Book Review of Renee of France by Simonetta Carr
“Calvin reminds Renee that we are by nature weak and sinful. Her denial of faith [at Ferrara] had been sorely disappointing, but not beyond remedy. When God allows his children to fall, Calvin explains, it is never with the intention of destroying them or casting them into despair. On the contrary, as we have noted earlier, he gives them double strength to resume the fight.” Simonetta Carr
“Renee of France” by Simonetta Carr is a part of the Bite Sized Biographies series. With only 10 chapters, we are given a brief overview of a person in history many may not be familiar with. Renee of France was the daughter of
King Louis XII. She was a little girl when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg and a young adult observing the birthing pangs of the Protestant Reformation. When in her young twenties she met John Calvin, a contemporary of hers, and had an invigorating discussion with him about the changing times. They agreed to correspond, and it is those letters with some historical context that this book is based upon.
Before she was even 18, Princess Renee married Duke Ercole II of Este and moved to Ferrara, Italy in an effort to strengthen political ties between France and Italy. After the death of her father, her brother-in-law became King of France. When she married, he told her he would always support her and assist her when she needed him. Renee gave birth to five children, a son the heir to her husband’s duchy, three beautiful daughters and the youngest another son.
Tensions between the established Roman Catholic church and the Protestants during the Reformation and Counter-reformation was intertwined with political tensions. It was a common practice among the leaders of the religious communities to keep close ties with a number of Ladies of high birth, seeking asylum and aid, refuge and support during these early years of Protestantism. Renee corresponded with John Calvin, and did as much as she could to support the movement in both financial support and physical refuge. She often surrounded herself with a number of refugees fleeing persecution, even hiring some as tutors for her children, and supporting others as artisans. Leaning toward Protestant beliefs caused problems in her marriage, especially since Duke Ercole’s duties allied his duchy with the local Church politically if not spiritually.
What I found most interesting was the conflict within Renee herself as she experiences the pressure her husband and Church officials place on her to conform to the practices of the Church. Her low key support of the new religious movement was embarrassing to him and getting him in trouble with the powerful officials. They often threatened to send inquisitors to examine Renee, something the Duke certainly didn’t want to do. He covered and lied for her to put off the inquisition. All this concerned Calvin and shows up in his writings to Renee. At one point, she felt the need to give in to pressure and resumed attending the Mass and confessing her sins before the Church.
The Duke eventually gave Renee a villa in Consandolo, where she moved and even resumed her support of the Reformation victims, persons moving out of France during the persecution of the Huguenots, seeking asylum with her. Accusations and suspicions were still rampant, since the conflicts spilled over into surrounding countries including Italy. The letters and historical background only offer limited speculation on Renee’s spiritual state herself, whether she vacillated or just kept her head down to survive until she could resume her support. I found myself wondering what I would do if I were in similar situations as Renee.
Renee’s brother-in-law, her quiet supporter, died and the rule of France went to his brother Charles IX, son of Catherine de’ Medici. Renee felt the loss of support strongly. Charles and his mother were staunch Catholics. Renee’s oldest daughter, Anna, married the Duke of Guise in Paris, France. He also strongly supported the Roman Church. After her husband died, her eldest son Alfonso took on the duchy in Ferrara, and there was additional conflict since he did not support her efforts caring for refugees. Renee moved to France.
Eventually she moved to the fortress in Montargis, which she held title to and kept throughout her stay in Italy. The conflicts during the Reformation became the War of Religions in France. Renee continued to surround herself with refugees and leaders of the Reformation. At one point her castle had become like a hospital, caring for nearly 500 refugees. She began a school for the children in her care, which eventually became one of the first colleges of the Reformation. She continued to receive support from Calvin in his correspondence and through the ministers he sent to her to support her and teach the people she surrounded herself with. However opposition was inevitable, especially in the form of her son-in-law, the Duke of Guise.
I enjoy history, especially when there is a glimpse of humanity among the facts, and particularly when the hand of God becomes evident working through events and people for His purpose. Before reading this short biography, I had never heard of Renee, Princess of France. She brought an interesting period of history alive for me and connected some names and places together I had not previously connected. I am grateful to the author for sharing this work with us. There are even timely and relevant issues which these letters bring to the forefront, ones that even 500 years later are worth pondering, studying and praying over. Even if you do not like history, I recommend this book. It reads nearly like a historical fiction novelette.
A complimentary review copy was provided to me by Cross Focused Reviews (A Service of Cross Focused Media, LLC). I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
- The Last Sermon of John Calvin (calvinistview.com)
- Some Calvin Free for Kindle (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
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