Éléonore Desmier d’Olbreuse, French Huguenot (French Reformed) and member of the gentry of France provided a haven for other French Reformed Christians during the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. When the notable French reformers like Calvin and Farel fled Paris, they left many people behind them who furthered the cause of the Reformation. Éléonore Desmier d’Olbreuese stands as a testament to the children of those who were left behind and one who did all they could to further the Protestant cause.
Born to a Protestant Huguenot family on January 3rd 1639 near Poitou, France, Éléonore Desmier d’Olbreuse had a privileged life. She frequented the royal court at Paris as a lady in waiting and grew up surrounded by not only the intrigue of French politics and courtship, but also a vibrant reforming community. (Mckee and Vigne) The Edict of Nantes of 1598 gave reformed Protestants in France freedom to practice a reformed religion how they saw fit and granted a time of toleration, at least in the form of public proclamation. She met her husband, an eligible bachelor prince George William (Georg Wilhelm), Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Celle in 1644 on a trip to Kassel (modern Germany). They had a very happy marriage and Éléonore resided at Celle and was henceforth spared the persecutions that most of the French would endure. The Catholics had resolved to strike back. Despite the edict, persecution came with a vengeance.
Just when France seemed that it could become a reformed country the Edict of Fontainebleau shook the foundations of French Protestantism on October 22, 1685. Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and Éléonore and her husband’s faith became illegal in France. Toleration had been crumbling for years and it came to a head. Protestant churches were burned to the ground and Huguenots were given the choice of converting to Catholicism or fleeing. Huguenot historians Rebecca Jane McKee and Randolph Vigne recount that “Around 1660 there were between 77,000 and 80,000 members of the French Reformed Church in Poitou [where Éléonore grew up]. However, the dragonnades, which started in 1681, resulted in the forced conversion of around 39,000 Huguenots to Catholicism and in the mass emigration from Poitou.” (The Huguenots 69) The Huguenot diaspora erupted, Thankfully a noble lady was willing to open her arms.
Éléonore Desmier d’Olbreuse, with great courage, created a haven for Huguenot refugees. She and her husband used their power and influence to house the fleeing refugees in their holdings in Celle. McKee and Vigne relate that, “Henri Tollin wrote: ‘Éléonore’s palace in Celle was like the Château d’Olbreuse in Poitou –an ark to save the drowning.’ On 7 August 1684 Duke George Wilhelm promulgated an edict offering refuge and protection in the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Celle to members of the reformed faith…an invitation to the Dissenters who were being persecuted in England…[and] an offer of privileges for Huguenots.” (The Huguenots 69) Among those that came to Celle were those from the area where Éléonore grew up. Andrew Thompson remarks that “About a third of the Huguenots at Celle came from this area of France [Poitou]” (Britain, Hanover and the Protestant Interest, 1688-1756, 50) Both Éléonore and her husband George provided a safe haven that gave safety to those who were being slaughtered by the hundreds and thousands.
The Duchess worked tirelessly as a protector of Protestants and the activities that she spearheaded were many. Celle featured a vibrant French Reformed Congregation. These French expatriate Huguenots built a new life in Lower Saxony as a result of the Duchess’ care. According to McKee and Vigne, the Duchess “took a keen interest in the fate of the poor refugees in Celle. In 1689 she rented a building known as the ‘maison fracaise’ which served for a short time as a poorhouse, hospital, and hostel.” In addition, “She supported a home in Haarlem in the Netherlands for unmarried noble [Huguenot] ladies who had fled from France.” (The Huguenots 69). As a result of her actions, Huguenots dedicated books in her honor and her name went down in history. (The Huguenots 69) Éléonore Desmier d’Olbreuse stands as a prime example of women who helped to aid and support the reformation by providing for those fleeing mass persecution.
Mckee, Rebecca Jane and Randolph Vigne. The Huguenots: France, Exile, and Diaspora. (Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2013). Available via Google Books.
Thompson, Andrew C. Britain. Hanover and the Protestant Interest, 1688-1756. Rochester: The Boydell Press, 2006). Available via Google Books.