Renée de France: A Woman of the Reformation

Renée de France may not be a household name, but she was a significant figure in the Protestant Reformation. A French princess and Italian duchess, she had political influence that helped spread the ideas of the Protestant cause.

Topics: History

Reformation Day can be a bit misleading, can’t it? Because as I think about the anniversary of the Reformation, I am tempted to believe it all happened on that particular day. It didn’t. I am also tempted to think that Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin—men—were the only key players in the Reformation. I know that cannot be true, but who are the others? And more specifically, were there any significant women of the Reformation?

Discovering Renée de France

Renée de France is not a name I expect many of you are familiar with; I certainly wasn’t until a month ago when I began to consider the question above. But when I read of her friendship with John Calvin, I was captivated. And I was even more intrigued when I learned Renée was a curious princess and oftentimes tenacious duchess—because these two adjectives describe me, as well. Maybe I could identify with this previously-unknown Reformer.

Simonetta Carr has written a gripping account of Renée’s life. Her book allows us “to experience [the Protestant Reformation] through the struggles, desires, perplexities, convictions, and quests of someone who lived through it—in this case, a vocal and inquisitive woman—Renée of France.”

Renée was born in the autumn of 1510 to King Louis XII of France. Her mother, Anne the Duchess of Brittany, was believed to be the richest woman in Europe at the time and died when Renée was only 3 years old. By the time Renée turned 5, she had lost her father, as well. In April 1528, barely 18 years old and yoked by an arranged marriage, Renée became the bride of Duke Ercole II of Este and moved to Ferrara, Italy. She gave birth to her first child, Anna, in 1531, followed by Alfonso in 1533, Lucrezia in 1535, Leonora in 1537 and Luigi in 1539. Amid a bad marriage and a handful of children, Renée thrived as a young mom, royal wife and devoted friend who performed “all the traditional tasks of charity and distribution of alms, which included the public function of washing the feet of the city’s poor on Holy Thursday.”

Throughout her life, Renée was often baffled by uncertainties and frustrated by faith. “Is faith a private matter? Can we just believe secretly in our hearts? Should we not hide and suppress some aspects of our faith if they offend others? What did Christ mean when he told us to love our enemies? What is the role of the church in our life, especially when we are placed in a position of responsibility?”

Renée de France and John Calvin

Even though Renée would never inherit the throne, as a French princess and Italian duchess, she became an instrumental asset in foreign policy and aided the advancement of the gospel. In 1536, John Calvin visited Ferrara under the name Charles d’Esperville—perhaps due to the persecution of Protestants at that time. The reason for his visit is unknown, but it is likely Calvin was a religious refugee and welcomed by the community of Protestant believers in Renée’s court.

Renée de France is a person to note during the Protestant Reformation because of her piety, hospitality and generosity to those who were in danger because of their faith.

After his brief visit to Ferrara, Calvin began corresponding with Renée. His first letter was lengthy and apologetic for sending unsolicited pastoral counsel. “I have observed in you such fear of God and faithful disposition to obey him, that even without considering the high rank he has given you among men, I have been able to appreciate the virtues he has conferred on you and would consider myself accursed if I did not take advantage of those opportunities to serve you,” Calvin wrote. He closed his letter with an encouraging reminder about obedience to God: “Therefore Madame, to whom God has given in his infinite mercy the knowledge of his name, enlightening you in the truth of his holy Gospel, you are to fulfill your vocation.”

As we know from his Institutes, Calvin’s aim was always truth. He did not hesitate to speak truthfully with Renée. “What moves me to speak is that I cannot tolerate that the Word of God is in such a way concealed, perverted, corrupted, and depraved before you regarding essential matters, by those whom you have graced with your trust and the endowment of authority.” This objective was clear as he wrote letter after letter to Renée, for as long as they knew each other, until his death in 1564.

Aiding the Flow of Reformed Theology

Renée de France is a person to note during the Protestant Reformation because of her piety, hospitality and generosity to those who were in danger because of their faith. “Books were imported from Germany, translated, and reproduced, mostly in Venice, a city just northeast of Ferrara. According to some scholars, in fact, Venice’s clandestine network for the diffusion of Protestant literature was without equal in Europe. We know that Renée had close ties with Venetian printers, financing the production of Bibles and other religious books, not only in Italian but in other languages.”

No wonder the Church of Rome was worried.

You see, in 1540, Renée received a villa in Consandolo as a gift, where she built a large library of Reformed books and treatises, hosted whomever she wished and enjoyed the preaching of Protestant ministers. In his final letter to Renée, Calvin wrote, “They have all the more loved and honoured you as they have realized that this has not swayed you from an honest and pure profession of Christianity, not only in words, but in the most obvious and tangible way. On my part, I assure you that this has given me the highest admiration of your virtues.” The date of this letter was April 4, 1564. Calvin died 23 days later.

So, who was Renée de France?

“For some, she was a devoted daughter of the Church of Rome, misled and deceived by John Calvin and other reformers. For others, a heroine of the Reformation, who kept her faith—in spite of fierce persecution.” Carr doesn’t give us a definitive answer but does give us “a brief look at the life of a woman who made difficult choices and asked stimulating questions—someone like most of us.” Renee was imperfect, failed and fallen—and she was bold, courageous and faithful. Her road of sanctification is not so different from our own. For God’s grace is not dependent on our works, and 500 years later, we still struggle to believe this truth.

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