Jeanne d’Albret’s only daughter, Catherine d’Bourbon, was like her mother in many ways: married to a Roman Catholic, persecuted by the French court, and friends with Huguenots. Though she did not have her mother’s power, Catherine was also faithful.

Born February 7, 1559, in Paris, Catherine was named after Catherine d’Medici, the Roman Catholic queen mother. Her father’s death gave her faithful mother control of her upbringing.1 Catherine’s governess was a devout Protestant; Theodore Beza was later in charge of her education and became a lifelong mentor and friend.2 Her mind was sharp, but ill health plagued her.3 The only other sibling Catherine had was her older brother, Henri, and she developed a deep affection for him.

In 1572, an ill Jeanne went to Paris to negotiate a marriage for Henri4 and wrote about Catherine’s conduct: “You cannot imagine how my daughter shines in this company. Everyone assails her about her religion and she stands up to them all.”5

Shortly after writing that letter, Jeanne was on her deathbed. She urged Catherine “to stand firm and constant in God’s service despite her extreme youth” and insisted that “her daughter the princess be constantly instructed in [the Reformed faith].”6 Catherine was only thirteen.

In Paris and Navarre

Ignoring Jeanne’s wishes, Catherine d’Medici took over Catherine d’Bourbon’s guardianship.7 She and her brother were kept in Paris, lived through the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and were forced to convert.8 Catherine developed depression.9 The dowager queen was careful about Catherine’s education, but all the attention did not deceive young Catherine, who knew that “she hate[d] our family.”10

When Henri escaped to rule Navarre, he demanded his sister’s return. Catherine arrived back home in 1576. Having been orphaned, seen her church massacred, and lived under persecution, she made public profession of Protestantism.11

By the age of seventeen, Catherine was acting as regent for Henri, who was absent. Because Navarre was at war, Catherine had to manage troops, money, and political connections.12 Her faithfulness and hard work were known internationally.13

Sister to the King

In 1589, Henri became king of France, giving up Protestantism because “Paris is worth a mass.” Catherine was devastated: “I am so distressed by it that I cannot express it adequately.”14 Grieved, she was also under pressure; Henri placed Catherine under serious and sustained duress to convert. But Catherine “remained a devout Calvinist despite severe pressures from her brother.”15 She assured a Huguenot leader, “Whatever is said about my having been to Mass, I have not done so in neither deed nor thought. . . . I remain steadfast.”16 Two years later, she wrote to Beza, “[I] not only to continue in the holy fellowship of God’s church . . . but also to make sure that all good men and especially faithful members of the church know and rest assured that by the grace of God I will never change.”17

Not only firm herself, Catherine interceded for other Protestants under persecution, opening her apartments in Paris as a Huguenot meeting place.18 It made her a target of Roman Catholic persecution: verbal abuse, riots, and media attacks gave weight to Henri’s pressure.19

Marriage and Death

Catherine’s letters to Henri are full of affection. But the brother’s attention to his sister was less loving. Henri used “his sister in a matrimonial chess game in order to cement an alliance with his former enemies”20 In 1587, Catherine had fallen in love with her cousin, Charles d’Bourbon.21 When the relationship became serious in 1592, Henri arrested Charles22 and placed Catherine under house arrest.23 Henri pushed for a marriage to the Duc de Lorraine, a staunch Roman Catholic. Stressed and sick, Catherine wrote three sonnets: “With your eye of pity, look on my labour, / Give some relief from these mortal pains, / Or if it pleases you, Lord, that I suffer them, / Strengthen my heart against all these attacks.”24 Sister stood up to brother for years until 1597, when she finally agreed to the marriage.25

Her mother wrote about her conduct: “You cannot imagine how my daughter shines in this company. Everyone assails her about her religion and she stands up to them all.”

What Catherine would not agree to was Roman Catholicism. The king could choose her husband, but “in matters of religion, she acknowledged no such right, and there was no limit to her resistance.”26 Henri voiced his frustration: “My sister is in the same bad mood . . . which is in unbearable affliction to me.”27

The next year, in 1598, Catherine made a significant impact on French religion in the negotiations surrounding the Edict of Nantes.28 Henri, trying to prevent another civil war by the edict, “assigned her the task of persuading the cardinals and bishops that the Edict would serve their best interests.”29 It was a herculean job. “She will need to exercise her command of the arts of persuasion to the utmost and to use the natural charms with which she is endowed . . . no woman has ever undertaken a more difficult task.”30 The Tuileries Palace opened to Roman Catholic bishops; the princess wined and dined her religious opponents, conversing and convincing off-record. When charm failed, Catherine used her position as the king’s sister to remind people that it would be difficult for their sons to gain government posts if Henri could not count on their support.31 The results show her success—only the Parliament of Paris held out against the edict. Eventually, Catherine met with their president and managed to produce cooperation.32 During the negotiations, Henri lessened the pressure on his sister.33

Months later, Catherine married the Duc de Lorraine. Her brother had promised that if she did, she would no longer be under pressure to convert and could keep her Huguenot servants.34 But the duke worked with Henri to isolate her, dismissing her Protestant ladies-in-waiting shortly after the wedding. Catherine was devastated: “A blow so cruel and hard to believe . . . I cannot imagine that after obeying you . . . you would do such a cruel thing. . . . I can bear everything else, but this reduces me to despair.”35 Some maids were returned, but her Huguenot ministers were replaced by priests who worked hard to convert her.36 The strain and her age probably contributed to a miscarriage in the summer of 1599.37

For years, brother and husband worked to chip away her resolve, but with no effect: “We have not been able to defeat my sister the Duchess de Bar, with all our efforts and means. . . . I have spared neither advice nor persuasion, nor the authority I have over her.”38

Despite the tensions, husband and wife seem to have cared for each other. But increasingly caught between theological conviction and relational commitment, they lived apart for a time.39 Difficult relationships, isolation, poor health, and infertility combined to make life unwelcome to Catherine: “I swear before God that I wish for death a thousand times a day.”40

But things began to resolve relationally, and husband and wife moved back into the same home. In early 1604, Catherine thought she was expecting again: sick with tuberculosis, she would take no medical help because she was afraid it might hurt the baby. The growth was an abdominal tumor that ended her life on February 13 of that year. She never realized what was really happening, and she died asking the doctors to save her child.41 Henri did not attend her funeral.42 She was buried beside her mother.

Catherine’s public position and refusal to cow under pressure made her a strong example to other French Protestants. Bereaved, ill, and often alone as an adult, she wanted the Huguenot church to know that “I am resolved to live and die in the only religion in which I believe.”43

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on May 28, 2018, and is part of a series on women of the Reformation. Anna Reinhard. Anna Adlischweiler. Katharina Schutz Zell. Margarethe Blaurer. Marguerite de Navarre. Jeanne D’Albret. Catherine d’Bourbon. Elizabeth Bucer. Giulia Gonzaga.

  1. George Campbell Overend, The Persecuted Princess: A Chapter of French History (Edinburgh, Scotland: Johnstone, Hunter, 1875), 20. ↩︎
  2. Nancy Lyman Roelker, Queen of Navarre: Jeanne d’Albret 1528–1572 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), 400. ↩︎
  3. Roelker, 416. ↩︎
  4. Overend, 38. ↩︎
  5. Jeanne d’Albret to Beauvoir, March 11, 1572, in Roelker, 376. ↩︎
  6. Jeanne d’Albret in Roelker, 389. ↩︎
  7. Overend, 42. ↩︎
  8. Jane Couchman, “Resisting Henri IV: Catherine de Bourbon and her Brother” in Sibling Relations and Gender in the Early Modern World, eds. Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006), 65. ↩︎
  9. Overend, 45. ↩︎
  10. Catherine de Bourbon in Overend, 48. ↩︎
  11. Roelker, 411. ↩︎
  12. Overend, 53–54. ↩︎
  13. Elizabeth I to the Duke du Montpensier, October 17, 1584 in Original letters, illustrative of English history . . . ed. Henry Ellis (London: Richard Bentley, 1846), 4:48–50. ↩︎
  14. Catherine de Bourbon to du Plessis-Mornay, July 1593, in Couchman, 71. ↩︎
  15. Roelker, 124. ↩︎
  16. Catherine de Bourbon to DuPlessis-Mornay, 1594, in Roelker, 414. ↩︎
  17. Catherine de Bourbon to Theodore Beza, June 26, 1596, in Roelker, 414. ↩︎
  18. Roelker, 414. ↩︎
  19. Overend, 91–93. ↩︎
  20. Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2007), 75.
  21. Overend, 72. ↩︎
  22. Roelker, 412. ↩︎
  23. Couchman, 68. ↩︎
  24. Catherine De Bourbon, “Sonnets” in Lettres at Poesies (Paris: Raymon Ritter, 1927), 207. Thanks to Stephanie MacDonald for translation help. ↩︎
  25. Roelker, 413–14. ↩︎
  26. Couchman, 70. ↩︎
  27. Henri IV to Caumont, June 18, 1598, in Couchman, 66. ↩︎
  28. Couchman, 68. ↩︎
  29. Noel Gerson, The Edict of Nantes (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1969), 119. ↩︎
  30. Duc de Montmorency to the Duchess de Montmorency, 1598, in Gerson, 119. ↩︎
  31. Gerson, 122. ↩︎
  32. Gerson, 125. ↩︎
  33. Couchman, 71. ↩︎
  34. Couchman, 71–72. ↩︎
  35. Catherine de Bourbon to Henri IV, March 1599, in Roelker, 414–415. ↩︎
  36. Couchman, 72. ↩︎
  37. Catherine de Bourbon to Henri IV, August 18, 1599, in Roelker, 415. ↩︎
  38. Henry IV to Monsieur de Bethune, March 21, 1602, in Couchman, 73. ↩︎
  39. Couchman, 73. ↩︎
  40. Catherine de Bourbon to Henri IV, August 7, 1600, in Bainton, 80. ↩︎
  41. Bainton, 81. ↩︎
  42. Roelker, 416. ↩︎
  43. Catherine de Bourbon to the Duke de Bouillon, June 1597, in Couchman, 71. ↩︎

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