Catherine de Bourbon: Steadfast in Oppression

Born in Paris on February 7, 1559, Catherine de Bourbon, “princess of the blood” of France’s royal line, entered a world in turmoil. 

As the Huguenot (French Calvinist) church grew, Roman Catholic authorities hounded Protestant pastors and suppressed Protestant meetings. In the 1560s, these tensions erupted into civil wars that left hundreds of thousands dead.

Catherine’s alcoholic father died before she was a year old, giving Catherine’s faithful mother, Jeanne, full control of her upbringing. As Queen of Navarre (a safe haven for Protestants in between France and Spain), Jeanne ruled her small country with skill and will. 

Jeanne raised Catherine to love the Lord and serve the church, putting the reformer Theodore Beza in charge of her education. Yet Jeanne’s Protestant faith cost her dearly. Her son, Henri, was taken away and raised as a Catholic by the French royal family. Catherine was almost 8 when Jeanne took back custody of Henri. Reunited, Catherine developed a deep affection for her brother that lasted for life.

In 1572, Jeanne went to Paris to negotiate a marriage for Henri. But long-term effects of stress and poor health combined to end Jeanne’s life in Paris. On her deathbed, she left a message for Catherine, urging her “to stand firm and constant in God’s service despite her extreme youth.” She also insisted that “her daughter the princess be constantly instructed in [the fear of God and knowledge of the gospel] and . . . to marry a prince of the same religion.”

Catherine was just 13 years old.

Devout Under Pressure

Jeanne’s wishes were ignored, and both Catherine and Henri were kept in Paris. The king forced Henri, also representing his sister, to recant Protestantism. Catherine was put under the charge of a Roman Catholic tutor who worked to influence his student. But the young teenager stood her theological ground.  

Henri eventually escaped the French court, returning to rule Navarre. Catherine returned home four years later and renounced Roman Catholicism, making a public profession of her Protestant faith. By the age of 17, Catherine served as regent for Henri, who left Navarre to establish his right of succession to the French throne through war. 

At home, Catherine managed troops, money, and political connections. She also welcomed people fleeing persecution and granted asylum to French and Spanish, Protestant and Catholic refugees. Despite suffering from migraines—the worst lasting for months—Catherine managed to translate the Psalms into the common language. 

In 1589, Henri became king of France, giving up Protestantism because “Paris is worth a Mass.” Henri placed Catherine under sustained duress to renounce Protestantism. Still, she “remained a devout Calvinist.” 

Despite suffering from migraines—the worst lasting for months—Catherine managed to translate the Psalms into the common language.

Hope in God’s Character

Firm in her faith, Catherine interceded for other Protestants under persecution, opening her Paris residence as a Huguenot meeting place. As a result, she was verbally abused from Catholic pulpits, threatened by mobs, and lied about in the press. 

In 1592, Henri discovered that Catherine was engaged secretly to a Protestant cousin, Charles de Bourbon. Enraged, he arrested Charles and put Catherine under house arrest. Henri then pushed Catherine to choose Henri de Lorraine, a prominent and politically dependable, Roman Catholic duke. Catherine refused on religious grounds. But Henri saw that this marriage would facilitate a political treaty and necessitate her conversion.

Sickness and stress turned Catherine to writing poetry and corresponding with Beza who became her spiritual mentor once again. Her poems and letters make it clear that Catherine’s knowledge of God’s character was the predominant spiritual reality that gave her perspective and the ability to remain steadfast under human attacks. 

Her amazement at God’s grace to her kept her persecution in perspective: “I hope in your goodness, not in my innocence.” This conviction did not stop the pain but gave her strength to endure.

Catherine’s knowledge of God’s character was the predominant spiritual reality that gave her perspective and the ability to remain steadfast under human attacks.

Treaty and Betrayal

Sister stood up to brother for years until 1597, when Catherine finally agreed to the marriage. But negotiations with the groom’s family and the pope pushed the wedding back.

During the delays, in 1598, Catherine gave France a lasting gift. Henri gave his sister the job of convincing cardinals and bishops to support the Edict of Nantes, a religious freedom treaty. Thanks to Catherine’s negotiations, the edict became law. The civil wars were over. For more than nine decades, French Protestants would practice their faith with legal protection.

Catherine then married de Lorraine. Henri promised that if she did, she would no longer be under pressure to convert. But shortly after the wedding, de Lorraine worked with the king to isolate his bride, dismissing her Protestant ladies-in-waiting and replacing her Huguenot pastor with priests. Catherine was devastated: “Have pity on a little sister. . . . I can bear everything else, but this reduces me to despair.”

Perseverance amid Grief

Then, in the summer of 1599, at 40 years old, Catherine suffered a miscarriage. Tense relationships, isolation, poor health, and the grief of infertility combined to make life unwelcome for Catherine: “I swear before God that I wish for death a thousand times a day.” 

Yet more than anything, Catherine’s trust in God’s goodness—that God was good and would do good—sustained her. In the fall of 1599, Catherine wrote to Beza that she had endured many “assaults, but God has always strengthened me. I hope he will give me the grace to complete my race for his glory and my salvation.” 

In 1604, Catherine thought she was expecting again. Sick with tuberculosis, she would take no medical help in case it hurt the baby. But the growth was an abdominal tumor that ended her life on February 13 of that year. She never realized what was really happening and died begging the doctors to save her child. Henri did not attend her funeral. Her body was buried beside her mother.

Catherine’s trust in God’s goodness—that God was good and would do good—sustained her.

Lessons from the Faithful

What can we learn about steadfast endurance from Catherine de Bourbon? At least two things:

  • Trust God’s purpose in your positions of influence. Catherine used her political position to protect her people, even at risk to herself. Read Esther 4:12–16. In what areas of life does Jesus want you to move toward discomfort for the sake of his people?
  • Trust God’s goodness through suffering. Catherine steadfastly trusted God’s goodness to her, despite outward circumstances. Read Matthew 26:36–42. How does trust in God’s goodness make us able to pray, “Not my will, but yours be done”?