Claude-Catherine de Clermont, born 1543, was the only child of Claude de Clermont-Tonnerre, baron of Dampierre, and Jeanne de Vivonne, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine de Medici.
She was renowned for her considerable learning and her promotion of the arts and literature.
Schooled in Paris, she studied not only languages – Greek, Latin and contemporary languages – but also History, Mathematics and Philosophy.
She is described in contemporary records as solemn and pensive – paintings show her as an imposing woman with a penetrating gaze – and it may have been her maturity that caused her to be placed at an early age in the French royal court.
She became lady-in-waiting to Margeuerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre and of France, whilst still in her teens.
She married Jean d’Annebaut, Baron of Retz, while still a teenager. He was killed shortly after in 1562 in the Battle of Dreux, one of the many skirmishes between Catholics and Huguenots that blighted the age.
Claude-Catherine married again on 4 September 1565 to Albert de Gondi (1522-1602). Her marriage to Albert produced four sons and six daughters
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It was as Albert’s wife that she became famed throughout France as a learned society hostess, entertaining some of the most famous poets and scholars of the era. Étienne Jodelle, Philippe Desportes, Jean-Antoine de Baif and Pierre de Ronsard – all renowned for their pastoral verses –attended salon parties at Claude-Catherine’s country house in Noisy.
She also promoted the cultivation of other educated women including Marguerite de Valois, Henriette de Clèves and Hélène de Surgères. Her friends named her Dyctinne, after the widely performed contemporary poem Le Sejour de Dyctinne et de Muses (‘The Celebration of Dyctinne and the Muses’).
But it was not only in the arts that Claude-Catherine excelled. Her able mind became an important asset for the French crown in its dealings with foreign rulers.
In 1573, when a Polish ambassador requested an audience with the duc d’Anjou on behalf of their king, Claud-Catherine spoke Latin to the guests on behalf of the queen mother. She was 26 at the time. The chief Polish ambassador, the Archbishop of Guesme, called her the marvel of the French court.
She is also documented to have performed expertly during debates at the Palace Academy.
And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, Claude-Catherine was more complex than her contemporaries may have assumed.
According to contemporary rumours, she dabbled in extreme politics. In a period of religious paranoia it was rumoured that she harboured protestant sympathies; some gossipers said she was party to a plot against Charles IX of the House of Valois, led by the Count de la Mole and the Count de Coconnas in 1574.
This is all the more significant given that her husband, Albert de Gondi, showed equal but opposite leanings. He was accused of taking part in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, when a secret group loyal to the king carried out a series of targeted assassinations against French Huguenots. (De Gondi was made Maréchal de France in 1573; in 1581 his lands were elevated to a duchy.)
Still, despite her political entanglements, Claude-Catherine de Clermont remained feted until on 18 February 1603. One admirer, Maréchal de Castelnau, wrote of her in his memoirs:
“Claude-Catherine was the most beautiful, the most spiritual and the most learned if the woman in the royal court. She attracted to her all eyes and all the best wishes.”