Charles, Count of Angoulême, was a Prince of the Blood—that is, a member of the royal family of France descended from Charles V (who reigned from 1364 to 1380). He married Louise of Savoy when she was 11 years old, though they did not live together until she was 15. They soon had their first child, Marguerite, and two years later, in 1494, their second child, Francis, who by dynastic accident was the second in line to the French throne should Charles VIII die without a surviving heir.
Charles of Angoulême died in1496, leaving Louise a widow at age 19. Louise was an unusually well-educated young woman and particularly adept at diplomacy; she saw to it that Marguerite and Francis had the same advantages. In the course of her education, Marguerite was exposed to the Bible and developed a love of the Scriptures.
Marguerite was married at age 17 to Charles IV, Duke of Alençon, on orders from Louis XII of France. This was a matter of political expediency: Louis XII wanted to keep the duchy of Alençon in the family. Yet it was a poor match: Charles was close to illiterate and the couple had nothing in common.
Louis XII also named Marguerite’s brother, Francis, as his heir and had him marry his daughter Claude. Francis came to the throne as Francis I in 1515. At that point, Marguerite became one of the most important women in France, second only to her mother, Louise of Savoy. Marguerite became known for her learning, kindness, and generosity, and her home became internationally recognized as a center of scholarship and culture. Marguerite herself had by this time learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and German, along with her native French.
In 1525, Francis was campaigning in Italy when he met a crushing defeat at the hands of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, at the Battle of Pavia. Many of the leading nobles of France were killed and Francis himself was captured. Marguerite’s husband, Charles IV of Alençon, led the remnants of the French forces north of the Alps. He was unfairly blamed for the defeat at Pavia and died soon thereafter.
While in captivity in Spain, Francis became gravely ill. Marguerite, now a widow, went to him, riding 12 hours per day in the middle of winter to make it to Francis before her safe conduct expired. Francis recovered, and Marguerite returned to Paris. Francis would be released after being forced into the humiliating Treaty of Madrid (1526), which he repudiated as soon as he returned to France.
In 1527, Marguerite married Henry II (Henry d’Albret), King of Navarre. Navarre was a small kingdom that had straddled the Pyrenees. In 1512, however, Ferdinand II of Aragon invaded Navarre and annexed all its territory south of the Pyrenees; Navarre was thus reduced to an area in the southwestern part of modern France. Marguerite now spent most of her time in Pau and Nérac in her husband’s kingdom, though she remained very close to her brother.
Humanism and Reform
France was undergoing important cultural changes during this period. Francis I had brought back to Italy a new approach to education, known in the period as the “New Learning” and today as Renaissance humanism; he also paid handsomely to have Italian intellectuals such as Leonardo da Vinci relocate to France. From these scholars, Marguerite had developed a love for Dante and Renaissance literature, including particularly Petrarch and Bocaccio. Other scholars in France, particularly in legal studies, began harnessing the skills of the Italian humanists in their own fields, and with that, began advocating societal reform with the support of the king. In France, the Catholic Church was so intertwined with the social and political fabric that reforming society meant reforming the church.
And therein lay the problem.
Luther had posted the 95 theses just two years after Francis had ascended the throne, and Lutheran ideas were spreading in France. These mingled with humanist and indigenous reform ideas to create “a period of magnificent religious anarchy,” as one historian described it. Marguerite herself was an évangelique, not quite a Protestant but with clear Protestant sympathies, a commitment to Scripture, and a desire for church reform. Francis also seems to have leaned in that direction, up to a point: he was an avid supporter of humanism, but detested heresy. It never seems to have occurred to him that the two could mix.
The Sorbonne—the theological faculty of the University of Paris—was committed to a conservative form of Catholicism, and disliked and distrusted even Catholic humanist reformers. Supported by the Parlement of Paris (a law court rather than a legislative body), the Sorbonne brought suspected Protestants up on heresy charges. If convicted, they were typically burned alive in the public square.
The Sorbonne and the Parlement accused many prominent French humanists and reformers of heresy, but they did not count on Marguerite’s influence at court. Marguerite convinced her brother on multiple occasions to prohibit the Parlement from taking action in heresy trials. She was not always successful, but she did save a number of prominent reformers from execution.
Along with intervening in the trials in Paris, Marguerite made her court at Nérac a refuge for humanists and Protestants fleeing persecution. Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, the great humanist reformer whose “Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul” (1512) articulated the doctrine of justification by faith several years before Luther, was taken in by Marguerite when he was accused of heresy. John Calvin also made his way to Nérac when he fled from Paris in the face of a heresy accusation. Marguerite would later take an interest in Calvin’s career in Geneva.
Marguerite the Author
Along with being a refuge for religious reformers, Nérac also became a cultural center under Marguerite. Artists, writers, and scholars all benefited from her patronage there, including François Rabelais, Clément Marot, and Pierre de Ronsard. Rabelais would dedicate book 3 of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” to Marguerite.
Marguerite herself was a writer, who helped shape the French language. Along with poems and plays, she wrote two particularly important books. The first, “The Mirror of the Sinful Soul” (1531), was a devotional work that she wrote after the death of her son. In it, Marguerite presents herself as a sinner and explores all the ways in which she has betrayed God, yet in the midst of her guilt and unworthiness, she always ends with grace. Marguerite’s reflections are informed by Augustinian and Pauline theology and are compatible with Protestantism. Not surprisingly, the Sorbonne condemned the work as heretical. When Marguerite heard about this, she protested to Francis, who forced the Sorbonne to rescind the condemnation and apologize to Marguerite. He also took away its right to approve the publication of theological works.
When she was 12 years old, Elizabeth Tudor, later Queen Elizabeth I of England, translated “The Mirror of the Sinful Soul” for her stepmother Catherine Parr. It is possible that Elizabeth inherited her copy from her mother Anne Boleyn, who had spent years in the French court and likely knew Marguerite.
Among literary rather than religious scholars, Marguerite is best remembered for the “Heptameron,” a book based on Bocaccio’s “Decameron.” It tells the story of a group of people trapped by a flood who decide to pass the time by telling each other stories. Like the “Decameron,” it was intended to have 100 short stories in it, but Marguerite had only completed 72 before her death. Some of the stories are pious, others are bawdy in the extreme. This combination seems out of place today, especially given Marguerite’s religious sensibilities, but in the 16th century it was not at all unusual.
Marguerite’s spirituality was influenced by Protestant thinkers including Luther and Calvin, by humanists such as Lefèvre, by Renaissance Neo-Platonists, and more, and thus her faith defies easy categorization. Although she never broke formally with Rome, she supported reformers who did. In many ways, she illustrates a middle ground among French reformers who supported neither Rome nor Geneva. She combined pietistic mysticism, a focus on the Bible, and a concern for living out the faith in practical ways. For example, in addition to protecting reformers, she worked to help the needy in Navarre with the support of her husband. She called herself “the Prime Minister of the Poor” and was famous for her almsgiving and her efforts to help raise the poor out of poverty.
Marguerite’s only surviving child, Jeanne d’Albret, became Queen of Navarre in 1555. She converted to Protestantism under the influence of Calvin’s successor in Geneva, the French nobleman Theodore Beza. Jeanne’s son Henry de Bourbon would become King Henry IV of France.
Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, “Lefèvre: Pioneer of Ecclesiastical Renewal in France” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).
William Monter, “Judging the French Reformation: Heresy Trials by Sixteenth Century Parlements” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Paula Summers, “Marguerite d’Angoulême,” Encyclopedia of the Reformation (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Thierry Wanegffelen, “Ni Rome ni Genève: les fidèles entre deux chaires en France au XVIe siècle” (Geneva: Slatkine, 1997).
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