St. Jane of Valois is better known as St. Joan of France. She was the daughter of the eccentric King Louis XI of France by his second wife, Charlotte of Savoy.
Louis disliked this daughter from the start. She was a girl and he had wanted a boy. She was slight, sickly, and to some extent deformed, and thus, he thought, of little use. To forget his chagrin, Louis sent the child off to a rural chateau where she was raised with no regard for her own comfort or feelings.
Fortunately, Joan, turning to God for more fatherly companionship, developed spiritually, and became a staunch devotee of Our Lady. She loved particularly to ponder the mysteries of Mary’s rosary. Mary herself is said to have promised Joan that she would one day establish a religious order in honor of the Blessed Virgin.
Although King Louis showed small fondness for his daughter, he did not hesitate to use her for political purposes. When she was only two months old, he betrothed her to the Duke of Orleans, his second cousin and heir apparent. When Joan was five, he sent her to the Duke’s court to be trained in royal etiquette. She loathed the court atmosphere and expressed her own desire to enter a religious order, but her protest met only with scorn and abuse.
The marriage of Joan and the Duke was solemnized when she was twelve. She made the best of the marriage, was most devoted to her husband, and when he was imprisoned she made every effort to secure his release, even saving his life. Nonetheless, the Duke treated her harshly, and when he ascended his throne as Louis XII he appealed to the pope for an annulment, declaring that the marriage had never been consummated.
Pope Alexander VI granted the appeal in 1498 on the grounds that there had never been any free consent. Liberated from their union, the Queen, now named Duchess of Berry, was assigned to rule her duchy. Settling in Bourges, its capital, she undertook her governmental duties most seriously.
In 1500 Joan finally succeeded, with the aid of her Franciscan advisor, in establishing the religious order that she had long planned. She named it the Franciscan order of the Annonciades. Its members were to devote themselves to prayer and penance, and to cultivate in all ways the virtues of Our Lady. Having founded this community, she assisted it to the best of her ability; and in 1504, towards the end of her life, she herself took the vows of membership, giving up her wedding ring and wearing the habit beneath her ducal garb.
Despite poor health, she did not limit her deeds of self-denial. Up to the day of her death, she prayed for her heartless husband, and she arranged that after she was gone, the Annonciades would remember in their prayers him, her father, and her brother, King Charles VIII.
Joan of France was buried in the gray, scarlet and white habit of her religious order, but also with the royal crown. Many miracles, especially cures, were now attributed to her intercession. In 1617 the process of her canonization was initiated. Benedict XIV pronounced her “blessed” and several other popes referred to her by the title of “saint”, but her formal canonization took place only in 1950. A few convents of Annonciades still exist.
“Commoners” like ourselves perhaps have the storybook idea that “royals” live heavenly, carefree lives. St. Joan’s life story is a reminder that those who wear crowns are often far less happy than ourselves. At least we are freer to run our own lives.
In these days when many Catholic marriages are annulled or otherwise fractured, I recommend that ex-husbands and ex-wives ask St. Joan of Valois to help them with her prayers. She can certainly sympathize with their situation.
-Father Robert F. McNamara