Marguerite d’Angoulême, an Influential Reformer

Marguerite d’Angoulême, an Influential Reformer


            Marguerite d’Angoulême, also known as Marguerite de Navarre, was one of the most influential figures in sixteenth-century Europe. Today, her memory in Reformed circles seems obscured by that of her more committed daughter, Jeane d’Albret. In reality, while Marguerite never called herself Lutheran or Reformed, she had an enormous impact on the Reformation.


Scholar, Patron, and Benefactor

            The only daughter of Charles de Valois, Comte d’Angoulême, and Louise de Savoie, Marguerite was born on 11 April 1492 in Angoulême, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of southwestern France, but was raised in Cognac, a town in the same region that is today known for its homonymous drink. There, her brother Francis was born two years later.

            The Angoulême court was full of scholars, artists, and singers, offering a unique learning environment for the children, particularly fostered by Louise, whose motto was “libris et liberis” (for books and for children). From the start Marguerite displayed a keen intelligence.

            When Charles de Valois died unexpectedly in 1496, nineteen-year-old Louise continued to raise her children, hiring respected scholars for their education. Two years later, upon the sudden death of King Charles VIII, four-year-old Francis was declared heir presumptive in the distant case that the next king, Louis XII, died without a male heir. For this reason, Francis, his mother, and his sister were invited to move first to the royal residence in Blois, then to the court in Amboise, and finally to Paris.

            In 1509, soon after their last move, Marguerite was given in marriage to another Charles, the Duke of Alençon. This was definitely not her choice, since a courtier reported that she “wept enough to carve out a stone” during the whole wedding ceremony. She then moved to the castle of Alençon, a luxurious place with no books (she had to request them from her previous libraries, together with scholars).

            Besides reading, Marguerite became involved in charitable programs, visiting the poor and organizing a program to eliminate the need for begging by building hospitals, hospices, and almhouses, raising funds to maintain them, and supervising them personally. She levied regulations on financial care for poor unmarried mothers before and after they gave birth, and imposed sanctions on monks and nuns who abandoned or killed unwanted children (born of rape or illicit sexual relations – a sad situation described in several medieval texts).


Dangerous Liaisons

            In 1514, the distant possibility for Francis to become king became reality because Louis XII died unexpectedly, leaving only two daughters. Marguerite, who had always been close to her brother, was soon named “La mignonne du roi de France” (the Sweetheart to the King of France).

            In the meantime, she became familiar with some of the current reformist ideas of Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther, but she was particularly influenced by Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples, one of the most respected professors of philosophy in Paris, who promoted, among other things, the printing and circulation of the Bible in French, together with some commentaries.

            Lefèvre introduced Marguerite to Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, who became her faithful correspondent. Firmly committed to their cause, she supported the printing and distribution of evangelical essays and tracts. although both Briçonnet and Lefèvre were ruled as “in error” by the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris. Highly critical of Reformist ideas, the Faculty investigated and threatened anyone who seemed to deviate from Roman Catholic doctrines.

One of Marguerite’s protégés, Louis de Berquin, raised the Faculty’s suspicions when he omitted supplications to Mary and the saints in a booklet on prayer. Further examination found him guilty of sympathizing with Lutheran teachings. He was burned at the stake in spite of Marguerite’s intercession. He was only one of the many friends of Marguerite who were executed.

            At first, King Francis was open to the new ideas and backed Marguerite on her requests for leniency. Soon, however, political pressures became too strong, and he sided with the Roman Catholic authorities. In spite of her dangerous connections, Marguerite was spared from investigations and was able to continue her support of dissenters. These famously included John Calvin, who spent some time at her castle when fleeing from Paris.


Wife, Sister, Mother, and Aunt

            In 1525, Marguerite’s husband Charles returned mortally wounded from the disastrous battle of Pavia, where Francis was captured and held for ransom. Blaming Charles for her son’s apprehension, Louise refused to forgive him (in spite of his profuse apologies) and asked Marguerite to distance herself from him. Marguerite instead remained with her husband until the end, comforting him and reading from the Scriptures.

            After her husband’s death, Marguerite visited Emperor Charles V to negotiate the release of her brother, whose health was failing. When Charles postponed a decision, Francis suspected a plot to detain Marguerite as well, and advised her to return to France.

            The 1529 Treaty of Cambrai brought temporary peace between the two rivals. Today, many forget that it was also called “Paix Des Dames” (Peace of the Ladies) because it was achieved through the negotiations of two powerful women: Louise and Margaret of Austria, Charles V’s aunt. Marguerite served as hostage in these negotiations.

            By then, Marguerite had already remarried. Her second husband, Henri II d’Albret, King of Navarre, had just escaped from the emperor’s prison after the Battle of Pavia, and was eleven years younger than her. It was, this time, a marriage of love, as their correspondence demonstrates. As Queen of Navarre, she shared her time between the castles of Pau and Nérac.

            In 1528, she had a daughter, Jeanne, and two years later a son, Jean, who died a few months after his birth.


Influential Author

            All the while, Marguerite was also writing her own works, mostly poetry – all in French, a language that was just beginning to stand on its own literary merits. In this, she learned much from Clement Marot, a French poet who spent much time at her court and became particularly famous for his metrical version of the Psalms in French.

Some of her first works were Oraison de l’âme fidèle à son Seigneur Dieu (Prayer of the Faithful Soul to Our Lord), where faith is clearly defined as an unmerited gift of God; and the Discord étant en l’homme par la contrariété de l’esprit et de la chair (Discordance Caused in Man by the Conflict between the Spirit and the Flesh), a commentary on Romans 7 and 8.

Her most famous work, however, is Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (The Mirror of the Sinful Soul), a 1,434-line poem first published anonymously in 1531. In this, the sinful soul offers to the readers the mirror in which they can see their own souls.

            Most of this work describes the soul’s astonishment and frustration at the awareness of the depths of her sinful nature and her relief at the discovery of God’s grace. In a chapter on Marguerite, author Marylinn Robinson points out how this author’s treatment of this movement from sin to grace stands out at a time when most religious writings had mystical undertones. “The despair of the self” in Marguerite’s works, she says, is not the despair “that prepares the mystic for his of her encounter with the divine.” For Marguerite, “this self-recognition is not the preparation, but is in fact the encounter.”[1] In this, Marguerite appears to be in line with Luther’s description of the believer as simultaneously sinful and righteous.

            And this realization of one’s sinful nature, Robinson explains, doesn’t lead to despair. “There is frustration, astonishment, and grief in the voices of Marguerite’s poems, but no fear or spunsense, because there is nothing external to the soul but the Lord, whose grace need not be doubted.”[2]

            According to Robinson, the Miroir diverges from mystical writings also because the mirror is the Scripture, not a transcendent vision.

            The book is largely a monologue to Christ and flows through a series of narratives that present the soul in her roles of mother, daughter, sister, and wife – all seen in relationship with Christ. Marguerite uses biblical examples of these roles (for example, the unfaithful mother in Solomon’s court or the unfaithful prodigal son) to show her sin and failure and God’s relentless grace.

Marguerite’s Miroir became immediately popular. Elizabeth Tudor (still a teenager at that time) offered to her stepmother Katherine Parr, as a New Year’s gift, a translation of this work in English. And many other women at that time wrote of the influence this work had on their life.

But Marguerite’s influence was not limited to women. Robinson, for example, believes that she had a great impact on young Calvin, since some of the themes in his writings were originally found in hers.

The reformist nature of the Miroir was too obvious to go unnoticed and the book was soon listed by the Faculty of Theology among heretical works. King Francis intervened twice, succeeding in removing the book from the list. The book was then reprinted three times, the last with the inclusion of Marot’s translation in French of Psalm 6 (at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was still forbidding translation of Scripture in local languages). It didn’t take long for the work’s printer, Antoine Augereau, to be arrested. He was hanged in 1535.


Broken Ties

            As much as Francis loved Marguerite, he distanced himself from her after the infamous “affair of the Placards,” a group who, on the night of 17 October 1534, nailed all over Paris pamphlets denouncing the abuses of the papal Mass. That was the proverbial last straw that forced Francis to take harsh measures against religious reformers, including those who had found refuge in Marguerite’s court.

The two royal siblings were however reconciled the following year, although she had less influence on Francis. Marguerite made some attempts to soften her reformist position in deference to her brother, but was surprised when in 1540 he imposed a husband of his choice (the duke of Cleves) on Jeanne without her or her family’s consent. The following year, at the wedding, Jeanne had to be carried to the altar because she refused to walk. The marriage, however, was eventually annulled because it was never consummated – initially because Jeanne had not reached puberty, and later because Margaret kept postponing her trip to Cleves for so long that the duke relented.

Marguerite’s toleration of different views caused a rift between her and Calvin, who publicly criticized two of her protégés. Marguerite took this as a personal offense and distanced herself from the Reformer, who became instead one of Jeanne’s most faithful advisors.

Marguerite remained in the Roman Catholic Church until the end, but her influence continued, both through her writings and through the lives of the people she protected.


[1] Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, New York: Picador, Houghton Mufflin Company, 2005, 218

[2] Ibid., 220


Simonetta Carr