Renée of France, the youngest and second surviving daughter of King Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany, was born on 25 October 1510. Like the other women in her family, Renée of France would show her mettle from an early age … which included religious devotion, a stainless-steel spine, and the kind of brave loyalty that deserves canonization.
The first test of Renée’s loyalty involved her beloved governess, Michelle de Saubonne. Renée’s elder sister, Claude, would be married to Francis I of France, whose mother, Louise of Savoy, was an enormous pain in the arse for Queen Anne of Brittany and both her daughters. Not only did Louise of Savoy try to bully Claude and usurp her duties (which Claude didn’t really mind because she was so shy), Louise was petty enough to get Francis to boot Renée’s governess out of court after he became king in 1515 simply because Saubonne was loyal to the ladies of Brittany. Renée was initially powerless to do anything for her governess, but her memory was long and her love was fierce. Her governess had been loyal to her, and Renée was determined to repay Saubonne with the same coinage. The minute the young princess was married to Ercole II, Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, in the spring of 1528 she made Saubonne a part of her retinue to her new dukedom.
Renée, who was called Renatia di Francia in her new home in Ferrara, had a great deal of personal wealth because she had been given the the duchy of Chartres to compensate for the fact the French crown refused to let her mother give her the duchy of Brittany. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Renée she used her money to accrue a court full of scholars, artists, and top-notch theologians. She quickly became renown for her piety, intelligence, and patronage of the arts.
She also enjoyed the blessing of fertility, which was crucial for women on her rank. She bore her husband five children: Anna (1531, Alfonso (1533), Lucrezia (1535), Eleonora (1537) and Luigi (1538). She was an excellent mother, overseeing every aspect of her children’s lives and ensuring that even her daughters had a top-notch education. Her son, as Duke Alfonso II, would raise his duchies to their highest cultural peak, “favouring the arts and sciences” and becoming the “patron of Torquato Tasso, Giovanni Battista Guarini, and Cesare Cremonini … [as well as] Luzzasco Luzzaschi.”
Another of Renée’s reformist friends was Anne Boleyn, whom she had gotten to know well when Anne was serving as one of her sister Claude’s attendants at the French court. While the rest of Europe was spreading calumny about Anne Boleyn from pillar to post, Renée would always remember her “with kindness and affection”. Oddly enough, Renée was one of the women put forward as a possible bride for King Henry VIII when he first began his secret negotiations to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in first half of the 1520s. Perhaps knowing that his search for a new wife predated King Henry’s obsession with Anne Boleyn is one of the reasons Renée never joined in with the multitudes blaming Anne for being a ‘home-wrecker’ who lured the king away from his saintly wife.
By the time her husband inherited his duchy on 31 October 1534, the spiritually minded Renée had became Reformer and a Protestant sympathizer. She corresponded “with a very large number of Protestants abroad [including] with intellectual sympathizers like Vergerio, Camillo Renato, Giulio di Milano, and Francis Dryander”. Since she felt this was the correct moral stance, she didn’t bother to hide her beliefs. In fact, she hoped to influence more members of the Italian and French nobility to embrace reformist principles. This became a serious source of contention between Renée and her profoundly Catholic husband.
Ercole was the oldest son of Lucrezia Borgia, so he knew a thing or two about strong-willed women, but even he was astounded by his wife’s dauntlessness. When Pope Paul III urged Ercole to get rid of the suspected French heretics in Ferrara, Renée welcomed John Calvin to their court in 1536 and helped circulate Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion among the literate populace and influential thinkers. Ercole responded by arresting several of her attendants, including the French poet Clément Marot, for heresy, but it is suspected that she helped several of them escape.
By the mid-1540s the Counter-Reformation was in full swing, and Renée’s very Catholic husband was 100% on board the anti-Protestant Express. In 1545 Ercole introduced “a special court of the Inquisition at Ferrara … through which, in 1550 and 1551, death sentences were decreed against Protestant sympathizers (Fannio of Faenza and Giorgio of Sicily), and executed by the secular arm.” That didn’t stop Renée from supporting the Reformation in any way shape or form. Instead, Renée boldly “partook of the Eucharist in the Protestant manner together with her daughters and fellow believers.” She also “wrote letters to her husband and other government officials asking for mercy for those imprisoned for the sake of Christ and she continued to provide aid from her own fortune.”
In a desperate attempt to get his wife to quite her Protestant shenanigans, Ercole sent word to his wife’s nephew, King Henri II of France, to help him stop her. King Henri sent a French Inquisitor by the name of Doctor Oriz, who had been instructed to play hard-ball. Oriz was under orders to take away Renée’s children and imprison her if she didn’t submit to the Holy See once more. Worse, there was the implication that she was expendable, since her husband had grown tired of the marriage and she had already produced the requisite heir and spare.
Renée was arrested and her wealth confiscated, put through the degradation of a public trial, and isolated from any companionship, but she only broke down and gave in to the demands of her husband and the Inquisitor after a threatened separation from the her children, whom loved desperately. “So, as a condition for being reunited with her children she … yielded [and] made confession on 23 September 1554, although subsequently she refused to attend Catholic worship”. They could silence her by using her children as a weapon, but they could not make her pretend to embrace a religious action she disagreed with so vehemently.
Her capitulation for her children’s sake was seen as womanly weakness by some of her Protestant allies. Olympia Fulvia Morata claimed she was “not surprised by the recantation, since she had always believed Renée’s was a weak mind (une tête legère).” Calvin himself wrote William Farel to tell him, “We have received sad news of the duchess; her courage is overpowered by misusage and threats … How seldom is there an example of steadfastness among aristocrats.”
This irks me, because I find her love for her children to be in every way admirable. She chose their well-being above her pride, if not her principles. She wouldn’t take mass, or claim to be a ‘good’ Catholic daughter of the church, but she would suffer the indignity and humiliation of public conformation and implied hypocrisy in order to be there for her kids. That’s my biggest beef with Katherina of Aragon; I would admire her more if she had used her divorce agreements to barter for the best possible circumstances for her daughter, the future Mary I of England, rather than just stubbornly refusing to allow Henry VIII to disavow their union and wed Anne Boleyn. She would have rather martyred her child than to have been displaced from her rightful place as queen. That is, in my opinion, more stupidly selfish than noble.
Calvin and other critics of Renée would come to sing a different tune regarding her ‘weakness’ by the 1560s.
Duke Ercole died on 3 October 1559, and his son Alfonso became duke. Pope Pius IV demanded that the new duke get rid of his mother for her heretical beliefs. Alfonso, who was as much better Catholic than he was a son, told his mother to pack her bags. Thus, Renée gathered up her belongings, kissed her ungrateful son goodbye, hugged her youngest two daughters a final time, and headed back to Paris.
France was less than congenial for Renée. Her daughter, Anna, and her son-in-law, Francis, Duke of Guise, were as Catholic as Renée was Protestant. In fact, Francis was the head of the Roman Catholic party and Anna was closer to the queen-mother, Catherine de’ Medici, than she was to her own mother, whom she viewed as a heretic. To lessen the tension between Anna and herself, Renée removed herself from court and took up permanent residence at Montargis, her country estate. However, the widowed duchess made Montargis a haven for her fellow Huguenots. She wrote Calvin for the name of a good preacher to join her there and spread the Evangelical message, protected any Huguenots in her general vicinity, and turned Montargis into a fortress of refuge for the persecuted sect.
During the French Wars of Religion, her son-in-law, Duke Francis of Guise, threatened to tear Montargis apart to get at the Huguenot refugees within, and Renée replied that “she would herself mount the battlements and see if he dare kill a King’s daughter.” She would never directly attack or fight back against her children or her children’s spouses, neither would she ever back down regarding her religious beliefs or knowingly allow them to harm Protestants. She also tried to reason with them, or outright begged them to cease the persecution of Huguenots.
Her stalwart support of Protestantism eventually “won Calvin’s praise (10 May 1563), and she is one of the frequently recurring figures in his correspondence of that period; he repeatedly shows recognition of her intervention in behalf of the Evangelical cause; and one of his last writings in the French tongue, dispatched from his deathbed (4 April 1564), is addressed to her.”
After Francis, Duke of Guise, was assassinated in February 1563, Renee was one of the few people capable of saving Huguenots from her newly widowed daughter. Anna held the Huguenots responsible for the death of her husband and became even more stringently anti-Protestant. She was hugely influential at the French court, and she did everything she could to fan the flames against the Huguenots.
Although the Huguenots would fight back and commit atrocities against their Catholic brethren, such as the Michelade on 29 September 1567 when Catholics were slaughtered in Nîmes, the most famous religious bloodbath would occur on 22 August 1572 — the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when King Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, decided to celebrate the wedding of Princess Margaret to the Protestant King Henry III of Navarre by murdering every Huguenot they could find. Renée’s daughter Anna was believed to have been the one who fired the shot that was the starting signal for the carnage.
Renée, who was in Paris for the wedding and to convene with her fellow Protestant leaders, was one of the few to escape the butchery. No one dared murder the grandmother of the Catholic hero, Henry I, Duke of Guise. Renée opened her home and sheltered as many Huguenots as she could, even though she had no way of knowing if she would be truly safe from Catholic reprisals. Catherine de’ Medici demanded that Renée give up those who had sought refuge under her roof and recant her Protestantism, but Renée gave the king’s mother a firm middle finger.
Renée was allowed to return to Montargis, but was forbidden to hold Protestant services there. It was in her lonely stronghold, abandoned by her children (who had remained Catholic), that Renée died on 12 June 1574 at age 63. She left everything to her children … but her estates were greatly diminished by the earlier legalized thefts of her offspring and kinsmen:
Her daughter Anna … recovered a document by which Louis XII, Renée’s father, had given her a claim to her mother’s independent Brittany, which she was forced to cede; “little by little,” as one biographer notes, “all her lands were being taken from her” … “Gisors and Vernon were given to the Duc d’Alençon, Caen and Falaise had been seized by Alfonso [her son] for debts, Chartres and Montargis were to belong to the Duchess of Nemours [her daughter Anna’s new husband], but Renée was suffered to remain as a pensioner in her own castle. Her son Alfonso was furious and wrote the most bitter letters to his mother, whom he never forgave, for yielding any possible claim” to the duchy of Brittany.
Because she was no longer Catholic, she was laid to rest at the local abbey rather than with the rest of the royal family in Basilica of St. Denis, which should have been her right as the daughter of a king. Unlike her life, her monument in Montargis is simple. It reads: “May many daughters of France yet rise to emulate the example of her faith, patience, and charity.”