Renée of France and the Plight of the Churchless
Renée of France
Duchess of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio
Portrait by Jean Clouet, ca. 1520. (Wikipedia)
At a time when valiant confessions and professions of faith of Protestant men and women were being published and distributed throughout Europe (Anne Askew’s Examinations was published in 1546 and Lady Jane Grey’s bold answers to John Feckenham had just begun to spread), Renée’s response seemed feeble. She capitulated too easily.
Born at the royal court of France in 1510, Renée lost both of her parents, King Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, before she turned five, and her only sibling, her older sister Claude, nine years later. If she had been born a man, she would have been queen of France, but the French law didn’t allow women to inherit the throne. Instead, she was given in marriage to Ercole II of Este, heir of the small Italian duchy of Ferrara. In 1528 she moved to his court, with a large retinue of French courtesans and servants.
Her marriage with Ercole was strained from the start. Apparently, he didn’t find her attractive and, as most European male rulers, indulged in extramarital affairs. On the other hand, she annoyed him with her financial extravagance and jealous protection of her French subjects. Their conflict intensified after 1542, when Pope Paul III allowed the reorganization of the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. At that point, it became clear that Renée had harbored and supported many Protestants, including John Calvin, and had promoted the printing of Protestant books in Italian.
Most Italian rulers saw the pope as a political rival and bowed to his wishes only when it was diplomatically crucial. Until 1554, Ercole turned a blind eye to Renée’s religious activities, mostly in an effort to maintain good relations with France, but that year the pope’s insistence became too pronounced. Trying to keep a foot in both camps, Ercole asked King Henry II of France to send “a good catholic theologian” to detach Renée from “such an enormous heresy.” Henry sent the inquisitor Mathieu Ory, who, together with Pelleter (already in Ferrara), worked hard to bring the duchess back to the Roman Catholic fold.