Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on women of the Reformation. Previous post. Next post.
The first princess to become Reformed was Marguerite de Navarre. French Reformed Christians owed her much—without her influence and protection, the French Reformed church would have been crushed before it was even formed.
She was born on April 2, 1492, at Angoulême. Her brother Francois was in line for the French throne; Marguerite shared his education, studying languages, philosophy, history, literature, and theology. At seventeen, in 1509, she married Charles, Duke of Alençon. The marriage was politically convenient and produced no children. It seems that during this time, evangelical preaching and discussions with others brought Marguerite to saving faith.
Francois and Marguerite were unusually close siblings. As he took up the French crown in 1515, Francois had deep respect for his sister: “My sister Marguerite is the only woman I ever knew who had every virtue and every grace without any admixture of vice.” Francois’ wife was chronically ill, so Marguerite often functioned ceremonially and socially as queen. So, in the Roman Catholic court, Marguerite was able to speak of Christ. As she used her position to spread and protect Protestantism, she hoped that Francois would become the Reformation’s political defender.
Work of Intercession
Early on in his rule, however, Francois began to see Protestantism as dangerous; individuals who pushed for reform were targeted. Once, when Marguerite was away from Paris, a friend of hers was arrested. When she returned to the city and heard of it, she begged her brother for his release; Francois granted it.
Marot, her Protestant valet, was arrested, but Marguerite soon had him freed, too. If she had not, the French church would have lost his translation of the Psalms, which it sang for centuries.
Berquin, one of the most learned French nobles, was arrested in 1523 for his evangelical ideas, but he was eventually released through Marguerite’s influence. Two years later, he was again arrested and interrogated. He expected to be burned at the stake; Marguerite again gained liberty for him. But in 1529, Berquin was arrested and imprisoned a third time for his faith. Marguerite again used all her efforts to have him released, but Francois could only be pushed so far on an issue that was so public. To Marguerite’s great sorrow, Berquin was martyred on April 22, 1529.
Grieved but still seeking to bring gospel truth to her nation, Marguerite tried to bring back Reformers who had fled from France. She went to her brother, who allowed them to return for a time. Marguerite showed herself unafraid of persecution and association with the persecuted.
Marguerite also had diplomatic ability, which Francois had cause to admire. In February 1525, Charles V captured Francois in battle and took him as a prisoner back to Spain. Marguerite traveled there and cared for her brother until his release, which she negotiated.
The same battle that left Francois a prisoner left Marguerite a widow, for the Duke of Alençon had been killed in action as well. Later that year, she married the king of Navarre, Henri d’Albret. The wedding was splendid; the marriage was not. Leaving Paris for her new capital, Nerac, she left Francois to rule alone. The marriage gave Marguerite two children, one of whom died as a baby. Her mind turned heavenward to contemplate a better marriage, and she wrote:
Lord, when shall come that festal day
So ardently desired
That I shall by love upraised
And seated at thy side,
The rapture of this nuptial joy
Denudes me quite.
Her husband’s kingdom was untouched by Reformation doctrine. Marguerite began spreading it by her example. The Roman Catholic Henri was not pleased with this, and eventually things came to a head.
Marguerite usually had private, evangelical services in her apartments. One day they celebrated the Lord’s Supper in an underground hall in the palace.
Though it was done secretly, news of it reached the king, who had been out hunting and was very much annoyed by “the fastings in the cellar.” He went to her rooms. The minister and others were warned, and they escaped, leaving Marguerite alone with her servants. Flush with anger over her theological positions and lack of submission, Henri struck her in the face, saying, “Madame, you know too much.” Marguerite reported the incident to her brother. Ever the protective sibling, Francois set out for Navarre, threatening war. Henri was terrified. He begged his wife to forgive him, and he was so penitent that he promised to allow Reformed worship and to read about Reformed doctrine himself. Francois returned to Paris, and Henri kept his bargain.
But love for a sister did not change Francois’ strengthening religious position. A visit to Madrid had a lasting effect; on his return, he banned Protestant books and socially cut off any Reformed people from court.
Marguerite’s daughter, Jeanne, had been born in France in 1528. In 1530, Francois took the child away to raise her as a French princess—a Roman Catholic—away from her mother’s Reformed ideas. So her only living child was taken away because she was Protestant. Marguerite paid a high price for her public faith, perhaps the highest price a mother can pay. Still, she did not allow this grief to end her service to the French Reformed.