Princess Renée de France: Staunch Huguenot ~ A Guest Post by Keira Morgan

The Freelance History Writer is pleased to host Keira Morgan on her blog tour for her new book, The Importance of Pawns. We welcome her back with an article about one of the characters in the book.

Blessed with a Golden Infancy

Born on 25 October 1510 at the Château de Blois, Renée de France was the second daughter of Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany. She was also their second and last living child. Unusually for the times, Louis stayed in the queen’s chambers during Renée’s birth. Even though a girl, she was a well-formed, healthy baby and they had lost many previously. They celebrated her birth lavishly with her baptism taking place the next day.

Renée lived with her own household at Blois until 1514, comprised of six demoiselles, a nourrice and her gouvernante. When her first died in 1511, Queen Anne’s dame d’atour, the well-educated Mme de Soubise, became Renée’s gouvernante. Her eldest daughter, Anne de Parthenay, grew up in Princess Renée’s household.

Chateau de Blois

 Religious Influences during Renée’s Childhood

Roman Catholicism was a pervasive cultural at the time and Queen Anne was both assiduous in her religious duties and a committed believer.  Still, she did not approve of the lax behaviour among Roman Catholic clergy. But she was a well-educated woman and throughout her life the latest trends in intellectual life came early to her court. Religious ferment was part of the cultural atmosphere, her dame d’atour, Baronne Michelle de Soubise later became a known supporter of reform, as did many others in her court circle and it is reasonable to believe that the ideas were discussed among her ladies.

Renée’s Whereabouts from 1514 to 1528

From Queen Anne’s death until Renée’s marriage in 1528, we have no certain information on where or with whom she lived. Historians speculate she spent her childhood in her sister Queen Claude’s court. After Claude died in 1524, Renée probably stayed with Duchess Marguerite, until her aunt married King Henri de Navarre in 1527. Renée’s religious views formed under the care of these educated and influential women with reform leanings. And she grew to adulthood at a time when early proponents of church reform had strong connections to the French court.

The Politics of Marriage for Royal Women’s

Men’s politics governed royal women’s lives. Renée as the daughter of Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne, was a fille de France. This made her valuable to the crown in advancing its agenda. Through their marriages, men used royal women to serve their expansive and defensive strategies. Their male guardians betrothed them from birth as best served their momentary interests. Both her father and brother-in-law offered and betrothed Renée many times before she married the Duke of Ferrara.

The Politics of Renée’s Ferrarese Marriage

By 1527 relations between France and the Holy Roman Empire were close to an all-time low. And the power of Emperor Charles V, King of Spain and hostage holder of King François’s two elder sons, was close to an all-time high. However, Charles’s reputation had just suffered a severe blow. In 1527, Imperial troops under the treasonous Constable de Bourbon, sacked Rome. Charles’s troops took the Pope and the Catholic Church prisoner.

This shocked all Europe and set every unaligned power against the Emperor. They united against the common threat to fight in Italy to free the Pope and the Church. Because of Ferrara’s central location, England, France, and Venice considered the duchy essential to success. With his strong negotiating position, Duke Alphonso gained extraordinary concessions, including the betrothal of his eldest son to Princess Renée, with her dowry valued at 250,000 écus in land rents and the County of Asti.

Just after this alliance emerged, Pope Clement VII escaped from his Roman jail. He was so terrified by the experience he refused to join the allied forces or sanction the war against the Emperor. Duke Alfonso hastily finalized the marriage contract before François changed his mind. On Renée’s behalf, her betrothed, Ercole, renounced any inheritances to which she might be entitled, i.e., both the county of Asti and the duchy of Brittany. Thus, Princess Renée was betrothed and her extensive rights were signed away, both without her consent.

King François benefited greatly from the dowry arrangement. He no longer had to consider Princess Renée’s strong rights to Brittany, nor pay her a fair share of its value. And he bargained away her rights to the county of Asti derived from her father. When the time came to pay out the dowry, she received even less than pledged. Instead of providing the 50,000 écus in cash as he had promised, King François elevated the county of Chartres to the rank of duchy, and exchanged the cash for an increase in rents from 10,000 to 12,500 gold écus annually. He then made a deed of gift to Renée of the duchy of Chartres, to which he added the seigneury of Montargis and the county of Gisors.

The Ferrarese were right. King François was now less eager for the marriage. When Ercole of Ferrara arrived in France in May 1528 with a large entourage, he expected right up to the marriage in June that it would be cancelled. He was disappointed with Renée saying, “she is not pretty, though she brings other advantages.” For her part, Renée did not want to marry Ercole. While she didn’t make a scene in public, in private she cried incessantly both before the marriage and throughout her journey from France.

Renée’s Life as Duchess of Ferrara

Renée de France’s married life was unhappy and became more so after the 1529 ‘Ladies Peace’ between France and the Empire, for neither France nor Ferrara valued the alliance to which Renée had been sacrificed any longer. After her father-in-law, Duke Alfonso, died in October 1534, Renée’s life became more difficult. Her husband resented the French at her court.

Ferrara, as a fief of the Catholic Church, owed allegiance to the Pope, so her support for the reformers earned her his wrath. From 1536 onward, her husband’s disapproval became more overt. By both direct and indirect means, he secured dismissal of reformed supporters from her court. In 1543, her husband obliged her to dismiss her last French guests.

In the 1530 and 1540s, Renée cultivated humanism, and her court at Ferrara became a safe haven for intellectuals and reformed sympathizers. Her evangelical Christian faith made her a valuable patron for the spread of the gospel and offered refugees safety from persecution. Despite her husband’s treatment, Renée persisted. As a result of her patronage, John Calvin’s book, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, in two Latin editions (1536, 1539), circulated at the court. Renée converted formally in 1540. By this time the persecution of those who adhered or sympathized with the Protestant faith had already begun in the area.

Duke Ercole’s Treatment of Renée’s Heresy

Although Pope Paul III granted her “exemptions” for her religious views in 1543, her husband was not as tolerant. In 1545 a special court of the Inquisition opened at Ferrara. With Pope Julius III’s election of in 1550, Ercole found the support he needed. He lodged an accusation against Renée and in 1554, she was arrested as a heretic.

Although Renée and Ercole had five children together, [Anne in 1531, Alfonso in 1533, Lucrezia in 1535, Eleonora in 1537 and Luigi in 1538], her relations with her husband soured long before most were born. A wife had no choice but to submit to her husband and she had a duty to produce heirs. Fortunately for Renée, she loved children and took pleasure in educating her daughters.

To force her submission, Ercole separated his wife from her children and imprisoned her. In spite of all the pressures, Renée withstood her examination by the Inquisition, and she was condemned for heresy. She resisted until her jailors threatened to remove her two daughters from her forever. She finally abjured, yielded, attended mass and made confession on 23 September 1554. After this, she refused ever again to attend the mass which she abhorred. Renée lived apart from her husband after her release.

Renée’s Return to France

From the time she left France, Duchess Renée longed to return. Once her daughter Anne married the Duc de Guise, her desire strengthened. In early July 1559, King Henri II died. Then, on 3 October 1559, Renée’s husband died. Her son, the new duke, was also hostile to her religious practice. After nearly a year of mourning, on 2 September 1560, Renée left Ferrara.  

In France, religious wars were becoming increasingly frequent. At her estate at Montargis, she supported Huguenot worship. She brought in a preacher, and served as benefactress and gave refuge to local co-religionists. During the second religious war (1567), Renée’s home was unmolested. In the third (1568–70), her castle was besieged. Montargis withstood the siege, and in the persecution that followed, she offered a haven to French Huguenots “to her own constant peril.”

In 1572, Renée went to Paris for the marriage of Henry of Navarre and Marguerite of Valois. Lodged with her daughter, Anne, Renée escaped the St. Bartholomew massacre. She returned to Montargis, all Huguenot services forbidden, but continued to protect reformers until she died. She dictated her last will and testament and died on 12 June 1574 (or 2 July 1575, depending on your source). The reformed Orléanais pastor, Daniel Toussaint, wrote out Renée’s spiritual testament. In it, she stated her spiritual principles:

“Firstly, we hold that we are saved by faith, not by our works…. Secondly, we hold that we are saved by Jesus-Christ, who … did not exempt us from observance of the moral law…. We hold for the third point that it is necessary to pray to God often…. Finally and for the fourth point… we recognise in the Christian Church for the ordained sacraments of Christ only baptism… and also the Holy Communion….”

Renée closed with a directive to bury her simply, “without pomp and ceremony which are of no benefit to the dead and are of little use in consoling and instructing the living.”

Countess Louise d’Angoulême, guardian to the girls, is mother to the next king. For years she has envied the dying queen. She plots to marry wealthy Claude to her son. Her unexpected guardianship presents a golden opportunity, but only if she can remove Baronne Michelle, their protectress.

As political tensions rise, the futures of Princess Renée and Baronne hang in the balance, threatened by Countess Louise’s plots. Will timid Claude untangle the treacherous plots Countess Louise is weaving? Will Claude outflank the wily countess to protect young Princess Renée? And can she find the courage to defend those she loves?

Based on historical events and characters, The Importance of Pawns will rivet you until the last page. It pits envy, power and intrigue against loyalty and the strength of women’s friendships. 

The  Importance of Pawns is available starting today March 10 as both an eBook and paperback. 

Further reading: Blaisdell, Charmarie Jenkins. “Calvin’s Letters to Women: The Courting of Ladies in High Places.” Sixteenth-Century Journal 13.3 (1982): 67-84. Blaisdell, Charmarie Jenkins.  “Politics and Heresy in Ferrara, 1534-1559.” Sixteenth-Century Journal 6.1 (1975): 67-93, Bonet-Maury, G. “Le Testament de Renée de France Duchesse de Ferrare (1573).” Revue historique 46 et 47 (1891): 73-82, 65-68, Braun Gabriel. Le mariage de Renée de France avec Hercule d’Esté : une inutile mesalliance. 28 juin 1528. In: Histoire,économie et société, 1988, 7ᵉ année, n°2. pp. 147-168, Matarasso, Pauline. Le Baptême de Renée de France en 1510. CRNS Éditions, Paris, 2011, Peebles, Kelly Digby. ‘Renée de France’s and Clément Marot’s Voyages: Political Exile to Spiritual Liberation,’ Women in French Studies, Special Issue, Volume 7, 2018, pp. 33-60, Puaux, Anne. La Huguenote Renée de France. Paris: Herman, 1997, Renée de France, Recueil de lettres et de pièces originales, et de copies de pièces indiquées comme telles dans le dépouillement qui suit. 1501- 1600. Français 2982, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Gallica. Web. 01 December 2015. <ark:/12148/btv1b9059854s>, Renée de France.  Recueil de lettres et de pièces originales, et de copies de pièces indiquées comme telles dans le dépouillement qui suit. 1501-1600. Français 2991, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Gallica. Web. 01 December 2015. <ark:/12148/btv1b90598378>, Renée de France.  Recueil de lettres et de pièces originales, et de copies de pièces indiquées comme telles dans le dépouillement qui suit. Français 3020, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Gallica. Web. 01 December 2015. <ark:/12148/ btv1b9059874j>, Vray, Nicole. Renée de France et Anne de Guise: Mère et Fille entre la Loi et la Foi au XIVe Siècle. Éditions Olivétan, Lyon, Paris, 2010, zum Kolk, Caroline. “Les Difficultés des mariages internationaux: Renée de France et Hercule d’Este.” Les Princesses d’Europe, XVe-XVIIIe siècle. Ed. I. Poutrin and M.-K. Schaub. Rosny-sous-Bois: Bréal, 2007. 102- 19

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