Renée de France

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Entry by Caroline zum Kolk, 2003

Renée of France (1510 -1575) was the youngest daughter of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. Orphaned in 1515, she was raised with the children of her sister Claude who had married Francis I in 1514. As an adolescent, she became part of the entourage of Marguerite d'Angoulême where she encountered members of humanist circles and followers of the pre-reform. Francis I arranged her marriage to Ercole d'Este, eldest son of the duke of Ferrara. This union, celebrated June 28, 1528, sealed the entry of the duchy into the League of Cognac, unifying France, the papacy and several principalities against the emperor Charles V. At Ferrara Renée moved into one of the most brilliant homes of the Renaissance, where she was surrounded by artists and poets (Ludovico Ariosto, Vittoria Colonna, Olympia Morata...). Her marriage produced five children: Anne (1531-1607), Alfonso (1533-1597), Lucrezia (1535-1598), Leonora (1537-1581) et Luigi (1538-1586).

Dissension quickly arose between the couple, especially owing to the very tense political situation. In 1529, the "Ladies' Peace" (Treaty of Cambrai) put an end to the Franco-Ferraran alliance. Despite this Renée continued to work for the interests of France, which put her husband in a delicate position with respect to his sovereigns, the pope and the emperor. She helped the royal troops in Italy financially, received the king's envoys, supervised missions and furnished intelligence. She also supported her sons' choice to serve the king of France, against the will of their father. Ercole d'Este tried to limit the pro-French activities of his wife and regularly dismissed their French servants; these restrictive actions provoked diplomatic crises between the two countries and lively indignation at the French court. However the union was never entirely broken, as the 1548 marriage of Anne d'Este with François de Lorraine, duke of Guise, proves.

Renée of France's attachment to the Reform was another source of discord. The duchess made Ferrara the most important center of religious reform in Italy. After an initial contact with the reformists in the 1530s, the duchess began a vast correspondence with Calvin, Bullinger and other Protestants in 1540 and she stopped attending mass. The duke, tolerant in religious matters, refused to intervene despite the pressure exerted by his sovereigns. Nevertheless, during the great political crises he did take repressive measures as, for instance, in 1536 or in 1554, when Renée became the object of lawsuits. In 1554, in agreement with Henri II, Ercole presented Renée before a tribunal of the Inquisition which condemned her to life in prison. Yet the duke did not carry out the sentence, and Renée reassumed her Calvinist positions until the death of her husband in 1559.

In 1560, Renée left the duchy and returned to France, to her dower town of Montargis. She then undertook a legal action against the crown to recover at least partially her maternal and paternal inheritance, a law suit which occupied her unsuccessfully for ten years. Living according to the spirit of the Reform, she avoided extreme fanaticism. Her contacts with protestants and her relationship to the Guises made her a sought after negotiator. During the Wars of Religion, she turned her town into a refuge, receiving among others the family of Michel de L'Hôpital, Agrippa d'Aubigné and Jacques Androuet du Cerceau. Never hesitating to disobey royal orders, she refused in 1563 and in 1566 to deliver "her" refugees to the royal army; but in 1569 she was obliged to surrender them and witnessed the deaths of men, women and children. Renée was present at the massacre of Saint-Bartholomew, which she survived thanks to her daughter Anne, who sheltered her in the Hôtel de Nemours. Until her death she remained faithful to the precepts of the Reform.

Historians of Protestantism have devoted a great number of articles and biographies to Renée. In these she is portrayed as a heroine of the Reform, persecuted by her Catholic family; other authors instead hold her ties with the Guises and her "lack of fortitude" against her. Her tolerance of Catholics certainly requires a less simplistic analysis. The political, cultural and social commitment of the duchess remains a field of research only superficially explored. But the royal status of Renée of France, the openness with which she defended her convictions, and her exceptional life journey continue to inspire considerable promising research interest in Italy and in France.

(translated by Hannah Fournier)


- Unpublished letters.

Selected bibliography

- Braun, Gabriel. «Le mariage de Renée de France avec Hercule d'Este: une inutile mésalliance». Histoire, Économie et Société, 7e année, tome 2, 1988, p.147-165.
- Fontana, Bartolomeo. Renata di Francia, duchessa di Ferrara. Rome, 1889-1899, 3 vol.
- Franceschini. Chiara. «La corte di Renata di Francia (1528-1560)». In Adriano Prosperi (dir.), Storia di Ferrara. Ferrare, Corbo Editore, 2000, vol.VI, p.185-214.
- Jenkins-Blaisdell, Charmarie. Royalty and Reform: the Predicament of Renée de France, 1510-1575. Tufts University, 1969, Medford, Massachusetts, thèse non publiée.
- Rodocanachi, Emmanuel-Pierre. Renée de France, duchesse de Ferrare. Une protectrice de la Réforme en Italie. Paris, Ollendorf, 1896.

Selected bibliography of images

- Clouet, Jean. Renée de France, duchesse de Ferrare (dessin). Musée Condé, Chantilly (Inv. MN 28).
- Anonyme. Les petites prières de Renée de France (enluminures; cinq images différentes), Paris, vers
1520. Modène, Biblioteca Estense, ms. a.U. 2.28, Lat. 614 (livre d'heures volé; facsimilé) --


- «Madame Renée [...] a estée aussi une fort bonne et habille Princesse; car elle avoit ung des bons espritz et des subtilz, qui estoit possible. Elle avoit fort estudié; et l'ay veue fort sçavante discourir fort hautement et gravement de toutes sciences, jusques à l'astrologie et la congnoissance des astres, dont je l'en vis ung jour entretenir la Reyne Mere [Catherine de Médicis], qui, l'oyant ainsi parler, dict que le plus grand philosophe du monde n'en sçauroit mieux parler» (Brantôme, Recueil des Dames, poésies et tombeaux, éd. Etienne Vaucheret, Paris, Gallimard, 1991, p.172).

Renée de France
Spouses Hercule d'Este, duc de Ferrare
Also known as Renée of France
Birth date 1510
Death 1570
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire Fortunée Briquet
Dictionnaire Philibert Riballier et Catherine Cosson
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