Saints for our times: French saint endured much torment from her family
By Mary Lou Gibson
She was the daughter of a king and the wife of another, but her noble birth did not bring her love and happiness. For most of her life, St. Jeanne de Valois (Joan of France) was ignored, humiliated and rejected by her family and later, her husband. She was born in 1464, the fourth child of Louis XI and his second wife, Queen Charlotte of Savoy. King Louis was desperate for a male heir. Two sons had died in infancy. Instead, he got Jeanne who was born sickly and deformed.
Biographers write that the king hated Jeanne from her birth because of her sex and her physical handicap. Kathleen Jones writes in "Women Saints – Lives of Faith and Courage" that Jeanne had a hump on her back and walked with a limp suggesting that she had curvature of the spine.
When she was only 26 days old, the king betrothed her to Louis, son of the duke of Orléans, who was next in line to the throne. Jeanne was sent away from her family and from the court when she was 5 and was brought up by an elderly couple in a lonely country chateau. She had a bleak childhood, mostly forgotten and ignored by her family and the French people. Jones writes that it was a time when people had no pity for such conditions.
She turned to God for consolation and developed very early a tender and practical devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This contemplation and prayer life sustained her through years of emotional turmoil and public humiliation. Her father brought Jeanne back to court for political purposes when she was 12 and compelled her to marry the 13-year old duke. The marriage required a double dispensation because the king and the duke were second cousins and the king was his godfather. Later, these impediments were used by the duke when he petitioned Rome for an annulment.
Life did not get better for Jeanne after the marriage. An account in the Catholic Encyclopedia reports that the duke hated the wife he was forced to wed and publicly insulted her in every possible way. The young couple never lived together. Jeanne was sent back to Linières for the next seven years. Sarah Gallick writes in "The Big Book of Women Saints" that the king insisted that Louis validate the marriage contract and visit Jeanne four times a year. During these visits the Duke dined and feasted with friends and ignored his wife. Biographers write that for many years, Jeanne continued to believe in the sanctity of her marriage and tried to reach out to her husband, but she was always rebuffed.
In 1483, King Louis XI died and Jeanne’s young brother became King Charles VIII. Her elder sister, Anne, acted as regent. This change made Jeanne’s husband, Louis of Orléans, heir to the throne. Years later, in 1495, Charles VIII died and Louis of Orléans became King Louis XII, but Jeanne did not become queen. Jones reports that she was not even invited to his coronation at Reims. Even though Jeanne still believed in the validity of her marriage, the king was moving ahead with his plans to terminate the marriage. The reigning pope, Alexander Borgia, granted his request and issued the edit of nullity citing that the marriage was invalid, from lack of consent and that it had never been consummated. Jeanne had to appear before the court in person and hear the charges against the marriage that Louis brought. At one point, Jones writes, the king’s counsel demanded that she undergo a physical examination to determine whether she was still a virgin. She refused and at this point, her case was lost. Jeanne’s humiliations were now complete.
When the king had his freedom, he decided to be generous to Jeanne. He created her Duchess of Berry and gave her that province to govern. She retired to the duchy of Berry where she lived in the capital of Bourges. Jones writes that Jeanne chose wise ministers and advisers that helped her care for her people. She visited the sick, cared for prostitutes and opened a school for poor boys.
She began to make plans for a contemplative order of nuns honoring the Virgin Mary. The community was to be a religious congregation of Franciscan contemplatives called the Order of the Annonciades in commemoration of the Annunciation. Together with her confessor, Father Gilbert Nicholas, she devised the daily routine and the rule, which was to imitate the virtues of Mary. The rule was based on the 10 perfections of Mary: prudence, purity, humility, faith, prayerfulness, obedience, poverty, patience, charity and compassion. The rule was formally approved by the Holy See in 1502 and Jeanne became the first professed nun. She gave up her wedding ring and wore the habit under her clothes. Her elaborate court dresses were made into vestments for the clergy.
Only two months after the order was enclosed, Jeanne became ill and died on Feb. 4, 1505. Up until her death, biographers write that she prayed incessantly for her husband, and left as a legacy to her order the duty of constant payer for his soul as well as her father’s and brother’s.
Gallick writes that Louis insisted on giving her a royal funeral. It is said that he knelt before her coffin, and begged her pardon for the wrongs he had done her.
Her order has houses in Albi, Bruges and Rodez. Jeanne was beatified in 1742. Her canonization process was stopped during the French Revolution when all the documents were destroyed. She was formally canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1950 and is popularly regarded as a saint in France.
Mary Lou Gibson is a member of St. Austin Parish in Austin. She is a retired state employee.