Renée of France: a Valois princess, a Protestant Duchess of Ferrara

The Valois Princess Renée of France was born on the 25th of October 1510 at Château de Blois, in the town of Blois, in the Loire Valley, France.  The second surviving daughter of King Louis XII of France and Anne de Bretagne (Anne of Brittany), Renée was the first French princess who received this unusual name, and she lived quite an eventful life, living her mark in history of the French and Italian Renaissance and in Reformation.  Renée was the Duchess of Ferrara from 1534 until her husband’s death in 1559 through her marriage to Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, who was a grandson of Pope Alexander VI from the notorious Borgia family.

Portrait of young Renée of France by Jean Clouet, c 1520
Portrait of Queen Marguerite de Navarre by Jean Clouet, c 1527

As Renée was her second daughter, Queen Anne saw it as a chance to keep the Duchy of Brittany independent, wishing to bequeath her lands to Renée.  Yet, King Louis did not consent, for he had married Anne primarily for political reasons – to annex Britany and make it part of the French realm, which was especially important for the country’s safety due to the Habsburg encirclement.  Renée spent her childhood at Châteaux d’Amboise and de Blois.  Her governess, Michelle de Saubonne, Dame de Soubise, was a staunch supporter of Queen Anne and an enemy of Anne’s foe – Louise de Savoy, Dowager Countess d’Angoulême.  If Anne had not passed away in January 1514 and outlived Louis, who died at the beginning of 1515, by a few years, Renée might have received the Duchy of Brittany and could have been married off to someone else, not Ercole d’Este.  Yet, King François I of France, who ascended to the throne after Louis’ demise, would not have allowed Anne to deprive her eldest daughter, Queen Claude and François’ wife, of the Duchy of Brittany, and there would have been a serious confrontation between them.

However, Renée became an orphan at the age of 5: she was 4 when her mother died, and her father followed Anne to the world of shadows a year later.  Afterwards, Renée was raised by Marguerite d’Angoulême, the beloved sister of King François.  It is possible that Anne Boleyn, who, I believe, was born in 1507, not in 1501, could have spent some time with Renée in childhood because she was only several years older, which would have made Anne a suitable playmate for the princess.  Given Anne’s likely participation in the literary circles of the king’s sister where she was slowly developing her inclination to religious reform, Anne and Renée could have been close at some point, enjoying intellectual discussions with Marguerite.  This cannot be proved, but this is a nice plotline for a novel of Anne’s early life in France for Tudor writers.  Marguerite and Renée were so close that Margot took the younger woman to Château de Nérac, one of the seats of power in Navarre, after Margot’s marriage to King Henri II of Navarre from the House of Albert.

King François was involved in the Habsburg-Valois wars in Italy against Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.  Searching for new allies, he arranged a marriage for the eighteen-year-old Renée to Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and the son of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia.  Unfortunately, she and Ercole proved to be a mismatch due to their cultural inclinations and their religion. Ercole was a staunch Catholic, while Renée adored the ideas of Martin Luther and John Calvin.  She gained knowledge in theology and had a constant exposure to new religion while she was part of Marguerite’s circles, where she met with many reformers, humanists, and evangelicals.  Moreover, Renée found it hard to assimilate at the Ferrarese court that, fairly assessing, was one of the most glittering courts in the Renaissance Italy.  Renée was even clinging to French fashions, and her French habits, which she did not want to abandon, made her quite an isolated person.

Portrait of Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, by Nicolò dell’Abate

At first, Renée’s interest in Reformation was only a topic for debates and contemplation.  She attended Mass and other Catholic rituals with her husband and their court.  Back then, it was a crime in the eyes of the Catholic Inquisition to study and teach reformed theology in Italy, which was not as lenient towards Protestantism as France was until the Affair of the Placards of 1534, after which King François changed his stance towards the Protestants and evangelicals from tolerance to persecutions.  In October 1534, her father-in-law died, and Ercole succeeded him as Duke of Ferrara.  One of his first actions was to expel the French from his duchy, whose numbers were so large that it was expensive to house them all at his court.  Many of them were those French ladies and men who arrived in Ferrara with Renée, and this discomfited her.  Ercole was not going to be François I’s ally, although he was not Charles V’s ally either – he remained neutral.

The most important reason for Ercole’s decision was that the French entourage of his wife was suspected of heresy.  The Roman curia was putting pressure upon Ercole to start punishing those whom the Catholics called the heretics.  One of those who were ejected back to France was the famed French Renaissance poet Clément Marot, a friend of François and Marguerite.  Yet, in 1536, John Calvin visited the Duchy of Ferrara under the name Charles d’Esperville, and although the reason for his arrival is unknown, Calvin was highly likely to have been a religious refugee, one who was accepted with warmth by the Protestant believers at Renée’s court.  Calvin befriended Renée and caused her to be more inclined to Protestantism, and it seems that they were friends; after his departure, they maintained correspondence.  Although Ercole prohibited his wife from patronizing banned or endangered Protestants, she continued employing them in her service.

Art historian Simonetta Carr, the author of many books and biographies, described Renée’s affable relationship with John Calvin in the biography ‘Renée of France’:

“He [Calvin] took great care to present Renée with clear teaching on the essential doctrines, as she was up against false teachers in the Este court. As she was going through persecution brought on by her own husband, wavering in her faith, Calvin continues to strengthen and encourage her with gospel truth. He spoke graciously to her in her weakest moments. He was a constant source of counsel for her, in the influence she had and the choices she was making regarding her personal life. Renée didn’t always take Calvin’s advice. She pushed back quite a bit. But there was a mutual respect creating a friendship comfortable with open disagreement and growth. It wasn’t one-dimensional. Calvin also listened to Renée’s concerns and gained from her perspective.” 

             Oil painting of John Calvin
Portrait of the classic scholar Olympia Morata

Ercole d’Este was not happy with his spouse, whose behavior and spirit were not those of a traditional wife he wished her to be.  As a result of Renée’s tutelage in Ferrara, Calvin’s book ‘Masterpiece, magnum opus’ circulated at the Ferrarese court, in 2 Latin editions of 1536 and 1539.  This was a new source of tension between Renée and Ercole, who quarreled with her and ordered to have the books found and destroyed.  The classical scholar Olympia Morata and the illustrious poetess Vittoria Colonna, who both had a significant literary fame and Protestant leanings, were part of Renée’s entourage for some time.  Despite all these tensions and Ercole’s displeasure, the couple performed their marital duties: Anna was born in 1531, Alfonso in 1533, Lucrezia in 1535, Eleonore in 1537, and Luigi in 1538, who was their last child despite Renée’s youth and a lot of childbearing years ahead of her, perhaps due to their growing alienation from each other.

By 1540, Renée changed under the influence of Calvin and her intellectuals.  A horrified Ercole dismissed and imprisoned members of his spouse’s household.  Some of them were tortured and executed despite Renée’s protestations.  Since then, the couple lived in the same palace, but they were estranged and rarely shared a bed.  Due to the duke’s dislike of everything French, he compelled the last French guests to leave Ferrara in 1543, and Renée became more isolated.  Ercole, who already had 2 sons, dallied with other women, while Renée dedicated herself to her intellectual pursuits and the upbringing of their offspring.  Renée continued her clandestine work because of her piety, hospitality, and generosity to those who were in danger due to their faith.  Protestant books were imported from Germany, translated, and reproduced, mostly in Venice.

Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara and poetess

In 1542, a special court of the Inquisition in Ferrara began operating, condemning many people for heresy.  In spite of placing herself in peril and her husband’s anger, Renée continued secretly corresponding with a number of Protestants abroad and with intellectual sympathizers such as Camillo Renato, Giulio di Milano, Vergerio, and Francis Dryander; she exchanged letters with Calvin as well.  Perhaps under Calvin’s pastoral guidance, Renée eagerly participated in the Eucharist in the Protestant manner together with her daughters and fellow believers about 1550 or later.  This was more than Ercole d’Este could bear: finally, in 1550-51, the Duke of Ferrara made the accusation of heresy against his wife public and complained to her nephew, King Henri II of France, who also implemented strict measures against spreading heresy.  The Inquisitor Oriz, who was commanded by Henri and Ercole to deal with Renée, had her arrested and confiscated all of her personal possessions unless she recanted.  Renée did not relent until her 2 daughters were taken away from her.  Thus, the Duchess of Ferrara recanted, but she refused to attend Catholic worship.

John Calvin wrote in a letter to the French reformer William Farel who lived in Switzerland:

“How seldom is there an example of steadfastness [Renée’s example] among aristocrats.”  

Renée’s story over the next years was full of difficult moral choices between the safety of those who were very dear to her and adhering to the Protestant faith.  Maybe Renée’s only joy was that Ercole finally sided with Pope Paul IV and France against Spain in 1556, but her husband later made a separate peace agreement with Philip II of Spain.  Her marriage did not bring France a valuable political ally in Italy, and this must have been a constant source of frustration for Renée who always remained pro-French in culture, manners, and lifestyle even in Ferrara.  Duke Ercole died on the 3rd of October 1559, and his successor – their son, Alfonso II d’Este, the new Duke of Ferrara – was compelled by Pope Pius IV to exile his mother to France on the back of her Calvinist creed.  Unwillingly, Alfonso voiced the Pope’s decision to Renée, who supported it because she was probably tired of years sterile of joy and filled with quarrels with her late husband.

The Castello Estense (‘Este castle’), former residence of Dukes of Ferrara
Remnants of Château de Montargis

Princess Renée, Dowager Duchess of Ferrara, returned to France with great pleasure.  She was upset to find the husband of her eldest daughter, Anne – François de Lorraine, Duke de Guise – at the head of the conservative Catholic party.  Renée resided at Château de Montargis located in north-central France on the Loing River, and she continued worshipping the Protestant faith more easily after the death of King François II in December 1560 when the Guises lost their complete control over the French politics.  In later years, during the Wars of Religion in France, Renée’s castle became a place of refuge for the Protestants when her son-in-law, who was a radical Catholic, again started massacres and wars.  However, soon her château stopped being a safe place for the Protestants due to her daughter’s union with François de Guise.  During the Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre in the night of the 23-24th of August 1572, Renée was in Paris and rescued several Protestants from the blades of the fervent Catholics seized with bloodlust.

Renée of France was never persecuted despite her faith, although Catherine de’ Medici often asked her to recant.  Renée’s Protestant faith remained unwavering, and after the bloodbath in Paris, she returned to her estates in Montargis.  In the past 10 years, John Calvin corresponded with Renée more often, and he praised the princess in his letters to other Protestants.  One of Calvin’s last writings was in French in 1564 – it was addressed to Renée.  Calvin was her friend and mentor until the end of his life, and in one of his last letters to her, he reminded her that her trials and tribulations did not sway her ‘from a right and pure profession of Christianity.’   Renée passed away on the 12th of June 1574, and because of her faith, she was not buried with the Valois royals at Saint-Denis.  She was interred in Montargis without pomp and even a tombstone.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville