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On the 504 anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany I would like to begin this short series on her life and the marriages that shaped her destiny.

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First some historical background of the Duchy of Brittany itself. The Duchy of Brittany was a independent medieval feudal state that existed between approximately 939 and 1547. Its territory covered the northwestern peninsula of Europe in what is now modern day France, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the English Channel to the north, and less definitively by the Loire River to the south, and Normandy and other French provinces to the east. The Duchy was established after the expulsion of raiding Viking armies from the region around 939. The Duchy had a rich history and because of its strategic location was a sought after jewel for the crowns of the Kingdoms of France and England and the Duchy of Normandy. This would lead to great conflicts as Brittany struggled to maintain its independence.

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Anne of Brittany (January 25/26 1477 – January 9 1514) was Duchess of Brittany in her own right from 1488 until her death, and twice queen consort of France from 1491 to 1498 and from 1499 to her death in 1514. From 1501-1504 Anne was also queen consort of Naples when her husband Charles VIII of France became King of Naples. Anne was also duchess consort of Milan, in 1499–1500 and from 1500 to 1512 as the spouse of Charles VIII of France.

Anne was born on 25 or 26 January 1477 in the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany in the city of Nantes in what is now the Loire-Atlantique region of France, as the eldest child of Duke Francis II of Brittany and his second wife Margaret of Foix, Infanta of Navarre (herself the daughter of Queen Eleanor of Navarre [1425–1479] and of Gaston IV, Count of Foix [1425–1472]).

Heiress of Brittany

During this time period, the laws of succession were unclear and guided by a vague tradition rather than a strict coded law of succession. Before the Breton War of Succession the Duchy mainly adhered to the Franco-Germanic semi-Salic Law; i.e., women could inherit, but only if the male line had died out. The Treaty of Guérande in 1365, however, stated that in the absence of a male heir from the House of Montfort, the heirs of Joanna of Penthièvre would succeed. At the time of Anne’s birth, her father was the only male representative from the House of Montfort, and the Blois-Penthièvre heir was a female, Nicole of Blois, and she had sold her rights to Brittany to King Louis XI of France for the amount of 50,000 écus in 1480, leaving Anne the only viable heiress to the Duchy of Brittany.

This lack of a male heir gave rise to the threat of not only a dynastic crisis within the Duchy, but the direct possibility of the Duchy passing directly into the royal domain to be incorporated into the Kingdom of France. To avoid this, Francis II had Anne officially recognised as his heiress by the Estates of Brittany on February 10, 1486. However, the question of her marriage remained a diplomatic issue.

In 1488, the armies of Francis II were defeated at the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier, ending the Mad War (la Guerre Folle) between Brittany and France. In the subsequent Treaty of Sablé signed on August 9, 1488 Duke Francis II was forced to accept clauses stipulating that his daughters were not to marry without the approval of the King of France. For whomever married Anne would also have a hand in governing the Duchy of Brittany and for that reason the French king wanted a say in whom she married.

The death of Francis II shortly a month after signing the treaty (September 9, 1488) as a result of a fall from his horse, Brittany was plunged into a new crisis, which lead to the final Franco-Breton war. On his deathbed, the Duke extracted a promise from Anne to never to consent to the subjugation of the Duchy to the Kingdom of France. His final act as Duke, Francis II appointed the Marshal of Rieux guardian of his daughter who was only 11 years old at the time.

The independent sovereign nature of the Duchy began to crumble upon the death of Francis II in 1488. The Duchy was inherited by his daughter, Anne, but King Charles VIII of France had his eye on the Duchy for himself.