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4. Festivals in Valois France

J.R. Mulryne

The characteristic form of public festival under the Valois kings of France was the ‘joyous entry’ (entrée joyeuse) prepared for the reigning prince by one or other of his principal cities. The streets were richly decorated, while the citizens received the king and his brilliantly-costumed entourage with specially-composed ceremonial addresses, tableaux vivants, rich gifts and the keys to the city.

The formula evolved from early in the reign of Francis I to take in classical and historical or pseudo-historical as well as biblical allusion - as in his spectacular entry to Lyons in 1515 or Marseilles in 1516. Francis engaged in other forms of spectacle, as in his meeting with Pope Leo X at Bologna or, most notoriously, the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 [0006, 0007].

Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520
Design for a royal pavilion in the Tudor colours, said to be for Henry VIII at the Field of Cloth of Gold. South Netherlands, early 16th century.
BL Cotton Augustus III, f.19. Larger image

Henri II, successor to Francis, engaged in joyous entries in, for example, Lyons in 1548, where a re-enactment took place of a Roman gladiatorial combat [0013], and at Rouen in 1550 [0020], where he was greeted by processions, triumphal arches, musical instruments reminiscent of those in Caesar’s triumphs, and citizens dressed in the costumes of ancient Rome.

Magnificent court festivals initiated and overseen by Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, were staged shortly after the tragic accident in which her husband Henri II was killed while tilting in a great tournament held to celebrate the double marriage of Marguerite de Valois to the Duke of Savoy [0021, 0022, 0023], and the Dauphin François to Mary Queen of Scots. The attempted diplomacy represented by these alliances predicts the agonising and exhausting religious divisions in France and across Europe which so often form the implicit or overt background to the ‘magnificences’ of the Valois years under Catherine’s influence.

Two of Catherine’s earliest magnificences, staged at the château of Chenonceaux (1563) and at Fontainebleau (1564), both counselling religious toleration, set the pattern for subsequent festivals. At Fontainebleau, a water combat, a combat on horseback, and a tournament presented by Charles IX during which an enchanted castle was assailed, took place along with the fête staged by the Duc d’Orléans. This lauded the royal house and featured mythological and antique figures narrating and acting out a pleasing fable of the king’s release of imprisoned maidens.

A lavish, though politically hypocritical (or inept), entertainment took place on the French-Spanish border during the progress of the young king Charles IX across France in 1564-65. Known as the ‘Bayonne Interview’, the fêtes were intended to display the glory of the French monarchy and to seek conciliation between the two countries, and between post-Reformation religious factions in France and beyond [0026]. Combats featuring knights of different lands, and a water battle with mythological figures in conflict, were blended with song and dance celebrating and enacting concord.

Two weddings, that between Charles IX and Elizabeth of Austria in 1571 [0027, 0028], and that between Henri of Navarre and Marguerite de Valois in 1572, provided the occasions for further celebration and hopes of peace. The former, a double entry to Paris for Charles and a few days later his bride, was buoyed up by the optimism following the Peace of St Germain, and featured various icons of royal strength and harmony, including a representation of Catherine as ‘Gallia’ holding aloft a map of France, and at Pont Nostre Dame two beehives figuring Protestants and Catholics reconciled by a divine hand scattering heavenly powder. The Navarre-Valois match was celebrated by ‘magnificences’ including chivalrous combats and a marine show featuring Charles IX as Neptune, with the Protestants Navarre and Condé cast alongside the fiercely Catholic Guise.

These events culminated in the spectacular Le Paradis d’Amour, an entertainment in which Charles IX and his brothers Anjou and Alençon defended the gateway to Paradise and the Elysian Fields, with the combat concluded by the famous singer Etienne Le Roy singing as he descended from heaven, and by an extended ballet danced by the royal brothers and 12 nymphs.

The horrific Massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572, in which perhaps as many as 5,000 Protestants were slaughtered, demonstrates the gulf that can exist between event and entertainment. The continuing theme of peace and reconciliation that characterised the fêtes was rudely shattered. It reappeared as a leading motif in the ‘magnificences’ staged for the Polish ambassadors in 1573 on their visit to Paris to endorse the election of the Duke of Anjou, brother of Charles IX, as King of Poland. The emphasis on sectarian accord may have been politically motivated, but it featured strongly as a theme in the Ballet des Polonais staged by Catherine in the Tuileries gardens with exquisite song and choreography.

Henri III, the former Duke of Anjou, though by no means an enthusiast for the frivolities of public display but plagued to the end of his life with an obsession for the dance, was the recipient of some of the most spectacular events of the period, especially at his coronation in Cracow as King of Poland [0032], and during his return journey to France at the behest of his mother. His entries to Ferrara, Mantua and Turin and, on regaining France [0029, 0030, 0031], to Lyons and Rouen, and especially the elaborate series of water-borne and land-based spectacles in Venice (1574) [0033], became famous across Europe.

Anticipations of the most characteristic of the Valois entertainments, the ballet de cour, had appeared in several of the entertainments mentioned above, including the Paradis d’Amour and the Ballet des Polonais. One of the most elaborate is the Balet Comique de la Reyne, danced for Louise de Lorraine in 1581, in celebration of the marriage of her sister Marguerite to Anne, Duke of Joyeuse, the favourite of Henri III. The ballet centred on the fable of Circe, elaborated by the introduction of a series of mythological and morality episodes, with fabulous costuming and sophisticated music and dance, but celebrating in essence the good prince breaking free from the bondage of sensory temptation.

This performance was to have a distinguished progeny. The ballets de cour became hugely popular, with many performed each year well into the 17th century at such locations as the palace of the Louvre, the Arsenal and the Hôtel de Ville.

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