Renée of France: Kept by God’s Grace

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Renée of France by Jean Clouet, c. 1550.

The sudden thunder of hooves shook the quietness of the late-summer night. Soon the villa in Consandolo, Italy, became a hive of activity as everyone assembled into the hall to hear Duke Ercole’s decree. The orders were peremptory. Duchess Renée was to return immediately to the palace in Ferrara, taking only two of her servants. Her daughters Lucrezia and Eleonora would be transported to the Monastery of Corpus Christi in nearby Modena. Everyone else had two hours to leave the villa or they would die. All books, documents, and letters would be taken to the Inquisitor for inspection.

We can only imagine some of the thoughts that crowded Renée’s mind as she climbed into the carriage. The guards, however, reported that she was allegrissima (very cheerful).Choosing to believe one single record written at a time when historical accuracy was not a priority is treading on unstable ground. However, Renée might have smiled. Maybe she felt confident. She had generally been able to do as she pleased and had filled her palace with Protestant refugees in spite of the duke’s opposition. Ten years earlier, she had obtained from Pope Paul III immunity from the attacks of the local clergy, persuading him to deal with her directly, should problems arise. Maybe she thought this too would easily pass.

She might also have felt relieved, seeing long standing tensions come to a head. Or maybe her smile was simply a smile of defiance, depriving the duke of the satisfaction of seeing her crushed by his hostility.

A Difficult Past

Renée remembered vividly her first meeting with Duke Ercole at their wedding in Paris, 26 years earlier. She was eighteen at the time, and he was twenty. The encounter had been awkward for both. Orphaned from childhood of her parents King Louis XII of France and Anne, Duchess of Brittany, Renée had also lost her only sibling: her older sister Claude. Technically, had she been born a man or had France not passed the Salic law forbidding women to inherit the throne, she should have been on the throne of France instead of marrying the heir of a small Italian duchy.

On his part, Ercole had been forced to accept this arrangement as a political move. Though small, the Duchy of Ferrara had gained a position of prestige by fighting hard for its independence, especially from the Emperor and the Pope who had been conquering neighboring lands. Duke Alfonso I, Ercole’s father, was convinced that an alliance with France would guarantee peace to their land.

Ercole was not convinced. Endowed with keen political wisdom, he had learned that treaties are too easily broken. Besides, he had heard disparaging news about Renée. Her looks were rather plain and scoliosis had slightly deformed her spine. A handsome young man, with a passion for hunting, theatre, and adventure, Ercole had been surrounded by beautiful art, landscapes, architecture, and women from his birth, starting with the renowned looks of his mother, Lucrezia Borgia. It is no wonder then if, as some have reported, he almost fell backwards in disappointment when he first met Renée.
Some of his contemporaries went as far as to say that he only consummated his marriage to ensure the birth of two sons—the first, Alfonso, to take his place as heir of the duchy, and the second, Luigi, their last child, to devote his life to a religious career, as it was the custom of the day. Their three girls, Anne, Lucrezia, and Eleonora, were destined to be married for political reasons.

Just one year after the wedding, Ercole’s suspicions on the wisdom of an alliance with France proved to be well-founded, when Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France signed the Treaty of Cambrai, practically leaving the duchy of Ferrara to fend for its own defense.

This sudden turn of events increased Ercole’s resentment of Renée’s presence at court. As a reaction, she surrounded herself almost exclusively with French servants, practically establishing a French court within the court of Este and running it Pope Paul III, by Titian, 1548.independently. Everyone around her spoke French. Their clothes followed the French fashion and the meals were served according to French cuisine. She also clung firmly to the Protestant faith she had learned from her mother, from her aunt Marguerite of Navarre, and especially from her governess Madame de Soubise, who followed her to Ferrara.

It wasn’t surprising then that her entourage was composed mostly of Protestants—”those Lutherans from France” as some called them. To the Duke’s administrators who complained about her lavish support of these dangerous people, she replied that, if she had a beard, she would be the king of France and they would be her subjects, so she felt responsible to help and protect them.

For her daughters’ education, Renée hired Protestant tutors. She was also able to invite Protestant preachers, or at least Catholic preachers with strong reformed tendencies. For the most part, at least in the beginning, the Duke tolerated this presence of Protestants at court, especially when they were famous humanists, to the point that John Calvin felt safe enough to visit the court in 1536 (probably under the name of Charles d’Esperville).

Renée and Calvin shared some similarities: they were almost the same age (Calvin was one year older), both French, and both away from their land. From their correspondence, which continued until his death, we see that Renée held Calvin in high honor, and that he esteemed the duchess, even when his pastoral concerns often compelled him to correct her choices.

His first, long pastoral letter to Renée came the year after his visit, when her preacher had persuaded her that one could attend Mass while disapproving of it – in fact, that it was advisable to do so to avoid giving offense to the weaker brethren. Humbly and lovingly, Calvin reminded her that the Mass is a sacrilege and an act of idolatry, and that the idea that one could believe in the heart without an outer show of these convictions was not at all in accordance with biblical teachings. It was what he called “Nicodemism,” the practice of concealing one’s true beliefs. He also explained that a Christian should avoid giving offense to the weaker brethren as long as it doesn’t require breaking God’s law.

Renée tried, slowly and with much difficulty, to comply with Calvin’s instructions, particularly after 1550, when the death of some Italian Protestants in her region made it clear that it was impossible to sit on the fence. Strengthened in her convictions, and probably feeling secure in her villa in Consandolo (a gift given her by the duke in 1540), Renée refused to attend Mass, living her faith more openly than ever.

It was in 1553 that the Church of Rome started to increase its pressure on the duke. Renée’s fame as a Protestant was well-known, and the Pope could no longer ignore her. In 1554, a Jesuit priest named Jean Pelletier arrived in Ferrara. His open mission was the establishment of a Jesuit college in the city. His secret desire was to investigate the court and rid it of heresy.

Soon, he was able to persuade the duke to enact strict measures about his wife, sending away obvious heretics and surrounding her with strict Catholic orthodoxy. He ordered the Mass to be celebrated and the rosary recited daily, and that no one could preach to the duchess without the duke’s permission. He was sure of his success, seeing Renée as a rather uneducated woman.

Ercole liked the plan. In fact, he went further. Knowing his wife’s partiality to France, he asked King Henry II (who had succeeded Francis I) to send a French Catholic theologian to turn the duchess away from her heresy. King Henry sent Matthieu Ory, Dominican prior in Paris. Calvin, however, was informed of the plan and sent the Protestant Francois de Morel to secretly comfort and strengthen Renée in the faith.

Weakness in Crisis

Renée must have been remembering all these events during her fifty mile trip from Consandolo to Ferrara that night of September 6, 1554, and especially over the next few days, when she was kept prisoner in one room of the castle, unable to see anyone but her two servants and her inquisitors. She must have wondered what had precipitated such a crisis. Soon, it was clear that the arrival of Morel had been discovered, and the duke had reacted in fury. For days, he refused to see his wife, sending her a simple message: Et sub viri potestate eris (“You shall be under the rule of man”), to which she replied, “My Lord, you may be Lord over my body, but not over my soul.”

In the meantime, Matthieu Ory visited her daily, insisting that she return to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. She stood firm. Finally, after a few days of pleading, Ory announced that he would go back to France to report the news of her obstinacy to the king, warning her again that she would never see her daughters again and would lose any claims she had in France.

The following hours were probably tormented for Renée. She had just cut herself off from the protection of the king of France, who had been her only earthly refuge all her life, intervening whenever Ercole had crossed his limits in his treatment of her. Her future was set within the four walls of her room, without her daughters, without friends, without books, and without any contact with the outside world, except for the daily disturbing visits by Pelletier and others like him.

On the surface, the way around it seemed easy. She just had to attend Mass and verbally agree with her inquisitors. Yes, Calvin hated dissimulation, but many others, starting with Erasmus, taught that discretion and withholding the truth are advisable measures in some cases. Loqui ut multi, sentire ut pauci, many said (“Speak as do many, but think as few do”), quoting the Apostle Paul, “Do you have faith? Keep it between yourself and God.”
After much thought, at two in the morning, she called her steward and asked him to inquire if Ory was still in the castle’s premises. If he was, the steward should ask him to stay, and say Mass for her the next day. Ory was there, and Renée attended Mass, promising to confess her sins to a priest very soon. This appeased Ory, who returned gladly to France, bearing good news of Renée’s submission to the Church of Rome.

Ercole, however, still doubted her sincerity. As far as he was concerned, attending Mass was not enough. If she wanted to ever see her daughters again, Renée had to reconcile herself fully with the Catholic Church, attending confession and the Eucharist, denouncing her error, and exhibiting such a change of behavior that everyone would know that she had understood her mistake and had recanted freely and not out of submission to her husband.

Renée resisted a few more days. Finally, on September 13, she capitulated. A week later, she confessed herself and partook of the Eucharist. According to Pelletier, her confession lasted three hours, with strong repentance and tears. She also wrote a letter to her husband, promising complete submission. Fully satisfied, Pelletier wrote Ignatius of Loyola, head of the Jesuits, taking credit for the successful conversion, and agreed that Renée’s daughters should be returned to her.

It is impossible to determine what Renée had in mind at this time. On one hand, we have her moving apologies to her husband and the king of France, where she promised to comply in every way with their wishes. On the other hand, we have Ercole’s continuing suspicions about her sincerity, and the testimony of some who said they didn’t see her attending Mass.

The news of her abjuration spread quickly throughout Europe. Calvin commented regretfully to his friend William Farel, “What can I say but that an example of constancy is a rare thing among princes?” His letter to Renée, however, was much different. Talking about her denial of the faith as a rumor not yet verified, he wrote, “Our good God is always ready to receive us in His grace, and, when we fall, he holds out his hand that our falls may not be fatal. […] If, through your Armed procession of the Catholic League in Paris in 1590. The Catholic League was formed to eradicate Protestants out of France. It was founded by Renee’s grandson, Duke Henry of Guise in 1576.weakness, the enemy has gotten the better hand over you, may he not have the final victory, but may he know that those whom God has lifted are doubly strengthened against any struggle.”

Seeking Peace
From all appearances, Renée continued to live relatively undisturbed in her villa in Consandolo, still helping the Protestant cause and providing refuge whenever possible. On the other hand, Ercole never became fully convinced of his wife’s repentance. He requested to read the reports of confessions by people who had been at her palace. Then in 1559, just before he died, he asked her to promise again that she would live as a Catholic and stop corresponding with Calvin. He included her in his will on condition that she lived “in a Catholic way, as a true Christian.”

Renée instead decided to return to France, and wrote Calvin to ask for his advice. Calvin didn’t hide his hesitations. France had changed much from 1528. King Henry had died and his son Francis II was a fifteen year old boy very unprepared to rule. Political and religious wars were raging. He warned her, “The government with which they are asking you to meddle is today so confusing that the whole world cries and weeps.” If she insisted on leaving, she would have “to change in order to serve God with discernment, aiming toward the goal, without being entangled in nets that would be hard to break.”

In spite of his warnings, Renée left for France, arriving in Orleans on November 7, 1560. Soon, she realized that Calvin was right. The political situation in France was very difficult and complex. Besides, her blood relation with both the Guise (Catholic) and the Bourbon families (Protestant), the two contending parties, made her desired position of neutrality very difficult to keep, especially since her first born daughter, Anne, was the wife of Francis, duke of Guise, one of the main protagonists in the religious war.

She soon moved to her castle in Montargis, far from the capital, where she immediately built a Calvinist church and opened her doors to Protestant refugees, trying to distance herself from political struggles. The war, however, followed her all the way to her doorsteps, creating further tensions in her mind. At first, she offered money and the use of her castle to the Protestant forces, until she witnessed with great dismay some acts of extreme violence on their part. In disappointment, she decided to make her castle a refuge for any wounded, in spite of their belief.

Other things bothered her. In 1564, after her son-in-law was murdered, the comments of those who rejoiced in the certainty that he was now in hell offended her deeply. In spite of his primary role in the Huguenot war, she felt that, allowing her to protect the Protestants in her castle, he had displayed a compassionate heart. She sent her complaints to Calvin, who warned her strongly against the power of personal affections, but agreed that no one should declare another person damned.

Her following letter to Calvin continued in a similar tone. In spite of his long and detailed answer, she felt that there were still many serious and unresolved problems of which he was not aware. She didn’t know that Calvin was critically ill at that time. His reply was short. After an uncharacteristic list of his terrible ailments, he addressed her problems only briefly, exhorting her not to be too vexed by things around her. Instead, he praised her for a life spent in the faith and encouraged her to press on. On May 27, 1564, Calvin died.

Renée lived ten years longer than Calvin. After his death, she continued to offer her castle as a refuge to all in need, supporting the diffusion of the Protestant faith without intervening in the political arena. Slowly, the community of Protestant refugees in Montargis became large enough to grant the building of a Protestant College. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, continued the correspondence with Renée, praising her for her zeal.

Before dying on June 15, 1575, Renée prefaced her will with a statement of her faith, written in third person, recognizing the grace God had given her before the foundation of the world, confessing her sins, asking for forgiveness, and declaring her commitment to proclaim God’s grace “with mouth and hearth until the last breath, so that, in life and in death, she may live and die for the Lord God.”

Renée of France is not the typical Christian heroine. She didn’t stand immoveable in her faith. Even after repentance, she continued to have perplexities and shared some disagreements with the leaders of the French Reformation. Through it all, however, she kept seeking Calvin’s guidance and submitting herself to an imperfect church.

Today, five hundred years after her birth, we feel close to her. We recognize ourselves in her cries and uncertainties and, when we fall, we hang on to the hope of being able to say at the end of our lives, as she did, “This powerful God, Who has no beginning and no end, through the continuation of His providence, has kept her and guided her by virtue of the Holy Spirit in this earthly abode, purely by his goodness and liberality.”

Simonetta Carr is the author of the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage. She is also working on a short biography of Renée of France, scheduled to be published by Evangelical Press in 2012.