History,  Renaissance

The real story of the Queen of the Bean and the French court

I have to confess, when I first encountered this idea in Reign I thought it was a salacious point and an excuse to cover up lazy writing. When I encountered the real version of the tradition in a monograph by Robert J. Knecht, I had a hard time believing it was real.

The court celebrated the feast of Epiphany, which is known as Twelfth Night in January, around the 8th of the month. One of the most riotous parts of Epiphany was the party electing the King or Queen of the Bean. Bakers concealed a bean within a cake, and the person who found it would “reign” over the festivities for up to twelve days that encompassed the celebration of Epiphany.

Like electing a Prom or Homecoming Queen in the US, few people cared who became the King of the Bean, but “electing” a queen consumed an inordinate amount of time. Francis I and Henry II spent time behind the scenes vetting a court lady who was sufficiently beautiful and graceful for their short reign.

A rigged election for a special lady of the court

In 1539, Francis ordered special dresses and hoods for the new “queen” and the eighteen ladies who would waiting on her. His son, Henry II, went into Catherine de Medici’s own chambers one January and drew a name out of carefully curated list before the actual selection in the cake.

During Francis I’s reign, after her “selection,” the Queen of the Bean” led a procession to dinner, accompanied by her “ladies” and a group of musicians. Dispensing with etiquette, she sat next to the king, displacing the actual queen, dauphine and the king’s own sister. During the meal, the “queen” was served with the same ceremony and deference due the actual queen of France. The real queen simply had to do with a loss of her station for a night while the King never bothered to relinquish his status for even a single night. Henry II stretched out the playacting a bit further, following the Queen of the Bean to Mass the day after the dinner, ignoring not only his wife but his mistress, Diane.