Renée of France and the Plight of the Churchless
The Jesuit Jean Pelletier, called by Duke Ercole II of Este to put a stop to the dangerous “Lutheran” practices of his wife Renée, was not impressed by his conversation with the duchess. “The poor woman has no education,” he wrote to his Father Superior, Ignatius of Loyola. “She only knows a few passages of Paul's letters in vernacular, which are misinterpreted, and a few babbles.”
At a time when valiant confessions and professions of faith of Protestant men and women were being published and distributed throughout Europe (Anne Askew’s Examinations was published in 1546 and Lady Jane Grey’s bold answers to John Feckenham had just begun to spread), Renée’s response seemed feeble. She capitulated too easily.
Born at the royal court of France in 1510, Renée lost both of her parents, King Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, before she turned five, and her only sibling, her older sister Claude, nine years later. If she had been born a man, she would have been queen of France, but the French law didn’t allow women to inherit the throne. Instead, she was given in marriage to Ercole II of Este, heir of the small Italian duchy of Ferrara. In 1528 she moved to his court, with a large retinue of French courtesans and servants.
Her marriage with Ercole was strained from the start. Apparently, he didn’t find her attractive and, as most European male rulers, indulged in extramarital affairs. On the other hand, she annoyed him with her financial extravagance and jealous protection of her French subjects. Their conflict intensified after 1542, when Pope Paul III allowed the reorganization of the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. At that point, it became clear that Renée had harbored and supported many Protestants, including John Calvin, and had promoted the printing of Protestant books in Italian.
Most Italian rulers saw the pope as a political rival and bowed to his wishes only when it was diplomatically crucial. Until 1554, Ercole turned a blind eye to Renée’s religious activities, mostly in an effort to maintain good relations with France, but that year the pope’s insistence became too pronounced. Trying to keep a foot in both camps, Ercole asked King Henry II of France to send “a good catholic theologian” to detach Renée from “such an enormous heresy.” Henry sent the inquisitor Mathieu Ory, who, together with Pelleter (already in Ferrara), worked hard to bring the duchess back to the Roman Catholic fold.
Restrained inside the Castle of Ferrara, Renée put up a short resistance. Perhaps the greatest threat she received as a mother was the prohibition to see her daughters until she repented. Following an attitude which was common in her day, she might have concluded that a fake submission would grant her freedom to resume her practices. Whatever the case, on September 13, 1554, she relented and agreed to attend Mass.
The news spread quickly. John Calvin, who had been Renée’s close friend and mentor since his undercover visit at her court in 1526, wrote mournfully to his friend William Farel, “What can I say but that an example of constancy is a rare thing among princes?”
“What can you do?” his close associate Theodore Beza consoled him. “You have done your duty.”
The anti-climactic nature of Renée’s fall leaves us wondering. She seemed so determined and loyal. If we look deeper, however, we notice some warning signs. The most flagrant of these is the lack of pastoral care. Yes, she had Calvin as a faithful correspondent, but there is a difference between receiving pastoral letters and placing oneself under the care of a pastor inside a faithful visible church.
This lack was not always her fault. Papal agents were watching her carefully and she may not have had the luxury to establish an openly Reformed church within her court. Just a year before her fall, the visiting pastor Paolo Gaddi, who had studied in Geneva, wrote Calvin a concerned message: “She has run up against some terrible counselors who cannot be sent away. Besides, she lacks a faithful minister of God's Word who can exhort her and prevent the seed from being chocked by brambles and thorns.”
The “terrible counselors” might have been appointed by Ercole, but she also had a history of giving indiscriminate refuge to anyone in need, including some outright heretics (anti-Trinitarian). In this light, Pelletier’s opinion of her as a “poor woman [who] has no education” is less surprising. In spite of her wide instruction and large library of books and Bibles in several languages, she lacked a pastor who could give her a clear theological direction.
This is one difference between Renée and Lady Jane Grey who, in spite of her young age, gave a highly coherent and Scriptural expression of her faith both in the Tower and on the scaffold. Unlike Renée, Jane had grown up in a visible church (even if limited to her large household) under good pastoral care, in a country where the crown (King Edward VI) emphasized the unity and orthodoxy of the Protestant church.
To remedy Renée’s lack, Calvin thought of going personally to Ferrara, but his current circumstances didn’t allow him. Finally, he sent a pastor who had been serving in Geneva: François de Morel, a nobleman by birth who could fit well in her court without raising suspicions.
It was too late. Morel arrived in August 1554, when the duke’s efforts to “deprogram” Renée had already started. She capitulated the following month.
Calvin was not ready to give up on Renée. He continued to encourage her to look to Christ and hold on to His promises, proving to the jubilant enemy that “those whom God have lifted up are doubly strengthened against any struggle.”
In the meantime, Ercole, satisfied by his wife’s outward repentance, gave her back her freedom, allowing her to slowly return to her former practices. When he died in 1559, she was free to move to her property at Montargis, France, less than 100 miles south of Paris. There, she was finally able to benefit from the care and oversight of a pastor and elders in a properly organized church, even if the troubling times didn’t allow any of them a long permanence, and even if her view of the authority of a temporal ruler over the church didn’t always match the view of her pastors. Once again, Calvin intervened, clarifying the distinctive duties of rulers and church and exhorting her to discharge hers faithfully.
In her last letter to her in 1564, less than two months before his death, Calvin encouraged her faith by reminding her that her many difficulties in life had not swayed her “from a right and pure profession of Christianity, not only in words, but most noticeably by actions” – a profession she continued until her death on 12 June 1575. According to her wishes, she was buried without pomp and, like Calvin, without a tombstone.
 Pelletier to Loyola, March 22, 1554, M.H.S.J., Epistolae Mixtae, quoted in Leonardo de Chirico and Daniel Walker, Lealtà in Tensione, Alfa & Omega, Caltanissetta, Italy, 2009, 47 (this and the following translations are mine).
 Ercole II to Henry II, March 27, 1554, Bibliothèque nationale de France, quoted in Chirico and Walker, Lealtà in Tensione.
 Calvin to Farel, November 1, 1554, Calvini Opera Omnia, Vol. 15, Letter 2037.
 Beza to Calvin, November 9, 1554, Calvini Opera Omnia, Vol. 15, Letter 2040.
 Gaddi to Calvin, July 23, 1553, Calvini Opera Omnia, Vol. 14, Letter 1763.
 Calvin to the Duchess of Ferrara, February 2, 1555, Calvini Opera Omnia, Vol. 15, Letter 2105.
 Calvin to the Duchess of Ferrara, April 4, 1564, Calvini Opera Omnia, Vol. 20, Letter 4090