Historians like to separate history into neat chronological periods, but the truth is a lot less accommodating. Theologica Germanica was reputed to have been written anonymously by a Knight of St. John, yet a century later this small volume would have a profound impact upon a German monk named Martin Luther.

Luther’s own labors were preceded by those of John Hus, as well as the Waldensians, and was contemporary with that of Zwingli. In France, Luther’s writings would find a ready audience in large part because of the pioneering work of the “pre-Reformer” Jacques Lefèvre. Each of their stories is part of the larger mosaic we remember today as the Reformation.

Marguerite was born on April 11, 1492, in the year that Columbus set sail for the New World. Her father, Charles of Orleans, was the nephew of the French king Charles VI, while her mother, Louise, was the eldest daughter of Philip I, Duke of Savoy. All of this would be the stuff which makes history so mind-numbing to many were, it not for the unlikely series of events that would place her younger brother, Francis, on the French throne—and place Marguerite in a position of enormous influence over the fate of the early Reformers.

Her father had died when she was four, and when Francis was only two. Although her father had committed their education to Louise, when Louis XII ascended the throne in 1498, he treated the children as his own, making copious provision for their instruction. Louis provided permanent residence for the family at Amboise, and carefully selected the children’s playmates, including four young boys who would play enormously significant roles in the future of France. These four were Henry D’Albret, prince of Navarre; Charles de Montpensier, future Connetable of France; Anne de Montmorency, who would become the implacable enemy of Marguerite and “the Lutherans;” and, Philip Chabot, future Admiral of the French Navy.
Marguerite Marguerite2

Anderson writes that “Young Marguerite was the favorite, the idol of this youthful circle of cavaliers. Her will was their law; all were ready to do her a kind service, and ambitious to gain her good will.”{footnote}Anderson, Rev. James; Ladies of the Reformation, pp 312-13, Blackie & Sons, Glasgow, Edinburgh London, 1856.{/footnote}

Freer adds that “She presided at their games, and her fair hands placed the crown upon the victor’s brow.”{footnote}Freer, Martha Walker, The life of Marguerite d’Algouleme — Queen of Navarre, Second Edition — Two volumes, published by Hurst & Blackett, London (1856).{/footnote} Her education not only included the affairs of court, so much the concern of her mother, but academic studies of the highest order. She became proficient in Italian, Spanish and Latin, and studied philosophy and divinity, but her greatest gift was a remarkable facility for writing in her native tongue. Her instructor, Madame de Chatillon, was by reputation “an accomplished, virtuous and pious lady (who taught her that) the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that piety, modesty, purity, beneficence, would be the highest ornaments of her exalted rank.”{footnote}Anderson, p.314{/footnote}

AmboiseChateauThis precocious child’s life would overlap those of Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, Farel and Lefèvre. She would die at about the time Frederick III was transitioning from Lutheran to Reformed at Heidelberg, but during her eventful life, she would not only witness the brief flourishing of the Reformation in France, but would play a vital role in protecting its most important players. While Marguerite is sometimes dismissed by Reformation historians because she never formally left the Roman Catholic Church, her passion for reform was utterly essential to the establishment of the Huguenot Reformation. Perhaps, she is also eclipsed because of the fame of her daughter, Jeanne D’Albret, revered in France unto this day as the first daughter of the Reformation.

Yet, despite her zeal and activism, she was in many ways a captive of her station. In 1509, Louis XII would arrange for her to marry Charles III, Duke of Alencon, a most unsatisfactory mate. The union was childless, though Marguerite remained faithful. Charles III was described as mentally and socially inferior, but twenty years old, deficient in military skill and personal courage. Marguerite is reputed to have said upon submitting to the marriage that “thenceforth she gave her heart to God, as she could never bestow it upon her husband.”

While the marriage was unsuitable, it may have saved her life, if not her very soul. The two other candidates for her hand had been Henry VIII of England and Archduke Charles of Austria, later Charles V. Her station in life would change dramatically when on January 1, 1515, Louis XII would die and her younger brother Francis would ascend to the French throne.
Her physical isolation had been greatly relieved by the presence of Madame de Chantillon and, in 1521, Marguerite began a correspondence with William Briçonnet, Bishop of Meaux, which correspondence survives in Paris. Briçonnet professed a warm affection for the new ideas of Reform and invited Farel, Lefèvre and others to Meaux. Two years later, Lefèvre published his French New Testament, and as so often happens when the Scriptures become available in the vernacular of the people, the fires of Reformation were stoked. As early as 1512—before Zwingli or Luther—Lefèvre had written about the doctrine of justification by faith.

When Marguerite writes to Briçonnet, she begs him to send to her Michel d’Arande, one of the young Reformed preachers at Meaux. Briçonnet does so, and soon Marguerite would write to Briçonnet that his preaching was enjoying great success “for the Lord, by his mouth, smote the souls of many, inclining them to receive the Holy Spirit.”{footnote}Anderson, quoting from Genin, Letres de Marguerite{/footnote}

Marguerite received numerous printed tracts from Briçonnet, which she circulated at court and among her friends and acquaintances. Even the King is included in her circle, as well as her mother, but though the Reformers’ writings and portions of Scripture find favor, it is not lasting. When the Pauline Epistles are printed in French, Briçonnet sent one of the first copies to Marguerite, to read to her mother and the King. It is at this point that the doctors of the Sorbonne unleashed a withering attack.

Briçonnet, her mentor and correspondent, despite his lofty encouragements, buckled like a flimsy reed. He not only ceases his active support, but he bans the Reformers from Meaux. Marguerite, now on her own, humanly speaking, then began a rigorous study of Greek and Hebrew that she may read the Scriptures in the original tongues. Greek and Hebrew at the time were considered the tools of heresy by the Sorbonne. While it is easy to chide their ignorance, it was in many cases just that—ignorance, even more so than doctrinal opposition.

Conrad Heresbach, a friend of Erasmus, reported that he heard one such ignorant monk proclaim:

“A new language has been found, called Greek, which must be carefully avoided. That language gives birth to all heresies. I see in the hands of a great many people a book written in that language called the New Testament. It is a book full of thorns and vipers. As to Hebrew, all who learn it immediately be-come Jews.”{footnote}Anderson, quoting from Genin, Letres de Marguerite{/footnote}

MargueriteWithHenryWhile no church is without its blemishes, such were the times when ignorance was virtue, and virtue suspect. Marguerite, with a steadied determination, chose a new coat of arms for herself—a marigold that opens only when facing the sun, and the inscription “non inferiora scutus,” from Virgil meaning “not following things below.”

Once again, affairs of state would dramatically impact her life. Charles V invaded Provence, and Francis, riding at the head of an army of 20,000 to repel them, would leave behind his mother and sister in Lyons. Marguerite had also brought along d’Arande and with her zealous encouragement, a revival of faith began to sweep the city where Peter Waldo had once preached. Sadly, the news came that Francis had suffered a terrible defeat at Pavia, and though repeatedly wounded and thrown from his horse, he had fought bravely until overpowered and taken captive.

Worse news still was the report of her husband’s cowardly retreat from the battlefield, withdrawing his troops and precipitating the defeat. When he returned to Lyons, Marguerite refused to speak to him. Shunned by all, he took to his bed ill and would never leave it. Upon word of his grave condition, Marguerite repented of her attitude and came to his side, caring for him and reading to him from the Scriptures until he passed from this world. Thus ended the childless marriage of sixteen years.

Francis was cast into prison in Valencia where his own health deteriorated, held hostage by Charles V until he should agree to cede his claim to French territories coveted by Spain. He refused and remained imprisoned, a hero not only to the French, but also to the Spanish people, who were greatly taken with their noble captive.

CharlesVThe Sorbonne lost no time in blaming the calamity on the toleration of heresy in the land, and implored Francis’s and Marguerite’s mother, now Regent in his absence, to authorize tribunals to root out the heretics. Having entreated the pope to intercede on France’s behalf, Madame de Angouleme yielded to their demands. At once, the “Lutherans” were hunted down, tried and imprisoned, with many consigned to the flames. Briçonnet, Marguerite’s trusted mentor, was apprehended, but gave such a convincing recantation that he was released. Lefèvre fled to Strasburg, from where he maintained a correspondence with Marguerite on how best to protect the fledgling Reformation movement.

Marguerite appealed directly to her imprisoned brother, the King, who honored her pleas and wrote to his mother instructing her to cease all prosecutions on the charge of heresy until he returned. Begrudgingly, Parliament agreed and his mother enforced the King’s wishes. He also implored Marguerite to come to Spain and personally intercede on his behalf with their once-childhood playmate, Charles V. She quickly consented.{footnote}Anderson, p.331-4{/footnote}

Granted a temporary safe passage, she found Francis afflicted by his condition, in poor health, but resolute. Her appeals to Charles went unheeded and, shocked to learn that Charles intended to arrest her once her safe passage expired, hastily retreated into France. Shortly after her arrival at Lyons, another fugitive, young Henry d’Albret, 11 years her junior, made his way to Lyons after gallantly effecting his escape from Charles’ prison. In time, Marguerite and Henry would grow close and several years after the death of her first husband, they would marry. Like Marguerite, Henry was sympathetic to the Reformation, and when Francis was finally released from prison, he promised the couple that France would reconquer and restore Navarre on Henry’s behalf.

While the marriage lacked the strategic value which an alliance with the once-again interested Henry VIII might have produced, Henry’s sudden infatuation with Ann Boleyn directed his attentions homeward. Francis then consented to Marguerite’s wishes to marry Henry D’Albret. A vigorous sportsman, devoted to his people, Henry had also distinguished himself in the battle in which he and the King and been captured. And so it was that the couple was married and a year later, June 7, 1527, Marguerite gave birth to a young princess, Jeanne D’Albret, ordained to be the champion of the Huguenots to whom she would devote her life and kingdom.

MargueriteOldMarguerite would again and again intercede to protect, and in many cases, save the lives of the Reformers. Her labors directly benefited not only Lefèvre, but a host of greater and lesser-known preachers and theologians, including John Calvin. Her brother and mother would just as often succumb to the demands for persecution, and it was only with the greatest efforts that she could shield those committed to the cause of Reformation. The book for which she is most known in modern times, a collection of stories entitled The Heptameron, was written to subtly influence her brother’s thinking. The stories have the racy tone of the literature of the day, although there is also a strong moral undercurrent.

Yet, it is when Marguerite wrote from her heart that the reader is confronted with the depth of her faith and piety. Her Triumph of the Lamb exalts Christ’s victory over sin and death. In The Mirror of the Sinful Soul her faithfulness to evangelical religion is poignantly displayed. The work made such a profound impact upon Princess Elizabeth, future queen of England, that the 11-year old translated it and presented it to her stepmother, Queen Katherine Parr. Marguerite says to her reader she writes as one “simply desirous that all may know what the grace of God the Creator does when he justifies a human being.”

“Who is he that will deliver me? And who is he that will recover me those lost blessings? Alas! No mortal can do this, for his power and resources are inadequate. This can be done only by the gracious favour of the Almighty who never grows weary —only by Jesus Christ…O my God, I sought not thee, but with full speed ran away from thee. It is thou who hast come to me—to me who am a worm of the earth, naked and destitute. Do I say worm? I have wronged thee too much for that sufficiently to describe me—to me who am so infamous and perjured, so filled with pride, hypocrisy, enmity and treachery…When I have thought what is the cause why thou hast loved me, I have been able to discover no other reason but sovereign grace, which moves thee to bestow upon me what I do not deserve… Jesus has died, and by his death he makes all his people live; I say his people, those who by faith are made partakers of his sufferings.”{footnote}As truncated by Anderson’s translation.{/footnote}

Three days before her death on December 21st, 1549, Marguerite lost her power to speak, until moments before her life left her. She cried out “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” and then passed into His presence.