making a smart decision, and I want to assure the king that our family has no intention of becoming traitors to the crown.
Q: How would you characterize your relationship with Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici?
Guise: It was wonderful as a young bride to find another Italian bride. Those first few years were horrible for her. She thought that my uncle Francis would annul her marriage and send her back to Italy. I felt such compassion for her, which made us become fast friends. Over the decades, we’ve both done whatever we could to support one another. She’s been in an impossible position as Queen Mother, and I want to offer her my friendship.
Q: Your daughter, Catherine, has long been a controversial figure in France. Some say that if not for her gender, she would be languishing in the Bastille. How do you feel about her actions?
Guise: Again, this is the frustration that comes with being a mother. As my only surviving daughter, Catherine is precious to me. She’s unfortunately inherited the deformity that my grandmother, Queen Anne and my aunt, Queen Claude suffered from. In Catherine’s case, it made her barren. She’s overcome her heartbreak to throw herself into study. I’m afraid that also turned her into a radical, and I fear that one day she may end up in more trouble than even I can save her from.
Q: What is your relationship today with the family of your second husband’s former fiancee?
Guise: I see them often at court. It’s regrettable that she felt that there was a binding contract between the two before we agreed to marry. France has always supported written promises over spoken ones, particularly one supposedly made in the bedroom of a chateau with no other witnesses. I know she was heartbroken at the time, but the Duc de Nemours and I have built a happy life for ourselves since then. I wish them well, and I hope they do the same for us.
Q: You’ve never shied away from legal proceedings at court, whether it’s the murder of your first husband, or the controversy over your second marriage.
Guise: I have great faith in our legal system. Our marriage contract held up against any challenges, as per French law. I certainly wanted to fight for my second marriage, and I’m happy the court agreed with me. Sometimes I regret agreeing to drop my case against the men who killed my husband, but in many ways, it was better for the kingdom for us all the move forward. A monetary award could never bring back my husband’s life.
Q: As the daughter of a devoted Protestant and the wife of the most fervently Catholic family in France, o you feel a special relationship with either profession of faith? What is your own personal faith like?
Guise: This has been one of the most difficult struggles of my life. As a girl, my mother’s friends introduced me to Protestantism, and I agree with many of their arguments. For a while, even Catherine de Medici flirted with converting to Protestantism. Those days when we were younger, it seemed possible. But my husband’s family is dedicated to the Catholic church, and as his wife, I have chosen to follow his faith. My eldest son has the same fervent dedication to the church, and I did as much as I could to ensure that our children followed the family and their father’s faith.
Q: Do you regret agreeing to present Catherine de Entranges to Queen Marie?
Guise: Oh, that day was utterly humiliating! I felt as if I owed King Henry for pardoning my grandson, and in gratitude I agreed to help what I thought was a repentant and changed woman. I had no idea that the king himself would make their first meeting so awkward, and so public. Poor Queen Marie-I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me for being involved in such a humiliation.