Huguenot Queen


The Remarkable Jeanne D’Albret of Navarre

Her father was a bitter and beaten down king of one of the smallest countries in medieval Europe. Her mother, a patron to unlikely underdogs—reformers and artists—never formally renounced the Catholic Church. Her uncle was a not-so-illustrious King of France. And her husband was an adulterer and apostate. Yet despite her interesting web of family connections, Jeanne d’Albret remains one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the French Reformation.

Though raised far from the French court, Jeanne was educated by the finest classical tutors. Francis I, King of France, saw that his niece, the spirited twelve year old Princess Jeanne, would make a powerful player in the international politics of the time were she to marry a suitable match–that is, anyone but Francis’ political rival, Phillip II of Spain. So Francis arranged a marriage between Jeanne and the Duke of Cleves, a man twice her age, and a man whom Jeanne refused to love. The plucky Jeanne, determining to not enter this loveless marriage so easily, wrote formal statements expressing her strong disapproval. She had these signed by reliable witnesses and circulated, but to no avail. Jeanne did wed the Duke—the princess kicking and screaming all the way to the altar. The marriage, however, was never consummated because of her age, and Francis persuaded the Pope to annul the marriage when it was found to be no longer politically expedient. This left Jeanne to marry for love—which she did. She married Antoine de Bourbon, the prince of the first blood, the next in line to the French throne should the current king’s house die childless.

Young Jeanne had seen a steady stream of reformers —from Calvin to Beza —come through the doors of her mother, Marguerite of Navarre, and heard many a sermon from such early Protestant luminaries. But the Princess did not initially share her mother’s enthusiasm for the new movement. She certainly did not have any encouragement from her father, who commanded her to “not concern herself with matters of doctrine” as her mother had done.1James Anderson, Ladies of the Reformation: Memoirs of Distinguished Female Characters Belonging to the Period of the Sixteenth Century (W.G. Blackie and Co., 1856), 353.

But shortly after her father’s death, Jeanne assumed the role of Queen of Navarre and the very nature of the political situation caused Jeanne to take stock of her own role in the religious debate. Jeanne, like other rulers of the time, was faced with choosing a religious side in light of political expediency. When the Huguenot cause was in vogue at the French court, many rulers breezily threw their lot in with the Reformers. However, as persecution set in—and the weight of losing political power sunk in—the ruling class often abandoned their newly Reformed religious sentiments. But the sermons and lessons of Jeanne’s childhood were catching up to her. Queen Jeanne wrote to the Viscount Gourdin, a military leader and Protestant supporter, to ask his counsel about what course of action she should take and bared a bit of her soul in the process:

. . . It appears to me that reform is as reasonable as it is necessary; so much so, that I deem it disloyal cowardice towards God, towards my conscience, and towards my people to halt longer in suspense and perplexity.2Ibid., 394.

It would be another five years before Jeanne would openly embrace the Reformed cause. She was afraid to convert any earlier—afraid of excommunication which could deprive her of her crown and afraid of inciting riot among her subjects, a large portion of them being staunch Roman Catholics.

Antoine de Bourbon

It was, however, Jeanne’s husband Antoine who first became the champion of the Reformation in Navarre. Following in his mother-in-law’s footsteps, he often invited Reformed preachers to the Navarrese court and, when in Paris, he surrounded himself with the then—fashionable Huguenots and attended their services. He even publicly refused to take mass. Eventually, wind of his religious infatuation reached the de Guise family, radical Romanists and the most powerful voice in the royal court. They threatened Antoine with war. Jeanne, though secretly sympathetic to Protestant doctrines, feared for her husband’s life and her crown. She reprimanded her husband and instituted mild, but obvious, sanctions in Navarre aimed at repressing the burgeoning reform movement.3Ibid., 396.

However, the political situation did not ease with Jeanne’s initial reluctance to openly accept Protestantism. Her husband and her brother-in-law, the Duke of Condé, a faithful and vocal Huguenot leader and military commander, were captured in a political plot devised by the de Guise family to further cement their power in the French court. The two men were imprisoned and interrogated and no doubt commanded to reject their heretical leanings. Condé would not budge. However, Antoine’s loyalties, such as they were at the time, wavered and his ardor for the faith cooled considerably. It was just a few short years later that Antoine would take up arms against the Huguenots in Rouen and sustain a fatal wound in the conflict.

Meanwhile, Jeanne was left to fend off another plot of the de Guise-run French court—a warrant for the arrest and trial of several Protestant ministers, including Theodore Beza, an active voice for reform in Navarre and southern France. French soldiers were on their way to Navarre to insure that Jeanne, heretofore a weak supporter of the Roman church, would cooperate. So now the time had come for Jeanne to make a decision. Would she continue her current course of nominal sympathy with Rome or would she wholeheartedly embrace the Reformed faith her mother Marguerite privately supported—even at the expense of her kingdom?

Jeanne soon made her choice. With adept skill and wisdom, the thirty-two year old Queen swiftly raised an army to block the passage of the oncoming troops and retreated to the fortified town of Bearn where she prepared the city for a siege. She amassed food and weapons and sent a message to the advancing French army declaring her intentions not to “deliver up the ministers to the tender mercies of the court.”4Ibid
Jeanne’s actions drew a line; she was determined to protect her ancestral land from Spanish encroachment (they were only too willing to reclaim Navarre in the event that Jeanne should be excommunicated), and also from the increasing antagonism of the French-Catholic court.

Admiral Coligny Impressing His Murderers by Joseph-Benoît Suvée, 1787

That Christmas (1560) Jeanne publicly renounced the Roman Catholic faith and took communion according to the Protestant fashion. Shortly thereafter, she sent word to Beza, who was then in Germany, of her conversion. Many rejoiced at the news of Jeanne’s bold affirmation of the faith in the face of opposition. In one of a series of letters to Jeanne, John Calvin writes:
Madame: I cannot adequately express my joy at the letter you were pleased to write to my brother Monsieur de Chalonne [Beza], seeing how powerfully God had wrought in you in a few hours. For though already long ago he had sown in you some good seed, you know at present that it was almost choked by the thorns of this world; as for want of daily exercising ourselves in the holy Scriptures, the truth which we had known little by little drops away, till at length it totally disappears, unless our compassionate Father provide a remedy. Now of his infinite goodness he has made provision to keep you from coming to that extremity.5David Bryson, Queen Jeanne and the Promised Land: Dynasty, Homeland, Religion and Violence in Sixteenth-Century France (Brill, 1999), 114. Partial view available at

But the road for the newly converted Queen would not be easy. Soon after her conversion, Antoine moved Jeanne and their son Henry to the royal court. By this time, Antoine had all but completed his defection from the Protestant cause in order to shore up his chance at the French crown. Much to Jeanne’s sorrow, Antoine forbade Reformed ministers from preaching in their apartments and ordered Jeanne to attend mass. Jeanne disregarded his orders on both counts, frequently welcoming Huguenot pastors into her rooms and leaving the doors open for all to hear while they preached.6Marilyn Manzer, Reformed Royalty: The Strength of Queen Jeanne D’Albret. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.; accessed December 8, 2008. This did not increase Jeanne’s popularity in the French court, and she caused quite a stir among the ladies, one of them Catherine de Medici, then the regent of France. Catherine took it upon herself to entreat Jeanne to reconsider her Reformed doctrines and, for the sake of her marriage and her son’s future in the court, to attend a public mass with Antoine. Yet the steadfast Jeanne replied, “Had I my kingdom in the one hand and my son in the other, I would throw them both to the depths of the sea rather than peril the salvation of my soul.”7J.I. Good, Famous Women of the Reformed Church (electronic version edited by Eric D. Bristley, ThM, for The Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States, 2004), 56.

It would not be long, however, before Jeanne’s faith was put to the test once again. With Antoine’s death at Rouen, Jeanne became the sole voice of leadership in Navarre. Jeanne understood that her station as queen meant that she was to be a model of true reform for her people and the watching world. So seriously did she take this role that John Calvin wrote to her:
And whereas kings and princes would often wish to be exempted from subjection to Jesus Christ, and are accustomed to make a buckler of their privileges under pretence of their greatness, being ashamed even to belong to the fold of this great Shepherd, do you, Madame, bethink you that dignity and grandeur in which this God of goodness has brought you up, should be in your esteem a double tie to bind you to obedience to him, seeing it is from him that you hold everything, and that according to the measure which each one has received, he shall have to render a stricter account. But since I see how the Spirit of God governs you, I have more reason to render him thanks than to exhort you as if you had need to be goaded forward. When besides, I doubt not but you apply all your zeal to that end, as it is very requisite, when we reflect on the coldness, weakness, and frailty that is in us.8Bryson, 114.

In addition to inviting Protestant preachers and teachers to Navarre to instruct the people in the Protestant faith, she immediately began a number of reforms that made her unpopular with the Catholic nobles of her country, like removing idols from churches and prohibiting the mass in some parts of her kingdom. As widespread antagonism for the Reformed faith grew, civil unrest erupted everywhere—including Navarre—and Jeanne was forced to flee to La Rochelle, an independent port city on the western coast of France and the Huguenot base of operations. It was here at Rochelle that Jeanne’s role as a queen took on a whole new dimension.

Jeanne put her skills as a tactician and manager to good use in Rochelle. Though the Prince of Condé, Jeanne’s brother-in-law, and Admiral Coligny were the leaders of the Huguenot army, it was Jeanne who managed the day-to-day affairs of the war efforts. She administered and distributed the finances of the confederates, often using her own resources to make up the financial lack. She personally oversaw the army’s supplies and supervised the allied forces stationed in Rochelle. She also busied herself writing numerous letters and tracts in support of the Protestant reforms. Jeanne courageously sought aid from wherever she found a sympathetic ear. In response to one of Jeanne’s pleas for help, Elizabeth I of England sent artillery, ammunition, and money to Rochelle for the Huguenot cause, along with a promise of more help in the future. But often such aid was not enough. Jeanne had to use her personal family fortune to replenish Huguenot coffers. In one particular instance, Jeanne pawned a family heirloom to Elizabeth I—a diamond necklace valued at 160,000 crowns, a tidy sum for the Huguenot army.9Martha Walker Freer, The Life of Jeanne D’Albret, Queen of Navarre (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1855) 145. Available at http://books.,M1.

A series of military setbacks and financial woes plagued the Huguenots despite the growing support for their cause in the smaller towns and districts of the French countryside. The biggest setback came at Jarnac, where the outnumbered Huguenot forces were embroiled in a bitter fight with the French Catholics. The Prince of Condé was injured in the battle and brutally murdered by Swiss mercenaries hired by Catherine de Medici. The little Huguenot army sunk into despair at the death of their most able soldier. Admiral Coligny, desperate, sent for Jeanne, hoping that her presence would be a much needed shot in the arm for the flailing army that she had so often succored in Rochelle. But Jeanne was already on her way. She understood that without a strong military leader the Protestant cause in France was in danger of dying miserably.

Relief commemorating the passage of Jeanne d’Albret at Bearn, Switzerland

Dressed in her royal regalia, Jeanne commanded the army to stand before her in ranks. With her son, Henry, on one side and the fallen Condé’s son on the other, she rode before the officers and said:
Children of God, and of France,—Condé is no more! That prince, who has ofttimes set you the example of courage, and of unstained honour, who was always ready to combat for his king, his country, and his faith; who never took up arms except to defend himself against implacable enemies; that heroic prince, whom even his foes were constrained to reverence, has sacrificed his life for the noblest of causes . . . Soldiers, you weep! But does the memory of Condé demand nothing more than tears? Will you be satisfied with profitless regrets? No! let us unite, and summon back our courage, to defend a cause which can never perish, and to avenge him who was its firmest support! Does despair overthrow you? Despair! That shameful failing of weak natures; can it be known to you, noble warriors, and Christian men? When I, the queen, hope still, is it for you to fear? Because Condé is dead, is all, therefore, lost? Does our cause cease to be just and holy? No! God, who placed arms in his hands for our defense, and who has already rescued you from perils innumerable, He has raised us up brothers-in-arms worthy to succeed him, and to fight for the cause of religion, and the king, our country, and the truth! . . . Soldiers, I offer to you everything in my power to bestow: my dominions, my treasures, my life, and that which is dearer to me than all—my children! I make here solemn oath before you all—and you know me too well to doubt my word—I swear to defend to my last sigh the holy cause which now unites us: which is that of honour, and of truth!10Ibid., 162.

For a moment there was silence, then the entire army erupted into triumphant shouting and cries. Jeanne’s willingness to sacrifice all breathed new life into the Huguenot army. Still, there were many more battles to be fought and Jeanne would again find herself rallying the troops. After one particularly demoralizing defeat just a few months later, Jeanne, of her own purse, minted gold medallions as a memorial for the Huguenot military leaders and their troops. The coins, which hung round the necks of these soldiers as they went into battle, were inscribed with the words, “A sure peace, an entire victory, an honorable death.”11William Hanna, The Wars of the Huguenots (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1872) 146. Available at details/warsofhuguenots00hannuoft.

Jeanne d’Albret later in life. Etching courtesy of

A sure peace and an entire victory never fully materialized for the Huguenots, yet Jeanne and Admiral Coligny continued to fight for the cause of Reformation—Coligny on the battlefield and Jeanne in the French court. However, the land was weary of fighting. Protestant and Catholic leaders wanted peace on their own terms and Jeanne often found herself in negotiations with Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother and de facto leader of France. The Huguenot army was weakening through sheer loss of numbers, and funds were all but exhausted, yet Jeanne would not abandon her Reformed faith. When confronted by Catherine to acquiesce to Catholic peace terms, Jeanne said, “We have come to the determination to die all of us rather than to abandon our God, and our religion, the which we cannot maintain unless permitted to worship publicly, any more than a human body can live without meat and drink.”12Freer, 154. The result of Huguenot—and Jeanne’s—resolve was the Peace of Saint Germain. This two year long truce granted the Huguenots total control over the four major fortified towns they took in the war and greater measures of political and religious freedom than they had yet experienced.13Manzer.

Jeanne D’Albret did not falter in the face of adversity. She watched her husband abandon the faith she once shared with him, yet she did not waver in her commitment to the Lord. She impoverished herself and her kingdom to press the claims of Christ in France, yet she did not mourn her loss. She stood before thousands of bloodied soldiers to point them toward victory; she did not shirk from the ugliness of war. She jeopardized her life and her crown for the sake of reformation; she was not dissuaded by such risk. Jeanne recognized, as Calvin had said, that her crown was a gift of God to be used for His kingdom. And use it she did, a queen worthy of the title.


1 James Anderson, Ladies of the Reformation: Memoirs of Distinguished Female Characters Belonging to the Period of the Sixteenth Century (W.G. Blackie and Co., 1856), 353.
2 Ibid., 394.
3 Ibid., 396.
4 Ibid
5 David Bryson, Queen Jeanne and the Promised Land: Dynasty, Homeland, Religion and Violence in Sixteenth-Century France (Brill, 1999), 114. Partial view available at
6 Marilyn Manzer, Reformed Royalty: The Strength of Queen Jeanne D’Albret. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.; accessed December 8, 2008.
7 J.I. Good, Famous Women of the Reformed Church (electronic version edited by Eric D. Bristley, ThM, for The Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States, 2004), 56.
8 Bryson, 114.
9 Martha Walker Freer, The Life of Jeanne D’Albret, Queen of Navarre (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1855) 145. Available at http://books.,M1.
10 Ibid., 162.
11 William Hanna, The Wars of the Huguenots (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1872) 146. Available at details/warsofhuguenots00hannuoft.
12 Freer, 154.
13 Manzer.