On the 25th of May 1555, King Henri II of Navarre from the House of Albert died at Hagetmau. Nicknamed Sangüesino of his birth at Sangüesa (a city in Navarre 44.5 kilometers from Pamplona), he was born on the 18th of April 1503 to Queen Catherine of Navarre and her husband and co-ruler, King Jean III of Navarre. Henri was the elder of their two surviving sons, although the couple had 13 children, out of whom only two sons and 4 girls survived. Henri d’Albert was the King of Navarre from 1517, after the passing of his father, King Jean III, in 1516. Princess Magdalena of France, who was a younger daughter of King Charles VII of France and Marie d’Anjou, was a maternal grandmother of Henri II of Navarre, which made Henri a cousin to the ruling House of Valois of France.
Before Henri’s accession, his family’s sworn foe, King Ferdinand II of Aragon, had invaded Navarre in 1512 and proclaimed himself a monarch of the kingdom. King Jean 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 re-conquest, his wife, Queen Catherine I, had passed away in her independent principality of Béarn.
These sad events preceded the ascension of Henri d’Albert. Despite the threat of a new Spanish invasion, the people of the southern Navarre rejected any attempts at Spanish rule, which they considered slavery, and welcomed Henri II as their sovereign. 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 armies, seized the lost territories, but his troops were ultimately expelled by the Spaniards.
Henri’s claim to the Navarrese throne was disputed by Ferdinand 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 voluntarily ceded Henri the small section of Navarre north of the Pyrenees, but negotiations for the remainder stopped. Therefore, Henri owed King François and the House of Valois for the independence of what remained of Navarre after the Spanish conquest.
In 1525, Henri was taken prisoner at the Battle of Pavia together with King François, Anne de Montmorency (Marshal of France at the time), 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 gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne d’Albret (mother of the future King Henri IV of France), their only son, Jean, died in infancy, which caused much bitterness to both parents. According to some contemporary sources, the couple became estranged soon after little Jean’s passing because of to their quite significant age gap (Marguerite was 10 years older than Henri), and due to her failure to produce a living son – her husband’s male heir.
On the other hand, other contemporary sources claimed that the couple was relatively happy, despite some family problems. At 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 traditional 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 Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme (a French historian, soldier, and biographer), Henri developed sympathy to 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 through her network 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.
The monarch of Navarre kept his word. 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 Jeanne, 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 did not object when, in 1541, his only surviving legitimate daughter, Jeanne, was forced to marry William, Duke of Jülich, Cleves, and Berg, and the unwilling girl had to be carried to the altar upon François’ orders. 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 Jeanne III of Navarre.
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Text © 2021 Olivia Longueville