Jeanne d'Albret (1528–1572)

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Jeanne d'Albret (1528–1572)

One of the first members of the French nobility to convert to Protestantism, who became a leader of the Huguenot movement, and whose son Henry IV became king of England and founder of the Bourbon Dynasty. Name variations: Joan III, Queen of Navarre; Jeanne III d'Albret. Born in 1528; died in Paris in 1572; daughter of Henry or Henri II d'Albret, king of Navarre, and Margaret of Angoulême (1492–1549); niece of Francis I, king of France (r. 1515–1547); married Guillaume de la March also known as William, duke of Cleves, in 1541 (annulled); married Antoine also known as Anthony (1518–1562), duke of Bourbon and Vendôme, in 1548; children: (second marriage) Henri or Henry of Navarre (1553–1610, later Henry IV, king of France, r. 1589–1610); Catherine of Bourbon (c. 1555–1604).

From the moment of her birth in 1528, Jeanne d'Albret seemed destined to become a pawn in the sophisticated game of French politics. Her mother was Margaret of Angoulême , sister of Renaissance French king Francis I. Her father, Henry II d'Albret, was king of Navarre, a title that had become a mere courtesy since 1512 when Ferdinand II of Aragon had annexed most of Navarre to his kingdom of Spain. Henry II d'Albret married Margaret in hopes that her brother Francis I would help him regain the lost provinces of Navarre. Francis arranged the marriage in hopes that it would prevent Henry d'Albret from coming to an agreement with the Spanish which would allow them to break through the Pyrenees into France. Thus, as was customary among the noble class in that day, Jeanne's parents were married for political convenience. It was expected that Jeanne's marriage would also be dictated by political expediency.

When it became obvious that she was to be the only child of Henry d'Albret and Margaret to survive infancy, Jeanne's future was plotted with special care. Until she was ten, she lived a carefree life at her mother's castle in Angoulême, where she had the run of a large park as well as a bevy of animals and a little girl to entertain her. During these years, her father Henry d'Albret had repeatedly failed to persuade Francis I to send the promised soldiers to his aid, and so Henry d'Albret began plotting to obtain a betrothal between his daughter Jeanne and Prince Philip (II) of Spain. However, Henry d'Albret's wife Margaret had loyalties to her brother, not her ill-matched husband. Margaret lived mostly apart from her indifferent and often unfaithful spouse, and she remained determined to put Jeanne's future in the hands of her brother, Francis I. (Margaret of Angoulême's influence on Jeanne extended into literature, and Jeanne is credited with seeing that her mother's greatest work, L'Heptaméron, unfinished at the time of Margaret's death, was published true to her mother's concept. Of her own writing, Jeanne left a number of poems written in a form of French which was spoken in medieval times. She also left a manuscript of her memoirs.)

When Francis negotiated a match for her, Jeanne showed the first spark of the inflexible will that she would later bravely exhibit as a mature woman. She was to be wed to William, duke of Cleves, a dull and ponderous young man whose only advantage lay in his connection to the German princes, with whom Francis I wished to ally against the formidable power of the Habsburg family. Under Charles V, the Habsburgs ruled the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and the Low Countries. Thirteen-year-old Jeanne protested the match, but she was given no choice and, succumbing to dire threats, bowed to the inevitable. Dressed fabulously in cloth of gold, Jeanne was married to William in an elaborate ceremony in June 1541. In view of the bride's tender years, the marriage was not consummated, and Jeanne went back home to France while her new husband embarked on a military crusade to save his lands from Habsburg encroachment.

Stubbornly refusing to accept the marriage, Jeanne had a document drafted, signed and witnessed in which she swore to have been coerced into the nuptials and never to have given her free consent. It was, however, a futile gesture. Her fortunes did take a turn for the better when William proved himself to be completely inept on the battlefield. Within a few years, Charles V forced William to publicly capitulate, and Francis I took immediate steps to have Jeanne's marriage annulled. Her document of protest was brought before the courts, which ruled that it provided sufficient evidence to invalidate the marriage.

Now that Jeanne was free, her father Henry d'Albret reopened marriage negotiations with the Spanish. Meanwhile, Francis I died and was succeeded by his son Henry II. Catching wind of Henry d'Albret's plans, Henry II pressed his aunt Margaret to have Jeanne married quickly to a French suitor. Soon, Jeanne fell in love with one of her admirers, Antoine, duke of Bourbon. Though he was ten years her senior, she appreciated his quick mind and affectionate nature. Margaret was skeptical; although, as duke of Bourbon, Antoine was a Prince of the Blood (directly related to the French royal family), his family was neither wealthy nor powerful. But Henry II, delighted that Jeanne and Antoine showed such a liking for each other, convinced Jeanne's parents to acquiesce to the match by promising to send an army to her father Henry d'Albret to help him conquer Navarre and by providing him with a stipend of 15,000 livres. (In fact, the promised army never materialized, and the stipend was paid only once.) Jeanne was ecstatic over the surprising turn of events. Henry II noted at her wedding in 1548 that "she does nothing but laugh."

The early years of Jeanne d'Albret's marriage were truly happy. Antoine was often absent, usually in the field fighting the Spanish on the border, but they exchanged many warm and tender letters. Antoine assured her, "I never would have believed that I should love you as much as I do," claiming that he could no more live without her than could a body without a soul. Within two years of their marriage, Jeanne gave birth to a son. Sadly, the child died in infancy, a tragedy all too common in an age when roughly one-third of all children did not survive to their fifth birthday.

Queen of her people and the savior of the Huguenots, busying herself with their causes, righting their wrongs, pleading for compassion and toleration on their behalf.

—Irene Mahoney

But Jeanne quickly conceived again. Her mother, suffering from chronic ill health, had died soon after the wedding. Her father, increasingly aware of his own mortality, became obsessed with the need for a male heir. Although he had shown little interest in his daughter except as a political pawn, he insisted that she travel to his seat in Bearn to have the child. Alarmed by persistent rumors that her father was considering marrying again in an attempt to produce a male heir, Jeanne dutifully traveled to his estate. Henry d'Albret drew up his will, leaving all of his estate to her, and placed it in a gold box. He promised to deliver the will to his daughter as soon as the baby was born, provided that, while she was in labor, she sing a traditional song sung by Bearnais women to the Virgin when praying for a son. In December 1553, when Jeanne gave birth to a fine, healthy boy, her father immediately snatched up the child, rubbed its lips with garlic, and put a cup of local Jurancon wine to its mouth. When the baby did not cry but wiggled his head with delight, Henry d'Albret gleefully exclaimed, "Thou wilt be a true Bearnais!" He fulfilled his promise and gave his will to his daughter. The baby was named Henry (of Navarre), in his honor.

Old Henry d'Albret did not survive much longer, dying in May 1555. Since Antoine was still away most of the time, Jeanne threw herself into raising her son. Little Henry was nursed by the sturdy local peasant women, and when he was older he ran around barefoot with the local boys, living on black bread and cheese. From a young age, Henry of Navarre showed great energy, reckless courage, and a shrewd mind. When he was three, Jeanne and Antoine took him to Paris to present him to King Henry II and his queen Catherine de Medici . Henry II was impressed with the boy, and even made an informal agreement to betroth little Henry of Navarre to his daughter Margaret of Valois (1553–1615), then three-and-a-half.

By 1559, the first tremors of the political upheavals which would eventually plunge France into civil war could be felt. While Henry II was jousting in a tournament held to celebrate the marriage of his eldest daughter Elizabeth of Valois to Philip of Spain, a lance slipped through his visor and penetrated his eye. After several days of torment, he died. Henry II left behind four young sons. The eldest, at 16, succeeded as Francis II. As a child, Francis had been married to Mary Stuart (1542–1587), queen of Scotland. Mary was the niece of the dukes of Guise, who led an ambitious faction intent on securing political power. Francis' accession gave the Guise their chance. Francis was declared old enough to rule without a regency, but the crown weighed heavily upon his young and sickly frame. Francis' mother Catherine de Medici was determined not to lose her influence over her son. In this struggle between Catherine and the Guise faction, the Princes of the Blood, including Jeanne's husband Antoine, were pushed away from their rightful place of influence. Antoine, like his late father-in-law, was concerned first and foremost with regaining the Navarre provinces. When he gave up all hope of obtaining help from the French Crown, Antoine began to look for other avenues to achieve his goals. One such which presented itself was through the "reformed religion," a growing faction in France that called themselves Huguenots.

Huguenots were followers of John Calvin, a famous Reformation theologian who had set up a community of followers in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin and his disciples broke away from the Catholic Church and established a new, congregational church structure as opposed to the hierarchical schema of the Catholic Church. Calvinists emphasized direct communication with God and preached the doctrine of election, wherein certain "elect" men and women are preordained to be saved. Although Calvinism was a harsh doctrine, it had great appeal because of its stress on sincere piety at a time when the bloated and corrupt Catholic Church was making little attempt to address the spiritual needs of its members. Throughout the 16th century, the number of Huguenots multiplied rapidly, and the reformed religion spread even into the aristocratic class. French nobles embraced the Huguenot religion for yet another reason—practicing Protestantism gave them leverage against the Roman Catholic Church and indirectly gave them a measure of independence from the authority of the Crown.

But religious toleration did not exist in French law, and heretics were subjected to fines, imprisonment, and even burning at the stake. Calvinist leaders sent missionaries to France hoping to convert a sufficient number of the nobility to force a relaxation of the laws against Huguenots. One of the nobles they approached was Jeanne's husband Antoine de Bourbon. Although Antoine entertained the Huguenots' message with interest, he was not the man to champion the Protestant cause; an opportunist at heart, he was unwilling to suffer the consequences which a public conversion might bring. But Jeanne d'Albret, queen of Navarre in her own right, heard the message of the Huguenots and came to believe that they preached spiritual truth. On Christmas Day, 1561, she made her formal confession in the Calvinist faith and began openly worshipping as a Huguenot.

Immediately, Jeanne became a guiding light in the Huguenot movement. She daily received preachers and leaders of the reformed religion in her home and helped plan an organization of Huguenots on a national scale. She was "receiv'd everywhere by the heretics with great enthusiasm, as though she were a messiah."

The 1560s were a time of turmoil in France. Francis II died in December 1560, leaving the throne to his brother Charles IX. Catherine de Medici, desperately trying to maintain her power over her son, played the Huguenots against the Guise faction, which remained staunchly Catholic. In order to balance the Catholic faction against the Protestant faction, Catherine pushed through legislation guaranteeing religious liberty to the Huguenots.

Furious, the Guise faction left the court and began plotting to undermine the recent Huguenot victories. They approached Antoine full of lush promises backed by Spain: Antoine was to have another kingdom to compensate him for the loss of Navarre—if only he would live as a faithful Catholic and bring his recalcitrant wife back into the Holy Mother Church. This would not be an easy task; Jeanne was a sincere convert to the Protestant faith. Antoine commanded her to attend mass. When she refused, he resorted to threats and finally banished her from court.

Thus, Jeanne's religious conversion ended her happy relationship with Antoine. The price she paid for refusing to renounce her new faith was separation from her young son. Although only nine years old, little Henry of Navarre had learned much from his mother. She had admonished him to attend only the worship of the reformed religion. When his father tried to force him to attend Catholic mass, Henry of Navarre endured scoldings, threats and beatings for two months before finally bowing to the inevitable.

Open warfare broke out between Catholics and Huguenots after the duke of Guise ordered the massacre of a Huguenot assembly at Vassey. The Prince of Condé, Antoine's brother, publicly announced his conversion and took over leadership of the Huguenot cause on the battlefield. In November 1562, Antoine died of battle wounds. After his death, Jeanne tried to regain custody of Henry of Navarre, but Catherine de Medici insisted that Henry of Navarre remain at court with his cousins in Paris. The duke of Guise was assassinated in the spring of 1763, and a temporary cease-fire was called. Soon after, Pope Pius V called Jeanne before the Inquisition, threatening excommunication and confiscation of her titles and property if she refused to appear. Help came from an unexpected quarter. Catherine de Medici wrote to the pope on Jeanne's behalf, threatening intervention of the French Crown if he dared try to exert his authority against a French subject. Jeanne, grateful for the queen mother's intervention, accepted her invitation to join the court, where she was allowed to see her son, although she could not take him to Huguenot services.

Catherine de Medici continued to refuse Jeanne's request to take Henry of Navarre from the court until 1567. When mother and son finally left, civil war erupted anew. Charles IX revoked the edict of toleration, but this only encouraged the Huguenots to fight back with greater force. Jeanne joined her brother-in-law, the Prince of Condé, at the Huguenot stronghold at La Rochelle, where she gave Henry of Navarre over to his uncle for military training. Within months, Condé was killed by a group of Catholics after being taken prisoner following battle. Condé's death left 15-year-old Henry of Navarre as the nominal leader of the Huguenot faction. As the intermittent war raged on, a new duke of Guise, also named Henry, began to take control of the Catholic forces. Charles IX's younger brother, Henry de Valois, also distinguished himself as a military leader and completed the triumvirate which made up the War of the Three Henrys.

By 1571, the country was heartily tired of the violence and destruction of civil war, and the royal treasury was empty. Despite the pope's continuing insistence that "there can be no harmony between light and darkness," Charles IX and Catherine de Medici began negotiating for peace with the Huguenots. A marriage between Jeanne's son Henry of Navarre and Catherine's daughter Margaret of Valois seemed a perfect means to secure tranquility. Although stalwart Huguenots and Catholics disapproved of a marriage between partners of different faiths, Charles IX favored the match as an omen of peace. On April 11, 1572, Charles IX, Catherine de Medici, and Jeanne d'Albret all signed a contract of marriage between Henry of Navarre and Margaret of Valois. The wedding was scheduled to take place that summer.

To await her son's arrival and to make plans for the upcoming wedding, Jeanne traveled to the ancestral Bourbon home, where she fell seriously ill. By June, she took to her bed with a high fever. Rumors that she had been poisoned were carried to Paris; she, however, blamed her sudden illness on a chronic pulmonary disorder. By June 6, she was told she was dying. In her typical practical nature, she carefully prepared her will, including a codicil that her son must uphold the reformed religion and asking that he give protection to his younger sister Catherine of Bourbon . Two days later, Jeanne d'Albret was dead. According to her request, no candles were set at her casket, and her funeral was performed without the familiar Catholic rituals: "no priests, no cross, nor any holy water." Her death was sudden even by the standards of the day. When her son Henry of Navarre was informed of her death on June 13, he wrote: "I have just received the saddest news that has ever been brought to me, the death of the Queen my mother whom God called a few days ago." Henry was now king of Navarre and the undisputed leader of the Huguenot movement in France. He proclaimed: "Now that my mother is dead, I succeed her and must take as my duty all that was in her charge."

The proposed wedding between Henry of Navarre and Margaret of Valois did not end the fighting between Catholics and Huguenots in France. No sooner were the festivities concluded in August, than Catherine de Medici and the Catholics hatched a plot to end the Huguenot movement in France once and for all. On the evening of St. Bartholomew's Day, the Catholics in Paris rose up in the middle of the night and attacked all the Huguenots who had come to Paris for the wedding. Thousands of Huguenots were massacred, and the streets ran with blood. Henry of Navarre escaped and fled to the countryside where he took control of the remaining Huguenot forces. The civil war raged until 1589. By the end of the War of the Three Henrys, both Henry, duke of Guise, and Henry de Valois (who had succeeded as Henry III after Charles IX's death) had been killed. Henry of Navarre was the closest heir to the throne, and he succeeded as Henry IV in August of 1589. Although it took nine more years of fighting and Henry IV's conversion to Catholicism to end the civil wars, eventually Jeanne d'Albret's son brought peace to France and founded the royal dynasty of Bourbon, which would rule France for almost two centuries, until the French Revolution in 1789.


Mahoney, Irene. Royal Cousin: The Life of Henri IV of France. NY: Doubleday, 1970.

Memoirs of Henry the Great and of the Court of France During His Reign. Vol. I. London: Harding, Triphook and Lepard, 1824.

Roelker, Nancy Layman. Queen of Navarre: Jeanne d'Albret. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968.

Sedgwick, Henry Dwight. Henry of Navarre. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930.

suggested reading:

Nabonne, Bernard. Jeanne d'Albret. Paris, 1945.

Rochambeau, Marquis de. Lettres de Antoine de Bourbon et Jeanne d'Albret. Paris: Societe de l'Histoire de France, 1877.

Kimberly Estep Spangler , Assistant Professor of History and Chair of the Division of Religion and Humanities at Friends University, Wichita, Kansas

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Jeanne d'Albret (1528–1572)

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