Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on women of the Reformation. Previous post.
Marguerite de Navarre’s only surviving child was Jeanne d’Albret. Marguerite knew her daughter’s personality and spoke of the work that Jeanne might do for the church. Jeanne did not fail. She was fearless in her defense of the Reformation. Marguerite’s faith was more private, working quietly for reform. Jeanne’s was public, total, and bold. Often ill, Jeanne was mentally intense, and she was often seen as cold and suspicious. But she was unselfish, living for the church. God used her tough personality for great good.
Born on January 7, 1528, Jeanne was raised away from her mother to ensure her Roman Catholicism. She was strong willed. Francois decided to marry 12-year-old Jeanne to a German duke. Despite threats and punishments—such as rumors of whippings—she refused. The king was unyieldingly insistent that she must marry. So Jeanne drew up legal documents recording her protest. In 1541, she was carried to the altar. The duke then went to war, and Jeanne went to her mother’s house. During the course of the marriage, Jeanne was introduced to the Reformed faith. Four years later, the pope annulled the marriage. Jeanne was again single, now Protestant.
Second Marriage and Conversion
Her second husband was Antoine, Duke of Vendome. From her side, it was a love match. The wedding was in October 1548. Two of their five children, Henri and Catherine, survived childhood.
By 1559, she and her husband were queen and king of Navarre. In December 1560, Jeanne made public profession of her Reformed faith. Antoine was not as keen. But by 1563, Calvinism was the official religion of Navarre.
This was not sudden. Jeanne had been planning for years. In 1555, she wrote, “A reform seems so right and 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.” National reform was an expression of deep personal conviction.
Roman Catholics noticed. The pope sent letters of censure. In France, Catherine de Medici plotted against Jeanne.
In Paris, Antoine had affairs that became public knowledge. Jeanne was more than heartbroken. “Although she has little power, I fear her anger,” wrote one courtier. Still, she worked, helping establish a Protestant Huguenot congregation in Paris and publicly attending services.
Beginning at the end of 1561, the Huguenot church began to feel increased persecutions. As the leading Protestant royal, Jeanne was under personal attack. Catherine made a plan to win Antoine back to Roman Catholicism. On the lookout for personal advance and with the Huguenots losing political clout, he was easy bait and renounced the Reformed faith.
With Catherine, he tried to force Jeanne to go to Mass. She refused. Husband and wife fought, loud enough for others to hear. Even in Geneva, John Calvin knew of the strife: “I know, Madame, that you are the prime target. . . . Do not fail to stand firm.”
Antoine and Catherine finally ordered Jeanne to leave France. Antoine took their son, placing him under conservative Roman Catholic teachers. A little while later, Antoine lay dying from a bullet wound, cared for by a mistress. Until her death, Jeanne wore widow’s clothes.
Widowhood and Reform
As a widow, Jeanne was free to rule without hindrance. She solidified the reforms begun in 1561, curbing Roman Catholicism and licensing Calvinist preachers. Roman Catholic subjects plotted against her; dissent plagued her rule.
The year 1563 was difficult. The pope issued a bull against her, demanding that she come to Rome or forfeit her lands. Jeanne made the French court see the danger of allowing the pope to take others’ lands and redistribute them; the king and Catherine de Medici became her intercessors. When the king of Spain started a rebellion in Navarre in order to draw Jeanne in and capture her, his own wife warned Jeanne. That fall, there was a kidnapping attempt. Jeanne escaped, and despite poor physical health she seemed to grow spiritually stronger. The kings of France and Spain plotted to kill the Reformed. Jeanne prevented the massacre.
Now Jeanne’s goal was to get her son Henri, thirteen years old, away from the godless French court. She visited France, gaining permission for Henri to ride out with her. It was a chance to rescue him, with no margin of error. Jeanne secretly sent a messenger to her own court, telling them to have an armed force ready to meet her. Six hours later, they galloped for Navarre. The escape was international news, and the French were angry.
Jeanne continued her reforms. By 1566, she had banned gambling, prostitution, and more. Eventually, Roman Catholic lands and buildings were confiscated. Jeanne used the resulting cash to fund Calvinist churches and establish a seminary. Under pressure to come to Paris with her son, Jeanne saw through the pretense and dug in her heels in Navarre.
The next French civil war between the Huguenots and Roman Catholics was coming. Jeanne knew that a Protestant loss would crush the church between the powers of Spain and France. She left Navarre. Afraid to tell her own councillors, she stole away with Henri and arrived at La Rochelle, where the Huguenots had gathered. They placed Jeanne at the head of the civil government; she served for three years. During this period, she funded the translation and publication of the New Testament in Basque.
The war was terrible, but Jeanne battled on. In 1569, the death of Louis, Prince of Condé, paralyzed the army. Jeanne came before the troops with their flags draped in mourning. She spoke:
Soldiers . . . let us unite and summon back our courage to defend a cause which can never perish and to avenge him who was its firm support. Does despair overwhelm you—despair, that shameful feeling of weak natures? When I, the queen, hope still, is it for you to fear? Because Condé is dead, is all therefore lost? Does our cause cease to be just and holy? No; God, who had already rescued you from perils innumerable, has raised up brothers-in-arms worthy to succeed Condé. . . . I swear to defend to my last sigh the holy cause which now unites us, which is that of honor and truth.
The Huguenot army was generally successful, forcing the Roman Catholics to make peace. Jeanne returned to Navarre.