Sunday, 11 March 2012

Renee de France: model of resistance

Totalitarianism (a 'police state') destroys freedom of religion and religious practice. It is a deep stain upon any society,  an evil that Europe has faced many times. European history tells us that the patient, robust and often heroic resistance of those whose orthodoxy the prevailing culture cannot 'control', will defeat the forces of intolerance - but sacrifice is involved.  Today, there is a 'neo-pagan' culture, in some ways similar to that of the ancient Hellenistic world into which Christianity was first preached.

A fine example of resistance and courage in the face of a refusal to respect the freedom of the Christian religion is Renee de France.

A royal French Renaissance princess orphaned at four, she intimately knew Anne Boleyn and shared training with her. The French court at that time was influenced by the Reformation. In later life, Renee spoke about Anne Boleyn to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, ambassador to Elizabeth 1st.

Once married to an Italian Duke, she tried to nurture the Reformation and its literature as Duchess of Ferrara. If she had been successful, she would have influenced the whole future history of Italy and saved thousands of martyrs from the stake since Northern Italy had a strong tendency towards the Reformation. There still exists a "Chapel of Renee de France" in Ferrara.

At the Ducal palace, which still stands, Renee nurtured influential men and women of thought and letters in Europe: people like Bernardo Tasso (poet translated into English by contemporaries of Shakespeare), Clément Marot (lyricist of the Geneva Psalms), John Calvin (theologian), Rabelais(writer), Vittorio Colonna (female friend of Castiglione) and the great preacher Bernardino Ochino. The Italian reformer Ochino, later fled to England to influence the foundation of The Church of England. He preached before the court of Edward VI and became Prebendary of Canterbury.

However, the political machine in Italy soon crushed her. It banned the reformers from Court, took away her children and 're-educated' them in a convent. Outwardly, Renee had to conform, but her spirit and religion was not under the control of the authorities. When her illiberal husband died and she was able to return, in 1559, to her own town Montargis in North East France, and turned it into a 'safehouse' helping persecuted Huguenots (Protestants) flee to a new life, in free England.  Her operation was called 'The Lord's Hotel'.  William Shakespeare, lodging with the Huguenots in London 25 years later, would have known about her exploits. Renee's activism influenced whole generations of English women.

Since the time of Elizabeth 1st,  England has not 'made windows into men's souls' in relation to religion.  Elizabeth initiated this principle which led to the concept of religious freedom. She also put in place a common prayer book, which adheres to the theology of the Bible, not to superficial man-centred theology which waters down Christianity and, thereby, destroys its efficacy and power. Respect for freedom of religion as taught in the Bible has been a mark of what it is 'to be British' for centuries.

Renee's story below demonstrates, among myriads of similar stories, that Christianity and Christian women, have a strong record of resistance and activism in the face of religious persecution.

For further information, see:

Women of the Reformation: Renee de France  
Notes on Renee de France

R.M. Warnicke's The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII, (Cambridge University Press, 1989). This contains a conversation in the 1560s between Renée de France and English diplomat, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, during which Renée de France speaks admiringly about Anne Boleyn.

Engraving of Chateau de Montargis 
Montargis - ancient town of canals - some photos 

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