“I saw the Duchess of Valentinois at the age of seventy as fresh and attractive as when she was thirty…she was greatly loved and attended by one of the greatest, most valiant kings in the world…. I saw this lady six months before she died, still so beautiful that even the hardest heart, as far as I could tell, could not remained unmoved. Her beauty, her grace, her majesty and attractive appearance were the same as ever, and she had a pale complexion without using powder…..I believe that if this lady had lived another hundred years she would never have aged.”
Thus spoke Brantôme, a contemporary chronicler, of Diane de Poitiers, the great love of King Henry II in 16th century France.
Diane was a noblewoman at the court of King Francis. She was known for her great beauty and became the hated target of the King’s mistress and favourite, Anne d’Heilly. The fact that it was the king’s son Henri who fell in love with her and remained devoted to her till his death, though he was 18 years her junior, makes her unusual. Diane de Poitiers succeeded in overcoming ageing at a time when people were often worn out by thirty.
She was not just beautiful; there were psychological reasons for their liaison. Henri had a difficult childhood, having lost his mother as a little boy and remaining unloved by King Francis. Diane had been married at 15 to a man 39 years her senior. Despite this fact, and although he was also a hunchback, she gave her husband two daughters and remained faithful to him until his death But from a mother figure who educated Henri as a boy she became his mistress, somehow managing to remain beautiful until her death at 66.
Henri married Catherine de Medici. It was a political move and he probably had very little say in the matter. But the relationship with Diane continued (despite the fact Catherine was 19 years younger than Diane) and Catherine produced no heirs for nine years. When Henri became king in 1547 he was 30 and Diane was 47. Diane became the most powerful woman in the kingdom. It was only when Catherine was about to be sent back to Italy because of sterility that Diane insisted that Henri visit her in her chambers to produce heirs. She probably did this because Catherine could be controlled, and any other future queen was an unknown quantity. Curiously there is a lot of evidence that Catherine and Diane were close, spending a lot of time together; Diane nursed her back to health when she was ill with scarlet fever for example. Nevertheless, together Henri and Diane created a love symbol that was engraved over all Paris – two interwoven D’s with a line through the middle forming an H. All state documents were signed HenriDiane.
She was an intelligent businesswoman and managed her money so well she acquired great wealth – making her daughters rich when she died at Anet, the château where Catherine had banished her after Henri’s death at 40 from a lance through the eye during a tournament. Catherine de Medici was known for saying of Diane’s undying youthfulness, “Is it a potion of youth or some mysterious magic?”.
What did Diane do to stay so ageless?
• She bathed regularly – at a time when doctors thought water was harmful. Her doctor was Ambroise Paré, a famous surgeon, who encouraged her to wash (in cold water) every morning. In this way she protected herself from disease and boosted her immune system – she was known for never being ill.
• She used her intelligence to survive at court, not only overcoming the negative emotions of jealousy towards the queen by encouraging Henri to give Catherine children and thus secure her own place of influence, but also by using her influence with his father, sidestepping the very real threat from Anne d’Heilly who accused her of using witchcraft to stay young. She could have been burnt at the stake – but instead of succumbing to the incredible stress of such a threat, thought her way through it. She also used her influence with King Francis to obtain a pardon for her father who was about to be executed for his alleged involvement in a plot.
• She practised calorie restriction. Balzac mentions in La Comédie Humaine that she always ate sparingly.
• She maintained her mental agility, being highly cultured and a lover of the arts.
• She exercised regularly – highly unusual for the time and a woman of her status. Every morning at 6am she would go for a swim in the river close to the château, and she rode and hunted regularly. Modern forensic scientists who examined her bones testified to the fact she had led an athletic life.
• She relaxed every day. Immediately after her swim she would retire to her chambers for a massage with perfumed oils, a siesta or to read – thus triggering the relaxation response. Short-term stress followed by relaxation can trigger the body’s repair mechanisms (see blog post When Stress is Good..).
• She had a stable personality – she had been kind to her husband to whom she had been faithful, and good towards her daughters whom she made rich on her death. In her will she expressed the desire there should be no conflict between her children. She knew how to control negative emotions.
• She had a very strong motive for staying young – preserving her youth to remain attractive to the king. This may have enabled her to overcome social cues that cause ageing.
• She may have practised tantric sex. Her fascination with alchemy, the mystical version of which teaches that the font of eternal youth is found in “sexual transmutation” involving controlling orgasm, is well-documented. She always wore black and white – colours of mourning for her first husband perhaps, but curiously also the colours of the Yin-Yang circle representing the combination of male and female energy. She did not become pregnant even though her affair with Henri is thought to have begun when she was in her thirties. The alchemist Nostradamus was around, consulted regularly by Catherine de Medici. He became famous when the following verse seemed to come true when Henri was killed :
The young lion shall overcome the older one,
on the field of combat in single battle,
He shall pierce his eyes in a golden cage,
Two forces one, then he shall die a cruel death.
It seems unlikely that Diane did not speak to Nostradamus; she may have consulted him on the secret of eternal youth. Nostradamus was a master of the Jewish Kabbalah, an initiatic system of ten levels of consciousness akin to Hindu Kundalini Yoga (tantra). Catherine de Medici treated him as her personal “psychic” and received many beauty potions from him.
Diane made one fatal mistake : she did not rely exclusively on her own spirit to overcome ageing. From somewhere – an alchemist, an apothecary – she obtained liquid gold. Gold, the inalterable metal, was believed to make the body inalterable too and was used as an elixir of youth. Even today some luxury anti-wrinkle creams contain gold. ‘Gold water’ varied in concentration – many alchemists simply poured water over gold to obtain “spirit of gold” – but Diane’s wealth enabled her to obtain a yellow solution containing real gold. When her bones were examined in 2009, along with a lock of hair snatched during the French revolution from her desecrated tomb, toxicological examinations carried out at the Raymond-Poincaré de Garches Hospital in Paris and published in the British Medical Journal found concentrations of gold 500 times higher than normal. This would have led to chronic intoxication, causing nausea, anaemia and brittle bones and hair. She also had no teeth left – but her doctor Ambroise Paré was a pioneer in dental prostheses and probably provided her with a set towards the end of her life, thus allowing her to continue to look stunning.
Failing to trust herself and the three rules of agelessness – calorie restriction, stress management and belief – proved fatal. She died of gold intoxication at the age of 66, still as beautiful as a young girl.