Renée of France, Simonetta Carr (Darlington, England: EP Books, 2013). Softcover, 128 pages, $11.99.
Sometimes it seems like the Reformation involved only men. Sometimes it seems that women were merely in the background. Generally speaking, the main movers and shakers of the Protestant Reformation were men. However, it would be a mistake to neglect the role of several important women. People should think not only of Katharina von Bora and other wives of the Reformers, but also of royalty such as Renée of France. This biography gives us a succinct but nuanced view of one of the most important women involved with the cause of the sixteenth-century Reformation.
The author, Simonetta Carr, is best-known for several church history books for children. This little book is directed to adults, though I think it could be read and appreciated by teens as well. Carr is a member of the United Reformed Church in Santee, California and a busy mom of eight children. She’s developed a reputation for strong writing on historical topics and Renée of France only bolsters that further.
Renée of France (1510-1575) was a complex figure. Born into the French royal family, she early came to sympathize with the Reformation. While living in Ferrara (today in northern Italy), she was visited by John Calvin and other Reformed pastors. Throughout her life she maintained correspondence with Calvin. Carr has included excerpts of his encouraging letters to her throughout and especially in the last chapter, “Calvin and Renée.” However, Renée also wavered back and forth between Roman Catholicism and the true faith. She was under intense pressure from other royal members to remain loyal to Rome. While she safely harboured many Protestant refugees over the years, Renée herself was at times weak. Carr does not gloss this over, but instead presents Renée as a real human being who genuinely struggled with faith matters. She struggled not only with holding on to the content of the faith, but also in living out biblical convictions. In the end, Renée reportedly died as an “unrepentant Protestant” and though some wanted to give her the burial befitting a princess, the king denied it since “Renée had not died in the true religion,” i.e. in Roman Catholicism.
I want to mention something of interest in relation to chapter 2. Carr describes how a Roman Catholic monk came to Ferrara in 1535 to work on keeping Renée in the Roman fold. This monk was a well-known preacher named François Richardot. Simonetta Carr doesn’t mention this, but this same François Richardot would go on to become the Bishop of Arras. In 1567, Guido de Brès was in prison awaiting his execution in Valenciennes. Richardot, the foremost debater of Protestants in the region, came to visit to debate and try to persuade de Brès to come back to the Roman Catholic Church. Richardot was unsuccessful that time too. Carr doesn’t mention any of this subsequent history and I don’t fault her for that – after all, her book is about Renée, not Richardot. However, it is interesting to note the connection with later developments.
While the book does not claim to be an academic study, it is still responsibly researched and written. Those who want do further study about Renée will find helpful resources in an annotated bibliography. I can highly recommend it for those with an interest in church history, as well as for church history teachers who might want to provide their students with insight into women’s contributions to the Reformation.