Jeanne d’Albret – a Determined Woman

Some of the most influential women in church history were princesses or queens, who had the ability to establish a state religion according to their convictions.

Under her leadership, protestant preachers enjoyed greater freedom than ever, and the Edict of January in 1562 gave Huguenots the official right of public worship. At the same time, the Catholic faction, led by the Guise family, began threatening Catherine, who started to backtrack by forbidding Huguenot services at court. As conflicts increased, a civil war became inevitable.

 

Some of the most influential women in church history were princesses or queens, who had the ability to establish a state religion according to their convictions. At a time when cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion) was in order, the Protestant church prospered best under Protestant rulers.

One of these rulers was Jeanne d’Albret, born in 1528 to King Henry II of Navarre and Marguerite of Angoulême, sister of King Francis I of France. Navarre was a small region which included lands on both sides of the Pyrenees. In reality, Henry ruled over a minuscule portion of this region on the French side of the mountains. The bulk of the land was in possession of Ferdinand of Aragon, and Henry spent his life trying to lay his hands on it.

Marguerite was highly esteemed by both Protestants and Catholics for her remarkable education in classical and theological matters. Her court was attended by several religious reformers and by poets such as Clement Marot, who became a psalm writer in Calvin’s Geneva. Calvin himself visited Marguerite and benefited from her support and protection. She was one of the many European figures who embraced the Protestant teachings on grace without making a break with the Roman Catholic Church – a common position in a fluid age where ideas were still being developed and discussed.

A Strong-Willed Child

Like many other princesses of her time, Jeanne – an only child – received a good education, and was expected to comply with her parents’ choice of a husband. In her case, however, the choice came from Francis I, who arranged a marriage with Duke William “the Rich”, brother of Anne de Cleves (third wife of the English king Henry VIII). It would have been a profitable political alliance.

Jeanne, who was only 12, was firmly against it. So was her father, but Marguerite eventually gave in to her brother’s wishes and proceeded to break her daughter’s resistance with the rod. Jeanne stood firm. She was dragged to the wedding, but wrote in defiance: “I take you all again to witness that I persevere in the protest I made before you[1].”

The marriage was celebrated anyhow, but Marguerite was able to delay Jeanne’s move to William’s home in view of her young age. Four years later, William betrayed Francis, and the marriage was annulled on the grounds that it had never been consummated.

In 1548, the new king of France, Henry II, proposed another marriage for Jeanne – this time to his cousin, 30-year old Antoine de Bourbon, a charming man who won Jeanne’s heart. Jeanne, 20 at that time, eagerly accepted, in spite of her parents’ protests. Soon, however, Antoine turned out to be a philanderer.

In the meantime, the Protestant Reformation was spreading and gaining influence in France, and Jeanne couldn’t help but being influenced. She chose, however, to imitate her mother, who died in 1549 without having made a break with the Roman Catholic Church. Marguerite’s stand was partially motivated by fear of her brother and father, who warned her “not to get new doctrines in her head” and not “to meddle in matters of doctrine.”[2]

When Henry died in 1555, Jeanne felt free to denounce her mother’s “hesitation between the two religions” and her father’s abusive reaction to Marguerite’s interest in the Reformation. Henry’s violence didn’t spare Jeanne. “[He] shook a stick at me,” she wrote, “which cost me many bitter tears and has kept me fearful and compliant until after they had both died.”[3]

After his death, she could finally say, “I consider that it would be disloyalty and cowardice to God, to my conscience and to my people to remain any longer in a state of suspense and indecision.”[4]

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