Royal and Noblewomen of the Reformation – An Introduction

Over the last four weeks, this blog has focused on some of the female authors of the Reformation. In some cases, women used writing as a way of contributing to the movement – Argula and Marie are clear examples of this. While for others, their publications are significant because they are the only way we know of their participation – Olympia and Zofia spring to mind. But for both, their works have preserved their names and their legacy as part of the Reformation.

But, we are now going to turn our attention to a group of women remembered by history primarily as wives and mothers, not Reformers – Royal and noblewomen.

These women were born into privilege and as a result, had different (and arguably better) opportunities through which to engage, promote and participate in the Reformation, yet they were not immune from the consequences. Noblewomen remained women subject to male authority. In most of the families, we shall look at the women were Reformers while the male line of the family (you know, the side with the power and authority) remained Catholic. These women were dependant on these men for money, a place in society, a home, access to family, and even the most basic freedom of being able to walk outside. Consequently, the repercussions for supporting the Reformation, as we shall see, were heart-breaking.

Nevertheless, these women used their earthly authority to support the Reformation, from acting as patrons to fighting in wars. They also formed close alliances with other Reformers across the continent – Calvin especially was a frequent correspondent and confidant of French and Italian noblewomen. Through these letters, we can see how much these women were able to do, despite the limitations placed upon their gender and the unique persecution they faced.

These letters also show us how little they were understood. Without an understanding of what life was like for women, even privileged noblewomen, male Reformers could be unsympathetic and even cruel. For example, they often criticised these women for being weak, disappointing, and too concerned with the things of this world. While they did acknowledge the struggles faced by all Reformers, very rarely did they attempt to empathise with the blatant domestic abuse suffered by female Reformers. This is also something which remains overlooked in our discussions of the Reformation today – there are lots of ways to suffer for Christ. In the case of these noblewomen, domestic abuse and separation from children were two of the most popular punishments.

Because more records survive about the Royal and noblewomen of the Reformation, their lives paint a detailed image of the persecution women (and women alone) faced when they defied male authority to support the Reformation. But we should not think of them purely in regard to the abuse they faced – they remained women who used their unique positions of power to support the Reformation, often in isolation, and despite the limitations placed upon their gender.

Image shows: Vittoria Colonna, Italian Noblewoman; Birgitte Gjøe, Danish lady in waiting; Elisabeth of Brandenburg, Regent of the Duchy of Brunswick-Göttingen-Calenberg; Jeanne d’Albret, Queen regnant of Navarre.

2 thoughts on “Royal and Noblewomen of the Reformation – An Introduction

  1. johngracechurch says:

    Yes, Catherine Willoughby and her friendship with Catherine Parr (the first woman to publish a book in English under her own name) are great examples of this and would make a fascinating subject. The former was chosen by Henry to be wife number 7, but said no (always a dangerous thing to do to Henry), and instead became great friends with wife #6; bringing her to a clear understanding of the gospel. The latter became a great queen who guided Henry VIII away from further abuses, chaired privy councils, protected the universities from the fate of the monasteries, and saved Thomas Crammer from being ousted before he could enact his vital reforms.


    1. Caroline says:

      Yes! I’ve never looked into either in that much detail (yet!) but both are going to come up when we look at the English Reformation in a few months – I decided to separate the English Ref from the one in continental Europe just because of the different contexts they happened under.


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