Jeanne d’Albret – a Determined Woman

Some of the most influential women in church history were princesses or queens, who had the ability to establish a state religion according to their convictions. At a time when cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion) was in order, the Protestant church prospered best under Protestant rulers.

            One of these rulers was Jeanne d’Albret, born in 1528 to King Henry II of Navarre and Marguerite of Angoulême, sister of King Francis I of France. Navarre was a small region which included lands on both sides of the Pyrenees. In reality, Henry ruled over a minuscule portion of this region on the French side of the mountains. The bulk of the land was in possession of Ferdinand of Aragon, and Henry spent his life trying to lay his hands on it.

            Marguerite was highly esteemed by both Protestants and Catholics for her remarkable education in classical and theological matters. Her court was attended by several religious reformers and by poets such as Clement Marot, who became a psalm writer in Calvin’s Geneva. Calvin himself visited Marguerite and benefited from her support and protection. She was one of the many European figures who embraced the Protestant teachings on grace without making a break with the Roman Catholic Church – a common position in a fluid age where ideas were still being developed and discussed.


A Strong-Willed Child

            Like many other princesses of her time, Jeanne – an only child – received a good education, and was expected to comply with her parents’ choice of a husband. In her case, however, the choice came from Francis I, who arranged a marriage with Duke William "the Rich", brother of Anne de Cleves (third wife of the English king Henry VIII). It would have been a profitable political alliance.

            Jeanne, who was only 12, was firmly against it. So was her father, but Marguerite eventually gave in to her brother’s wishes and proceeded to break her daughter’s resistance with the rod. Jeanne stood firm. She was dragged to the wedding, but wrote in defiance: “I take you all again to witness that I persevere in the protest I made before you[1].”

            The marriage was celebrated anyhow, but Marguerite was able to delay Jeanne’s move to William’s home in view of her young age. Four years later, William betrayed Francis, and the marriage was annulled on the grounds that it had never been consummated.

            In 1548, the new king of France, Henry II, proposed another marriage for Jeanne – this time to his cousin, 30-year old Antoine de Bourbon, a charming man who won Jeanne’s heart. Jeanne, 20 at that time, eagerly accepted, in spite of her parents’ protests. Soon, however, Antoine turned out to be a philanderer.

            In the meantime, the Protestant Reformation was spreading and gaining influence in France, and Jeanne couldn’t help but being influenced. She chose, however, to imitate her mother, who died in 1549 without having made a break with the Roman Catholic Church. Marguerite’s stand was partially motivated by fear of her brother and father, who warned her “not to get new doctrines in her head” and not “to meddle in matters of doctrine.”[2]

            When Henry died in 1555, Jeanne felt free to denounce her mother’s “hesitation between the two religions” and her father’s abusive reaction to Marguerite’s interest in the Reformation. Henry’s violence didn’t spare Jeanne. “[He] shook a stick at me,” she wrote, “which cost me many bitter tears and has kept me fearful and compliant until after they had both died.”[3]

            After his death, she could finally say, “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.”[4]


A Public Profession of Faith

            On Christmas day, 1560, both Jeanne and her husband announced their conversion to the Protestant cause and their support of the French Reformed Church. Jeanne established Reformed worship in her territories, making a complete break with Rome. Antoine, instead, kept wavering between the two religions, attending both Mass and Reformed services, until he finally switched back to Roman Catholicism. Calvin applauded Jeanne’s stand and sent Theodore Bèza to be her chaplain.

            For a while, things seemed to be on the rise for the French Protestants (also known as Huguenots). Catherine de Medici, who had just become regent for her second son, Charles IX, tried to bring peace to her land by appeasing both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Since her first son, Francis II, had favored the Catholic party, she switched her efforts in the other direction, receiving Huguenot ladies at court and encouraging worship under Calvinist preachers. In 1561, she held a council at Poissy in the attempt of drafting a reconciliation between the parties – a dream which proved to be impossible.

            Under her leadership, protestant preachers enjoyed greater freedom than ever, and the Edict of January in 1562 gave Huguenots the official right of public worship. At the same time, the Catholic faction, led by the Guise family, began threatening Catherine, who started to backtrack by forbidding Huguenot services at court. As conflicts increased, a civil war became inevitable.

            During this first of the French Wars of Religion, Jeanne chose a position of neutrality, angering her husband to the point that he was ready to repudiate her. She finally fled, only to return at the end of 1562, after Antoine had died of an arquebus shot. Throughout this ordeal, Calvin sustained her with his letters.

            Around this time, Pope Pius IV summoned her to Rome to be examined for heresy. There were rumors that he wanted to have her kidnapped, with the backing of the king of Spain, and turned over to the Spanish Inquisition. Catherine de Medici defended her and offered her support.

            Without her husband, Jeanne became more vocal in her support of the Huguenot cause, and more rigid in her attempts to purge her lands from Roman Catholic “idolatry,” During the Third War of Religion (1569–1570), she abandoned her neutrality and participated in the work of propaganda and diplomacy for the Huguenot party at La Rochelle, a city on the West coast of France which had become the main center of Huguenot activity. The war concluded with a favorable settlement for the Huguenots in the Peace of Saint-Germain.

            In her lands, Jeanne established Protestantism as state religion, closing down all Catholic institutions. She also established a Protestant College. In 1571, she worked toward the creation of the first Protestant synod, where the Rochelle Confession of Faith, the decisive text of French Protestants, was ratified.


Jeanne’s Legacy

            Jeanne dreamt of placing her son Henry on the French throne, where he could turn France into a Protestant country. Catherine fed that dream by proposing a marriage between her own daughter Marguerite of Valois and Jeanne’s son. Initially opposed to this unequal union (Marguerite was Roman Catholic), Jeanne accepted the offer in May 1572. By that time, she had been ill with tuberculosis for about ten years, and was physically exhausted.

            She died a few weeks later, at age 44, missing both the wedding and the tragedy of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which struck an irreparable blow to the Huguenot church. She was also spared the fulfilment of her worst fear. In 1593, Henry converted to Catholicism – allegedly for the sake of the unity of the country. His 1598 Edict of Nantes guaranteed significant rights to the French Huguenots, but was revoked in 1685 by his grandson Louis XIV, who declared Protestantism illegal in France.

            Outwardly, Jeanne’s aspirations appeared to be crushed. But the Reformation in France has persisted. A symbol adopted by French Huguenots in 1583 – a burning bush surrounded by the Latin phrase Flagror non consumer (“I burn, I am not consumed”) remained the emblem of a small church that endured through centuries of persecution and re-emerged, scathed but alive, after the French Revolution.


[1] Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, Blackwell Pub., 2009, p. 161

[2] Jeanne d’Albret to the Vicomte de Gourdon, August 22, 1555, cited in Nancy Lyman Roelker, Queen of Navarre: Jeanne d'Albret, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968, p. 127.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr