Charlotte of Bourbon—from Runaway Nun to Self-Sacrificing Wife

She used the experience she had acquired as an abbess in order to run the home, negotiate alliances, and raise financial support.

She had been sent to the abbey as a baby, she said, to be raised by her aunt, the abbess. When she turned twelve, she was forced to take the veil, in spite of her repeated protests. With time, her wisdom and abilities promoted her to the role of abbess, but her sentiments never changed.

 

For twelve long years, Charlotte tried to assert her legal rights to leave Notre-Dame de Jouarre, the abbey which she had been forced to join. Finally, in February 1572, she escaped. The circumstances of her flight are uncertain. Some say she jumped over a wall, others that she took advantage of a Huguenot incursion into the abbey. A more plausible explanation is that she went out with the excuse of visiting another abbey. After all, by that time she was the abbess of Notre-Dame and enjoyed relative freedom.

She had planned this for years, collecting evidence and writing persuasive explanations of her coercion. She had been sent to the abbey as a baby, she said, to be raised by her aunt, the abbess. When she turned twelve, she was forced to take the veil, in spite of her repeated protests. With time, her wisdom and abilities promoted her to the role of abbess, but her sentiments never changed.

Somehow, inside the abbey, she converted to Protestantism and kept in touch with Jeanne, the Protestant queen of Navarre. It was Jeanne who advised her to take refuge in Heidelberg, about 300 miles east of Jouarre, under the protection of Elector Frederick III. Frederick’s palace had been a haven for Protestant refugees, and became more so in the summer of 1572, after the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots in Paris.

Married to a Leader and a Cause

Frederick introduced Charlotte to William of Orange, Stadholder of the Netherlands, a widower of his first wife and divorced from his second. In January 1575, William sent Charlotte a marriage proposal, warning her that he “was beginning to grow old, being about forty-two years of age.”[1] Charlotte expressed joy at the news and a sincere desire to serve him, but left the final decision to the Elector and his wife, as her current authority figures.

It was a wise move. She had been trying to reconcile with her father, Duke Louis of Montpensier, cousin of the king and a leader of the Catholic cause in France, who had disavowed her after her escape from the abbey. By submitting to the local rulers, she showed her willingness to work through the proper channels which, in her case, included monarchs as well as relatives. The Elector consulted both her father and the King of France.

With the proper approvals, Charlotte and William married on 24 June 1575 in a quiet wedding followed by an intimate supper with friends. She was almost 30.

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