Jeanne d'Albret
Jeanne d'Albret was a key leader in the Huguenot party in France during the 16th century. Her son Henry of Navarre became one of the most important kings in the history of France (although Henry abandoned his mother's Protestantism to assume the throne).

Jeanne d'Albret was brought up and educated by her mother in Normandy until the age of ten. Jeanne was married at fourteen to the Duke of Cleves. She did not want to marry him so she had to be carried kicking and screaming to the altar. The marriage was annulled before it was consummated.

In 1548 Jeanne married Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome. Letters show that it was a playful and loving relationship though he was not faithful. Antoine was a member of the House of Bourbon which would succeed to the French throne under Salic Law  if the ruling family, the House of Valois, produced no male heirs.

In 1555, Jeanne's father died, and Jeanne became ruler of Navarre in her own right, Antoine becoming titular king-consort of Navarre. Thus she is also known as Jeanne of Navarre. Jeanne declared, on Christmas of 1560, her conversion to Calvinism. This confession came just a few weeks after France's King Henry II died and the pro-Catholic House of Guise was weakened.

Antoine, too, seemed to to lean towards Calvinism. Then Antoine was offered Sardinia by the King of Spain if he remained Catholic. Jeanne, however, remained an avid supporter of Calvinists in France (also known as Huguenots).

The Massacre at Vassy
On 1 March 1562, Francis, the second Duke of Guise, ttravelling to his estates, stopped in Wassy (Vassy) and decided to attend Mass. He found a large congregation of Huguenots holding religious ceremonies in a barn that was their church. Some of the duke's party attempted to push their way inside and were repulsed. Events escalated, stones began to fly, and the Duke was struck. Outraged, he ordered his men to fortify the town and set fire to the church, killing 63 unarmed Huguenots and wounding over a hundred. The massacre provoked open hostility between Catholics and Protestants. The Vassy Massacre (presented below) was the first conflict of the French Wars of Religion which were to last for more than a century.

With the Massacre at Vassy, France became more polarized on the religious division, and so did the family of Antoine and Jeanne. Antoine imprisoned Jeanne over her religious views and threatened divorce. They fought over the religious education of their eight year old son, Henry. Jeanne left Paris in 1562, for Vendome, where Huguenots rioted and targeted the church and destroyed Bourbon tombs. Jeanne regretted this violence but remained supportive of Protestantism.

War between the two groups continued: the Duke of Guise, a Catholic, was assassinated. Antoine died after being part of the Catholic forces besieging the Protestant controlled town of Rouen. Jeanne assumed sole rulership of Bearn while her son Henry was held at the court of the French king as a hostage.

In 1561, Jeanne issued an edict which put Protestantism on an equal footing with the Roman church. While she tried to establish peaceful tolerance in her own domain, she found herself more and more involved in the French civil war, opposing the Guise family.

When Cardinal d'Armagnac was unable to persuade Jeanne to forsake her Protestant path, Philip of Spain planned to kidnap Jeanne so she could be subjected to the Inquisition. The plot failed.

Then the Pope demanded that Jeanne appear in Rome or forfeit her lands. But neither Catherine de Medici (the queen of France) nor King Philip of Spain supported this papal power play. In 1564 Jeanne expanded religious liberty for Huguenots. At the same time she went to court, seeking to maintain her relationship with Catherine, and one result was regaining contact with her son Henry. Henry returned returned to his mother's care at age 13 and was given a Protestant education and military training under Jeanne's direction.