By Ruth Tucker
This post relates to Renée of France, but first things first: Michael Servetus burned at the stake. It’s a long story, and Calviin’s defenders have gone to great lengths to prove him innocent. True, Servetus was a pig-headed nuisance who challenged the doctrine of the Trinity. But did he deserve such an awful execution? Calvin had made his position clear. The writings of Servetus were “prodigious blasphemies against God” and “Those who would spare heretics and blasphemers are themselves blasphemers.”
Calvin’s role in the execution of Servetus had lasting repercussions, particularly as Puritans and others who looked to him as a role model took up the practice themselves. What if he had stood strong for the teachings of Jesus and denounced such killings? How different succeeding generations of Christians might have behaved.
But the focus here is on a lesser known aspect of Calvin’s life—his spirited interactions with Renée of Ferera. Born in 1510, she was a year younger than he. Was it love at first sight? Perhaps. But far more than that, he regarded her a royal trophy, as did many others. No wonder. She was the daughter of King Louis XII of France and Anne the Duchess of Brittany, the richest woman in Europe. No brothers to inherit the throne, she was furious that her nephew got the top spot. She, however, had great value as a political pawn in the European game of match-making.
At seventeen she became the wife of Ercole, son of Italy’s infamous Lucrezia Borgia. She would live in luxury at the court in Ferrara, the very center of the Italian Renaissance. The marriage, however, was no love match. All Ercole cared about was an heir to the throne. She came through on that score, bearing five children, including two sons.
While still in France the precocious Renée had secretly converted to Reformed teachings. Later when news of bloody persecution reached her in Italy, she was devastated. In fact, when French “heretics” sought refuge in Ferrara, she surreptitiously welcomed and housed them without her husband’s knowledge. Among them was Charles d’ Espeville, a.k.a. John Calvin, who arrived in the spring of 1536 and stayed for a month.
His influence over her on theological issues was enormous, but she had a strong personality of her own and was not about to become his puppet. From his correspondence, however, it is evident that a close friendship had developed. “If I address you, madam,” he wrote, “it is not from rashness or presumption, but pure and true affection to make you prevail in the Lord.” He was clearly dazzled by her wealth and her perceived power behind the throne. “When I consider the pre-eminence in which He has placed you,” he wrote her, “I think that, as a person of princely rank, you can advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ.” He flattered her for her spiritual maturity: “I observe in you such fear of God, and such a real desire to obey Him, that I should consider myself a castaway if I neglected the opportunity of being useful to you.”
Renée, however, had an Italian husband to contend with and so she continued to publicly behave as though she were a devoted Catholic. Calvin was upset. “I have heard that your domestics have been scandalized,” he wrote, “by the word of a certain preacher who says that one may go both to Mass and to the Lord’s Supper.” Knowing that this included her as well, he warned, “I cannot suffer a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I esteem the word of this preacher no more than the song of a jackdaw. . . . The Mass is an execrable sacrilege and an intolerable blasphemy.”
How dare he! A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Renée was in a very dangerous spot. Didn’t he dress in a peasant’s clothing when he escaped down a rope, hustling away from the terror and persecution of Paris? She was facing terror of her own; the discovery of her Calvinist leanings was no trifling matter.
Initially, when word of her apostasy was reported to Henry II, a staunch Catholic who had succeeded her father as King, he wrote to his beloved “only aunt” to be “restored to the bosom of our holy mother church, cleansed and purified from those cursed dogmas and reprobate errors.” In fact, he would be so kind as to assist her by dispatching to Italy her own personal Inquisitor, Ori, whose assignment would be to offer her spiritual counsel. If she were to resist his compassionate instruction, nephew Henry II threatened that Ori would find it necessary to bring her “to reason by severity.”
If that wasn’t enough to give her a serious case of the jitters, enter Ercole. He was furious with his devious wife who had been contaminating his own household with that damnable Reformed heresy. Wasting no time, he forcibly put her under house arrest and threatened to send their daughters to a convent. “Her maternal instincts firing on all cylinders,” I write in Dynamic Women of the Christian Church, “Renée sent for a priest to hear her confession and to administer communion. The solution worked. She was set free to care for her young girls.
Calvin didn’t waste a minute to condemn her. “I fear you have left the straight road to please the world.” he wrote her. “And indeed the devil has so entirely triumphed that we have been constrained to groan, and bow our heads in sorrow.” What a bully! No understanding. No comfort. Rather, sounding like a petulant old scold, he told her to humble herself before God and come back to the faith, offering no counsel as to what she should do about her daughters.
When Renée was approaching her fiftieth birthday, her husband died and her oldest son, a staunch Catholic, succeeded his father as Duke of Ferrara. She had lived in Ferrara for more than three decades. The time was right. She returned to her beloved homeland to stay. She left behind her ministry to the poor and needy, many of whom wept at her departure. Back home she opened her estate as a refuge for Reformed Christians fleeing persecution.
Here she maintained her correspondence with Calvin, often on testy terms. When her daughter’s Catholic husband was assassinated, she was not ashamed of her sorrow, and she was furious that Calvin had consigned him to hell. She was also troubled that she was not permitted to be part of church decision-making. Calvin had sent his own “inquisitor” to keep Renée in line. “Renée wants to attend the meetings of the synod,” he wrote. “But if Paul thought that women should be silent in the church, how much more should they not participate in the making of decisions. How will the Papists and the Anabaptists scoff to see us run by women!”
Renée wanted her voice heard—particularly on practical matters. She decried the terrible atrocities conducted against Catholics by Reformed vigilantes in France. To “Monsieur Calvin,” she wrote: “I am distressed that you do not know how the half in this realm behave. They even exhort simple women to kill and strangle. This is not the rule of Christ. I say this out of the great affection which I hold for the Reformed religion.” Why didn’t Calvin know how the half behave? Was he looking the other way?
To the very end Renée fought for religious toleration, but it would be a lost cause. In 1572, she would learn of the carnage carried out against Protestants—a slaughter of thousands that would forever be remembered as St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. She lived on for two more very sad years and was then laid to rest in France, even as—what many feared—the Reformed faith itself was being laid to rest.
Renée fought for religious freedom, as did Katherine Zell, Anabaptists and others, long before the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. To be charitable, Calvin merely sat on his hands and said nothing. But in reality, he appeared to applaud the awful persecution—a legacy that would follow him for generations.
Shame on you, JC!