Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

RENÉE OF FERRARA
(1510-1574)

France
Protestant Reformer and Political Leader

Renée was the second daughter of King Louis XII of France and his wife Anne de Bretagne. Renée's father and mother died when she was four years old, and her earliest education took place within the court of her brother-in-law, King Francis I. Her closest companion during the years at court seems to have been the king's sister Marguerite. Although Marguerite was some eighteen years older than Renée, her attachment to a form of Christian humanism that focused on inner spiritual reform may have had a lasting impact on Renée. The spread of new ideas hostile to the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, and Marguerite's protection of the advocates of reform within the Church, cannot have been unknown to Renée, and her own actions in later years testify to the importance of this early friendship.

In 1528 Renée married Ercole d'Este, eldest son of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, Italy. It must have been difficult, at age eighteen, to be removed from the exciting life of a major European court and relocated to a minor Italian duchy against her will. The marriage had been arranged by the king as part of an ongoing diplomatic effort to expand French influence in Italy. Renée left France with great reluctance, and once in Ferrara, she surrounded herself with French courtiers, much to the disappointment of her husband. The following year the alliance between Ferrara and France that had occasioned the marriage was repudiated, making Renée's "exile" all the more painful.

When King Francis I of France began a campaign against religious dissent in 1534, a number of recent converts to the Reformed faith, including the youthful John Calvin, fled the country. And although we do not know the nature of her own religious opinions at the time, Renée allowed a number of these refugees to take up residence in Ferrara. By 1536 Renée's court had become known as a refuge for French religious reformers. Her husband, now eager to secure an

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