Fierce Mind and Brave Spirit: Jeanne, Queen of the Reformation
She had a temper—molto fantastico!—complained the Catholic ambassador from Florence; and in 1528 when she was born, her parents (King Henry and Queen Marguerite d’Albret of Navarre in southwestern France) likely wished for a son after neighboring royal rivals from Spain scoffed at their newborn female heir: “The cow has brought forth a sheep.”1 Little did they know that the high-spirited, intelligent, and tenacious Jeanne d’Albret would prove to be a powerful asset for the Reformation in France, and that she was just as courageous and influential as any male monarch. While Calvin and Luther preached the truths of Scripture in their regions, it was Jeanne who played a significant part to sustain and bolster the Reformation cause in her territory of France.
Her looks matched her character. A sharp face with thin lips and gray piercing eyes, Jeanne was a dynamic child although frail in health. “Noisy and boisterous,” her mother described her in a letter.2 Parents of overly energetic children, however, can take note of Jeanne’s story—and how that energy can be channeled with positive results if children are trained in the fear of the Lord (Prov. 22:6).
For the first nine years, Jeanne’s childhood was idyllic on the family estate in the Loire Valley away from the public eye, which would be a stark contrast to the dangerous and complex politico-religious drama she navigated through the rest of her life as queen. Until then, however, she enjoyed a normal royal upbringing. On their estate in Lonray, Jeanne had a personal maid, a tutor who instructed her in Latin and the classics, and twenty servants. As they were French, it only made sense to have two bakers and a pastry maker among them (crème brûlée anyone?)!
Jeanne’s mother, Marguerite, was also the sister of King Francis I of France and therefore an influential renaissance woman. Although Marguerite was a supporter of the “new thinking” of the reform movement and exposed Jeanne from a young age to the reformers, she never left the Catholic Church. Marguerite interacted with Erasmus, who sought her opinion; and she invited the likes of William Farel, John Calvin, and her Reformed chaplain Gerard Roussel to the royal court. The seed of the gospel was planted in Jeanne’s heart at a tender age; and when she reached adulthood, her life story proved that God’s word does not return void (Isa. 55:11) and that a mother’s faithful guidance of children in godliness and Scripture yields the fruit of righteousness.
Jeanne’s iron will revealed itself in her preteen to teenage years. She would not allow herself to be a political pawn, used by either her father King Henry or her uncle King Francis. They were playing a tug-of-war with Jeanne, trying to gain more land by marrying her off to either a Spanish king or William, the German Duke of Cleves. Since Uncle Francis was King of France while Jeanne’s own father only ruled Navarre, her uncle seemed to have the upper hand. Until Jeanne showed him who was boss.
“I will throw myself down a well rather than marry the Duke of Cleves!” Jeanne protested when King Francis informed her of the arrangement. She sobbed and shouted—some sources say she even endured physical punishment—refusing to bend. When King Francis moved forward with the marriage plans, Jeanne wrote an official letter of objection before her engagement day, complete with witnesses and their signatures, saying:
I, Jeanne de Navarre, continuing my protests already made, in which I persist, say and declare and protest again . . . the marriage proposed between me and the Duke of Cleves is against my will, that I never have consented to it, and that I never will.
At her engagement ceremony, the cardinal asked Jeanne three times if she would marry the duke. In typical fashion, she replied, “Don’t press me.” Gutsy for a thirteen-year-old! Then the day of the royal wedding arrived with all its pomp and circumstance. The child bride did not care that officials of the Catholic Church were present, including royal representatives from England, Portugal, Venice, and Saxony. She resisted to the last minute, refusing to walk up to the altar for the wedding to begin. King Francis therefore commanded an official to carry her to the altar by the collar in front of the shocked royal court. Although the ceremony took place, the marriage was not consummated. The duke went to his country to fight various battles, while Jeanne remained with her parents in frail health. After a few years, the marriage was annulled by the Catholic Church because of political interests on the part of her family.
As a young adult, Jeanne happily accepted an arranged marriage with Antoine de Bourbon, a prince with great military achievements, charm, and affability. History would have been much different, even disastrous, had she married Henri II, another suitor who sought her hand in marriage and who later became the leader of an ultra-Catholic group and an archenemy of Queen Jeanne’s. Like a storybook triumph, the marriage with Antoine was a love match. Although they lived happily together and had five children (only two survived) over the years, when their marriage was tested by matters of faith, the result was heartbreaking.
At first, Jeanne kept a low profile toward Reformed teachings, although she was favorable toward them. She had to balance the risk of losing her crown, having her territory confiscated and invaded by Spain, and having the Catholic Church condemn her for heresy. By this time, however, the sparks of scriptural truth she received in childhood had been fanned into flame, and she privately wrote to Viscount Gourdon, a nobleman who was pro-Reformation, saying:
A reform seems so right and so necessary that, for my part, 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.
Her loyalty to God was soon tested. The Royal French Council asked her to arrest and hand over Reformed preachers, such as Theodore Beza and others, so they could be tried for sedition. She stubbornly resisted, and on Christmas Day 1560, she publicly declared herself as a Reformed queen and her territory as Protestant. Although her husband was a Protestant in word, he was not in heart. Antoine had become an immoral king and only sought political advantages and new mistresses—and the Counter-Reformation took advantage of this weak link.
Wanting to reclaim Jeanne’s territory of Navarre for the Catholic Church, they baited Antoine with promises of greater power and land if he would return to the church. Not only did he agree, but he even consented to a kidnapping plot against Jeanne so her Catholic enemies could imprison her in a fortress. Jeanne, however, learned of the plot and escaped with the help of Theodore Beza.
Within her territory of Navarre/Bearn, Jeanne constantly negotiated for the cause of the Protestants. But as the number of Protestants in her region grew to equal those of Catholics, so the persecution grew. Although she first tried using her royal power to protect the Protestants from vicious persecution, she ended up providing them with troops to defend themselves. A skilled and wise ruler, she did not violently force her subjects to submit to the Reformed faith, as she herself admitted: “I do nothing by force; nobody is condemned to death or imprisonment.” She implemented this by ordering the removal of shrines, altars, and crucifixes, and paid for twenty Reformed ministers to come to Bearn to preach.
While she was busy strengthening the Protestant root in her territory, her husband died from a battle wound while fighting Protestants in another region of France. Surprisingly, on his deathbed, Antoine reaffirmed his Reformed faith, which was a bittersweet end to their marriage. Jeanne, who had loved her husband despite his unfaithfulness, wore mourning clothes the rest of her life.
When Jeanne had to confront threats from the papacy that she was committing heresy and bringing in new ideas, she boldly replied to a cardinal’s insidious accusations. Her reply was printed for many to read:
As to the Reformation . . . I am most earnestly resolved, by the Grace of God to continue throughout my land of Bearn. . . . [N]either have I undertaken, as you assert, to implant a new religion, but only to restore the ruins of the ancient faith. . . . Pull the mote out of your own eye so that you can see clearly enough to cast out the beam in your neighbor’s! First cleanse the earth of the blood of just men shed by your (party). . . . [W]hen you say that we abandon the ancient doctrine to follow apostates, take a look in the mirror. . . . Keep the names “heretic,” “seditious” for you and yours; I thank God that I know how to serve and please Him without your teaching. . . . In Bearn I recognize only God to whom I must account for the rule He has given me over His people. . . . If you can find no stronger arguments . . . you cannot convince me . . . and please stop annoying me.
For this, Jeanne was condemned for heresy and called to the Inquisition in Rome. By God’s grace, due to a complex web of interests, Jeanne was pardoned. This is because the French royals resented the overreach by the papacy, so Catherine de Medici (the infamous queen) intervened to prevent Jeanne from being condemned. This friendship, however, did not last long, and soon Catherine de Medici would become an archenemy.
These troubles are only a sample of what Jeanne experienced in her lifetime as she resolutely continued her work for the Reformation. While Catholics and Protestants in France waged two civil wars, Jeanne struggled to keep control of her territory and ensure a future for her son and daughter. By the time a third civil war was brewing, Jeanne was in danger of being killed and had to flee to La Rochelle where other Protestants had taken refuge. As it was a wealthy fortified seaport city that had autonomy and could mint its own currency, Jeanne remained for three years. There she took on the many roles of administrator, chairperson, and fund-raiser, writing to many foreign sources and even to Queen Elizabeth I of England to ask for support. Generous to the needs of the poor, Jeanne managed the influx of about sixty thousand Protestant refugees who fled to La Rochelle for safety.
She also established a seminary in La Rochelle and recruited the most competent Reformed professors to teach Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, paying their salaries from her own resources. During that time, she arranged and paid for the translation of the New Testament in a dialect of Basque to make it available to her people in their language. Because of her work and presence, La Rochelle became the intellectual and military center of the Reformation in France.
But the more the Protestants progressed, the more they had to physically defend themselves against the Catholics. When a general was killed in battle and the Protestant troops faced a great defeat, Jeanne rode out to encourage them. Tireless in her work for the Reformation, she plainly stated that she would rather die than accept a peace that did not provide freedom of religion to the Protestants.
Over the years, Catherine de Medici began persecuting Jeanne, forcing the marriage of Jeanne’s son Henri with her Catholic daughter, against all of Jeanne’s wishes and attempts to stall the marriage. Jeanne died shortly before the marriage took place. Although she had struggled with tuberculosis for most of her life, some think Catherine poisoned her. On her deathbed, Jeanne affirmed her true faith in Jesus:
I expect neither salvation nor righteousness, nor life from any but my Savior Jesus Christ, being assured that His merits alone are abundantly sufficient to make full satisfaction for all my sins, innumerable though they be.
Jeanne’s death on June 9, 1572, was a loss to the Protestants of France. After her son Henri married Catherine’s daughter, the slaughter of St. Bartholomew took place. But Jeanne’s legacy continued in her daughter Catherine, who displayed the same fierce mind and brave spirit and returned to the Reformed faith despite pressures. As for Henri, Jeanne’s son, he remained officially Catholic but privately held to the Reformed teachings (although it is not certain if he was truly born again). One positive result of Henri’s rule was the Edict of Nantes, which gave legal freedoms to the Protestants.
From Jeanne, we can learn that not only are we saved by grace, but also that this same grace empowers us to be uncompromising in the face of opposition, holding on to the truth of Scripture and remembering that “he who began a good work in [us] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
Rebekah Dan is the author of two books, including a children’s picture book, Princess of the Reformation: Jeanne D’Albret (2017).
- James Anderson, Ladies of the Reformation: Memoirs of Distinguished Female Characters, Belonging to the Period of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century (London: Blackie and Son, 1857).
- All further quotes in this article are taken from Nancy L. Roelker, Queen of Navarre: Jean d’Albret, 1528–1572 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968).