Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Renée of France, Duchess of Ferrara

Renée of France, duchess of Ferrara (born 25 October 1510)


The younger daughter of Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany, Renée of France was orphaned while still a young child--her mother died in January of 1514, when Renée was three, her father a year later, in January of 1515, when she was four. (Renée's older sister was Claude of France).*

Renée of France,
portrait by Corneille de Lyon
After her parents' deaths, Renée was raised at the court by Marguerite of Angoulême, the sister of Louis XII's successor, Francis I. Marguerite is a woman whom we have met before, noted both as a writer and for her sympathy for religious reform. After Marguerite married Henry of Navarre in 1527, she took the young French princess with her to the Château de Nérac, a favorite residence in Navarre. (The rebuilding of the castle in the French Renaissance style would be completed by Marguerite's daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, queen of Navarre.)

When she was eighteen years old, in 1528, Renée was married to Ercole d'Este (Lucrezia Borgia's son) in order to strengthen the alliance between France and Ferrara. Although the Ferrarese court was "one of the most glittering in Europe," Renée's "Italian career" as the duchess of Ferrara was a disaster, husband and wife mismatched in the extreme. 

Renée remained French in her language and sympathy. Her slowness in acquiring "even a rudimentary knowledge" of Italian "remained steadily against her, keeping her, apart from any other consideration, a very isolated person in her own establishment." She "persistently refused to identify herself with her husband's interests," clinging "with stupid pathos" even to the French manner of dress.

Thus isolated, Renée turned to other pursuits, and her court at Ferrara became a safe haven for intellectuals like the classical scholar Olympia Morata, the poet Vittoria Colonna, and the French poet Clément Marot, and a refuge for French Huguenots. John Calvin visited Renée's court in 1536, and under his influence she was converted in 1540. In retaliation, Ercole dismissed and imprisoned members of his wife's household staff. 

Although she had been granted "exemptions" for her religious views by Pope Paul III in 1543, in 1554 she was brought before the Inquisition by Julius II. Ercole separated his wife from her children and imprisoned her. "We kept her shut up for fifteen days, with only people who had no sort of Lutheran tendencies to wait upon her," he wrote, adding, "We also threatened to confiscate all her property." 

In spite of all the pressures, Renée withstood her examination by the Inquisition, and a formal sentence was passed against her. She was condemned for heresy and again imprisoned by her husband. 

A week later, she recanted, however, and those whom she had formerly befriended did not rally to her defense in her in this time of need. Calvin's response was shocked: "What shall I say, except that constancy is a very rare virtue among the great of this world?" Olympia Morata said she was not surprised by the recantation, since she had always believed Renée's was a weak mind (une tête legère). 

Renée as duchess of Ferrara,
c. 1535
Renée lived apart from her husband after her release. In 1559, after her husband's death and estranged from her son Alfonso, she returned to France after thirty years in Ferrara, settling on her estates near Montargis. During the wars of religion that raged after her return, she was besieged by her son-in-law Francis, duke of Guise. When he threatened to destroy the walls of her fortress, Renée replied that "she would herself mount the battlements and see if he dare kill a King's daughter."

Renée and Montargis withstood the siege, and in the religious persecution that followed, she offered a haven to French Huguenots "to her own constant peril." Under the circumstances, John Calvin, who seems to have been as "inconstant" as the woman whose inconstancy he had bewailed, resumed his friendship with Renée, and his correspondence to her indicates his recognition at last of her courage. 

This courage led her to write "imploring letters" to her son in 1569, protesting his persecution of those suspected of following reformed religion and to providing a haven for Huguenots again in the same year. But her son ignored her pleas, and, under threat, she was forced to send away those who had come to her for protection. She reportedly told the king's envoy that "if she had his sword in her hands, he would deserve to die, as a messenger of death."

Both her son and the French king attempted to take control of Renée's income and possessions. Her daughter Anna, by then wife of the duke of Nemours, recovered a document by which Louis XII, Renée's father, had given her a claim to her mother's independent Brittany, which she was forced to cede; "little by little," as one biographer notes, "all her lands were being taken from her":
Gisors and Vernon were given to the Duc d'Alençon, Caen and Falaise had been seized by Alfonso [her son] for debts, Chartres and Montargis were to belong to the Duchess of Nemours [her daughter Anna], but Renée was suffered to remain as a pensioner in her own castle. Her son Alfonso was furious and wrote the most bitter letters to his mother, whom he never forgave, for yielding any possible claim to [Brittany].
In 1572 Renée was in Paris for the marriage of Henry of Navarre, who would become Henry IV of France, and Marguerite of Valois. Lodging with her daughter Anna, whose Catholic husband was the duke of Nemours, Renée escaped the bloodbath of the St. Bartholomew massacre. 

She was escorted back to Montargis, all Huguenot services forbidden. There, "broken in health and spirit," she "ruled her great castle . . . in lonely state," "neglected and forgotten by her sons and daughters, on whom she had bestowed all that remained of her possessions." She dictated her last will and testament just before her death on 2 July 1575. In proudly listing her titles, she contrasted the state to which she had fallen with the state she had been born and raised to occupy:
We, Renée of France, Duchess of Chartres, Countess of Gisors, Lady of Montargis, widow and dowager of the late Monseigneur of good memory Ercole II of Ferrara, Daughter of the lady King Louis XII and the late Queen Anne, Duchess of Brétagne.
*This entry has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).