Jeanne d’Albert, Queen of Navarre: her childhood and first marriage

Jeanne d’Albert was born at Château de Fontainebleau on the 7th of January 1528 (she died on the 16th of November 1528 in Paris, France, at the age of 43).  This wonderful princess, later Queen of Navarre in her own right, deserves several articles dedicated to her, for she lived a captivating and eventful life full of romance, adventures, and struggle for what she believed was right – for her Protestant faith that she considered the only true religion compared to the corrupt Catholicism.  I intend to write several articles about Jeanne, covering her early years and her relationship with her family, her two marriages, Jeanne’s reign in Navarre, and her conversion to Protestantism in 1558.  Jeanne was a true Renaissance woman, strong, bold, and stubborn.

Portrait of Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre, by an artist of the School of François Clouet, 2nd quarter of the 16th century

Jeanne was the eldest child of King Henri II of Navarre from the House of Albert, and his wife – Marguerite d’Angoulême, who was the most beloved sister of François I, King of France.  Marguerite married Henri d’Albert on the 24th of January, 1527, and their first child was born in less than a year after their wedding.  At the time, Marguerite resided at Fontainebleau with her mother, Louise de Savoy.  Henri was absent, having gone to Berry to handle state affairs for François.  Marguerite’s pregnancy progressed well, but her spirits fluctuated between profound joy and deep melancholy, which worried her relatives and her physician.  Part of Marguerite’s distress was caused by the continuing war of King François and the League of Cognac.  This league included France, Pope Clement VII, the Republic of Venice, England, the Duchy of Milan, and the Republic of Florence.  Although her brother returned from Spanish captivity and repudiated the Treaty of Madrid of 1526, Marguerite remained anxious because two Valois princes – Dauphin François and Prince Henri, Duke d’Orléans – were imprisoned in awful conditions in Spain.

Jeanne’s mother wrote to King François several days before the girl’s birth:

“I assure you, Monseigneur, that the fear I feel at the result of my approaching trial – which I dread as much as, for many reasons, I earnestly desire it – is almost converted into certain hope, seeing that my sorrow so affects you, that to relieve it, you would even sacrifice the health so dear to me; and in comparison of which I esteem my life as nothing: nor can I endure pain so great as that which would befall me, did any harm happen to you. I hope, nevertheless, that God will permit me to see you before my hour arrives: but if this happiness is not to be mine, I will cause your letter to be read to me, instead of the life of Saint Marguerite; as, being written by your hand, it will not fail to inspire me with courage. I cannot, however, believe that my child will presume to be born without your command; to the last, therefore, I shall eagerly expect your much desired arrival.” 

Queen Marguerite of Navarre (Marguerite d’Angoulême) and Henri d’Albert, King of Navarre
Portrait of François I of France by Jean Clouet, c 1530

Jeanne came into the world under the circumstances of high political uncertainty for France.  However, her birth brought great joy to her mother: the girl was Marguerite’s first child, and the Queen of Navarre was 36, which was considered an old age for childbearing in accordance with the standards of the Renaissance era.  To Marguerite’s chagrin, her brother was absent in Paris, but François sent his own physicians to attend the birth of his beloved sister’s baby.   Royal pages were dispatched to the Kings of France and of Navarre: both men were festive and relieved that there was finally an heir to the kingdom of Navarre, and that Marguerite was safe.

Aimée Motier de la Fayette, Queen Marguerite’s dear friend, was appointed governess to the infant princess.  From her first days, little Jeanne displayed her vigorous temperament and good health.  The girl was baptized in the chapel of the Holy Trinity at Fontainebleau.  King François, who was represented by proxy, Louise de Savoy, and Isabel d’Albret, Henri of Navarre’s sister, stood as godparents.  At the age of one month, Aimée de la Fayette departed with her little charge from Fontainebleau to Lonray – a castle close to Alençon, which was Aimée’s residence.  Upon her uncle’s orders, Jeanne spent her early childhood with her governess in pleasant companionship with Aimee’s own children.  Jeanne’s energetic and lively demeanor was not restricted by the strict royal etiquette.  The princess also had a brother – Prince Jean, who was born in Blois on the 7th of July 1530 and died before Christmas in the same year.  Marguerite did not produce any other surviving children, although according to some contemporary sources, the queen had several miscarriages after her infant son’s demise as she attempted to give her husband a male heir.

Jeanne’s governess cultivated a sense of admiration for Queen Marguerite in the princess.  Martha Walker (a 19-th century English writer on French history), who wrote the book ‘The Life of Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre,’ summarized Jeanne’s impression of her mother:

“Often did Madame de Silly [Aimée Motier de la Fayette’s name after her marriage] speak to Jeanne of her royal mother; she told her of Marguerite’s goodness, of the love which everyone bore her, and of the queen’s efforts when at Madrid to procure the liberation of King François from captivity. These lessons sank deep into the heart of the princess; her veneration for her mother became, at length, a leading trait of her character, and influenced many important events of her subsequent life.” 

Château de Lonray, Normandy, France

Princess Jeanne remained at Lonray until the age of 5.  From time to time, she was brought to the French court, where King François and her parents lavished her with affections.  The girl became the apple of her parents’ eye and the object of their immense pride due to Jeanne’s early precocity and her robustness.  At the Valois court, she was given the endearment ‘la mignonne des rois’ (the cutie of kings in our modern language).  Many nobles requested that their daughters become companions to the Navarrese princess.  With the Valois ruler’s permission, Marguerite and Henri often visited their dominions in Béarn and Pau.  Despite his friendship with François, Henri d’Albert felt uncomfortable at the Valois court mainly because of his complete dependence on François I and his will, and no monarch, even if they ruled over a small realm, liked it.  In spite of her love for her brother, Margot often willingly left France to find a tranquil happiness in the Pyrenean kingdom with her husband, away from François’ pageants.

Jeanne did not accompany her parents to Navarre during their sojourns at Pau.  King François insisted that his niece be raised at his court and be educated under his supervision.  Margot wanted to take her daughter to Pau, but her brother persuaded her that it was better for the girl to stay in France.  Henri detested it, but he had to accept François’ decision.  After the annexation of the southern part of Navarre by Ferdinand of Aragon after the invasion of 1513, Henri did not reclaim the lost territories and ruled only the Lower Navarre and some dominions in Gascony.  The independence of Henri’s kingdom was tied to Navarre’s alliance with the House of Valois.

Portrait of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

Why was King François adamant about keeping Jeanne close to him?  The main reason was a political one because of François’ growing distrust to Henri d’Albert.  Although they were allies, the two men were becoming distant as the rumor of Henri’s possible secret alliance with Emperor Charles V reached the Valois court.  Jeanne was the heiress presumptive to principality of Béarn, as well as the counties of Foix, Armagnac, Albret, Bigorre, and Comminges.  According to the terms of the Treaty of Cambrai of 1529, or the Paix des Dames (Ladies’ Peace), François could not assist Henri in recovering the Upper Navarre annexed by the Spaniards, and this was perceived by the monarch of Navarre with silent indignation.  The policy of Emperor Charles V always aimed at decreasing the power of his French archrival and at creating troubles for France.  François feared that if the emperor had offered Henri to have Jeanne betrothed to Philip, Prince of Asturias, Henri could have agreed if he could have regained the Upper Navarre.  Marguerite tried to convince her brother that this nasty gossip meant nothing, but François’ distrust prevailed.

At François’ behest, the household of young Princess Jeanne was permanently established in France.  For some time, she was considered a possible bride for François’ second son – Prince Henri, Duke d’Orléans.  Both Marguerite and Henri approved of this proposal to further cement the alliance between France and Navarre.  They loved the idea of their daughter being married to the French 2nd prince of the blood.  We do not know for a certainty whether there was any official betrothal because there is no formal record of this.  Nonetheless, François could have promised that to Henri not to infuriate his Navarrese counterpart, for soon, in 1533, the Duke d’Orléans married Catherine de’ Medici because François needed an alliance with the Papal States.

The Venetian ambassador, Marino Giustiniano, wrote to the Doge of Venice:

“Monsieur d’Orléans, although his temper is somewhat reserved and melancholic, already gives evidence of great good sense and judgment, he is destined for the daughter of the Queen of Navarre, who, jointly with her husband, possesses a revenue of 600,000 crowns.”  

Jeanne and Prince Henri were not meant to be together.  Had Jeanne wed him and ascended to the Valois throne with Henri as king and queen, the kingdom could have been spared the anarchy that would ravage France for decades – the Wars of Religion.  Yet, Henri and Jeanne would inevitably have had clashes on religious matters: Jeanne would have converted to Calvinism in secret or perhaps even openly, but Henri was a staunch Catholic who was far more inclined to persecute the heretics than François.  Despite them being first cousins and more inbreeding in the Valois family, their marriage could nonetheless have ensured the survival of the Valois dynasty, for the sons of Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici were all sickly and lacked competence as rulers.  It is one of the most interesting what-ifs in France’s history in the 16th century.

Façade of Château de Plessis-lès-Tours, Indre-et-Loire, France

At first, Jeanne resided at Château de Plessis-lès-Tours, and all of her household’s expenses were covered by the King of France.  Aimée Motier de la Fayette was appointed the princess’ chief lady of honor and continued to serve as her governess.  The poet, Nicholas de Bourbon, became preceptor to Jeanne, and he taught her languages, literature, letters, and poetry.  Yet, Jeanne never accomplished the proficiency of her mother, Marguerite, in the latter.  Two chaplains, both of them approved by François, were appointed to instruct his niece in her religious duties and in theology under the control of Pierre du Châtel, Bishop of Tulle and Maçon.  The princess also had a number of French noble companions of her age, a master of the horse, and many other attendants.

Jeanne thrived in her lonely abode at Plessis from 1532 until 1537.  She displayed a great interest in learning, excelling in most of her studies, save letters and poetry.  From childhood, she demonstrated stubbornness and volatile temper, and if she resolved something or wished to get something, nothing stood in her way.  She was undeterred by the fear of punishment even when her parents visited her at Plessis and reprimanded her for her excessive obstinacy.  Marguerite, who was an accomplished writer in her own right, was privately disappointed with her daughter’s lack of talent in poetry and letters.  François, who loved Jeanne a lot, often visited Plessis, but the freedom of his niece’s speech both pleased and alarmed him; Henri and Marguerite had the same feelings.  Jeanne tended to ignore the royal etiquette when she did not want to comply with it.

Martha Walker characterized Jeanne’s personality very well:

“Jeanne began to testify supreme indifference, and contempt, for those of her companions whose disposition she considered to be weak and vacillating.   Steady rectitude of principle, added to a disregard of consequences where truth was to be supported or enforced, formed distinguishing traits of the character of Marguerite’s daughter, even during her childhood.” 

As Jeanne was growing up, she comprehended that she was separated from her parents upon the orders of her royal uncle.  Yet, she adored François, who reciprocated her sentiments.  As Château de Plessis-lès-Tours was quite a gloomy and medieval castle, Jeanne was getting more melancholic.  She commenced to hate the name of Philip of Spain from her childhood: she heard from her governess and her handmaidens that her uncle’s greatest fright was that her father would marry her off to the emperor’s heir.  Indeed, there is evidence that Henri d’Albert was tempted by the prospect of having his daughter occupy the throne of the Catholic monarchs, and had Henri endeavored hard to have his heiress married off to the prince of Spain, he could have attained it.  Nonetheless, it would have meant Marguerite’s immeasurable displeasure and would have led to a confrontation with France, for François would not have allowed Henri to betray him.

Duke William of Jülich-Cleves-Berge, engraving from Heinrich Aldegrever
Château de Plessis-lès-Tours, Indre-et-Loire, France

Due to the girl’s growing discontent, François decided to give her to her parents.  He resolved to ensure that Jeanne would have a husband of his choosing.  At the time, the French monarch allied with Duke William of Cleves who sought his support in his contest with the emperor concerning the Duchy of Guelders.  To cement their alliance, François bestowed upon him the hand of Jeanne, although William was a Lutheran.  Upon the receipt of this news, the King and Queen of Navarre, as well as Navarrese nobles protested, but François did not relent.  François declared that the military occupation of Béarn would follow lest Henri did not stop opposing the match.  Marguerite persuaded Henri to acquiesce to this arrangement.

Once King François unexpectedly appeared at Plessis-lès-Tours.  Princess Jeanne was happy to see her royal uncle, who greeted her affectionately and then announced his decision to have her married off to the 24-yead-old William of Cleves.  Jeanne was ordered to leave Plessis and join her mother, Queen Marguerite, at Alençon.  Despite Jeanne’s tears and objections, François was not swayed from his course of action, and Jeanne had to obey him and depart from Plessis.  In Paris, where they made a brief sojourn, François introduced the bridegroom to his niece, and Jeanne did not conceal her repugnance towards the Duke of Cleves.  François was incensed at her unexpected opposition, and he enjoined to his niece’s governess to tell his sister to make Jeanne submissive.  When the mother and her daughter met at Alençon, Marguerite severely reprimanded Jeanne and attempted to convince the girl that she must obey her royal uncle.

Marguerite was aware of her brother’s increasing doubts over the fealty of the Navarrese ruler to the Crown of France.  To prevent the potential rupture between the Houses of Albert and of Valois, the Queen of Navarre wrote to François, aiming to pacify his anger:

“Monseigneur, in my extreme tribulation I experience but one consolation, which is the certain knowledge that neither the King of Navarre nor I feel other desire than to obey you, not only in the matter of this marriage, but in all that you command us. I have heard, Monseigneur, that my daughter — not appreciating as she ought the great honor which you conferred by deigning to visit her, nor the obedience which she owes to you; neither, that a maiden ought to have no will of her own — was bold enough to utter so senseless a request as to beseech you that she might not be married to M. de Cleves. I know not what to think, Monseigneur, nor how to address you, for I’m overpowered with grief, and have none in the world to whom I can apply for comfort, or for counsel. The King of Navarre is also so astonished and grieved that I have never before seen him so indignant; for we cannot divine whence this great boldness on her part arose, she never having even mentioned such a design to us. She excuses herself on the plea that she is on more intimate terms with you than even with ourselves; but this intimacy ought not to inspire so great a freedom on her part, being, as I believe, not advised to it by any one.

If I could discover the personage who inspired her with such an idea, I would make so great a demonstration of my displeasure as should convince you, Monseigneur, that this foolish affair has been attempted without the sanction and desire of her parents, who have no will but yours. Knowing, therefore, Monseigneur, that it is your habit to pardon errors rather than to punish them – especially, when understanding fails, as it has evidently done in the case of my poor daughter – I entreat you very humbly, Monseigneur, that for this one unreasonable petition which she has preferred – and which is the first fault she has committed in respect to yourself – you will not withdraw that paternal favor which you have ever manifested towards her and ourselves.” 

At the same time, Jeanne continued protesting, vehemently declaring:

“I should die if the project were persisted in.” 

At the time, Jeanne was not aware of Protestantism and Calvinism because of her sequestered upbringing at Plessis when she was educated in theology by Catholic prelates.  Ironically, Jeanne was shocked that she would marry a Lutheran.  Before the marriage ceremony, Marguerite had to threaten the princess with a severe whipping if she did not comply.  Finding that her resistance did not bring what she desired the most – the cancellation of her betrothal with the Duke of Cleves, she complied and journeyed with her mother to Châtellerault for her nuptials.  François welcomed Jeanne and Marguerite warmly at Châtellerault, ignoring his niece’s vocal objections.  Meanwhile, William of Cleves was growing weary of his young bride’s rebellious temper.  The ceremony between the duke and Jeanne of Navarre was performed on the 15th of July, 1540.

Martha Walker described the day of Jeanne’s wedding to the Duke of Cleves:

“The bride was attired in a robe of cloth of gold, beset with jewels. A ducal coronet circled her brow; and the train of her mantle was bordered with ermine. The ceremonial was ordered with pompous splendor: all the great officers of state had been summoned to Châtellerault; and so great was the profusion and display, that the coronation ceremonies of the emperor Charles V cost considerably less than the pageant in which Jeanne performed so reluctant a part.  When King François presented himself to lead the bride to the altar, Jeanne, who was determined to oppose the measure to the very last, rose from her chair; then, suddenly complaining of indisposition, she professed her inability to walk under the weight of the jewels and gold with which her robe was adorned. François, annoyed, summoned the Constable de Montmorency, and commanded him to take the princess in his arms and carry her to the chapel. Montmorency obeyed.” 

Château de Pau, Pau, near Béarn, the former kingdom of Navarre

Later that evening, Jeanne attended a magnificent banquet.  It was decided that the princess would remain in the custody of Queen Marguerite until she was physically ready to consummate the marriage.  During the next 2 years, Jeanne lived in Béarn and Pau with her parents for the first time, and this had a positive impact on her – she retained her lively and stubborn temperament, but her temper was softened.  As Marguerite’s court was thronged with reformers and humanists, Jeanne began to be interested in new religious ideas due to her constant companionship with the reformed teachers.  Jeanne studied the scriptures under the guidance of her mother and of Gérard Roussel, Bishop of Oléron, who was an almoner to the queen.  Although Marguerite remained a Catholic despite her interest in new religion, these lessons influenced Jeanne a great deal, making her more motivated to start questioning the Catholic doctrines and rites, including Mass and Eucharist.

Jeanne and William of Cleves were not meant to be together.  Emperor Charles V threated the Duke of Cleves with the occupation of all his lands if he continued to fraternize with his worst enemy – the House of Valois.  As a result, in 1544 William renounced his alliance with France and signed an agreement with the emperor in return for the Duchy of Guelders.  Of course, Charles V gladly gave back some lands to his mutinous vassal just to ensure that France lost another ally.  To Jeanne’s happiness, this time both François and Marguerite were so outraged that they decided to have their marriage annulled on the grounds of its non-consummation.

Always loyal to her brother, Marguerite wrote to François:

“Monseigneur, I would rather see my daughter in her grave than know her to be in the power of a man who has deceived you, and inflicted so foul a blot on his own honor.” 

In the spring of year 1545, the annulment of Jeanne’s marriage was granted.  She now resided at the Valois court together with her mother and was selected to be godmother to the infant Princess Elisabeth, daughter of Dauphin Henri and Catherine de’ Medici.  Jeanne regained her favor with her royal uncle, and then she journeyed to Plessis.  After the first wife of Philip of Spain, Maria Manuela of Portugal, passed away in 1545, fears that Henri of Navarre could try to marry Jeanne off to the Spanish heir plagued François again, but they were groundless.  Under the influence of Marguerite, Henri d’Albert kept his loyalty to France despite all temptations.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville