by Heather R. Darsie
Please note that this article first appeared here.
Jeanne d’Albret was born on 16 November 1528 to Marguerite d’Angoulême and Henri II of Navarre at the Parisian Saint Germain-en-Laye palace. Henri was Marguerite’s second husband. Marguerite had two children with Henri, but only Jeanne survived. Jeanne was the niece of the French king, Francois I, who dearly loved his elder sister Marguerite. Early on in her life, Jeanne became a pawn in the marriage market.
Jeanne was first betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s son, the future Philip II of Spain. Navarre was on the Spanish border, and wedding Jeanne to Philip would guarantee the consolidation of Navarre into Spain. Despite negotiations and bruits of a match between Jeanne and Philip during the earliest years of her life, this idea came to naught. Marguerite was vehemently against wedding Jeanne to Philip and must have felt some relief when the idea became moot.
By the late 1530s, Anna of Cleves’ younger brother Wilhelm became the Duke of Guelders and the Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. He desperately wished to extend his power and so looked for a French or an Imperial bride. His attentions were on Christina of Denmark throughout 1538 to around 1540 before turning to a bride aligned with the French royal family. After striking up a friendly diplomatic relationship with Francis I, marriage negotiations began. After Francis determined against wedding any of his daughters to Wilhelm, his niece Jeanne d’Albret was settled upon.
Wilhelm was eleven years older than Jeanne. Their wedding took place in June 1541, when Wilhelm was twenty-four and Jeanne just shy of thirteen. The wedding itself was a gorgeous affair. After symbolically consummating the marriage with the very young Jeanne, Wilhelm left for his home in Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Jeanne remained in the care of her mother Marguerite. Jeanne was very much against her marriage to Wilhelm, to the point where she created two documents protesting the match which she had witnessed and notarized before the wedding. This, from a girl of twelve. Her willfulness and boldness would become her greatest assets later on in life.
Jeanne would never live in Jülich-Cleves-Berg, much to her relief. Jeanne loathed the idea of being reduced to a petty German princess. Jeanne’s marriage to Wilhelm was annulled in 1545 on the grounds of non-consummation and because of the official protests she crafted just before the wedding. Jeanne did not marry again until after the death of her uncle Francis I in March 1547. Henri II became King of France and married off his cousin Jeanne fairly quickly. On 20 October 1548, Jeanne married Antoine de Bourbon. The couple had five children, with only two surviving to adulthood.
By marrying Antoine de Bourbon, Henri had stronger control over the southern regions of France and the Kingdom of Navarre. Jeanne and Antoine’s marriage started off as a love match, but cooled within a few years due to Antoine’s philandering. On top of that, Jeanne and Antoine were growing to have very different opinions when it came to religion. Although Jeanne was raised from the age of two years at her uncle Francois I’s Roman-Catholic court, she was still the daughter of Marguerite d’Angoulême.
Marguerite’s interest in the Reformation increased over her lifetime. Marguerite was well-educated and she made a habit of attracting great minds to her court. Marguerite herself was a poetess and author. She was known to exchange correspondence with Calvinists and Reformists, and did her best to protect them. Marguerite died in 1549.
Jeanne and her husband Antoine ruled the Kingdom of Navarre after the death of Jeanne’s father on 25 May 1555. She was crowned in Pau on 18 August 1555 in a Roman Catholic ceremony, along with her husband. Jeanne declared herself a Calvinist on Christmas Day 1560, to the dismay of her husband.
Jeanne d’Albret c. 1563, attributed to Francois Clouet.
As co-monarch then monarch of Navarre, Jeanne was able to declare Calvinism as the recognized religion of Navarre. After instituting Calvinism, monks and nuns were banned, and Catholic churches shut down. Jeanne was a very powerful Protestant monarch and a threat to her cousins, the kings of France.
The French Wars of Religion broke out in 1562. Antoine chose to support the Catholic faction. Jeanne remained a Calvinist and Antoine threatened to disavow their marriage. The dispute between husband and wife was resolved when Antoine died in November 1562 at the Siege of Rouen. Jeanne tried to be at her husband’s bedside while he was dying, but could not receive the proper safe conduct in time.
Jeanne remained mostly neutral during the first two wars because she had to protect her country from both Spain and France. By the time the Third War of French Religion started in 1568, Jeanne decided to support the Huguenots. Jeanne fled to La Rochelle with her son Henri and daughter Catherine. Jeanne made ample use of her knack for military strategy by guiding the Protestant forces from La Rochelle. In 1569, she wrote her memoir, Ample Declaration. Jeanne was instrumental in negotiating the Peace of Saint Germain-en-Laye in 1570, which ended the Third War of Religion.
Jeanne d’Albret c. 1570, by Francois Clouet, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Peace of Saint Germain-en-Laye included the provision that Jeanne’s son marry Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter, a Roman Catholic French princess. The marriage negotiations were finalized in Spring 1571, and Henri of Navarre signed a marriage contract with Marguerite de Valois. Jeanne stayed in Paris over the rest of the spring and into early summer, indulging in shopping and preparing for her son’s wedding.
Jeanne died on 9 June 1572, after taking to her bed five days earlier. Her cause of death is unknown, though there is speculation that she succumbed to tuberculosis. She was buried beside her second husband, Antoine de Bourbon. He son Henri became the first Bourbon king when he ascended the Throne of France in 1589.
Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!
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- Who were the Huguenots? A Brief History Concerning the 1500’s
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- Marguerite of Navarre: Queen of the Renaissance
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Sources & Suggested Reading
- Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’. Stroud: Amberley Publishing (2019).
- Roelker, Nancy Lyman. Queen of Navarre, Jeanne DAlbret: 1528–1572. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (1968).
- Holt, Mack, ed. Renaissance and Reformation France 1500–1648. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Mentzer, Raymond A., and Bertrand van Ruymbeke. A Companion to the Huguenots. Boston and Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.