Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier

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Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier
Spouses William of Orange, Stathouder of Holland
Birth date Around 1546
Death 1582
Biographical entries in old dictionaries

Entry by Jane Couchman, 2006

Born in 1546 or 1547, Charlotte was the daughter of Louis de Bourbon, Duke of Bourbon, a member of the Catholic branch of the Bourbons, and of Jacqueline de Longwy, who supported the ideas of the Reformation. Entrusted early in life to her aunt Louise de Longwy, Abbess of Jouarre, Charlotte professed her faith in 1559, while vehemently claiming in front of witnesses she had taken the veil against her will, under pressure from her parents. Elected abbess at eighteen (1565), she reiterated her objection to the nuns, many of whom would testify after her departure. She maintained close links with Protestant circles from then on, and left her community by announcing her conversion in 1571. On the advice of Jeanne d'Albret, whom she consulted by letter, she took refuge at Heidelberg, with the Elector Palatine, Frederick III, whose sympathy for the Calvinist Reformation was well known .
 In 1572 her father carried out an investigation against her to save the reputation of their family as supporters of the Catholic faith, but Charlotte made the acquaintance of William of Orange, who proposed marriage. Stathouder (i.e Governor) of Holland, William, known as ‘the Silent’, was also a refugee in Heidelberg because of his opposition to the sectarian policies of Philip II, ruler of the Netherlands. The ‘flight’ of Charlotte earned her a poor reputation, even among Protestants who moreover misunderstood the enthusiasm of William for the now penniless ‘religieuse’. Moreover, the allies of the prince's previous wife, Anne of Saxony, a Catholic, opposed this marriage, although it went ahead in June 1575. Charlotte embraced her husband's cause, as he tried to assert the rights of Calvinists in the Netherlands, and those of the United Provinces, after 1581. As evidenced by her correspondence with her husband during the latter’s absences, the Princess passed on valuable information to him and ensured a good communication network with the officers of the General States of the revolted Provinces. The letters exchanged between Charlotte and her husband, her brother Francis de Montpensier and Henry of Navarre, between 1575 and 1582, also reveal her efforts to win back the filial esteem of her father who had disinherited her when she left the convent. Her efforts at restoring emotional ties with her father were however motivated by the pecunary necessity to recover his property to support her new family, especially because William of Orange, still engaged in the fight against the Spaniards, was in serious debt. So as to achieve her goal, Charlotte judiciously used documents issued during her monastic life, allowing her father to return her to her family fold without compromising his conscience or his honour. These documents, heralded as authentic, formed the basis of her request for family pardon. Political, as well as war, alliances also underpinned these negotiations: William hoped, through his brother-in-law Francois de Montpensier, to be allied with the Duke of Alençon, brother of Henry III, King of France. The Princess of Orange gave birth to six daughters: the eldest was named Louise, in honour of Charlotte's father; then Elizabeth was born, god-daughter of the Queen of England, then Catherine-Belgica, Charlotte-Flandrin, Charlotte Brabantina and Emilia-Antwerpiana, so named by their father in order to befriend the provinces of the same name from which he hoped for support. In spring 1582, finally reinstated by her father, Charlotte died of exhaustion from taking care of her husband who had survived an assassination attempt. Louise de Coligny, the fourth wife of William ‘the Silent’, was to take care of their/her daughters, educate them and negotiate advantageous marriages for five of them .
Charlotte of Bourbon left a voluminous correspondence, largely unpublished, preserved mainly in The Hague (Koninklijk Huisarchief Fund, William of Orange, Inventory A 11). In his biographical study, Jules Delaborde reproduced several extracts, as well as the testimonies she had drafted for her profession and election (March 1559 and August 1565). At the time of her marriage, her persona seems to have sparked a series of scurrilous pamphlets, in both Catholic and Protestant circles. It is much later that her qualities as a faithful partner to her husband would be recognized. However, in the scholarly studies of historians devoted to the life of William ‘the Silent’, she still appears mainly as his devoted wife and model mother to his children.

(Translated by Julie Robertson, 2010)


- 1559-1582 : Lettres et documents (extraits), dans Jules Delaborde, Charlotte de Bourbon, princesse d’Orange, Paris, Fischbacher, 1888.

- 1565-1582 : Lettres et documents, dans «Charlotte de Bourbon, Princess of Orange: Letters et documents (1565-1582)», éd. et trad. Jane Couchman, dans Writings by Pre-Revolutionary French Women, éd. Anne R. Larsen et Colette H. Winn, New York, Garland, 2000, p.107-121.

Selected bibliography

- Bainton, Roland, «Charlotte de Bourbon», dans Ladies of the Reformation in France and England, Boston, Beacon Press, 1973, p.89-111.

- Couchman, Jane, «Charlotte de Bourbon’s correspondence: using words to implement emancipation», dans Women Writers in Pre-Revolutionary France, éd. Colette H. Winn et Donna Kuizenga, New York, Garland, 1990, p.101-117.

- Delaborde, Jules, Charlotte de Bourbon..., voir supra, OEuvres.

- Walker, Frances M. C., Cloister to Court: Scenes from the Life of Charlotte de Bourbon, Londres, Longmans, 1909.

Selected bibliography of images

- v.1580: Hendrick Goltzius (?), Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier (huile sur bois, 103 x 73 cm), copie à Siegen (Siegerlandmuseum), La Haye, Koninklijk Huisarchief -- Thera Coppens, De Vrouwen van Willem van Oranje, Baarn, M.C. Stok, 1977, entre les p.192 et 193.


- «Le prince [Guillaume d’Orange] a si bonne mine et si bon courage, malgré le peu de bien qui lui arrive et la grandeur de ses peines, de ses travaux et de ses périls, que vous ne sauriez le croire, et que vous en seriez extrêmement joyeux. Certes, ce lui est une précieuse consolation et un grand soulagement que Dieu lui ait donné une épouse si distinguée par sa vertu, sa piété, sa haute intelligence, parfaitement telle, enfin, qu’il eût pu la désirer. Il la chérit tendrement.» (Jean «le Vieux» de Nassau, frère de Guillaume d’Orange, au comte Ernest de Schauenbourg, le 9 avril 1580, dans J. Delaborde, Charlotte de Bourbon..., voir supra, OEuvres, p.111).

- «Encores que j’aye senty de plus près la perte que j’ay faicte de ma femme pour plusieurs raisons, si est-ce que je ne laisse pas de cognoistre que plusieurs gens de bien y ont perdu avecques moy, pour la grande amytié et affection qu’elle a portées à tous ceulx qui ont aimé Dieu.» (Guillaume d’Orange au prince de Condé, le 29 mai 1582, dans Archives ou correspondance inédite de la Maison d’Orange-Nassau, éd. Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Leyde, série 1, t.8, 1847, p.100).

- «[Les lettres qu’échangent Guillaume d’Orange et Charlotte de Bourbon font preuve] de la confiance qu’inspiraient à Guillaume la capacité et le zèle de sa femme à soutenir, en son absence et sur sa recommandation, des rapports directs avec divers hommes d’État qu’il lui désignait.» (J. Delaborde, Charlotte de Bourbon..., voir supra, OEuvres, p.114).

- «Gradually she lifted from his shoulders the personal and private and social burdens, releasing all his energies for his public duties.» (Cecily Wedgewood, William the Silent, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1944, p.156).

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