The Strong-Willed Jeanne de Navarre

The strong-willed Jeanne de Navarre, destined to become Queen of Navarre from 1555 to 1572, showed her mettle from earliest childhood. So, it isn’t surprising that Jeanne d’Albret defied the powers that be to make Navarre the centre of Huguenot resistance during the early wars of religion. These included: her uncle, King François I; her gentle mother, the first Queen Marguerite de Navarre; her husband, Antoine de Navarre; Pope Paul; King Phillip of Spain and Queen Catherine de Medici. This is her story.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Jeanne de Navarre’s Early Years

Born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye on November 16th 1528, Jeanne de Navarre was the daughter of King Henry II of Navarre. He had married Marguerite of Angoulême because she was the King of France’s sister.

Jeanne d'Albret as a child

She was an intelligent, pretty strong-willed child, with a lively, active personality. Jeanne’s temperament took after her grandmother and her father rather than her gentle mother. As a baby, she lived with her parents under their responsibility as was natural. Then her brother, the heir died. It was apparent her mother would bear no more children. Jeanne became heiress and future reigning monarch of Navarre, important for its strategic location between France and Spain.

Her uncle King François demanded guardianship of his niece and installed at Plessiz-lez-Tours.A favourite of King François because of her wit, liveliness and beauty, she grew up with a powerful sense of her rights and elevated status.

Jeanne de Navarre Objects to the Duke de Clèves

Both her humanist tutor, Nicholas Bourbon, and her gouvernante mentioned her willfulness often in their letters to her mother. Described as a “frivolous and high-spirited princess”, she displayed a tendency to a stubborn and unyielding character. The first public evidence she demonstrated was the extraordinary lengths she went to object to her arranged marriage to the Duke of Clèves at twelve. Not only did she pen two long protests, that she had witnessed by members of her household, but also she refused to walk down the aisle at her wedding. Her embarrassed uncle forced the Constable de Montmorency to carry her to the altar. Bowing to her stronger will, the king did not send her to live in her new husband’s lands with the happy result that when the marriage was no longer convenient for France, her written protests led to the dissolution of her hated marriage.

Jeanne received one benefit from her despised marriage. François finally allowed her to go to her lands of Bearn, Navarre and the territories that made up the large d’Albret holdings in south-west France. She made herself popular immediately. Although not studious, she had acquired the education, courtly graces and skills expected of modern cultured women. Brought up Catholic, she did not embrace reform young. She did embrace an expensive lifestyle as due to her, which caused her mother both heartache and financial hardship.

Jeanne marries Duke Antoine de Bourbon

In 1548, 20-year-old Jeanne married Antoine de Bourbon. She was extremely happy about it. Strategically, because of the location of his lands, he was not the best choice, but he was not a bad choice either for the future Queen of Navarre. In France, he was the first prince of blood. He was interested in the Reformed religion. Given her family background and the court atmosphere it is reasonable to believe she was already interested in reform. Her affection for her husband and his support for Reform probably pushed her to become more active.

The couple had five children, of whom only two lived to adulthood: Henry, King of Navarre (1572 to 1610) and King of France (1589 to 1610) and Catherine of Navarre, often regent in Navarre for her brother. In 1599 she married and became Duchess of Lorraine. Antoine de Bourbon was a notorious philanderer. In 1554, he fathered an illegitimate son, Charles, by Louise de La Béraudière de l’Isle Rouet, a court beauty known as “La belle Rouet.

Strong-willed Queen Jeanne de Navarre

On the death of her father in 1555, Jeanne became Queen of Navarre and sovereign of Béarn. Since wives were subordinate to their husbands, Antoine obtained the same titles as her. However, he wished to take precedence over his wife, “as lord of his wife and all her possessions.” Jeanne agreed, since her role as a woman was in perfect harmony with the role that religion conceded to her. However, the States of Béarn recognized only Jeanne as “their true and natural Lady.” At her death, only her descendants could legitimately reign. In the end, they recognized both spouses on an equal footing, but never gave precedence to Antoine, which seriously annoyed him .

The royal couple reigned over both his lands and hers, slightly favouring Protestantism. In 1557, Antoine, like Jeanne d’Albret’s father, tried to take back Spanish Navarre in order to annex it to Lower Navarre. From that time on, Antoine was afraid that his adherence to Protestantism would hinder him in this quest, given Spain’s pronounced Catholicism. He, therefore, concealed his relations with the Protestant preachers.

From 1560 onwards, the relationship between the spouses began to change. Anthony was a hesitant, indecisive and ambitious character. His wife, on the other hand, was less hesitant and her husband’s behaviour exasperated her. At first, on a personal level, Jeanne seemed exasperated by Anthony’s infidelities. Then, although her penchant for the Reformed religion was growing, Anthony, for his part, seemed hesitant.

The Amboise Conspiracy

Then in 1560, in the Amboise’ conspiracy changed the political situation. The court knew that the King of Navarre and his brother, Prince Louis de Condé, were aware of what was going on. The Protestants had tried to remove the King of France, Francis II, from the influence of the Guises. However, the plot was discovered, and the conspirators were arrested and hanged. As for Antoine and Condé, Catherine de Medici had them called them back to court. On the way, they had been attacked. Antoine had managed to escape, but Condé was taken prisoner. He was only saved because King François II died before Condé was sentenced. The queen mother, once again regent, decided to be more lenient towards the Protestants and did not condemn him to death.

On Christmas Day 1560, Jeanne converted to Calvinism. As sovereign for Béarn and Navarre, she declared Calvinism the official religion of her kingdom. Her conversion made her the highest-ranking Protestant in France. She commissioned the translation of the New Testament into Basque and Béarnese for the benefit of her subjects.

The strong-willed Queen Jeanne de Navarre

Queen Jeanne’s official position in the conflicts remained relatively neutral in the beginning, since she was preoccupied with military defence, given Navarre’s geographic location beside Catholic Spain. Papal envoys arrived to coax or coerce her into replied, “the authority of the Pope’s legate is not recognized in Béarn.” Not surprisingly the Catholic Church designated her as an enemy of the Counter Reformation.

Following this, the Calvinist church banished priests and nuns, prohibited Catholic rituals and destroyed or repurposed Catholic churches.

But when the Pope declared her a heretic, excommunicated her and placed her lands under interdict he went too far for both France and Spain, since each feared the other and any other country who might see an advantage and step in to benefit from the situation.

Besides the Pope was taking powers he did not have when he tried to discipline Jeanne since she was vassal to the King of France. Thus, both the French court and the Gallican Church were furious when they heard of the papal actions. For the Regent saw this as the Pope’s attempt to appropriate the King of France’s powers. And the Gallican Church was already irritated with the Council of Trent for imposing articles that reduced French royal power. For example, the Council punished princes who tolerated heretics and declared Henri III of Navarre a bastard with no right to the French crown. This blatant interference by the Papacy in French affairs enraged Catherine de Medici. On behalf of Charles IX, she sent angry letters of protest to the Pope, whose threats never materialized.

nstead, when the French Court made its royal progress from January 1564 to May 1565, Jeanne and Catherine de Medici met and held talks at Mâcon and Nérac. This aligned with Jeanne’s view of the role she attributed to women, the pursuit of peace.

The strong-willed Jeanne of Navarre

Catherine de Medici actively engaged in such negotiations as had both Louise and Marguerite before her, as I have shown. In Jeanne’s letter to the Cardinal of Bourbon, the Queen of Navarre explained that “the job of women and of those who do not wield weapons […] is to chase peace.” She played this role again negotiating the peace to end the third religious war.

Queen Jeanne de Navarre —Author and Apologist

,Jeanne was a prolific author of poetry, letters and exhortations. Her most famous work is the Ample Declaration, published in 1568, after the government revoked the freedom of Huguenots to worship. This action led directly to the Third Religious War. At the time, Jeanne also wrote a series of letters to important leaders. When she received no answers, the outspoken queen published the letters with the Ample Declaration.

These letters were addressed to the King, Charles IX, to Queen Mother Catherine de Medici, to the King’s brother, the future Henry III, to the Cardinal of Bourbon (who was also her brother-in-law), and to Elizabeth I of England.

They serve to explain her involvement in the religious conflict. In her manifesto for the cause of the Reformed religion, she defended her God, and the faith to which she was deeply committed. It can be summed up in a sentence in the letter to Catherine de Medici. “There is nothing more complete than the devotion that I have had, have and will have in the service of my God, my King, my country and my blood.” Here we must understand her God to be her Calvinist God, her King to be her son who will become King of Navarre, her country to be those lands ruled by her, and her blood to be that of the Albret and Bourbon families.

The Bourbon blood she defended on behalf of her beloved son. Her husband had been the first prince of blood. Her son, Henri III of Navarre, would take his place when he came of age. Henri was, from birth, the centre of Jeanne’s attention. To her, he was unquestionably the brightest and best. She gave him an education worthy of a future great Protestant leader, and potential king of France.

Queen Jeanne de Navarre and the Third Religious War

When war loomed in 1568, Queen Jeanne and her two children joined Prince Louis de Condé and Admiral de Coligny in La Rochelle. She went both for her family’s security and to lead the Protestant party. After several severe Protestant defeats, when the French crown was close to bankruptcy, the two sides agreed to peace. Strong-willed Queen Jeanne and wily Queen Catherine de Medici negotiated the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It   ended the third war in August, 1570. As one condition, Queen Jeanne reluctantly agreed to a marriage between her son and the king’s sister, Marguerite. In exchange, she obtained the previously denied privilege for Huguenot to hold public office in France.

In June 1572, Jeanne was in Paris preparing for the wedding. On the 4th, she returned home one afternoon feeling ill. The next morning, she awoke with a fever and aches. Five days later she died.

The Strong-willed Jeanne de Navarre

Queen Jeanne de Navarre

From the start to the end of her life Queen Jeanne d’Albret proved herself a woman outstanding fopr her competence, her principles and her determination. She managed her own lands to their benefit, improving their economy and literacy while maintaining their independence in the face of three hugely powerful enemies: Spain, France and the Papacy. She is a model of the powerful Renaissance woman.

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