On the 25th of May 1555, Henri d’Albert, King of Navarre, died at Hagetmau. Nicknamed Sangüesino of his birth at Sangüesa (a city in Navarre 44.5 kilometers from Pamplona), he was the King of Navarre from 1517, after the passing of his father, King John III, in 1516.
Before Henri’s accession, his family’s foe Ferdinand of Aragon had invaded Navarre in 1512 and proclaimed himself a monarch of the kingdom. King John III of Navarre had attempted to reconquer the lost lands of Navarre in 1516, but, unfortunately, he had failed and died, having been plagued by depression from his defeats. Following his unsuccessful reconquest, his wife, Queen Catherine I, had passed away in her independent dependencies of Béarn.
These sad events preceded the accession of Henri d’Albert. Despite the threat of a new Spanish invasion, the people of Navarre rejected any attempts at Spanish rule, which they considered slavery, and welcomed the accession of Henri II. Being an ally and later a friend of King François I of France, the new ruler received the strong protection of his stronger neighbor. Henri was crowned King of Navarre in Lescar on the 12th of February 1517.
Soon Henri d’Albert endeavored to take the rest of his country back. The previous invasion of 1512 had reduced Navarre to a small territory north of the Pyrenees. After diplomatic negotiations with Spain at Noyon in 1516 and at Montpellier in 1518, Henri’s troops, supported by the French, seized the lost territories, but his armies were ultimately expelled by the Spaniards.
Henri II’s claim to the Navarrese throne was disputed by Ferdinand II of Aragon until the Spanish monarch’s death. Then Ferdinand’s grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, continued to proclaim himself king as well throughout the rest of Henri’s reign. Only in 1530, Emperor Charles V voluntarily ceded Henri the small section of Navarre north of the Pyrenees, but negotiations for the remainder stopped. Therefore, Henri owed his country’s independence and perhaps even its survival to the good graces of King François.
In 1525, Henri was taken prisoner at the Battle of Pavia together with François, Anne de Montmorency (Marshal of France), and several other French generals, but he escaped. Having been always devoted to her brother, Marguerite journeyed to Madrid to negotiate with Charles V the terms and conditions of François’ release; she is rightly credited with saving his life when he fell ill in prison after he had been kept in dire conditions for weeks.
In 1526, the King of Navarre married Marguerite d’Angoulême, the beloved sister of the French monarch. Although she bore Henri a daughter, Jeanne d’Albret (mother of the future Henri IV of France), their only son, John, died in infancy, which caused much bitterness to both parents. According to some contemporary sources, the couple became estranged soon after little John’s passing due to their quite significant age gap (Marguerite was ten years older than Henri), and due to her failure to produce a living son – her husband’s male heir.
On the other hand, other sources claimed that the couple was relatively happy, despite some of their family problems. In Château de Pau, where the couple established their luxurious residence, their entwined initials mark the place, and they are still present on the walls and ceilings, for great care was taken to maintain and reproduce them over all of the subsequent restorations. Perhaps the couple was happy at first, but the death of their son and Marguerite’s aging caused her a pang of distress, because her husband strayed from the marriage bed.
The success of a medieval and Renaissance Queen Consort was measured by her fertility and her ability to provide male heirs, as well as by being a good wife to her husband. From this standpoint, Marguerite de Navarre, as she was known after her marriage to Henri II, was not that kind of consort. Even after her second marriage, Marguerite spent a lot of time in France and was an active, driving force at François’ magnificent court. Her fabulous intelligence and her stellar education led Marguerite led to her becoming one of the first female authors in Europe.
Henri II of Navarre recognized the intelligence and brilliance of his wife. A strong, smart, and formidable woman, she helped her husband rule Navarre, taking her wise council even when she was in France. The distance between the Albert spouses could also have been caused by Marguerite’s rare sojourns in Navarre and her preference to be at her brother’s side. Even if Henri had wished to compel Marguerite to reside in Navarre with him permanently, he would have failed, because François needed his sister’s advice and her presence at his court, so the French king would not have allowed his brother-in-law to force her to do anything she did not want to.
According to the seigneur de Brantôme (a French historian, soldier, and biographer), Henri developed some sympathy with the Huguenots. He was fluent in both French and Spanish. However, unlike his wife, he remained a staunch Roman Catholic, while she was a strong fellow Huguenot sympathizer. At the beginning of their relationship, the kingdom of Navarre was untouched by Reformation doctrine, but Marguerite commenced spreading it via her vast networks of evangelicals. Henri was upset with this, but at first, he concealed his displeasure well.
Henri’s spouse usually had private, evangelical services in her apartments. One day, she and her circle celebrated the Lord’s Supper in an underground hall in the palace. In spite of all the secrecy around her religious activities, news of it reached the Navarrese ruler, who appeared in his wife’s apartments and, in his rage at her independence and her lack of submission, struck her in the face, saying, “Madame, you know too much.” Immediately, Marguerite complained about her husband’s violence to her loving sibling. Soon François set out for Navarre and reprimanded his brother-in-law to a point where a scared Henri beseeched his unruly consort to forgive him. Afterwards, Henri promised to allow Reformed worship in his country, and he even himself read about Protestant doctrine, while François with his entourage returned to Paris.
Château de Pau
The monarch of Navarre kept his bargain. At their châteaux at Pau and Nérac, Marguerite gathered around her artists, thinkers, and writers, whom she encouraged and many of whom were evangelicals. As an avid and faithful patron of the arts, she had significant influence that can still be discerned in France today. Nevertheless, Henri attempted to shield his daughter, little Joan, from her mother’s wrong religious influence, which could have further deepened the rift between the spouses. At last, in 1530, François took the girl away to raise her as a French princess and a true Roman Catholic so as to keep her away from her mother’s reformed ideas.
Henri remained François’ ally for the rest of his brother-in-law’s life. That is proved by the fact that the King of Navarre is not known to have objected when, in 1541, his only surviving legitimate daughter, Joan, was forced to marry William, Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, and the girl had to be carried to the altar at François’ order. This union was annulled several years later, and before his death, Henri II arranged for her to marry Antoine de Bourbon, who was in line for the French throne. Upon Henri’s death, Jeanne d’Albert became Queen Joan III of Navarre.