1500s,  France,  Mistress,  Renaissance

Isabelle de Limeuil, a cautionary tale for a royal mistress

Any time a royal asks a favor there is a danger of disaster, whether the person being asked agrees or refuses the request. In the case of female courtiers, the question of whether to work as part of Catherine de Medici’s female spy network, L’escadron volant or the “Flying Squadron,” carried the most risk. Dig up enough good dirt on the man you spied on and the Queen Mother might reward you and your family. Displease her and you might end up like Isabell Limeuil.

Louis Bourbon, Prince de Conde

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Louis Bourbon, Prince de Conde

Catherine assigned Isabell to seduce Louis, who was the current Prince de Conde, a political adversary, rival for military appointments against Catherine’s favorite son, Henri III, and a dedicated Huguenot. The politically astute Catherine knew that getting inside information on Conde would be invaluable, so she sent Isabelle to seduce Conde and become his mistress. Jean Plaidy fictionalized Isabelle’s story in her Catherine de Medici trilogy. In The Valois Mistress, I used the hapless Isabelle as a cautionary story for Charlotte de Sauve of what could go very, very wrong for her if she failed in seducing Henry of Navarre. Catherine kept tabs on as many Huguenots and rivals as possible, sending Louise de La Béraudière de l’Isle Rouhet to become the mistress of Antoine de Bourbon, Conde’s brother and the father of Henry IV of France.

Jeanne of Navarre used the Flying Squadron as political ammunition to denounce Catherine. She wrote to her son, Henry IV of France, to avoid Catherine and her spies at all cost or he would suffer the same fate as his uncle, Conde. Spoiler alert: Henry completely ignored his mother’s advice like any other good son. Isabelle was allowed to escape the convent in 1567, at the age of thirty two. Her son died months after her birth, and had he lived she might have been forced to remain in the convent for much longer. Conde’s son, Henry, married Marie of Cleves, his Bourbon first cousin. When the newlyweds came to court, Marie caught the eye of Henri III. Conde was convinced his seduction was a new plot from Catherine, and given the story of Isabelle and his father, it’s understandable why he assumed the seduction of Marie was another Flying Squadron plot.