Renée was born in Touraine on 25 October 1510 and was the daughter of Louis XII of France and Anne of Bretagne.
Anne tried to pass Brittany on to her youngest daughter in the hopes of keeping the duchy independent of the French kingdom, however her wishes were ignored and the duchy passed to her eldest daughter, Claude, a move that saw the duchy eventually absorbed into France within a generation. As a reward for renouncing her rights to Bretagne, Renée was granted the duchy of Chartres by her brother-in-law, François I.
In April 1528, Renée married Ercole II, Duke of Ferrara, eldest son of Alfonso I d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia. As a princess of France, Renée continued to receive a generous annual income which she used to cultivate a court of artists and scientists, enabling her to oversee the education of her children. On 31 October 1534, Ercole succeeded to the throne after the death of his father and promptly cleared the French from his court who he felt were far too numerous and extravagant. Renée was saddened by her husband’s actions, particular since it meant she had to say goodbye to many of her friends but worse was to follow when she was accused of being a heretic.
Renée had a lot of sympathy for Protestantism, sheltering John Calvin at her court for a few weeks in 1536, and she and her daughters had taken the Eucharist in the Protestant manner on at least three occasions. In view of the growth in Protestantism, a special court of Inquisition had been set up in Ferrara in 1545 and several execution decrees were carried out between 1550 and 1551. Ercole denounced Renée as a Protestant sympathiser to her nephew, Henri II of France, and she was arrested and her possessions taken from her until she recanted. Renée resisted but when her children were taken away from her, she confessed on 23 September 1554. Although she had yielded, Renée steadfastly refused to take mass or attend any other form of Catholic worship.
On 3 October 1559, Ercole died and Renée was finally free to return to France where she was able to practice her Protestant faith in peace at her estate in Montargis and her castle became a refuge for those who shared her beliefs. Renée’s beliefs once more put her opposition to her family though, as her eldest daughter, Anna, had married François, duc de Guise, who was head of the Catholic League in France. However, François de Guise suffered a setback when his nephew, François II, died and was succeeded by his brother, Charles IX, forcing François into retirement. Charles IX’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, was tolerant of the Protestants but her plans to introduce a policy of concessions infuriated Guise and it wasn’t long before he was waging war once more.
While Renée had been lucky to escape much of the violence, her luck couldn’t hold out forever and eventually her castle was ransacked. Undaunted, Renée continued her work and managed to save many from the massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s when she was in Paris in 1572. The French royal family made repeated attempts to get Renée to recant but she continued to defy them until her death in Montargis on 12 June 1574.
House (birth): House of Valois-Orléans
House (marriage): House of Este
Father: Louis XII of France
Mother: Anne of Bretagne
Born: 25 Oct 1510
Died: 12 Jun 1574
Spouse: Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara
HRH Duchesse de Chartres
25 Oct 1510 – 12 Jun 1574
HRH Duchesse de Ferrara & Modena
31 Oct 1534 – 03 Oct 1559
Born: 16 Nov 1531
Died: 17 May 1607
Spouse 1: François de Lorraine
Spouse 2: Jacques de Savoy
Born: 22 Nov 1533
Died: 27 Oct 1597
Spouse 1: Lucrezia de’ Medici
Spouse 2: Barbara of Austria
Spouse 3: Margherita Gonzaga
Born: 16 Dec 1535
Spouse: Francesco Maria II della Rovere
Born: 21 Dec 1538
Died: 30 Dec 1586