Born on 25 October 1510 at the Château de Blois, Renée de France’s life did not begin as difficult. She was the second daughter of Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany.
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Blessed with a Golden Infancy
Unusually for the times, Louis stayed in the queen’s chambers during Renée’s birth. Even though they had a girl, they made a grand celebration of the birth of a well-formed healthy baby.
From her birth she had her own suite and household in the Château. Supervised by her first gouvernante, Mme de Bouchage (née Georgette de Montchenu) her household comprised six demoiselles plus her gouvernante and a nourrice. When Bouchage died in August the next year, Mme de Soubise replaced her as Renée’s gouvernante.
The baptism occurred the day after her birth. Renée’s two godmothers, Madame la Grande, the Duchess de Beaujeu, and Mme de Bouchage and godfather, Maréchal de Trivulzio, attended her baptism. So did the king, her sister Claude, and an enormous court. Her mother did not, as was the custom. Princess Renée lived at Blois most of the time until her mother’s death in 1514. The well-educated Mme de Soubise, her next gouvernante, conducted Renée’s early education.
Renée de France’s Childhood Becomes Difficult
When Queen Anne lay dying, wishing to keep Brittany independent from France, she tried to will Brittany to Renée, King Louis dissuaded her.
Knowing the love between Michelle de Soubise and Renée, the queen made a special request on her deathbed. She asked Michelle to remain as Renée’s gouvernante and her second mother. Yet in 1518 Louise de Savoie dismissed Michelle. This shows her cruelty.
Little is known of Renée de France’s difficult childhood or her whereabouts from her mother’s death until her marriage in 1528. Because she was an ardent reformer, as were Mme de Soubise and Marguerite d’Angoulême, historians have made some assumptions. They believe she lived with Queen Claude until her death in 1524 and then with Duchess Marguerite until her marriage to the King of Navarre in 1527.
In 1528, King François I of France arranged Princess Renée’s marriage to Duke Ercole de Ferrara for his support in the Italian wars. In return for renouncing her rights to the duchy of Brittany, François granted Renée the duchy of Chartres. She also received the Château of Montargis and an annuity as her dowry. He also arranged that Mme de Soubise and her eldest daughter accompany the new Duchess to Ferrara.
Renée de France, Duchess of Ferrara
Renée de France’s life did not become less difficult when she married. In the Duchess’s court in Ferrara, in the 1530 and 1540s, she cultivated humanism, and included scholars like Bernardo Tasso and Fulvio Pellegrini. She never became fluent in Italian and maintained strong French leanings. She succoured all those French who staggered through Ferrara during the interminable Italian wars. Although her relations with her husband soon soured, she gave birth to their first child, Anne, in 1531. There followed Alfonso, in 1533; Lucrezia, 1535; and after these, Eleonora and Luigi. She directed the education of her girls.
On 31 October 1534, her father-in-law died and Ercole succeeded to the throne. As soon as he rendered his allegiance to Pope Paul III, he turned against the French at his court. Many of them had accompanied Renée, and their number and influence displeased him. He said they were too expensive. Also, her support for both French and Swiss reformers earned her his ire.
By direct or indirect means secured their dismissal, including the poet Clément Marot and John Calvin. Calvin passed several weeks at the court of Renée in the summer of 1536. Renée corresponded with several Protestants abroad, with its intellectual sympathizers such as Vergerio, Camillo Renato, and others. In 1543, her husband obliged her to dismiss from her court, her last French guests, the daughter- and son-in-law of Madame de Soubise. She maintained her own convictions, however, and on two or three occasions, attended reformist services manner with her daughters and fellow believers. These convictions of hers made Renée of Frances life more difficult.
Renée de France’s Heresy Trial
The Counter-Reformation, which had operated in Rome since 1542, opened a special court of the Inquisition at Ferrara in 1545. After King François died in 1547, Duke Ercole lodged an accusation against Renée before her nephew, King Henry II of France. The Inquisitor, whom the king charged with the errand, arrested Duchess Renée of Ferrara as a heretic. To force her to recant, he declared her possessions forfeit. She resisted until her jailors threatened to remove her two daughters from her forever. In order to reunite with her children, she finally abjured her Protestant faith. She then yielded, attended mass and made confession on 23 September 1554. After this, she refused ever again to attend the mass which she abhorred.
Renée’s Return to France
The Duchess of Ferrara longed to return to France and court once her daughter Anne married the Duc de Guise, head of the Catholic party. 1559 proved a cataclysmic year: in April the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis ended the Franco-Italian wars, in May the French reform churches held their first synod, and at the celebrations of the June marriages of Elizabeth with the King of Spain and Duchess Marguerite to the Duke of Savoie, King Henri II received a wound to his eye. He died 10 days later in early July. Then, on 3 October 1592, Renée’s hated husband, Duke Ercole, died. It wasn’t until almost a year later on 2 September 1560 that she left from Ferrara.
From 1534 on, the reform movement was persecuted in France. Still, its power and numbers were growing. As royal power weakened after the death of King Henri II, the struggle between Catholics and Huguenots heated up. Both political and religious, six wars broke out over the next thirty-five years. Renée moved to her estate at Montargis, where she supported Huguenot worship. She brought in a preacher and served as benefactress to local co-religionists. Her castle became a refuge for Huguenots.
During the second religious war (1567), Renée’s home was unmolested. In the third (1568–70), however, her castle was no longer safe for her fellow believers. In 1572, she rescued several from the Saint Bartholomew’s night massacre, while she was attending King Henri’s wedding to Princess Margot. During that disaster, the queen-mother Catherine de’ Medici sought to convert her, but Renée refused. Instead, she returned to Montargis, where she continued to protect reformers until she died on 12 June 1574.
Renée of France’s Difficult Life
Princess Renée’s life started well. She was born healthy, into luxury with doting parents, with an older sister and gouvernante who adored her. Her life until she was four couldn’t have been better. Then, within a year, both her parents died. Her guardian sought to despoil her of her inheritance and remove her loving gouvernante from her orbit. By the time Renée was eight, Duchess Louise had succeeded. From then on, Princess Renee of France led a difficult life filled with instability. The Duchess of Ferrara and her husband did not suit each other. In fact, Duke Ercole sent her retainers from his court and charged her with heresy.
By threatening the Duchess of Ferrara she would not see her children again, he forced her to abjure her reformist beliefs, confess and take mass. Her life in France was marred by religious strife and her son-in-law, who led the Catholic movement, invaded her home. The French kings, uncle and nephew despoiled her of her duchy of Brittany, stole her great wealth, and left her with a meagre portion of the income that was her due.
Pauline Matarasso, Le Baptême de Renée de France en 1510. CRNS Éditions, Paris, 2011
Nicole Vray, Renée de France et Anne de Guise: Mère et Fille entre la Loi et la Foi au XIVe Siècle. Éditions Olivétan, Lyon, Paris, 2010
Renée de France, Wikipedia