Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on women of the Reformation. Previous post.
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. Catherine’s governess was a devout Protestant; Theodore Beza was later in charge of her education and became a lifelong mentor and friend. Her mind was sharp, but ill health plagued her. 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 Henri 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.”
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].” Catherine was only thirteen.
In Paris and Navarre
Ignoring Jeanne’s wishes, Catherine d’Medici took over Catherine d’Bourbon’s guardianship. She and her brother were kept in Paris, lived through the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and were forced to convert. Catherine developed depression. 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.”
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.
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. Her faithfulness and hard work were known internationally.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
Not only firm herself, Catherine interceded for other Protestants under persecution, opening her apartments in Paris as a Huguenot meeting place. It made her a target of Roman Catholic persecution: verbal abuse, riots, and media attacks gave weight to Henri’s pressure.
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” In 1587, Catherine had fallen in love with her cousin, Charles d’Bourbon. When the relationship became serious in 1592, Henri arrested Charles and placed Catherine under house arrest. 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.” Sister stood up to brother for years until 1597, when she finally agreed to the marriage.