A little girl's dreams: With her friends in frilly dresses, she becomes a beaming princess at her birthday party. She shops with her mother for a princess costume on Halloween. But the real story of a princess rarely fits the fantasy. So it was with Princess Renée of France.

"Had I had a beard I would have been the king of France," she fumed. "I have been defrauded by that confounded Salic Law." Renée was convinced that she was as fully qualified to succeed her father as a male heir.

The Salic laws of the Franks had been codified some 1,000 years earlier. Most often cited was the law excluding females from ascending the throne. Renée would become an important figure in the political and religious wrangling of the 16th century, but not as Queen of France. In fact, she would be the Protestant Reformer John Calvin's leading lady—a strategically positioned woman with influence in both France and Italy.

As much as a contemporary feminist might want to grasp the hand of Renée and make her one of us, she lived in a vastly different world. Hers was at the crossroads between medieval and modern, and hers was a world of royalty with all its refinement as well as its reprehensible rules and customs.

Royal pawn

Born in the autumn of 1510, Renée was a year younger than John Calvin and was less than a week shy of her seventh birthday when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Her father was King Louis XII of France. In many respects, he could be classified as a good king. A devout Catholic, he was known as "the Father of the People" for his tax and legal reforms.

Her mother, Anne the Duchess of Brittany, was a shrewd administrator, ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.