Luther had posted his ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 and the Reformation began. During the mid-sixteenth century, while he was preaching in Germany, Calvin preaching in Switzerland, and John Knox preaching in Scotland, Jeanne d’Albret was furthering the cause of the Reformation in France.
Jeanne was not a physically strong woman. She was always frail. But she had mighty courage and strength of will and more integrity than many men around her. Her reliance on God and dependence on His power to preserve her gave her the courage to stand for the right against seeming impossible odds.
She was the acknowledged spiritual and political leader of the French Huguenot movement. “Huguenot” was the name given to the Protestants in France.
Jeanne had grown up in a home with a father who did not care one way or the other about which religion he practiced. He only tried to please the king of France, who was a Catholic. Her mother, Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre was the sister of this Catholic king. Marguerite was sympathetic to the Reformers, but she tried to make peace between the Reformers and the Catholics. Though not really siding with either religion, Marguerite used her influence with her brother to keep some of the Reformers from suffering death by burning at the stake.
Jeanne, on the other hand, firmly sided with the Huguenots, proclaiming, “ A reform seems so right and so necessary that, for my part, I consider that it would be disloyalty and cowardice to God, to my conscience, and to my people to remain any longer in a state of suspense and indecision.” While many others around her were cowardly about admitting their true faith, Jeanne boldly proclaimed hers.
Even her husband, Antoine de Bourbon, did not really share in Jeanne’s zeal for reform. In fact, what time did show was Antoine’s inconsistency, his constant vacillating. He was notoriously unfaithful in his marriage, and in all else as well. It became increasingly obvious that his religious views were based on his chances for political gain, just like his father-in-law. He would go back and forth in deciding which political party would give him the greatest advantage. As First Prince of the Blood in France, he and his heirs stood to gain the throne if he proceeded with care.
A power struggle between Catholics and Huguenots for control of the French court and France as a whole led to the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion in 1562. When the Huguenots seemed to be gaining, Antoine would join their offensive; when the Catholics had the upper hand, he would withdraw. At last, threatened and coaxed in turn by Spain, the Papacy, and finally the French court, he renounced all dealings with the Reformers and declared himself once and for all a Roman Catholic. The gravity of his decision cannot be overstated. Besides his royal ties, Antoine was France’s Lieutenant General and was known for his amazing military prowess, but he lacked the vision to see beyond his own ambitions. Antoine’s reversal shifted the balance. Had he, the First Prince of the Blood, made himself the head of the Huguenot party, the Reformation might have succeeded in France. Because of his cowardice, there were many more bloody years of war to come.
Queen Jeanne was determined to stand firm for the true faith however. Her conversion had not been motivated by politics and she would not bend. The strength of her will, put into service for God, was unflinching. While others, including her husband, cowered back to the Mass, Jeanne had Protestant services in her apartments “with all the doors open” as exasperated observers pointed out.
In April 1562, the first civil war (the first of three that would occur in Jeanne’s lifetime) broke out. Her husband, Antoine chose to support the Catholics, but was mortally wounded at the siege Rouen.
Jeanne’s son, Henry, now became in line for the throne. He would become Henry IV, and would decide to change back to Catholic. Later he would utter those famous words, “Paris is worth a mass,” as he would recant his protestant faith in order to be the king. It is sad that Henry did not have the courage and integrity of his amazing mother, Queen Jeanne.
In 1567 war broke out again. During one battle, the Huguenot general was killed and Jeanne rallied the troops herself, leading them to victory.
When the third civil war broke out in 1568, she proved invaluable to the Huguenot cause. She wrote manifestoes and requests for aid to foreign princes. She contributed her wealth, even offering her jewels as security in foreign loans. She supervised the care of the tens of thousands of refugees that poured into the city. She did not confine herself within the city’s walls, however. At even critical points in the fighting, she would accompany General Coligny, inspecting the defenses and rallying troops. When one Huguenot captain, La Noue, hesitated to have his arm amputated after it had been crushed, Jeanne held his hand in support during the surgery and was praised for the care she took of him in his recovery.
She was working at such a frenzied pace, perhaps realizing that she did not have long to live. Her body grew weaker, but her determination was stronger than ever.
Finally, in 1570, she helped to conduct peace negotiations. The Huguenots were granted more liberties than they had ever had before: “freedom of worship except in Paris or near the court, full eligibility to public office, and, as guarantee that these terms would be honored in practice, the right to hold four cities under their independent rule for two years.” Also in 1570 a marriage of convenience was arranged between her son Henry and King Charles IX’s sister Marguerite.
But peace would not last. On June 9, 1572, two months before the wedding was due to take place, Jeanne died. Many historians believe that the infamous Queen Mother of France, Catherine de Medici, who wanted all of France to be Catholic, poisoned Jeanne.
Later that year the horrible St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre would take place, when thousands of Huguenots would be slaughtered. Struggles between Protestants and Catholics would continue for many years. Eventually Jeanne’s son, the inconsistent Henry IV, would effect a long-lasting peace by proclaiming the Edict of Nantes in 1598.
The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, Henry’s religious vacillations, and the ultimate failure of the French Reformation — are a sad epilogue to Jeanne’s story. Because these are the historical events that people remember, they seem to overshadow the great events of her life. They really cannot overshadow her, however. She gave all to her God — her wealth, health, kingdom, and life, her heart, soul, strength, and mind — for the furtherance of His gospel. History bears out the fact that the Reformation reached its height in France from about 1559-1572, those years in which Jeanne was a part of the movement. And she has left behind a legacy of courage and unwavering faith in her service to God, and she is a good example to us for belief in the sufficiency of the Lord’s providence.
“My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).