What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about France?  Croissants and French bread might be on your list if you are thinking of your stomach.  You might include Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and fashion shopping, if you are into city life.  If history is your thing, did you think of Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, and the D-day landings on the Normandy beaches?

IMG_0126.JPGAny of those are of course possibilities but there are so many other things that make France such a great place to visit.  There are fantastic stories to be told about France too, involving some very famous and ‘colourful’ people.  Take a look at the stories below. They show how some very young, talented and strong women have put their stamp on France in centuries gone by. Mind you, they didn’t all live to tell the tale….

Strong, young women!

Not many women can claim to have both been wife to two Kings and mother to two Kings, and it makes Eleanor of Aquitaine a very special woman… Just think about it!  Eleanor was only 15 years old when she married King Louis VII of France in 1137. She was one of Europe’s wealthiest young women of her time and by marrying Eleanor, Louis immediately doubled his power in France. Unfortunately for him, it was not a happy marriage and they divorced 15 years later.

Did you know that….

Eleanor was mother to Richard the Lionheart, who fought in the Crusades and eventually became King of England.

Eleanor was still only 30 years old, very rich and so quite a catch. Only eight weeks after the divorce, she married again. Her new husband was Henri II, Duke of the Normans who became King of England in 1154, which made Eleanor Queen of England. She and Henri had eight children in total, and two of her sons, Richard and John (both of Robin Hood fame) in turn became King of England. Eleanor outlived most of her children and died at the ripe old age of 82.

Jeanne d’Arc – heroine extraordinaire….

432px-Lenepveu,_Jeanne_d'Arc_au_siège_d'Orléans.jpgDuring the 100 years war between the French and the English, one famous young woman stood out in the crowd.  Her name was Jeanne d’Arc and she claimed to have received visions of her victory from no other than God himself.  She set off to Orleans to fight the combined English/Burgundy armies. To begin with she was really successful, and she was brave too. When the tide turned and her armies had to retreat, Jeanne insisted on being the last to leave the battle field and was captured by the Burgundy army.

Did you know that…

The English wanted to make absolutely sure that Jeanne d’Arc was dead, so after she stopped breathing, they burned her body twice more, just to be on the safe side…. Whatever was left over of her body was then thrown in the river Seine.

Payment of a ransom was needed in return for Jeanne’s release but as she came from a really poor family there was nobody to pay on her behalf. Eventually (and probably in desperation for money) Jeanne was sold to the English who held a trial for heresy. She lost her case of course and she was executed by burning at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Jeanne was then just 19 years old.

Culinary France

It’s weird but apparently the French owe their cooking skills to the Italians… Catherine de Medici was only 14 years old when she married the future King Henry II of France in 1533 but she was already a young woman with a mind of her own. The Medici Family from Florence was one of the wealthiest families of Europe and Catherine had been used to a very high standard of living. She had heard that the French were not known for their cooking skills and she just couldn’t bear to live without good food.  The problem was easily solved. Catherine brought her own Italian kitchen staff to France (by the hundreds) and so the Italians are thought to be responsible for introducing the French to the fine art of cooking and to a wide range of new fruits, vegetables, herbs and pastries. She is also credited of having taught the French to eat with a fork… 🙂

Did you know that…

The guillotine is named after Dr. Guillotin.  In 1789 he suggested that it would be better to use a machine to behead, as a sword did not always kill instantly. On his recommendation the guillotine was invented.  Interesting fact: Dr. Guillotin himself was against capital punishment.

Not a happy ending

When Marie Antoinette of Austria married King Louis XVI of France in 1770, she was just 15 years old.  Coming from one royal family and marrying into another, Marie Antoinette must have thought she was living a fairytale life, but it was not a tale with a happy ending. Life was good to begin with, full of riches and pleasures, but outside the palace gates peasants were starving all over France.

This situation couldn’t last of course, and eventually the French Revolution in 1789 put a end to the life Marie Antoinette and other French royalty had lived for decades.  Both she and Louis were arrested and died by having their heads chopped off by the guillotine in 1793. According to legend, when Marie Antoinette was asked how the starving peasants should survive, she replied that: they should eat more Brioche’.

This text is taken from various sections of ‘My Travel Kit for France’. If you would like more information, please contact me.