Princess, traitor, faithful: meet Renée of France

Over the summer break, the mission partnerships team have been busy resting – and reading! Read Helen Burns’ book review of Renée of France.

Luther, Calvin, Zwingli….. They’re all key Reformation characters you might’ve heard of.

But if I say ‘Renée of France’, I doubt you’d know the name. She rarely gets a mention in church history and yet she thoroughly deserves recognition. She regularly corresponded with Calvin, helped finance the Reformation, housed hundreds of protestant refugees, watched her friends be executed for refusing to deny the gospel, defied her husband, risked estrangement from her family and her life to hold on to the beliefs she’d come to love.

Renée the princess
Renée was born on the 25 October 1510 to King Louis XII of France. By the time she was five years old, both her parents had died. Had she been born a man, or had France not passed the Salic law forbidding women from inheriting the throne, princess Renée could have been queen. Instead, aged 20, she was pledged to the Duke of Ferrara in an arranged marriage. She met him one month before their wedding. It was not a particularly promising start – the Duke of Ferrara wrote the following to his father after meeting his future bride:

‘Madame Renée is not beautiful, but she might make up for this with other good qualities.’

The couple were married in 1528 and God blessed them with five children.

The Lord’s sovereignty can clearly be seen in Renée's life; after relocating to Italy, she used her power to make strategic choices that later helped Christians fleeing religious persecution against Protestants in France. Renée employed many Protestants in her court to offer them protection against persecution. This was a risky move under the watchful eye of her husband who was gaining favour with the Pope. It was during this time that Calvin visited Ferrara and started corresponding with her. Aware of her noble and influential position, Calvin was convinced that, like Queen Esther, she had been put there for such a time as this:

‘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 fulfil your vocation.’

Renée the traitor
As religious persecution intensified in France, Renée came under greater scrutiny from her husband, the Duke, who was keen to appease the Pope. He employed someone at his court to spy on her. Eventually, Renée was imprisoned with the promise of release if she would renounce her Christian faith and turn back to the Catholic church. A few days later, Renée renounced the gospel. Though disappointed, Calvin wrote a letter of grace and hope to her:

‘Our good God is always ready to receive us in his grace and, when we fall, holds out his hand that our falls may not be fatal.’

Renée, faithful in the end
Evidence shows that Renée heeded Calvin’s advice and came back to the true faith she had known and loved at first. Towards the end of her life, Renée moved back to France. She was given a castle where she housed 300-500 Protestant refugees and paid for their education out her personal wealth. She spent so much on others that her children were warned that they would not receive much inheritance from her.

Renée died on the 12 June 1575, aged just 47 years old. Looking back on her life, it is amazing what this remarkable woman of faith accomplished for the Lord in a relatively short life. Though her renouncing of the gospel doesn’t make for a neat and easy story, it has been such an encouragement to read of how God uses complicated, weak, ordinary people weak for his glory. He doesn’t wait till we are the finished product; he refines and strengthens us as we walk with him. What an encouragement then to read of another ‘jar of clay’! (2 Corinthians 4:7)

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Helen Burns

As the church partnerships co-ordinator at Crosslinks, Helen works to make sure that churches have healthy partnerships with their mission partners. She arranges church visits, processes income and visits church prayer meetings.