Charlotte Arbaleste Duplessis-Mornay – Faithful Chronicler, Devoted Wife, Loving Mother

            Charlotte Arbaleste’s life changed drastically when a young man came to town. Native of Paris, she had found refuge in Sedan, in the French Ardennes, after the disastrous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. She had been a widow for five years and had no intention of remarrying. To many noblewomen, widowhood provided a quiet, independent life.

            The man was Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, just a few years older than her. He had just returned from England, where he had fled after the massacre. Apart from their common experience of grief and flight, the two discovered they shared many interests.

            For a start, they had both been raised in families with mixed religious beliefs. Philippe’s mother favored the Huguenots while the father had been a firm Roman Catholic. In Charlotte’s case, it was just the opposite. Both Philippe and Charlotte had become devout Protestants. In fact, he was offering his military services for the Huguenot cause.

            They both loved reading, mathematics, painting, and especially writing. She had written an account of the Bartholomew’s Day massacre and encouraged him to write an essay on life and death – a necessary subject in such calamitous times.

            For eight months, they spent two or three hours a day together. She was impressed by his talents and his “polished and honest conversation,”[1] but wondered about his intentions. Was he courting her? After asking him a few general questions about the expediency of soldiers marrying in dangerous times, she concluded his were just neighborly visits.

            Still, she was concerned of what people would say, and decided it was best for her to move away. She was just making traveling plans when he proposed marriage – a surprising but welcome prospect. Before replying, Charlotte made sure his mother and brother agreed. Other relatives had contrasting opinions. Some warned Philippe that Charlotte was not rich, and offered other suggestions, but he was not interested in exploring other alternatives, nor in pursuing better financial options.

            Being in the service of the Huguenot King Henry of Navarre, who aspired to the French throne, Philippe had to leave on a military campaign soon after his proposal. Mildly wounded, he was captured by the armies of the Roman Catholic Duke of Guise, and released only after Charlotte arranged to pay his ransom. Philippe and Charlotte married in January 1576. As a bridal present, he gave her the book she had urged him to write, A discourse of life and death.

A Life of Travels

            Philippe continued to earn the trust of King Henry, who sent him on several diplomatic missions, including a trip to England from 1577 to 1578 and a trip to the Netherlands from 1581 to 1582. Charlotte joined him each time, as Philippe longed for them “he longed for us to be as much together as the misery of the age allowed.”[2] Their daughter Elizabeth was born in London and their son Philippe in Antwerp, Holland.

            Wherever they went, Charlotte cultivated her husband’s friendships and supported his writing projects, such as his Treatise of the Church, an exhortation to right doctrine, and his Treatise on the Truth of Christianity, an apologetic work against atheism, Islam, and other beliefs. Philippe’s works were appreciated in other countries and readily translated into English.

            Over the years, Charlotte and Philippe had eight children together: four boys and four girls. Of these, only two girls and one boy lived past infancy. In spite of his travels, Philippe made a point to be present at the babies’ births. Once, when he couldn’t make it back on time, he sensed the time when the baby was born.

            When Philippe was away, Charlotte kept in touch with him by mail while she managed his estate and entertained people who came to see him. He often committed to her important messages to pass on to others, and treasured her opinion on his writings.

            Charlotte nourished great hopes for her only surviving son Philippe. Soon after his birth, she began writing a biography of her husband as an example and guide to the boy. The book, which includes her own memoires, is a testimony to her witty personality, unswerving love for her husband, and insightful understanding of theological and political matters. She gave her son a copy when he turned 16, but continued to record new events as they took place.

            Some of her stories reveal her feisty spirit. For example, when she followed her husband to Montauban, France, she discovered that the local church had banned from the Lord’s Supper for her habit of wearing a wig. In fact, the ban extended to her whole family. Her husband, who was busy with organizational meetings, was shocked that a church could administer discipline without giving him notice.

            Besides, both Philippe and Charlotte were persuaded that wearing a wig was a matter of Christian freedom. If it was, as the local pastor asserted, a disobedience to Scriptures, then it should be forbidden in every church. Charlotte sent two long letters to the General Synod of the Reformed Church of France. No answer was recorded, but the family soon moved to Saumur, where Philippe became governor, and the issue never rose again.

            In Saumur, Charlotte contributed to the building of a Protestant church, while Philippe founded a Protestant Academy that kept him busy after King Henry’s abjuration of Protestantism in 1593.

Disappointments and Grief

            Henry’s conversion to Catholicism horrified the Mornay family, but Philippe continued to be loyal to him, facilitating the negotiation of the 1598 Edict of Nantes and negotiating the 1599 annulment of the king’s marriage to Marguerite of Valois. Philippe’s treatise on the eucharist, published in 1600, provoked the king’s anger for its defiance to Roman Catholic doctrines, right when Henry was trying to establish peace. The dispute over the book culminated in a public debate held in the presence of the king, where Philippe was defeated. Philippe thought it was unfair, since only nine of his five thousand passages were determined to be inaccurate.

            Charlotte spoke with pride of their son’s courage in asking Henry’s courtiers, “Are not you clever enough to see that the King, to please the Pope, has sacrificed my father's honour at his footstool?”[3] In truth, the young man was following in his father’s footsteps. He was a brave soldier, faithfully devoted to the Huguenot cause. She planned to arrange a suitable marriage for him, possibly to the granddaughter of the famed Admiral Gaspar de Coligny.

             Her hopes were crushed in 1605, when her son died in battle. Her last lines describe the manner of his death. He was still recovering from an injury, but had already missed one campaign and was eager to get back to action. He was shot in the chest while rallying the troops to fight.

            “Happy end for him,” she wrote in her Memoires, “born in the Church of God, nourished in His fear, noted for his worth while yet so young, lost in a righteous quarrel and in an honourable action. But for us, the beginning of a sorrow which can only end in death, with no other consolation but what the fear and the grace of God can give us while we chew the bitter cud of our grief.”[4]

            Suddenly, the book on life and death she had encouraged her husband to write came to life as never before, “Diest thou yong?” he had written, “praise God as the mariner that hath had a good winde, soone to bring him to the Porte. … We must rest us in his will, who in the middest of our troubles sets us at rest.”[5]

            Philippe and Charlotte tried to console each other with similar thoughts. “God now calls upon us to make proof of our faith and obedience,” Philippe told her as he gave her the news. “Since it is His doing, we must hold our peace.”[6] She looked for comfort in thinking of worst scenarios. Overall, she realized words were insufficient.

            “Silence best expresses what followed to all who own a heart. We felt as if our entrails were torn from us, our hopes cut off, and our plans and wishes frustrated; we could not converse with one another for a long while, or think of anything else, for, next to God, he had been our one subject of speech and thought; our daughters, notwithstanding our lack of favour at court, being happily married and settled elsewhere after much trouble so as to leave the house in his sole possession, all our thoughts had thenceforward centred round him; we felt that God, in

taking him, had taken everything from us, no doubt to detach us from the world and to save us from all regret at parting, at whatsoever hour he might choose to call us.”[7]

            She might have remembered her husband’s admonitions to leave the times of one’s death in God’s hands, just as her desire to leave this life swelled in her heart. “Truly did I not fear M. du Plessis' grief, whose love for me grows as my sorrow grows, I would fain not survive him,”[8] she wrote.

            Those were her last lines in the book she had written for her son “to describe the pilgrimage of [their] lives.”[9] Her body, already frail and tried by frequent illnesses, didn’t last long under the emotional strain. She died on May 15, 1606.

            Her husband, crushed by the double blow of death, found comfort in Christ and in the support of his daughters. He lived long enough to write more apologetic books in response to Roman Catholic attacks, and to contribute from afar to the Synod of Dordt to which he had been invited but which King Louis XIII had prevented him from attending.

            When the king deprived him of his governorship of Saumur, Philippe became convinced that his responsibilities in this world were over. He died in 1623. Charlotte’s book was published soon after his death, with the title Memoires de Messier Philippe de Mornay.


[1] Lucy Crump, ed., A Huguenot Family in the XVI century. The Memoirs of Philippe du Mornay, written by his wife, London: Routledge & Sons, p. 139

[2] Ibid., p. 193

[3] Ibid., p. 58

[4] Ibid., p. 284

[5] Philippe De Mornay, A Discourse on Life and Death, transl. by Mary Sydney, London, 1592,

[6] Charlotte De Mornay, quoted in Lucy Hutchinson, Memoirs of the life of Colonel Hutchinson, London: J. M. Dent, p. xx11,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lucy Crump, A Huguenot Family, p. 284

[9] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr