Renée of France

Renée of France

Renée of France (October 25, 1510 – June 12, 1574 erroneous: Montargis, 1575, before Sunday 19th of June, see a letter of king Henri III to Madame de Nemours), also known as Renée de France and Renata di Francia.


Renée was born on October 25, 1510 in the Chateau de Blois, Blois, France and was the second daughter of Louis XII, King of France and Anne, Duchess of Brittany. Her mother, who had always fought fiercely to keep Brittany independent of the French crown, tried to will the duchy to Renée, but her father King Louis ignored this and instead granted Brittany to his successor, Francis I, King of France.

Her early education was undertaken by her "gouvernante", Michelle de Saubonne, Madame de Soubise. Saubonne was a partisan of Anne of Brittany and opposed to Anne's enemy, Louise of Savoy; so, after the death of Renee's parents, Louise and her son, Francis I, had Saubonne sacked. Renee never forgot this, and when she married, she took Saubonne with her. ["Queens Mate" by Pauline Matarasso]

In return for renouncing her claims to the duchy of Brittany, Renée was granted the duchy of Chartres by Francis I, King of France. As a child, one of her companions was the young Anne Boleyn, who Renée always remembered with kindness and affection.

She was married in April 1528 to Ercole II, Duke of Ferrara, eldest son of Alfonso I d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia. Renée received from Francis I an ample dowry and annuity. Thus the court that she assembled about her in Ferrara corresponded to the tradition which the cultivation of science and art implicitly required, including scholars like Bernardo Tasso and Fulvio Pellegrini. Her first child, Anna, born in 1531, was followed by Alfonso, in 1533; Lucrezia, 1535; after these, Eleonora and Luigi; whose education she carefully directed.

On October 31, 1534, her father-in-law died and Ercole succeeded to the throne. Hardly had he rendered his oath of allegiance to Pope Paul III when he turned against the French at his own court. Both their number and influence displeased him; and, besides, he found them too expensive; so he by direct or indirect means secured their dismissal, including the poet Clément Marot. And while the Curia was urging the duke to put away the French that were suspected of heresy, there came to Ferrara no less a heretic than John Calvin, whose journey to Italy must have fallen in March and April 1536. Calvin passed several weeks at the court of Renée, though the persecution had already begun, and about the same time a chorister by the name of Jehannet, also one Cornillan, of the attendants of the duchess, together with a cleric of Tournay, Bouchefort, were taken prisoners and tried. In a "man of small stature," whom the Inquisition likewise seized as under suspicion, although he made his escape, is to be recognized not Calvin, but Clément Marot.Renée was not only in correspondence with a very large number of Protestants abroad, with intellectual sympathizers like Vergerio, Camillo Renato, Giulio di Milano, and Francis Dryander, but also that on two or three occasions, about 1550 or later, she partook of the Eucharist in the Protestant manner together with her daughters and fellow believers. Meanwhile, notwithstanding its external splendor, her life had grown sad. The last of her French guests, the daughter and son-in-law of Madame de Soubise of Pons, had been obliged, in 1543, by the constraint imposed by the duke, to leave the court. The drift of the Counter-Reformation, which had been operative in Rome since 1542, led to the introduction of a special court of the Inquisition at Ferrara, in 1545, through which, in 1550 and 1551, death sentences were decreed against Protestant sympathizers (Fannio of Faenza and Giorgio of Sicily), and executed by the secular arm.

Finally Duke Ercole lodged accusation against Renée before her nephew King Henry II of France, and through the Inquisitor Oriz, whom the king charged with this errand, Renée was arrested as a heretic, and declared forfeit of all possessions unless she recanted. She thereupon yielded, made confession on September 23, 1554, and once again received communion at mass. "How seldom is there an example of steadfastness among aristocrats," wrote Calvin to Farel under date of February 2, 1555.

Renée's longing to return home was not satisfied until a year following the death of her husband on October 3, 1559. In France she found her eldest daughter's husband, Francis, Duke of Guise, at the head of the Roman Catholic party. His power, indeed, was broken by the death of his great-nephew Francis II, in December, 1560, so that Renée became enabled not only to provide Protestant worship at her estate, Morntargis, engaging a capable preacher by application to Calvin, but also generally to minister as benefactress of the surrounding Protestants. In fact, she made her castle a refuge for them, when her son-in-law once again lighted the torch of war.

This time her conduct won Calvin's praise (May 10, 1563), and she is one of the frequently recurring figures in his correspondence of that period; he repeatedly shows recognition of her intervention in behalf of the Evangelical cause; and one of his last writings in the French tongue, despatched from his deathbed (April 4, 1564), is addressed to her. While Renée continued unmolested in the second religious war (1567), in the third (1568–70) her castle was no longer respected as an asylum for her fellow believers. On the other hand, she succeeded in rescuing a number of them from the massacre of Saint Bartholomew's night, when she happened to be in Paris. They left her personally undisturbed at that time; though Catherine de' Medici still sought to move her to retract, demands which she ignored.


With Ercole II she had five children:
# Anna d'Este (November 16, 1531-1607), married (1) Francis, Duke of Guise; (2) Jacques de Savoie, 2nd Duc de Nemours
# Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara (November 22, 1533-1597)
# Lucrezia Maria d'Este (December 16, 1535-1598), married Francesco Maria II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino
# Eleonore d'Este (1537-1581)
# Luigi d'Este, Bishop of Ferrara, Archbishop of Auch (December 21, 1538-1586)

Renee was widowed in 1559. As a result of being of bad terms with her son, Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, she returned to France in 1560 and settled in Montargis, where she then died on June 12, 1574.


* Millicent Fawcett, "Five Famous French Women" (1906)
* William Gilbert, "The Inquisitor," or "The Struggle in Ferrara" (1869). The life of Renée of France, Duchess of Ferrara, set in 1554. See: Plumb, Philip W., Dr William Gilbert: like father, like son? W. S. Gilbert Society Journal, Jones, Brian ed., vol. 1; issue 10 (Spring 1999), pp. 297-98. Republished in 1992 []



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