“Go, messieurs; I forgive the past, in consideration of the contrition you have so humbly expressed; and in the firm trust that the great clemency which I this day show towards you, may in time produce a result worthy of faithful and loyal subjects. May God grant this my prayer!" —Jeanne d’Albret
Reflections by Dr. Steve Varvis, former provost and Sr. Vice President and current professor at Fresno Pacific University. Dr. Varvis blogs regularly at The Educated State.
In the complicated and bloody battles of the religious wars in France between the Reformed and Roman Catholic nobility, Jeanne d’Albret stands out as one of the most capable politicians as wells as one of the most dedicated reformers. As Queen of Navarre and mother of the future king of France, Henry IV, once her conversion to Calvinism became public in 1560, she dedicated herself to Henry’s succession to the throne and to the future of freedom of worship and practice for Protestant Christians. When he became king, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598 which granted freedom of worship and protection to Reformed Christians in France.
A young Jeanne d’Albret
Meanwhile In letter after letter to Queen Catherine of France during the 1560s, Jeanne d’Albret pled her loyalty to the King and Queen, and her cause of freedom of worship for Protestant believers. Through the decade her position strengthened and weakened. Her rights, privileges, and properties were lost and won, taken and returned, yet she remained steadfast. She suffered loss and restoration, maintained her loyalty to the crown and its Catholic monarchs, and argued and fought for the legal right to freedom of worship and the practice of Protestant faith. She was one of the great monarchs of the time, astute, persistent, and devout.
In these remarkable words from a speech to Charles, Comte de Luxe, and Valentin Domezain who led a rebellion against her in 1567, she offered forgiveness and clemency to these two who repented. Clementia, or clemency was a ruler’s virtue. Sometimes translated as mercy, it offered forgiveness and a fresh start for the repentant and contrite. (John Calvin’s first publication was an edition of the stoic philosopher, Seneca’s On Clemency.)
As someone who has had the chance to lead in an educational institution, and in churches and other organizations, I look for models of gracious leadership. Battles and conflict, even when not actual wars, are unfortunately part of our experience even in our churches, as they were in the sixteenth (and most other) centuries. Jeanne offers one such example of a gracious leader to me. She was careful in her work, she followed her conscience, yet she recognized that others were doing the same even when they disagreed with her.
I have experienced that disagreement in my work and other leadership roles. Jeanne believed and worshipped within the Reformed tradition which allowed for such differences of opinion and conscience. Jeanne ends with a prayer that those who opposed her will see things her way. Perhaps we all hope this of those with whom we disagree. She forgave in an age when she might have taken vengeance. Perhaps we can follow her example and extend the hand of fellowship to those who have opposed what we believe to be true. Perhaps they, and we, will learn something.
Jeanne did not always pursue reform with the speed and thoroughness with which Calvin and his successor, Theodore Beza, advocated and admonished her. She was independent, as many strong leaders are, carefully managing her way through the many forces that would control her and force her into political corners. In her offer of forgiveness and mercy, she demonstrated what a leader might be in the midst of religious conflict, and was recognized and praised for it. She demonstrated the strength of one who would pursue her conviction, her faith in the Gospel, and showed the same grace and mercy that she understood that God offered to her.
Dr. Steve Varvis is former provost and Sr. Vice President at Fresno Pacific University. Dr. Varvis currently enjoys full time teaching and blogs regularly at The Educated State. This June he will lead a 500th anniversary Reformation Tour.
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