Women of the Reformation: Marguerite de NavarreWritten by Subby Szterszky
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The Gospel of Luke notes a large group of prominent, well-to-do women, including Mary Magdalene, Susanna, and Joanna the wife of a royal official in Herod’s court, who travelled with Jesus and supported his ministry out of their personal means (Luke 8:1-3).
Later in the book of Acts, Luke records several occasions in which affluent, noble Greek women came to faith, most notably Lydia of Thyatira, who placed her considerable resources at the disposal of Paul’s ministry team and provided a bridgehead for the Gospel to spread into southern Greece and across Europe (Acts 16-17).
Throughout the history of the Church, God has continued to raise up such women of faith, who have used their positions of influence and power to support the work of the Gospel and to promote the Kingdom of Christ.
Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549) was one of these women. The older sister of the French king, François I, she lived at the crossroads of the Renaissance and the Reformation. American historian Samuel Putnam described her as “the first modern woman.”
A true renaissance woman
Marguerite was a poet, playwright, diplomat, cultural leader, royal adviser, and patroness of the arts and learning – a true renaissance woman in both the literal and figurative sense. Thanks to her mother, she received the same classical education as her brother François. She learned Latin, Greek and Italian, and became well-versed in literature, history, philosophy and theology.
When she was about 10 years old, her parents attempted to arrange a marriage to the Prince of Wales, the future King Henry VIII of England. The arrangement fell through, which was fortuitous for Marguerite, given Henry’s subsequent history with his six wives.
As it turned out, Marguerite was to have a connection with one of Henry’s wives-to-be, Anne Boleyn. Before she married Henry, Anne spent time in France as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude, wife of Marguerite’s brother, the king. It is believed Marguerite befriended Anne, helped expose her to humanist and Reformation ideas, and later sent her a copy of her religious poem, Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul).
The Miroir is a personal, symbolic narrative of Marguerite’s faith journey, pursuing Christ as her father, brother and lover of her soul. After Anne’s death, her 11-year-old daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, translated the poem into English for her stepmother, Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. Some details are murky, but this link between Marguerite, Anne Boleyn, Katherine Parr and Elizabeth I suggests Marguerite had a seminal influence on the early Reformation in England.
Diplomat and cultural leader
Back in France, after her brother François had acceded to the throne, Marguerite became one of his most trusted diplomatic advisers and the hostess of his court, taking on the royal and civic functions of Queen Claude, who was chronically ill. Marguerite created a court that welcomed the leading writers, artists and thinkers of the day and became renowned as a centre of culture and learning.
During the same period, Marguerite had been reading the works of the Renaissance humanist, Erasmus, as well as the Reformation writings of Luther and Calvin. As a French princess, she had been raised as a Roman Catholic but came to sympathize with the Protestant movement and embraced salvation through repentance and faith in Jesus. She promoted the translation of the Scriptures into French from the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic rather than the Latin version used by the church, believing her people needed access to the unadulterated Word of God to find salvation in Christ.
Due to her multi-faceted gifts, Marguerite was an invaluable aide to her brother, and the two shared a close relationship. Despite the king’s disapproval of her Protestant leanings, he spoke of her with unabashed respect and admiration: “My sister Marguerite is the only woman I ever knew who had every virtue and every grace without any admixture of vice.”
Marguerite was a master diplomat and was not above engaging in espionage and international intrigue. When François was imprisoned in Spain after being captured at the Battle of Pavia, Marguerite rode on horseback into enemy territory to care for her brother and negotiate his release. She rode during the day through winter forests and across the snowy Pyrenees Mountains, and wrote diplomatic letters by night. Together with her mother, she negotiated the Treaty of Cambrai, known as the Paix des Dames, or the Ladies’ Peace, to put an end to hostilities between France and the Holy Roman Empire.
Queen of Navarre
After her first husband died (also at the Battle of Pavia) Marguerite married Henri d’Albret, king of Navarre. Via this marriage, she became queen in her own right of that small mountain nation, wedged between the two rival superpowers of France and Spain.
She fashioned her new court at Nérac along the same lines as her previous one, but even broader in scope. She welcomed leading Protestant thinkers as well as Catholic and humanist intellectuals. Her salon came to be known as the New Parnassus, recognized across Europe as an epicentre of arts, culture, scholarship and theology. At the same time, together with her husband, she instituted social and economic reforms to foster education and provide for the poor.
Marguerite used her influence and power as queen to make her small kingdom a haven for Protestant refugees fleeing France and other countries. In addition to welcoming writers, artists, scholars and theologians to her court to discuss and exchange their ideas, she provided refuge from persecution for John Calvin and other leaders of the Reformation movement in France and elsewhere.
Among her many accomplishments, Marguerite is best remembered as a prolific author of poems, plays, short stories, religious meditations, prayers and songs. She was the first French noblewoman to compile and edit her own selection of her works, and Protestantism’s first published female poet. Her writings, introspective and mystical, reflect her journey toward the Reformed faith and her personal relationship with Christ.
“I see that none other than Jesus Christ is my plaintiff,” she wrote. “He has made himself / Our advocate before God, offering up virtues of such worth / That my debt is more than paid.” Her poetry framed Gospel themes in striking visual imagery: “Encased in lambskin is the sacred Word / Embossed with markings of a deep blood red / Sealed with seven seals may now be heard / By those who find that law and grace are wed.”
The work for which she is best known is the Heptameron, a cycle of 72 tales about a group of travellers, modelled after the Decameron by Boccaccio, that illustrates the triumph of virtue over vice. But in contrast to Boccaccio, Marguerite used far more women characters, and they’re not primarily weak and sinful, but intelligent, witty and virtuous.
Marguerite’s writings brought wide publicity to Reformed ideas, much to the chagrin of the Catholic authorities in France. Her Miroir de l’âme pécheresse enraged the Catholic scholars at the Sorbonne, one of whom suggested she should be sewn into a sack and thrown into the Seine River. However, her brother the king stepped in and forced the university to back down and issue a public apology.
Influence and legacy
Nevertheless, Marguerite’s Reformed beliefs and support of the Protestant movement strained her relationship with her brother and especially with her husband, both of whom remained staunch Catholics. She continued to visit France and intercede with her brother on behalf of persecuted Protestants. For a time, he deferred to her out of respect, and many lives were spared through her efforts. But as François grew more strident in his opposition to Protestantism, her influence over him began to wane and the persecutions increased.
Despite all of this, Marguerite never broke with the Catholic Church, preferring internal reform over confrontation. Ever the diplomat and mediator, she maintained cordial connections with several popes and heads of states, as well as with Protestant theologians and humanist scholars. She corresponded with Calvin and Marie Dentière (with whom she discussed biblical literacy and women’s roles in the church) and also with Erasmus.
The great Dutch humanist scholar held Marguerite in high esteem: “For a long time I have cherished all the many excellent gifts that God bestowed upon you; prudence worthy of a philosopher; chastity; moderation; piety; an invincible strength of soul, and a marvelous contempt for all the vanities of this world. Who could keep from admiring, in a great king’s sister, such qualities as these, so rare even among the priests and monks?”
“Let us always remember this tender Queen of Navarre,” wrote French historian Jules Michelet, “in whose arms our people, fleeing from prison or the pyre, found safety, honor, and friendship. Our gratitude to you, Mother of our [French] Renaissance! Your hearth was that of our saints, your heart the nest of our freedom.”
Perhaps the best summary of Marguerite’s life comes from American historian Will Durant: “In Marguerite the Renaissance and the Reformation were for a moment one. Her influence radiated throughout France. Every free spirit looked upon her as protectoress and ideal. . . . Marguerite was the embodiment of charity. She would walk unescorted in the streets of Navarre, allowing anyone to approach her and would listen at first hand to the sorrows of the people. She called herself ‘The Prime Minister of the Poor.’”
Near the end of her life, Marguerite reflected: “God, I am assured, will carry forward the work He has permitted me to commence, and my place will be more than filled by my daughter, who has the energy and moral courage, in which, I fear, I have been deficient.”
Her daughter, Jeanne d’Albret, would become something of a warrior queen. She made the Reformed faith the official religion of Navarre, spearheaded the translation of the Scriptures into the Basque language of her country, and became the political and spiritual leader of the French Protestant Huguenots. In light of all this, Marguerite’s words seem prophetic.
Poet, playwright, diplomat, cultural leader, royal adviser, patroness of the arts and learning. Marguerite was equally at home hosting her culturally thriving royal court or engaging in international intrigue. It’s a wonder her life hasn’t been made into a movie or a TV series.
But no matter. Marguerite de Navarre was a prodigiously gifted woman who moved in the circles of power and stood at the crossroads of two major historical movements. She was used by God to promote cultural excellence, defend the faith and protect those who proclaimed it. That’s a better legacy than being the subject of a cable series, a sentiment with which Marguerite would no doubt agree.
Sources and further reading
Valerie Abraham, “Five women of the Reformation,” Roman Roads Media, October 15, 2015.
Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England, Fortress, 2007.
Susan Broomhall, Women and Religion in Sixteenth-Century France, Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.
Patricia F. Cholakian and Rouben C. Cholakian, Marguerite de Navarre: Mother of the Renaissance, Columbia University Press, 2006.
Valerie Foucachon, The Mirror of All Christian Queens: A Translation of Marguerite de Navarre’s Correspondence, Roman Roads Media, 2016.
Natalie Grueninger, “Marguerite de Navarre and Anne Boleyn,” On the Tudor Trail, December 21, 2011.
Jone Johnson Lewis, “Biography of Marguerite of Navarre: Renaissance woman, writer, queen,” ThoughtCo, July 3, 2019.
Carol Thysell, The Pleasure of Discernment: Marguerite de Navarre as Theologian, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard, “Reformation women: Marguerite de Navarre,” Tabletalk, January 8, 2020.
“Marguerite d’Angoulême (1492-1549),” Musée protestant / Protestant Museum, accessed October 27, 2021.
“Marguerite de Navarre,” Poetry Foundation, accessed October 27, 2021.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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