1500s,  Huguenot,  Mistress

The unsung architects of the Edict of Nantes (yes, they were women)

The Unsung (Female) Architects of the Edict of Nantes.

If you have Huguenot ancestry, or if you’ve studied 16th French history, you’ve no doubt heard of the Edict of Nantes, which Henry IV of France promulgated on this day in 1588. Henry is celebrated by historians for being pragmatic and good natured enough to unite the Protestant and Catholic factions of France after a century of bloody religious warfare, which led to the proclamation that French Protestants would be hereafter be given equal rights as Catholics under French law.

While that’s essentially true, the official story handed down by scholars leaves out two essential figures who shepherded the Edict through the hard line Catholic and Protestant holdouts and enabled Henry’s new edict to become law. And wouldn’t you know it, both of those individuals were women.

The first had an illustrious genealogy equal to Henry, which isn’t surprising since she was his younger sister, Catherine (first and second pictures). She was no stranger to politics, having served as Regent of Navarre for Henry during his absences as a hostage at French court and during his almost decade long fight to secure the French crown.

Catherine de Bourbon
Catherine de Bourbon, Princess of Navarre

Catherine de Bourbon

Catherine de Bourbon, Princess of Navarre

Catherine had a good incentive to help Henry’s decree giving Protestant equal status and rights to worship pass into law. Catherine was deeply in love with their distant cousin, the Count of Soissons, a man who had in the past conspired against Henry. While Henry was famous for forgiving a good uprising against him, in this case, he wasn’t inclined to be merciful to Soissons. As a Princess of Navarre, Catherine had been betrothed to just about everyone in Europe, but she wanted to marry for love just as their own mother had done.

Like her mother, Catherine was a devoted Protestant, and while it’s easy to assume she thought Gabrielle d’ Estrees, a mistress of her married brother was morally beneath her, in fact the two women got along very well. After they met in person in 1593, the two women started corresponding as close friends and colleagues until Gabrielle’s tragic death in 1599. An outsider initially at the Catholic French court, Catherine was shrewd enough to know she needed an ally to secure her marriage. She found one in Gabrielle.

Henry named these two women, those closest to him, to the Royal Council, and deployed them as his secret weapon in winning over any Protestants or Catholics who would oppose the ratification of the Edict of Nantes. Determined as she was to prove a loyal and indispensable sister to Henry, Catherine held constant meetings with Protestant lords at the Tuileries, assuring them that any pro-Catholic provision in the Edict (such as outlawing Protestant worship in cities governed by Catholic League members) weren’t fatal flaw in the edict. Most Protestant lords who had fought with Henry since he was a teenager assumed that his conversion to Catholicism was a smokescreen and that in his heart he remained a Protestant like them.

why did i get this?

A lifelong Catholic, Gabrielle had a far more difficult job to do. Not only was she a royal mistress, in the first years of her relationship with Henry, he had openly chastised her for her laziness. Few expected much from the king’s concubine, and few wanted to listen to her. As Gabrielle matured and became a mother, however she gained skills as successful negotiator. She routinely reminded the Catholic lords she met with at her Hotel Particular in Paris that she had convinced the Pope to accept Henry’s conversion to Catholicism was sincere. A woman who had the Pope’s ear was difficult to dismiss.

Gabrielle had more tools in her arsenal. For one, France and Spain had recently signed a peace treaty, leaving the French army with little to do other than occupy the lands of a Catholic reluctant to obey the king’s edict. But Gabrielle sweetened the deal further; with a new king in Paris, there were plenty of posts to go around, and while Catholics would have to give up many in favor of the Protestant newcomers, Gabrielle assured them that there would be plenty available for loyal Catholics. Furthermore, she reminded the Catholics that if they Protestants were offered posts in the government and free worship, they’d have little reason to continually make war on the Catholics.

Diplomacy wasn’t easy for either woman. Gabrielle gave birth to her third child while campaigning for the Edict, and both undertook a trip to a former hotbed of rebellion, Brittany, to talk with any lord who would not meet with them in Paris. This gave Henry the impression that the way was easy for them, and he wrote glowing letters about his sister and mistress. As Henry sent his own letters, Gabrielle sent her own to Catherine, expressing her fear that the Edict would never happen despite their best efforts.

In the end, the Edict was ratified, even in staunchly rebellious Paris, and Gabrielle was on her way to becoming queen following Henry’s divorce, while Catherine held out hope that Henry would bless her marriage as a reward for her efforts.