The first princess to become Reformed was Marguerite de Navarre.1 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.2 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.3
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.”4 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.5
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.6
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.
In 1531, she became Protestantism’s first published female poet.7 Marguerite’s writing demonstrates an understanding of and love for biblical doctrine as well as “a determination to show women engaged in contemporary intellectual discussions.”8 An underdeveloped theology shows in her treatment of Mary, but there is also evidence in her writings of a clear understanding that salvation is through Christ alone: “And what is more, I see that none other than Jesus Christ is my plaintiff. . . . He has made himself / Our advocate before God, offering up virtues of such worth / That my debt is more than paid.”9 Her poems show familiarity with Scripture’s themes and passages: “Encased in lambskin is the sacred Word / Embossed with markings of a deep blood red, Sealed with seven seals may now be heard / By those who find that law and grace are wed.”10 When the second edition came out in 1533, the faculty of theology at Sorbonne condemned the volume as “Lutheran.”11 This made things dangerous for her. Undeterred, Marguerite continued writing. Though her brother made the faculty retract their censure, this on-record commitment to Protestantism seems to have put a divide between brother and sister that slowly widened.
The next year, Francois ordered the execution of all “heretics.”12 When Marguerite found she could no longer use her influence to advance Protestantism, she worked to protect it. During the persecutions, whenever Marguerite was in Paris, her brother would not allow any Protestants to be martyred out of respect for his sister. But Marguerite’s pleadings for others no longer softened Francois, who grew more rigidly Roman Catholic.13 Persecution of the French Reformed spread through the country. God had prepared Navarre to be a refuge, and Protestant clergy, nobles, and commoners crossed the border.
Marguerite invited leading Huguenots to her palace at Nerac. At her table, they discussed passages of Scripture and doctrine, with the queen as a delighted listener. John Calvin and other Reformers found safety there as well.14
Like so many Reformed noblewomen of the time, Marguerite corresponded with Calvin. Though she trusted in Christ alone for her salvation and suffered for her belief, Marguerite remained in need of solid teaching.
In 1547, Francois died. Marguerite’s grief was deep: “At this season of his cruel death, / Lord, I await your favour that I might hear good news.”15
Marguerite continued her quiet work of reform and protection until she died. Years before, she had written: “O my God, that death is fair / That takes me from this fetid air. / By death I’m victor in the race. / By death I look upon Thy face. / By death I am to Thee conformed.”16 She died on December 21, 1549, rejoicing in hope, and calling on Jesus to save her.
She understood that her work was just a beginning: “God, I am assured, will carry forward the work He has permitted me to commence, and my place will be more than filled by my daughter, who has the energy and moral courage, in which, I fear, I have been deficient.”17 She had laid a foundation on which her daughter could build.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on November 15, 2017, 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.
- Navarre was a small kingdom in the western Pyrenees Mountains. ↩︎
- Carol Thysell, The Pleasure of Discernment: Marguerite de Navarre as Theologian (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000), 6. ↩︎
- Bishop Briconnet, a mystic, had great influence on Marguerite’s theology. ↩︎
- Quoted in James I. Good, Famous Women of the Reformed Church (1901; repr., Birmingham, Ala.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007), 60. ↩︎
- Thysell, 7. ↩︎
- In Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 37. ↩︎
- Marguerite de Navarre, Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Rouben Cholakian and Mary Skemp (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 73. ↩︎
- Susan Broomhall, Women and Religion in Sixteenth-Century France (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 79. ↩
- Marguerite de Navarre, “Mirror of the Sinful Soul” in Writings, 91, 135. ↩︎
- Marguerite de Navarre, “The Primacy of Scripture” in Bainton, France and England, 21. ↩︎
- Thysell, 3. Early in the Reformation, Roman Catholics often used the term Lutheran to describe all Protestants. ↩︎
- Thysell, 8. It was this decree that made John Calvin decide to leave France. ↩︎
- Bainton, France and England, 29. ↩︎
- Thysell, 3. ↩︎
- Marguerite de Navarre, “Song” in Writings, 295. ↩︎
- Marguerite de Navarre in Bainton, France and England, 26. ↩︎
- Quoted in Good, 69. ↩︎