Born on November 16, 1528, to Marguerite of Angoulême and King Henry II of Navarre, Jeanne d’Albret would eventually become not only an important historical figure in general in her role as the spiritual and political leader of the Protestant Huguenots but also a major personality in Basque history for introducing the Protestant faith into the Basque Country and sponsoring the publication of a key text in the Basque language. Besides all this, she also stands out for being a strong, forthright woman leader of a significant sixteenth-century European power, the Kingdom of Navarre.
Jeanne married Antoine de Bourbon, the Duke of Vendôme, in 1548 and, on Henry II’s death in 1555, they were crowned joint rulers of Navarre. Influenced by her mother, she had taken an early interest in humanism and individual liberty, which led ultimately to her conversion to Calvinism in 1560. Jeanne d’Albert was a hands-on ruler, with a sharp intellect and a conviction in her beliefs. As Queen of Navarre between 1555 and 1572 (and Queen Regnant on the death of her husband in 1562), as well as carrying out a series of important economic and judicial reforms, she made Calvinism the official religion of her territories. To this end, she commissioned the priest and Protestant-convert Joannes Leizarraga (1506-1601), himself a central figure in Basque letters and one of the first people to attempt to create a standardized version of the Basque language, to translate the New Testament into Basque. This was eventually published under the title Iesus Christ Gure Iaunaren Testamentu Berria (The New Testament of Jesus Christ our Lord) in 1571.
Her attempts to instill Calvinism in her lands led to a series of religious wars throughout the 1560s, during which her husband Antoine was fatally wounded in 1562, with pressure applied on her by the surrounding Catholic monarchs, Charles IX of France and Philip II of Spain. These wars culminated in the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1570), whereby hostilities would end, Jeanne’s son, Henry, would marry the French King Charles IX’s Catholic sister Marguerite, and the Protestant Huguenots would have the right to hold public office in France, a privilege which they had previously been denied. Jeanne died in June 1572, two months before her son’s marriage. On her death, he became King Henry III of Navarre; and in 1589 he ascended the French throne as Henry IV, founding the Bourbon royal house that came to dominate both France and, ultimately, Spain.
Jeanne d’Albret left her mark on Basque history in many ways. She ranks as a strong-willed ruler with a clear vision of how she wanted to reform the society over which she ruled. She held strong humanist values that championed individual freedom and she did all she could to try and instill those values on those around her. And, it should be remembered, she was responsible for commissioning one of the most important historical publications in and contributions to the development of the Basque language.
In The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre: Their History and Their Traditions, Philippe Veyrin discusses the impact of Jeanne d’Albret, especially with regard to her religious reform, at length.