In the spring of 1536, a young French refugee arrived at the court of the duke of Ferrara, an Italian prince. Though the duke was a staunch Roman Catholic, the young Frenchman who entered his gates was seeking refuge. He sought refuge from the storms of religious persecution driving him from his homeland. Would he find it in the Catholic lands of a Catholic prince in the heart of papal Italy? Astonishingly, he would, because of the faithful labors of a single woman—Renée of France, wife of the duke of Ferrara.
The Elementary Principles Of The Reformation
A woman of royal heritage, Renée was born at the Castle of Blois on October 29, 1510. As a daughter of King Louis XII of France, she was raised in the court of royalty. Also, from earliest infancy, she was engulfed in the teachings of Roman Catholicism. Yet, during her childhood and young adult years she spent much time with Marguerite, sister of Francis I. From her association with this godly woman, Renée learned the elementary principles of the Reformation and the truth of the Gospel and fully embraced them with her young heart.
At seventeen years of age, Renée married Ercole of Este, the duke of Ferrara (located in Italy). Because the match was one of political expediency, Renée had no say in the matter. Thus, this young Protestant became the wife of a Roman Catholic prince.
Moving to Ferrara in 1528 with her husband, one might have assumed that Renée would languish in despair. But, to the contrary, she used her new situation to further the work of her Lord’s Kingdom. At her departure from France, she brought with her French men and women who—like herself—secretly clung to the truths of Scripture as expounded by Luther and other early Reformers. Under Renée’s protection, the Catholic court at Ferrara soon became a sanctuary for Huguenot refugees forced to flee France because of the fires of religious persecution. So, in the heart of Roman Catholic Italy, God prepared an island of freedom where the light of His Gospel shone secretly but purely. Truly His ways are beyond man’s understanding.
A Sanctuary From The Inquisition
The dawn of the Protestant day was breaking around the very throne of the Pope. From the city of Ferrara in the north, where the daughter of Louis XII sheltered in her palace the disciples of the Gospel, to the ancient Parthenope, the light was breaking in clearness and fullness. This light gave promise that in proportion to the depth of the previous darkness, so would be the splendors of the coming day.
Renée was ever on the watch for like-minded individuals fleeing religious persecution and the fires of the Inquisition. She penned numerous letters inviting threatened countrymen to escape Catholic France to the safety of her sanctuary at Ferrara. Additionally, even though her husband worked assiduously to stamp out what he deemed the noxious fumes and wicked fires of heresy she was fostering, for many years the Reformation flourished in the small confines of her court.
Despite the labors of Renée’s husband, in the spring of 1536, yet another French refugee sought a haven at her court. Known as Charles d’Espeville, the twenty-seven-year-old Frenchman slipped quietly into the small family of religious outcasts. Despite his young age, Renée was astonished at the man’s wisdom and learning. Historian Jean-Henri Merle D’Aubigne writes: “Charles d’Espeville was a man of humble appearance: his eyes were lively and piercing, his manner serious and firm, and everything in him indicated a soul of a different stamp.”
Teaching The Reformation In Catholic Italy
Renée presented young d’Espeville to her husband as a man of letters—which he certainly was. That he was also a “Lutheran” and a Reformer Renée did not mention.
While at Ferrara, d’Espeville instructed Renée in the truths of Scripture. Though she possessed an elementary understanding of the Faith, she desired a deeper knowledge of the truth. This she received from the young French refugee. With joy, Renée drank deeply from the waters of salvation as she thanked her Lord for raising up such steadfast and brave teachers as young d’Espeville. Remarkably, he had dared to preach the truth of the Word even in the depths of Catholic Italy.
Charles d’Espeville found a refreshing haven in the home of Renée, but he did not long remain there. His labors called him elsewhere, and in the summer of 1536 he left Italy and soon afterward entered Switzerland. There he would perform his greatest work. Because of the dangers of arrest, Charles had traveled to Renée’s court under an assumed name. After his departure from Italy he resumed his given name. It is a name that many people have known and revered for untold generations: John Calvin.
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Renée And Her Quiet Labors Building The Kingdom Of God
The quiet labors of Renée might appear insignificant at first glance. She did no more than open her home to fellow Christians seeking safety and rest. In fact, one could easily downplay her part in God’s glorious Reformation. Nevertheless, who can begin to measure the extent of her influence and the fruits of her humble labors?
Though she was only one of “thousands and thousands, humble in station but elevated in character, spread over all countries,” yet Renée was faithful in the sphere in which God placed her. Moreover, in being faithful, she was blessed with wondrous blessings indeed. Here, in her Italian courts where the darkness of papal superstition was perhaps at its greatest, she enjoyed the untold blessing of ministering to and receiving the Godly friendship and instruction of countless fellow Reformers who found sanctuary with her.
And thus the Church was built, one stone at a time. “Here a little, there a little,” (Isa. 28:10) as God called His laborers to join together in the glorious work of the extension of His kingdom.
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You may also consider reading another Live The Adventure Letter article: Jacques Lefèvre: The Courageous Man Who Quietly Sowed The Seeds Of The French Reformation
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J. A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, Volume Two (London, 1883), 423. J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, Volume V (New York, 1869), 421. Wylie, History of Protestantism, Volume Two, 319.