Category Archives: Marguerite of Navarre

Jeanne d’Albret, queen of Navarre

On 9 June 1572, Jeanne d’Albret, the queen of Navarre died.

Jeanne d'Albret by Clouet

Navarre was a small, Pyrenean kingdom, nestled between France and Spain, and fiercely holding on to its independence in the face of these two great powers. Jeanne was born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France on 16 November 1528 and was a relation of the French royal family through her mother, the sister of François I. Her husband, Antoine de Bourbon, was a prince of the blood and spent most of his life torn between his conflicting loyalties to France and Navarre.

Jeanne inherited the throne from her father, Henri II in 1555. She had been raised a Huguenot (French Calvinist Protestant) and on her accession, declared Protestantism the official religion of Navarre. She was very clever and a shrewd politician. She was well educated and, taking after her mother, Marguerite of Navarre, she was a writer. Jeanne composed and published numerous poems.

Jeanne d'Albret, Clouet 1570

Pious and staunchly Protestant, Jeanne was suspicious when, in 1570, plans were formed to marry her son and heir, Henri de Navarre, to Marguerite de Valois (Margot), the daughter of Henri II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. Catherine hoped to bring peace to France, which was again on the brink of a religious civil war, with the wedding. Jeanne suspected a trap but was keen to see her son make such an advantageous marriage.

Two months before the marriage was scheduled to take place, Jeanne died suddenly in Paris. Rumour was rife that Catherine de’ Medici had had her poisoned. Shortly before her death, Jeanne had supposedly received a gift of scented gloves from Catherine’s infamous perfumier, René the Florentine. René was famed for his Italian perfumes and cosmetics, but widely suspected of being the maker of the poisons the queen mother allegedly used to dispatch her enemies.

The marriage went ahead on 18 August 1572, with horrific consequences.

Jeanne de Navarre, 1565 teston

Some Early Female Influences on Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is often portrayed as uniquely ambitious and self-determined in a time when women were expected to be obedient and dutiful. However, she had some interesting role models in her youth, both women to emulate, and those whose lives were object lessons.

Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands.

Margaret offered prestigious positions in her court to young gentlemen and ladies, scions of Europe’s noble families. Thomas Boleyn had impressed Margaret while on diplomatic missions to her court and she offered one of his daughters a maid of honour position at her court in Mechelen, in what is now Belgium.

Margaret of Austria

Thomas and his wife Elizabeth Howard had two surviving daughters. The dates and even order of birth of the Boleyn children are uncertain but it seems likely that Mary was the elder. If this is the case, Thomas must have seen more promise in Anne than Mary as custom would otherwise have dictated that the older girl took up the opportunity in the Netherlands.

In her earliest letters home, Anne showed a good grasp of French, which was to become fluent. She was a quick learner though and her language skills improved. She thrived at Margaret’s court where she witnessed real power wielded by a charismatic, intelligent woman. Margaret was interested in humanism and was very well educated. She was a successful ruler who held the regency of the Netherlands intermittently throughout her life. The influence of Anne’s early exposure to a powerful, political woman can hardly be overestimated. Margaret defied the expectations of Early Modern womanhood. With three marriages over by the age of twenty four and no surviving children, Margaret had retired from the royal marriage market in defiance of her father, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who had seen no reason that his daughter’s marital career should not continue apace.

Margaret held the respectable position of a widow which traditionally allowed women a degree of freedom their never-married contemporaries did not have. She was entrusted by her father with the regency of the Netherlands for her nephew who would eventually succeed her father as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. She proved to be an able and successful ruler, bringing prosperity to the Netherlands through commercial treaties with England which were favourable to her country’s cloth merchants.

Margaret of Austria

The bright, impressionable young Englishwoman at Margaret’s court could not have failed to be inspired by what she saw there.

Queen Claude of France

In 1514, however, Henry VIII’s sister Mary was betrothed to the king of France, Louis XII, and Anne was sent to Paris to wait on her. Thomas Boleyn had also secured a place in the new queen’s retinue for his elder daughter, Mary too. Louis died only three months after the marriage, reputedly worn out by his exertions in the bedchamber. Anne and her sister remained in France as ladies-in-waiting to the new queen of France, Claude.

The contrast between Margaret of Austria and Queen Claude could not have been more striking. Louis had no surviving sons and so Claude, as the eldest surviving child, was his heir. However, in France the Salic Law prevented a woman from inheriting her father’s land and so Claude could not become queen in her own right. She was duly married to her cousin, François, the heir presumptive with a view to her becoming queen consort.

François was one of the great figures of Early Modern Europe and totally eclipsed his diminutive wife. Claude and François were married for ten years during which time Claude was almost continually pregnant, producing no less than seven children. She dutifully followed her husband’s relentless wandering round France and died at the age of twenty-five, exhausted. Claude, though, fulfilled the contemporary ideal of womanhood and queenship: she produced five children who survived, including three sons; she lived chastely (although it would seem unlikely that she had the time or the energy to be unfaithful) and she turned a blind eye to her husband’s constant philandering.

She is remembered with a plum which was named after her (a greengage is une reine claude or une bonne reine in France).

Claude of France

As much as Margaret of Austria was an inspiration, Claude was a warning to Anne. Claude was a perfect illustration of the potential fate of a dutiful wife. During his wife’s perpetual pregnancies, François was neglectful and preferred to spend his time in the embraces of other women. In fact, the king surrounded himself with attractive, witty young women, preferring female company to that of his male courtiers. It would seem likely that King François would have found his wife’s young English attendant as fascinating as her compatriots did on her later return to England. Anne, however, would not have risked her marriage prospects in England with a dalliance with the notoriously philandering king of France had he shown interest in her.

Marguerite of Navarre

As well as Queen Claude, Anne seems to have come under the influence of François’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre. As much as the king neglected his dutiful wife, he lavished attention on his brilliant elder sister. He even turned a blind eye to her increasing sympathies with the ideas of religious reform sweeping the kingdom. John Calvin had fled his native France and remained in exile in Switzerland. His ideas on reform of the Church were widely, if secretly, imported into France and fed the growing population of Huguenots, the colloquial name given to French Protestants, which troubled the king. France’s relationship with the Holy See had been unique and frequently strained for centuries and while François was a great pragmatist in religious matters, he would not countenance a full schism and therefore took measures to restrict Huguenot religious freedom. His legacy of religious ambivalence was one which Catherine de’ Medici would have to tackle some thirty years later.

Marguerite of Navarre

The indulgence of her brother was a safeguard for Marguerite who was not only a patron of humanists in France and her small Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, but also a writer herself. Her mystical, devotional work, Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul), was a popular, radical work in her day. Indeed, in years to come Anne’s daughter, the princess Elizabeth, would translate it as a New Year’s gift for her last stepmother, Catherine Parr. Elizabeth may even have worked from Marguerite’s original manuscript which she reputedly gave to Anne. Anne, although no author, would similarly come to rely on Henry’s protection with her choice of radical books.