I, Charlotte: The Unglamourous Activist

Activism has so many different connotations these days. It’s considered glamorous to have a cause. A kind of membership into the club of the intellectual elite. The more passionate you sound the more cultured you seem to be. To be causeless is to be shallow. Surely there must be something that you can connect with?  Unless you live under a rock or in the unmapped wilds of the Amazon that is. 

For Charlotte de Bourbon espousing a cause didn’t seem glamorous at all. At least not at this particular moment. Not when she had her finger shoved into a gunshot wound under her husband’s right ear in an attempt to stop the flow of blood.

Nope. Nothing glamorous about that.

There was blood everywhere. On her face. On her hands. On her dress. Beside her, her husband moaned in pain. And she tried her best to keep her hand perfectly still to minimize the discomfort.

Around her, the room was an explosion of sound and fury that signified precious little to her. In her mind’s eye, the entire moment was frozen in time and all she could see was her husband.

In the back of her mind, a little voice mocked her. Surely Charlotte, surely you should have known that it would come to this.

Yes. Perhaps she should have. She should have known it from the moment she decided to marry him. She was a Huguenot activist posing as a runaway nun and he was the most wanted man in Europe. Every single gun in Catholic Europe was trained on the head of William of Orange. She’d decided to marry him anyway. Not because she was foolish or had a death wish but because she believed in what he stood for and wanted to stand with him.

Now he was bleeding to death and all she could do was pray to God that his life would be spared. The Reformation needed champions and Prince William of Orange was one of them. They couldn’t afford to lose him yet. Nor could she.

The steady beat of his heart was like a puppet master’s string, holding Charlotte upright and at attention.

She needed to be brave. And she of all people should know what bravery meant.

“Remember Charlotte” she muttered to herself as she felt the last remnants of her sanity begin to slip away from her. “Remember how to be brave”

The Convent at Jouarre

Scandal.

Not something that a Princess of France wanted to court but not something that she would need to shy away from either.

Charlotte’s young mind handled the word with the same intensity with which it considered the options before her. The Bourbons were no strangers to scandal but the particular kind of scandal she was contemplating could cost her her neck.

It’s Papa’s own fault anyway, she thought somewhat savagely, I begged him to let me stay but he wouldn’t listen.

Her father, Louis de Bourbon, Duke of Montpensier had five daughters.

A Duke with five daughters is in an unenviable position to begin with, but when he happens to be a Duke with financial difficulties as well the situation becomes untenable. He had no choice but to siphon off three of them to convents.

Charlotte, his fourth and possibly feistiest daughter, went kicking and screaming. She was a Huguenot, unbeknownst to her decidedly Catholic father and becoming a nun was the worst form of torture she could imagine.

And it was in the convent at Jouarre that Charlotte stumbled into activism.

When she was forced to take her vows as a nun she submitted a written protest to the Abbess. When they forced her to become the Abbess she sobbed so loud and long at the installation that she couldn’t speak. When she finally came to terms with her plight she started to secretly convert all the nuns in her care to Protestantism.

Charlotte de Bourbon was a determined, unapologetic, activist for the cause of Reform. The most feared brand of Huguenot in France.

A soft tap on the door brought Charlotte to her feet.

“Are you ready?” the young novice on the other side of the door whispered as Charlotte quickly swung open the door.

Stepping out of her room Charlotte shot her a small grin “I’m ready” she said, unable to hide the excitement that was simmering just beneath the surface. She was breaking out of this wretched place and nothing on earth could dampen her spirits. “What did you tell them?”

The young nun eyed Charlotte wearily “I told them we were going to visit some sisters at the Abbey de Notre-Dame and that we would be back in a few days”

Charlotte’s grin widened. They had just bought themselves a free pass outside the Abbey walls. “We can just walk out then?” she asked

“Yes, we can just walk out. But we need to be strategic about where we will go. They will begin to search for us in the next day or so for sure”

“We will go to my sister” Charlotte bit her lip pensively “in Bouillon”

“Are you sure? Won’t your father track us down there?”

Charlotte hesitated. Her friend was right. Her father would be incensed when he heard about her defection. “Let’s go to my sister first,” she said slowly “and then we can proceed from there; we will need to find shelter fairly soon and my sister is our best bet at the moment”

“Alright” the young nun nodded “to the Duchess of Bouillon we go”

The Bleak House of the Present

Charlotte’s mind raced back along the years willing herself to remember, not just her own courage but the faithfulness of God in preserving her and providing for her. From her sister in Bouillon, she had fled to Frederick III, Elector of the Palatinate. And she had found the most amazing refuge there. He had welcomed her to his court with open arms and there she had found the courage to publicly renounce Catholicism and embrace Protestantism.

Her father had been enraged. The news of her public defection had spread throughout France like wildfire. A Catholic Princess of the realm had openly chosen to side with the Huguenots. She had defected at the worst possible time as well, right in the middle of the Wars of Religion, right when the Catholic forces were being thwarted by the brilliant military strategy of Admiral de Coligny.

It had caused a scandal just as she had foreseen.

Her father demanded that Frederick III give her up into his custody. Frederick refused. And Charlotte blatantly refused to go.

That move had added insult to injury. And then it had all gotten worse.

She had met William. As passionate and dedicated to the cause of Protestantism as she was and plagued by the dangerous realities of activism to boot. He had a bounty on his head courtesy of Philip II of Spain.

She married him anyway and here she was. Bending over him with her finger stuck in a bullet hole in his neck.

The realities of 16th-century Protestant activism were gruesome and difficult. It was not something you courted for its glamour or prestige. Protestantism was something you embraced because you fell in love with God and his word. It was something you persistently espoused amid a rain of fire and bullets because your love for God far outweighed your love for anything else.

16th Century Protestant activism was a love story with none of the sentimentalism of a modern romance. It was deep, abiding, enduring and at its most glorious, deeply sacrificial.

Charlotte’s eyes flew open and she struggled against the rising tide of hysteria that was threatening to engulf her.

A few days ago her husband, Prince William of Orange, had been shot at point-blank range by a Jesuit priest named De Jauregui. The man had been killed immediately by William’s guards.

The bullet had entered his skull just underneath his right ear, passed through his palate and exited via his left cheek. It had also grazed his jugular, cauterizing it.

The scab had fallen off the jugular this morning and the bleeding had surged to life again. In desperation, Charlotte had put her finger into the open wound to try to stop the flow.

Charlotte’s mind slowly began to register the flurry of activity around her and she noticed her husband’s personal physician bending over him.

“Is he…? Charlotte’s voice faltered

The Doctor shook his head “No…the pressure has helped to stop the flow of the blood…I believe the worst is over”

Further Reading and Citations

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism
  • VanDoodewaard, R. (2017) – Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.