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Reformed Royalty: The Strength of Queen Jeanne d'Albret

Marilyn B. Manzer

The Queen of Navarre stood steadfast for the Reformed faith, even in the midst of great compromise

"My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9).

Jeanne d'Albret (1528-1572), though little remembered today, is one of the great heroes of the French Reformation. Luther had posted his ninety-five theses in Germany years before, Calvin was preaching in Switzerland, and Knox in Scotland, and Jeanne d'Albret was furthering the cause of the Huguenots in France. Strength and weakness, power and helplessness -- these extremes characterized the life of so remarkable a woman. She did not possess physical strength. In fact, always frail, she died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four. She did have some political strength as the highest ranking Protestant in France, but beyond that, she possessed a strength of will and a strength of character that held her up when she seemed the most helpless. Above all, however, was her reliance on God and the strength of His power to preserve her which bolstered her beyond measure when her situation seemed the most hopeless.

Early Life

First there was Jeanne's political strength -- or potential political strength, anyway. She was born in 1528, the only child of Henry d'Albret and Marguerite of Navarre. Her father, Henry d'Albret, Vicomte de Bearn, King of Navarre, held the small kingdom of Bearn near the Spanish border. Although the family called themselves "kings" of Navarre, "only the rump of that kingdom remained in their hands since Ferdinand of Aragon had conquered the larger portion to the south in 1512."[1] Henry was always working to regain this lost territory. He was an extremely well liked ruler, forthright, equitable, skillfully handling the grievances of his subjects.

Jeanne's mother was Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre, the sister and devoted companion of no less than Francis I, King of France. Marguerite herself is a fascinating character. Prominent not only at the court, but throughout Europe, she "occupied an influential position in the intellectual movement of the day"[2] by speaking out against the abuses of Roman Catholicism. "Marguerite was intensely interested in humanistic studies, was deeply religious, was strongly impressed by Luther and Calvin... [but] while dissenting from much in the Roman Catholic Church, never became a Protestant."[3] In Bearn she granted asylum to Protestants persecuted in France, and on more than one occasion used her influence with her brother to keep them from harm.

Regarding Jeanne herself, little is known of her childhood. She spent her first nine years in Lornay in the Norman countryside. Although not in the limelight with her mother at court, Jeanne's upbringing was far from humble. She was under the care of some twenty servants, ranging from a tutor to a groom and three footmen to a pastry-maker. Concerning her education, again, although little is known, the typical child of French nobility would have been brought up in the literature of his own country as well as of the Latin authors. Beyond that, " [t]here is no doubt that Marguerite's daughter was given an education designed to implement the humanist ideal, that is, the development of both character and intellect through absorption of the classic writings which were the models for the Renaissance."[4] Jeanne was sensitive and learned quickly. She had a keen intellect which, coupled with a strong spirit, would later cause her opponents no end of trouble.

At the age of nine, Jeanne was moved closer to the court. Up to this point, she had experienced only the benefits of her position, but she was soon to feel the helplessness within it. Henry, always seeking to restore the Spanish Navarre, was seeking a marriage between his daughter and the King of Spain's son, Philip. The King of France, however, hoped to use Jeanne in his own foreign policy. After years of negotiations, a marriage contact was drawn up between Jeanne and Germany's Duke of Cleaves.

And it is in this betrothal that the strength of Jeanne's will first (historically) asserts itself. Even after her parents had resigned themselves to the King's wishes, Jeanne strongly protested the marriage. She complained bitterly to all, even writing a formal letter of protest to the King, but to no avail. Finally in June of 1541 at the age of twelve, she was wed. "The Princess wore a golden crown, a cloak of crimson satin trimmed with ermine, and a gold and silver skirt trimmed with precious stones"[5] and had to be taken by the collar and carried forcibly to the altar.

Their union was to last only about three and a half years. The alliance with Germany became unpopular, the marriage, therefore, was no longer necessary, and an annulment was easily obtained in 1545 on the ground that the marriage had never been consummated, that it had been made under Jeanne's compulsion and against her pro-testations.[6]

Marriage to Antoine de Bourbon

Three years later Jeanne was again the pawn in a political alliance. Her father was again seeking a compact between her and the Spanish Prince Philip, but again, the King of France, now Henry II, had other plans. To help consolidate the territories in the north and south of France, Jeanne was wed in 1549 to Antoine de Bourbon, Duc de Vendome, First Prince of the Blood. Although just as helpless in deciding her fate, this time she had no complaints. "Antoine was a dashing cavalier, handsome, courageous, affable, gracious, altogether charming."[7] He was recognized by all as a remarkable soldier and general. He was very close in line to the succession of the French throne. What more could Jeanne want?

The two lived happily for many years. She bore two children, Henry and Catherine. As they ruled in Bearn, Jeanne proved to have her father's skill in administration and maintained great popularity among her subjects.

Religion was to cause their breech. Religion was the impetus to show Jeanne's strength yet again, this time her strength of character. Calvinism had been spreading throughout France from the mid 1530's to the 1550's. The Reformers insisted that they were not bringing in a new gospel but returning to the gospel preached by the apostles. They challenged the people to open their Bibles and to prove it to themselves. Ministers were sent from Geneva, and, despite the work of the Counter Reformation, the number of French Protestants was increasing daily. Despite legislation, "they held their prayer meetings, fed on solemn sermons preaching predestination, issued a fire of pamphlets on the abuses of the Church...and held a general synod in Paris (May 26, 1559) under the very nose of the King."[8]

The new King, Charles IX, was a minor, and so the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici was named regent. Her sympathies seemed to be with the reform, as well. She had listened to those whom Calvin had sent and even allowed Protestant services alternated with Masses in the Royal Chapel. Calvinism was in vogue at court. Nobles brought the ministers into their own apartments to preach. And support from the nobility was exactly what the Calvinists needed if the movement in France was to be considered anything more than a rebellion. "If the Reform won the aristocracy, it would have a nation-wide power at its back."[9]

Conversion to Calvinism

Antoine and Jeanne listened to the reformers. Indeed, Jeanne had heard them all her life because of her mother's interest in the "new teachings." As early as 1555 Jeanne showed her leanings towards Calvinism in a letter to the Victomte de Gourdon. " [A] reform seems so right and so necessary that, for my part, 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."[10]

While still officially Roman Catholic, Antoine and Jeanne attended sermons preached by the ministers of Geneva. Upon visiting Bearn, one such minister reported to Calvin, "Preaching is open -- in public. The streets resound to the chanting of the Psalms. Religious books are sold as freely and openly at home."[11] Jeanne's conversion was not publicly announced until Christmas Day, 1560. Once she had made a public profession, however, Jeanne never looked back. "For the remaining twelve years of her life she would be singled out as an enemy by the most powerful movement in Europe, the Counter Reformation."[12]

The passage of time showed that Antoine did not really share in Jeanne's zeal for reform. In fact, what time did show was Antoine's inconsistency, his constant vacillating. He was notoriously unfaithful in his marriage, and in all else as well. It became increasingly obvious that his religious views were contingent on his chances for political gain. Catholic or Protestant, he would go back and forth in deciding which might afford him the greatest advantage. After the death of Jeanne's father, Antoine took up the effort to recover the Spanish Navarre. Also, as First Prince of the Blood, he and his heirs stood to gain the throne of France if he proceeded with care. When the Huguenots seemed to be gaining, he would join their offensive; when the Catholics had the upperhand, he would withdraw. At last, threatened and coaxed in turn by Spain, the Papacy, and finally the French court, he renounced all dealings with the reformers and declared himself once and for all a Roman Catholic. The gravity of this stand cannot be overstated. Besides his royal ties, Antoine was France's Lieutenant General and was known for his amazing military prowess, but he lacked the vision to see beyond his own ambitions. "Antoine's reversal shifted the balance. Had he, the First Prince of the Blood, made himself at the juncture the head of the Huguenot party, Calvinism might have become the religion of France."[13]

It is necessary at this point to say a few words about France's foreign and domestic affairs during this period. The royal families of France and Spain (the Valois and Hapsburg respectively) had been in constant rivalry since the 1490's. The country of France was slowly led to bankruptcy in a series of wars that had lasted well through the 1540's. An uncomfortable peace ensued. The financial status caused great dissatisfaction, to the point of threats of a civil war among the French people. The spread of Calvinism brought into the country still more unrest. Catherine had now to deal not only with the threat of a Spanish invasion but with the displeasure of the Papacy, as well. Beginning in November of 1561 the Catholics issued their counter-attack. "From Parisian pulpits inflammatory sermons aroused the congregations against the royal family and the crown's officers as well as the Huguenots....Destruction of Huguenot property, assassination, and other violent incidents were occurring all over France."[14] The Papacy also let it be known that it lent its support to the King of Spain. Though sympathetic to the reform, Catherine's first priority was to keep control of France.

Antoine's Betrayal

Antoine and Jeanne were at court when Antoine at last sided with the Roman Catholics. Many nobles followed his lead. This, in turn, forced Catherine's hand. She reinstated conservative Catholic tutors for Charles IX, forbade discussion of Calvinist doctrine, and her lenience towards those arrested for religious reasons ceased. Still more nobles placed themselves within the Roman camp.

Jeanne, however, could not be dissuaded. Her conversion had been motivated by neither politics nor fashion, and she would not bend. The strength of her will, this time put into service for God, was unflinching. While others cowered back to the Mass, Jeanne had Protestant services in her apartments "with all the doors open" as exasperated observers pointed out.[15] Others followed Antoine's lead, but Jeanne called to him to remember the true teaching they had received. Antoine demanded that she go to Mass, but Jeanne flatly refused. "When the Queen Mother tried to persuade her to accommodate her husband, she finally replied, rather than ever go to Mass, if she held her kingdom and her son in her hand, she would throw them both to the bottom of the sea. This was the reason they then left her in peace on the matter."[16]

As fellow Calvinists saw the price Jeanne was paying for her stand, her strength strengthened them. Already suffering from tuberculosis, she was so ill at this time (1562) that doctors were unsure if she could recover. Antoine had made her all but a prisoner in her apartments, had taken away their son, and was threatening divorce. Finally, both Antoine and Catherine wanted her out of Paris. Catherine had even promised that after Jeanne's departure, no Protestant services would be permitted at court.[17] This in itself should speak of Jeanne's influence. On March 6, 1562, Jeanne left Paris to return to Bearn. She left without her son (she was permitted to say goodbye and to enjoin him never to go to Mass), still very ill, and under fear of being kidnapped along the way.

Jeanne as Supreme Regent

In April 1562, the first civil war (the first of three that would occur in Jeanne's lifetime) broke out while Jeanne was still en route to Bearn. The Huguenots were under the command of the Prince de Conde and Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The Catholics were led by the Duke de Guise. Jeanne herself was not involved in this or the second civil war, but rather concentrated her efforts on her own kingdom. Upon her return, "Jeanne devoted herself primarily to local administration and to foster the Reformed faith in her domain."[18] She could not escape the war's impact, however. First, being so close to Spain, she needed to prepare herself with military defense. Secondly, some months into the war, Antoine had been wounded fighting on the Catholic side. Although Antoine had summoned his mistress in his convalescence, when word of his injury reached Jeanne, she immediately made herself ready to go nurse him. But the infection spread, and Antoine died before Jeanne could obtain permission to enter enemy lines.

Antoine's death forced the surrounding powers to deal with Jeanne directly. Her son was still to be a hostage at court for the next four years, but she was able to reinstate Protestant tutors for the boy to oversee his education. Her husband's death also put her in sole control of Bearn, and she worked with great energy, against great obstacles, to strengthen and reform her domain. "Her reorganization of the economic and judicial system was so sound it remained in force well into the 18th century."[19] Theodore Beza, Calvin's right hand man in her request, sent her more than a dozen ministers to preach the gospel. Laws were passed to protect these ministers, she abolished public processions, purified the churches of images, and suppressed the Mass in some parts of her kingdom. A synod was formed and there were plans for a Protestant Academy. Her achievements led one reformer to say of her, "The Queen of Navarre has banished all idolatry from her domains and sets an example of virtue with incredible firmness and courage."[20]

Meanwhile, the King of Spain, now Philip II (the same Philip to whom her father had hoped to marry Jeanne), tried to persuade her to marry one of his sons. Ironically, the union with the Spanish royal family that her father had so wanted in the past would now have cost Jeanne everything -- her kingdom, her independence, and her faith. She saw this but felt compelled to reopen the negotiations with Spain that had stopped at her husband's death. Sending an ambassador, Philip demanded she cast aside her religious policy, calling it evil and threatening that he would not tolerate Calvinism "so near to his subjects." The ambassador related Jeanne's reply, characteristically sharp when she was provoked. "Although I am just a little Princess, God has given me the government of this country so I may rule it according to His Gospel and teach it His Laws. I rely on God, who is more powerful than the King of Spain."[21] Philip's reply is menacing. "This is quite too much of a woman to have as a daughter-in-law. I would much prefer to destroy her and treat her as such an evil woman deserves."[22] Quite too much of a woman, indeed.

The Papacy, too sought Jeanne. Pious IV sent his own ambassador and his own set of threats. She was warned that her subjects would not stand for reform, that Spain would not stand for it. She was ordered to restore the churches and to cast off the heresies that he for a time "seduced" her. She was implored "with tears to return to the true fold."[23] Her reply did little to hide her annoyance, "You appeal to your authority as the Pope's legate. The authority of the Pope's legate is not recognized in Bearn. Keep your tears for yourself. Out of charity I might contribute a few."[24] There followed a plot to kidnap her and deliver her the the Inquisition in Spain. She was summoned to appear in Rome upon penalty of excommunication, confiscation of goods, and a declaration that her lands would be open to the first taker.

This last claim troubled Philip of Spain who did not want just anyone to take over Navarre. It made Catherine furious. She resented the Papacy's presumption in disciplining Jeanne over the head of France. It was a dangerous game Jeanne was playing, pitting the larger powers against one another while her kingdom and her life were held in the balance. Meanwhile, she continued with her reform. There were plans to carry out "the total suppression of idolatry." The Calvinist Academy became a reality and ecclesiastical wealth was confiscated and given to the poor.

Spain and the Papacy were up in arms. "It was disturbing enough that John Knox had created a Calvinist establishment in Scotland, but if it were allowed to develop in Bearn, it might spread throughout France, a far more serious challenge to the church."[25] They put pressure on Catherine, Catherine put pressure on Jeanne, Jeanne was evasive. She had returned to court for a time to appease Catherine who was confident of her powers to control people near her. Reform went on in Bearn in spite of Jeanne's absence. She was able to return with her son Henry, at last.

Fleeing Navarre to Greater Service

When the third civil war broke out in 1568, Jeanne could no longer concern herself with her domains alone. Catherine could no longer protect her because a moderate faction no longer seemed to exist. Jeanne's life was now threatened by Spanish and French Catholic troops. She and her son took flight to La Rochelle, the Protestant stronghold and threw in their lot with Coligny, Conde and the other French Protestants.

It is in La Rochelle that the strength of Jeanne's service to her God -- and His strength at work through her -- is best seen. While staying in touch as best she could be with Bearn, she also proved invaluable to the Huguenot cause. As Minister of Propaganda, she wrote manifestoes and requests for aid to foreign princes.[26] Under her direction fell such concerns in La Rochelle as "finances, fortifications, discipline (except in the army), and, in part, intelligence."[27] She contributed her wealth, even offering her jewels as security in foreign loans. She supervised the care of the tens of thousands of refugees that poured into the city. She did not confine herself within the city's walls, however. At even critical points in the fighting, she would accompany Coligny, inspecting the defences and rallying troops. When one Huguenot captain, La Noue, hesitated to have his arm amputated after it had been crushed, Jeanne held his hand in support during the surgery and was praised for the care she took of him in his recovery.

A college was established in La Rochelle under direction, to be "a seminary of piety and a center for the education of the holy ministry."[28] She brought to it some of the most learned men of the Reform. The better part of their salaries was paid by Jeanne herself. She was working at such a frenzied pace, perhaps realizing that she did not have long to live. Her body grew weaker, but her determination was stronger than ever.

Jeanne was at her height; the Huguenot cause was at its height. It offered its terms of peace. Jeanne wrote to both the King and the Queen Mother, but when the terms were denied and the Huguenots were told that the condition of peace was that they lay down absolutely all their arms, Jeanne answered, "We have come to the determination to die, all of us, rather than to abandon our God, and our religion, the which we cannot maintain unless permitted to worship publicly, any more than a human body can live without meat and drink."[29] At last the Peace of St. Germain was signed by Charles IX in August of 1570, granting the Huguenots more than they had ever before been granted: "freedom of worship except in Paris or near the court, full eligibility to public office, and, as guarantee that these terms would be honored in practice, the right to hold four cities under their independent rule for two years."[30]

Peace was uneasy. The Catholics were outraged by the King's concession. Charles was himself trying to assert his independence from his mother, and under Coligny's council was considering war with Spain in an attempt to unify his people. Catherine had her own plans for unity. She suggested the marriage of Henry of Navarre to her daughter Marguerite. This would unite the Bourbon and Valois families, it would unite Jeanne and Catherine, Protestant and Catholic, it would unite France. Both factions had strong supporters of the marriage, each side thinking it had the most to gain. Other Protestants were quite critical. Jeanne herself was in agony. She greatly feared that her son would return to Catholicism, and that would break her heart. On the other hand, she feared for France and took it to heart when it was suggested that her stubbornness in the matter would be at the cost of the Reform.

She arrived in Paris in January 1572 to begin what would be months of negotiations concerning the marriage. Horrified upon her arrival by the court's decadence, she wrote to her son:

[Marguerite] is beautiful, discreet, and graceful, but she has grown up in the most vicious and corrupt atmosphere imaginable. I cannot see that anyone escapes its poison... Not for anything on earth would I have you live here. Therefore I wish you to be married and to retire -- with your wife -- from this corruption. Although I knew it was bad, I find it even worse than I feared.... If you were here you wold never escape without a special intervention from God...

You have doubtless realized that their main object, my son, is to separate you from God, and from me...you can understand my anxiety for you.... I beg you, pray to God. [31]

Feeling herself powerless to stop the marriage, Jeanne nevertheless made certain demands. "She insisted that Cardinal de Bourbon should perform the ceremony, not as a priest but as a prince, not in a church but outside it, and that Henry should not accompany his wife into the Church to hear Mass."[32] Catherine reluctantly agreed.

Jeanne's Death

Jeanne had been in poor health for year, but when she collapsed on June 4, 1572 on her way back from a shopping trip, everyone was surprised. Both enemies and friends had thought her unstoppable. She lay in ever-increasing pain for four days. Her ministers were permitted to attend her, constantly in prayer, reading at her request Psalm 31 and John, chapters 14 through 18, exhorting her, and reminding her of God's mercy to the faithful. Having fought all her life, she did not have the strength to fight any longer. She resigned herself and prayed, "O God, my Father, deliver me from this body of death and from the miseries of this life, that I may commit no further offenses against Thee and that I may enjoy the felicity Thou hast promised me."[33] She died on June 9, 1572.

Jeanne's story, like those of all great men and women, does not end at her death. While Spain and the Papacy rejoiced, the Huguenots felt a terrible loss, finding comfort only in the fact that she was with her Lord.

Subsequent Tragedies

One wonders if Jeanne could have prevented the remaining events of 1572 had she been alive. The marriage of Henry and Marguerite went on as planned on August 18th. All of Jeanne's demands for the ceremony were kept. Tension filled Paris as the most powerful Protestant and Catholic leaders were present for the festivities. Catherine saw her chance to suppress the Huguenots once and for all, thus regaining some favor with the Catholic forces. Six days after the wedding Catherine sanctioned the brutal, brutal assassination of Coligny and the other six Huguenot leaders on August 24th, St. Bartholomew's Day. This was only the beginning of a weeklong slaughter of Huguenots in Paris and the provinces. The total number of deaths estimated in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew ranges from 5,000 to 30,000.[34]

Many French Protestants accepted conversion rather than death but later renounced the oaths made under duress. Within two months of the massacre the fourth civil war broke out, and La Rochelle and other towns were resisting siege. "On July 6, 1573, Charles signed the Peace of La Rochelle, guaranteeing the Huguenots religious liberty. Politically the massacre had accomplished nothing."[35]

One wonders also if Jeanne could have prevented some of Henry's future dealings had she been alive. Catherine had protected him against the massacre, forcing him, however to return to Catholicism. For almost four years he was again all but captive at court, but in February of 1576 he made his escape. "His first act, once clear of pursuing royal forces, was to return to his mother's faith; the second to rally the weakened followers of her Cause, and the third, to restore her legislation in the kingdom he had inherited from her."[36] Henry III succeeded Charles IX. When Henry III was assassinated, Henry of Navarre suddenly became Henry IV of France. He remained a Calvinist for four years after becoming King, but at the end of the fifth, sixth, and seventh civil wars, he returned once again to the Catholic church. He saw no other way to unite France. Known for his dry wit, he is reported to have quipped that "Paris was worth a mass." Jeanne surely would have disagreed. Although his Edict of Nantes (1598) fulfilled all of the demands for which Jeanne and the Huguenots had fought, he proved in his personal as well as political life that he was merely sympathetic to and not a part of the Reform.

These last events -- The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, Henry's religious pliability, and the ultimate failure of the French Reformation -- are a sad epilogue to Jeanne's story. Because they come here at the end, they seem to overshadow the great events of her life. They really cannot overshadow her, however. She gave all to her God -- her wealth, health, kingdom, and life, her heart, soul, strength, and mind -- for the furtherance of His gospel. History bears out the fact that Calvinism reached its height in France from about 1559-1572, those years in which Jeanne was a part of the movement. And she left behind a great legacy, first to her own kingdom, where, she would say, "God has always granted me the grace to preserve this little corner of Bearn, where, little by little, good increases and evil diminishes."[37] Her legislation and reform in Bearn outlived her by many, many years. But she has left behind a legacy to all those of the reformed faith who find in the memory of her service to God the sufficiency of His strength.


Nancy Lyman Roelker, Queen of Navarre: Jeanne d'Albret, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 5.
Roelker, p. 3.
Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1953) p. 766.
Roelker, p. 32.
ibid. p. 55.
Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England, (Minneapolis: Ausburg Publishing House, 1973) p. 44.7.7"
ibid. p. 44.
Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Reason Begins, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961) p. 4.
ibid. p. 335.
Roelker, p. 127.
ibid. p. 142.
ibid. p. 154.
Bainton, p. 50.
Roelker, p. 174.
ibid. p. 158.
ibid. p. 180.
ibid. p. 183.
Bainton, p. 55.
ibid. p. 58.
Roelker, p. 210.
ibid. p. 216.
ibid. p. 217.
Bainton, p. 60.
ibid. p. 61.
Roelker, p. 267.
ibid. p. 301.
ibid. p. 312.
ibid. p. 325.
ibid. p. 334.
Durant, p. 345.
Roelker, pp. 373-374.
Durant, p. 348.
Roelker, p. 388.
Durant, p. 353.
ibid. p. 354.
Roelker, p. 409.
ibid. p. 188.

Marilyn Manzer has a B.A. from the University of California, Irvine, and is an instructor of Latin and English at Newport Christian Schools.
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