Jeanne d'Albret - Jeanne of Navarre

French Huguenot Leader (1528-1572)

Silk embroidery, Jeanne d'Albret as Venus
Silk embroidery, Jeanne d'Albret as Venus. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Known for: Huguenot leader and religious reformer; mother of Henry IV of France; ruler of Navarre
Dates: 1528-1572
Also known as: Jean of Albret, Jeanne of Navarre, Jeanne III of Navarre

Jeanne of Navarre Biography:

Jeanne d'Albret was a key leader in the Huguenot party in France in the 16th century. Her son became King of France, though he abandoned his mother's Protestantism in assuming the throne.

Jeanne d'Albret was brought up and educated by her mother in Normandy until she was 10. As a cousin of the French king Henry III, she was likely to be used as a marital pawn in royal diplomacy.


Jeanne was married at fourteen to the Duke of Cleves -- a marriage desireable for the alliance it would seal -- but she resisted this marriage and had to be carried to the altar by the constable of France. Alliances shifted, and before the marriage was consummated, it was annulled with papal approval.

In 1548 Jeanne married Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome. Letters show that it was a playful and loving relationship though he was not faithful. Antoine was a member of the House of Bourbon which would succeed to the French throne under Salic Law if the ruling family, the House of Valois, produced no male heirs.

Ruler of Navarre, Conversion

In 1555, Jeanne's father died, and Jeanne became ruler of Navarre in her own right, Antoine becoming titular king-consort of Navarre. Thus she is also known as Jeanne of Navarre. Jeanne declared, on Christmas of 1560, her conversion to the Reformed faith, probably under the influence of Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor. This confession came just a few weeks after the King died, and the pro-Catholic Guise faction was weakened.

Antoine, too, seemed to be leaning to the Reformed position. Then Antoine was offered Sardinia by the King of Spain if he returned to the Church of Rome. Jeanne's allegiance remained with the Huguenots (the Protestant faction).

With the Massacre at Vassy, France became more polarized on the religious division, and so did the family of Antoine and Jeanne. He imprisoned her over her religious views, and threatened divorce. They fought over how their son, only eight, would be raised, religiously speaking.

Jeanne left Paris in 1562, for Vendome, where Huguenots rioted and targeted the church and Bourbon tombs. Jeanne regretted this uprising, and proceeded to Bearn, where she encouraged Protestants.

War between the factions continued. The Duke of Guise, of the Roman faction, was assassinated. Antoine died after being part of the Catholic forces besieging Rouen, and Jeanne assumed rulership of Bearn as sole sovereign. Their son Henry was held at court as a hostage.

In 1561, Jeanne issued an edict which put Protestantism on an equal footing with the Roman church. While she tried to establish peaceful tolerance in her own domain, she found herself more and more involved in the French civil war, opposing the Guise family.

When Cardinal d'Armagnac was unable to persuade Jeanne to forsake her Protestant path, Philip of Spain planned a kidnapping of Jeanne so she could be subject to the Inquisition. The plot failed.

Escalating Polarization

Then the Pope demanded that Jeanne appear in Rome or forfeit her domains. But neither Catherine de Medici nor Philip of Spain would support this papal power play, and in 1564 Jeanne expanded religious liberty for Huguenots. At the same time she went to court, seeking to maintain her relationship with Catherine, and one result was regaining contact with her son. He returned at age 13 and was given a Protestant education and military training under Jeanne's direction. Part of his military education was under Gaspard de Coligny, who was the target of Catherine de Medici later near the time of Henry's wedding.

Jeanne continued to issue edicts which protected the Reformed faith and limited Roman practices. The Basque part of Navarre revolted, and Jeanne first suppressed the rebellion and then pardoned the rebels. Both sides used mercenaries in the fight, leading to a higher incidence of brutalities.

The religious fight in Navarre reflected the situation in France: religious warfare. Jeanne d'Albret -- also known as Jeanne of Navarre -- made alliances with other Huguenots, while Catherine de Medici fought to "free" Jeanne and her son from the Protestants.

Jeanne continued the reforms in Navarre, including transferring church revenues and establishing a Protestant confession for her subjects while not providing for any punishment for those who did not embrace this new confession.

Marriage Arranged to Seal a Peace

The Peace of St. Germain in 1571 established an unsteady truce in France between the Catholic and Huguenot factions. In March, 1572, in Paris, Jeanne agreed to a marriage to cement the peace arranged by Catherine de Medici -- a marriage between Marguerite Valois, daughter of Catherine de Medici and female heir to the Valois house, and Henry of Navarre, son of Jeanne d'Albret. The marriage was meant to bind the relationship between the Valois and Bourbon families. Jeanne was unhappy that her son would marry a Catholic, and demanded that the cardinal of Bourbon, who would be celebrating the marriage, be dressed in civil and not religious garb for the ceremony.

Jeanne had left her son at home while she negotiated the marriage. Jeanne d'Albret planned her son's wedding, but died in June 1572 before the horrible outcome. When Henry received word that she was ill, he left for Paris but Jeanne died before he reached her. For some centuries after Jeanne's death, rumors circulated that Catherine of Medici had poisoned Jeanne.

After Jeanne's Death

Catherine de Medici used the wedding of her daughter to Jeanne's son as an opportunity to kill the assembled Huguenot leaders in what history knows as the St. Bartholomew Massacre.

Charles IX was king of France at the time of Jeanne's death; he was succeeded by Henry III. Catherine de Medici, who had been Regent for her sons Frances and Charles, remained highly influential during this third son's reign. When, after Catherine de Medici's death, Henry III was assassinated in 1589, there were no Valois male heirs left. Under the Salic Law, women could not inherit lands or titles. Jeanne and Antoine's son Henry of Navarre was the closest male heir, and was married to a female Valois, and thus brought the families together in becoming Henry IV of France.

His conversion to Roman Catholicism allowed him to take the throne. He was quoted as saying, "Paris is worth a mass." Though it is not possible to know whether he converted from conviction or for convenience, he is known for issuing the Edict of Nantes in 1598, requiring tolerance of Protestants, bringing to his reign something of the spirit of his mother, Jeanne d'Albret.

During the years Henry IV was King of France and childless, he arranged for his sister to be heir to the crown of Navarre, but he finally did have a son and his sister died childless, so he reversed this plan.

Family Connections:

  • father: Henri d'Albret, King of Navarre
  • motherMarguerite of Navarre, sister of King Francis I of France
  • husband: Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome
  • son: Henry IV of France

Religion: Protestant: Reformed (Calvinist)

Suggested reading:

  • David M. Bryson, Queen Jeanne and the Promised Land: Dynasty, Homeland, Religion, and Violence in Sixteenth Century France.