Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Jeanne d'Albret, a Queen in the Age of Queens

Jeanne d'Albret, queen of Navarre (born 7 January 1528)

Jeanne d'Albret, future queen of Navarre, was born in November of 1528, the daughter of Marguerite d'Angoulême, the granddaughter of Louise of Savoy, two women whom we will meet in this blog later in the year.*

Little is certain about the early life and education of the future queen of Navarre but as the granddaughter of a woman whose motto was libris et liberis, "for books and for children," and as the daughter of a woman who was an important patron for humanist scholars and who was herself a writer, Jeanne seems likely to have received the best of educations.

Jeanne d'Albret, queen of Navarre,
about 1570
In 1537 the young princess of Navarre became the source of conflict between her father, Henry d'Albret, king of Navarre, and her uncle, Francis I of France, over potential marriage alliances for Jeanne. Her father hoped to to marry his daughter to Philip of Spain, while Francis negotiated for her marriage to William de la Marck, duke of Cleves. 

Ultimately, the French king prevailed, signing a contract for the marriage of his niece and duke William on 16 July 1540 and announcing his plans to the girl and her mother at Fountainebleu. 

The marriage went forward a year later, despite the fact that Jeanne did not walk to the altar--she had to be carried. After the ceremony, the duke and the new duchess performed a ritual consummation of their match, and the groom returned to Cleves. 

Jeanne, however, remained at the French court; by 1545, the Cleves marriage was no longer so politically desirable for the French king, and it was formally annulled.

Jeanne was once again an available pawn to be played by the king of Navarre and the king of France. But by 1547, when her marriage was again a source of conflict between kings, Francis I had been succeeded by his son Henry II. The new French king arranged a marriage for his cousin with Antoine de Bourbon, duke of Vendôme, while her father continued to try to arrange an imperial alliance for her. The king of France prevailed once more, this time with the complete agreement of Jeanne. Her marriage with the duke of Vendôme was celebrated on 20 October 1548. In September of 1551 Jeanne of Navarre gave birth to a son whom she named Henry, after her father. 

The young prince died in August of 1553, not quite two years old. By early June Jeanne was pregnant again; a second Henry, the future king of Navarre and of France, was born on 14 December. When her father died in May 1555, Jeanne d'Albret became queen regnant of Navarre, sovereign of Béarn, Soule, and Basse Navarre. She also held a score of French fiefdoms; to those inherited from her mother she added Foix and Albret, among others, from her father.  

After her father's death, Jeanne and her husband continued her father's efforts to regain lost Navarrese territories. In 1559, she gave birth to a daughter, Catherine of Bourbon. In 1560, while in Paris for the marriage of Mary Stuart and the dauphin Francis, son of Henry II and Catherine de' Medici, Jeanne attended a Calvinist service. It was a life-changing experience: Jeanne underwent a conversion on Christmas Day 1560. In the memoirs she later commanded to be written for her, the so-called Memoirs of Jeanne d'Albret (Mémoires de Jeanne d'Albret), her conversion and her subsequent "differences" with her husband are described in a first-person account: 
Since 1560 everyone knows that it pleased God by His grace to rescue me from idolatry, to which I had been too long given, and to receive me in His church. Since then, by the same grace, He has allowed me to persevere. . . . Even during the lifetime of my husband, the late King (who, withdrawing from his first zeal, put a thorn not in my foot but in my heart . . . ) neither favor nor hardship turned me to the right or to the left. . . . I have always followed the straight path.
She spent the twelve years of her life between her conversion in 1560 and her death in 1572 defending herself, her faith, her kingdom, and her son. Throughout these years, she would be singled out as an enemy by the most powerful movement in Europe, the Counter Reformation. The Papacy, Philip of Spain, and the powerful Guise family challenged her title and threatened her domains and at times her person; the French crown exploited her difficulties. 

A series of civil wars engulfed France, one after the other, between 1562 and 1589; Jeanne was to witness three of them. The first commenced in April 1562, and during this conflict, she focused on her own possessions, strengthening her control of them, and furthering her religious reforms. 

In the four years of that followed the first civil war, Jeanne dedicated herself to ensuring the autonomy of her kingdom of Navarre and her son's future. A papal attack on the Protestant queen of Navarre was launched by Pius IV in 1563. In response to a letter of "friendly advice" that threatened condemnation and suggested she was ruining her son, she wrote, "As to the reformation . . . in religion, which I have begun . . . , I am earnestly resolved, by the grace of God, to continue . . . throughout my land of Béarn." 

As for her son, "instead of lessening" his "heritage," she insisted that she would "increase it by the means appropriate to a true Christian." Her reply did not convince the pope, who on 28 September condemned her for heresy and summoned her to Rome to appear before the Inquisition. If she failed, she faced excommunication. 

Catherine de' Medici came to Jeanne's defense on this occasion, though in December of 1563 Pius IV carried through on his threat to excommunicate Jeanne. Faced with rebellion in Navarre, an imperial plot against her, and Catherine's pressure on her, Jeanne was forced to leave Béarn to join the French court, then on a tour of the kingdom. She met up with the traveling court in June of 1564. From the moment of her arrival she sought permission to return to her own territories with her son; instead, she was ordered to take up residence in Vendôme, a fief of France rather than an independent principality, where she was a duchess, not a queen regnant. Her son remained behind. 

When the French court finally returned to Paris in May 1566 after its two-year progress throughout the country, Jeanne traveled to court once more. She spent the next eight months there until, arguing that her thirteen-year-old son needed to be introduced to his subjects and his future domain, she secured permission for him to accompany her back to Navarre. 

She left Paris in January 1567, but her return to Navarre was not not an easy one. Against the backdrop of the second and third religious wars in France, the queen of Navarre faced three organized rebellions in quick succession, between the spring of 1567 and the summer of 1569, all of them sparked by resistance to her "religious program." Despite resistance, she remained dedicated to religious reform. She was, as well, determined to assure the independence of her kingdom, defending it against both France and Spain in order to preserve it for her son. 

By the fall of 1569, efforts were underway in France to end the third religious war; peace was concluded in August of 1570. To secure the fragile peace between Protestants and Catholics, Catherine de' Medici proposed a marriage between her daughter, the Catholic Marguerite of Valois, and Jeanne of Navarre's son, the Protestant Henry of Navarre. Jeanne delayed, first by putting off a decision, then by putting off Catherine's summons to court. But when the Queen Mother produced the "ultimate weapon"--a charge that Jeanne's first marriage to William of Cleves invalidated her later marriage to Antoine of Bourbon, and that her son Henry was thus illegitimate--Jeanne prepared once more to travel to the French court. 

However unwilling, the queen of Navarre ultimately agreed to the marriage proposed by Catherine de' Medici. The two queens met first in February 1572. After weeks of negotiating, the marriage contract was finally agreed to and signed on 11 April. On 4 June, waiting for her son to join her in Paris, Jeanne of Navarre fell ill. She did not live to see her son renounce her faith, convert to Catholicism, and become king of France. She died five days later, on 9 June. 

Like so many other powerful women, the queen of Navarre was widely criticized by her contemporaries. Vilified by Catholics and excommunicated by the pope, she was described by the Florentine ambassador as having a "temper" that was "very eccentric" (molto fantastico). It required "both skill and patience to reach her and to pin her down." "She changes often and eludes you every minute," he complained, continuing, "In the end, she hopes to manage everything her own way." 

In her defense, the Huguenot historian Agrippa d'Aubigny provided a more positive judgment of the queen, but even in his defense we see how Jeanne challenged conventional notions of female behavior. While praising her, d'Aubugny wrote that she had "of woman, only the sex, with a soul given to things that rather became men"--that is, "an intelligence at home in great affairs, and a courage invincible in adversity."

Jeanne seems not only to have faced squarely the difficulties of a woman in her position but to have dismissed them as difficulties. In the memoirs of her life she had written for her, "she" addressed the supposed "imbecility" of women in general and herself in particular: "I will not stoop to refute [the argument that women are imbeciles]," she was presented as having said, "but if I wished to undertake the defense of my sex, I could find plenty of examples." The passage in the Memoirs concluded, "[T]hese people [who say so] deserve only pity . . . for their ignorance."

Jeanne ruled Navarre as queen regent from 1555 until her death in 1572, a unique moment in history, for--much to John Knox's dismay--a great deal of western Europe was in one way or another under the "monstrous regiment" of women. Among Jeanne's contemporaries were Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and her mother Marie of Guise, regent of Scotland. England was ruled by two queen regnants in succession, Mary and then Elizabeth Tudor. In Spain Juana of Castile died in the very year of Jeanne's accession, but Juana's niece Margaret of Parma followed Juana's daughter Mary of Austria as regent of the Netherlands. And in France, Jeanne's great adversary and advocate Catherine de' Medici was regent of France.

The one modern, full-length biography of Jeanne d'Albret in English is Nancy Roelker's Queen of Navarre: Jeanne d'Albret, 1528-1572, published in 1968. You can usually find a very affordable used copy, if you're interested--it's an excellent book.

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).