Henri IV, Roi de France et de Navarre

Henri IV aka Henri Quatre aka Henri de Navarre aka le Bon Roi Henri, the grandfather of Louis XIV, was the first Bourbon King of France. Before the crown was placed on Henri’s head, France was ruled by the Valois for many generations, but they ran out of male heirs…


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Henri IV at the age of four.

This future King of France was born on the night from 12 to 13 December in 1553, some say 14 December, in Pau, back then the capital of the souveraineté de Béarn. He was the second son of Jeanne d’Albret and her catholic hubby Antoine de Bourbon, Duc de Vendôme. It was Jeanne’s second marriage and her first did not go well at all.

Jeanne was the only surviving child of Henri II de Navarre, King of Navarre, and forced the French King François Ier to marry William of Jülich-Cleves-Berge, the brother of English Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves, as she was only twelve years old. Jeanne did a lot of protesting, also in written form (“I, Jeanne de Navarre, persisting in the protestations I have already made, do hereby again affirm and protest by these present, that the marriage which it is desired to contract between the duke of Cleves and myself, is against my will; that I have never consented to it, nor will consent…”), but it was in vain. The marriage however just lasted four years, after which it was annulled for political reasons.

She remained at the French court and, after the death of François Ier, married Antoine de Bourbon, for whom she had quite passionate feelings apparently. Their first child, a boy also named Henri, was born in 1551 and died in 1553, the year the second Henri was born. Jeanne and Antoine had five children together, but only the future King of France and his sister Catherine , who became Duchesse de Lorraine, reached adulthood. (So many Henri’s…)

Henri’s grandpapa was eager for a male heir and apparently as soon as baby Henri was born, he was wrapped up cosily and handed to the proud grandpa, who gave him something called a baptême béarnais. It consisted of baby Henri’s lips being rubbed with pod and the inhaling of garlic and a the scent of wine from a cup, which apparently ought to prevent illness and was a common practise done with newborns. Baby Henri also got a very special crib from his grandpa… it was the shell of a large turtle, which one can still behold today in the Henri IV room at the chateau de Pau. As oldest Prince of the Royal House of Navarre, Henri received the title Prince de Viane.

Grandpa Henri is said to have not trusted his daughter with bringing up baby Henri and thus planned to oversee the boy’s education himself. He was also one of the godfathers, along with Henri II of France, at baby Henri’s, hence the name, baptism on 6 March in 1554. Baby Henri was baptised a catholic, but would later be educated and brought up as a protestant. Navarre was a bit of a safe-haven for protestants, who were threatened with prison, torture and death in France. Henri’s mother was quite fond of the protestant ideas…

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Henri de Navarre, portrait au crayon dessiné par Pierre Dumonstier, 1568. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Grandpa Henri could not enforce his master-plan of educating baby Henri, for he died in 1555. Jeanne and Antoine became the new rulers of Navarre. Baby Henri was instead placed into the care of his aunt Suzanne de Bourbon-Busset at the château de Coarraze. His upbringing there was not quite royal at all. He spent plenty of time with the common folk, with peasants, always close to the people, always outside, adventuring and hunting.

Little Henri also visited the French court at times, for example for the marriage of the future Mary, Queen of Scots, and François II. In matters of religion, his papa wanted Henri to be educated in the catholic spirit, while his mother preferred Calvinism and had it declared to be the official religion of Navarre.

Then the First War of Religion (1562-1563) happened. For his own security, Henri was placed into the care of Renée de France at Montargis… and was forced to stay there after the whole thing was over. His father, Antoine, fought on the catholic side and died due to a wound he received. It was all quite messy and complicated… (Like many other things during this time.) Antoine had been named lieutenant general of France by Catherine de Médicis, while she was Regent for her son Charles IX, in 1561. Both Jeanne and Antoine went to France to live there, but then Jeanne, as ruling Reine de Navarre, allowed the Huguenots to sack the chapel of Vendôme and the churches of the town in 1562. Antoine, who was quite vain and unstable, threatened to send her to a convent for it. Jeanne fled to Béarn. Antoine, who had spent pretty much the majority of his life with fighting for the catholic France, died. Little Henri remained with the french relatives.

Jeanne asked Catherine de Médicis to take care of her son’s education and Catherine de Médicis made sure all those strange protestant ideas in the boy’s head were swiftly erased and replaced with proper catholic ones. During this time, on 17 October 1564, at the château de Empéri, Nostradamus apparently stepped into the bedchamber of the young Henri and told him that Henri would be the one to unite the crowns of France and Navarre one day. Henri did not see Navarre or his mother for two years, until, as he had to accompany Charles IX on his Grand tour de France, Jeanne took the chance and demanded the return of her son. Mother and son were reunited in 1567 and settled at Béarn… where the catholic ideas were once again replaced with protestant ideas. (Imagine how confusing this must have been.)

The following year, Henri participated as an observer his first military campaign and continued his learning of how-to-war during the Third War of Religion (1568–70), with Admiral de Coligny as tutor, at the battles of Jarnac, La Roche-l’Abeille and Moncontour. Henri stepped on the field of battle himself for the first time in 1570 at the battle of Arnay-le-Duc.

Jeanne d’Albret, reine de Navarre

The Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye ended the Third War of Religion and in order to really establish a lasting peace, the idea of a rather unusual marriage was brought forward. The protestant Henri ought to marry the catholic Marguerite de Valois aka Margot, sister of the current King Charles IX. Suggesting a match between the two was not what was unusual about it, that both were of a different religion was the unusual thing. Queen Jeanne and Catherine de Médicis met at Chenonceaux to discuss the matter. Apparently, according to Jeanne, the atmosphere there was rather corrupt and vicious. She also complained of how easy-going and flirty the French girls were. Margot was rumoured to have an affair with Henri I de Lorraine, Duc de Guise.

All in all, Jeanne was not entirely happy, but she and Catherine agreed on terms for a marriage. The contract was signed, Jeanne moved to Paris, went on long shopping-sprees for her son’s wedding, seemed to be very exhausted on some days. Two months before the wedding took place, Jeanne returned home from another shopping-spree and felt rather ill. The morning, she had a fever and an ache in the upper right-hand side of her body. She died five days later, on 9 June 1572.

Henri de Navarre became King Henri III of Navarre upon the death of his mother. Talk had it for long years, and some still believe it today, that Catherine de Médicis poisoned Jeanne by means of a pair of perfumed gloves.

The new King of Navarre travelled to Paris for his wedding and found the city to have a strange atmosphere. Lots of people were in town for the wedding, also lots of protestants and they were not always received kindly. Henri found Margot quite pretty, he knew her already, Margot found Henri quite ugly, rough of manners and prone to a bad smell.

Their wedding took place on 18 August 1572. It was long believed that Margot, during the wedding, as she was asked if she wanted to become Henri’s wife, remained quiet and did not give an answer, which led her brother, the future Henri III of France, to give her a clap on the back of her head and so make it look as if she agreed by nodding, which was answer enough. There is nothing to prove that and the first mention of it was not until many many years later. What is true, however, is that Henri was not allowed to enter Notre-Dame, where the wedding took place, during the ceremony.

Henri and Margot

As a catholic, Margot could only marry in front of a priest. As a protestant, Henri was not allowed to enter a catholic church. Thus the marriage was celebrated separately, with Margot being inside and Henri in the courtyard.

And then all hell broke loose. The wedding was supposed to be followed by several days of celebration, but ended in a giant bloodbath. The infamous Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy. After three days of party, an assassination attempt was made on Gaspard de Coligny. Coligny survived and the whole city speculated who might have been behind it. Some blamed Catherine de Médicis, based on the fact that Coligny made friends with Charles IX and Catherine feared the influence he might have on him. Catherine herself blamed the Guise/Lorraines for it, because a Coligny friend was the one who murdered François de Lorraine, the father of Henri I de Lorraine.

The atmosphere was tense. Nobody knew what would happen next. Then Charles IX, maybe influenced by his mother, gave orders to kill every protestant in Paris, and also in other larger French cities. It is unclear how many were murdered, some say it were 3000 in Paris alone. The streets were full with death bodies. The King of Navarre narrowly escaped the bloodbath with his head still on his shoulders. He was given three options afterwards, either death, imprisonment or becoming a catholic. Henri decided for the latter.

Henri did so and was from then on pretty much a hostage for many years. At the same time, Margot was given the choice to have the marriage annulled, but she refused. Both were kept as semi-prisoners in the Louvre. Margot’s brother Charles IX died in 1574, aged only twenty-three, and was succeeded by his brother Henri, who gave up the Polish crown for that of France and became Henri III. So, there were two Henri III’s at court now, Henri III of France and Henri III of Navarre.

There was a party at court, who fancied to have François de France, the younger brother and heir of the French Henri III, as King. Navarre Henri involved himself as well as François to make it happen. Margot spilled the beans on it to her mother, her motives for that are unclear, and everyone involved, including François de France and Henri de Navarre, was arrested. They attempted to flee their imprisonment in Vincennes, but the attempt failed. Two of the people who helped them were executed. A second escape plane, made by Margot, failed as well. A commission was established to find out if and how François and Henri de Navarre were involved in the affair and thanks to a defence manuscript written by Margot, it was decided that both were not involved. François and Henri were put under house arrest in Paris. François managed to flee after a while with help from Margot… unfortunately, the French Henri III got wind of her involvement and now Margot was under house arrest as well. Henri de Navarre managed to flee around half a year later, without Margot. She had not clue about it.

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Henri III of France

All in all, Henri de Navarre spent three years as hostage, before he managed to flee. As soon has he had regained his freedom, Henri converted back to Protestantism and rejoined the protestant cause… and then was met with distrust by both sides. The protestants distrusted him for converting and then converting back, as if it was nothing important, and the catholic side did pretty much the same. Henri was confronted with and survived an assassination attempt in December 1576.

Things only improved slowly for Henri. He settled for a while at the château de Nérac and tried to bring back order. Catherine de Médicis came by for a visit, from October 1578 to May 1579, in order to pacify the protestant versus catholic ado and brought Margot along with her, in hopes she might lure Henri to return to Paris with them. With the arrival of Margot, things did improve for Henri. There were parties, hunts, various amusements, everything was lighter and more fun…. but Henri could not keep his hands off the female gender, something he was famous for, and fell in love with one pretty lady after the next.

Henri fell in love with Françoise de Montmorency, who Margot disliked quite a bit, because the lady apparently tried to bad-talk her and keep Henri away from her. The the Seventh War of Religion happened as was quickly dubbed Guerre des Amoureux, because people thought it actually had to do with the Queen of Navarre and various intrigues she was said to be involved in. At that point, Henri and Margot were not getting along well at all.

Especially after Henri had gotten himself yet another new mistress, Diane d’Andoins, and actually promised her marriage in a letter apparently written in his own blood. Diane had a great influence on him from 1582 on and supported him financially. Margot was rather ugh about it all and in turn took a lover, Jacques de Harlay. Not her first. Like Henri, Margot had quite the reputation for having lovers. In 1582, Margot was invited to Paris by her brother Henri III and it ended with her arrest.

French Henri thought the so-called Guerre des Amoureux was really her fault and accused her of having a debauched life style, after people rumoured that an illness, which forced her to remain in bed for some days in June 1583, was actually her giving birth to a child fathered by her lover. When she had no children with her husband. On 8 August the same year, the French Henri III lost it completely during a ball in the Louvre and accused her of all sort of things, named all the lovers she apparently had thus far, and banished her from court. (It was also rumoured that he himself slept with his sister.) All of Europe was shocked. Margot, the Queen of Navarre, was put under arrest. Catherine de Médicis eventually talked her son into having his sister released. Margot wished to return to Navarre… but her hubby did not want her there, until the French Henri would make a public statement on how sorry he was to have said such things… that took eight months.

Shortly later, in June 1584, François de France died… and everything changed for Henri de Navarre. Henri III of France had married Louise de Lorraine in 1575, but had not managed to produce a male heir and his little brother François was the next in line to the throne. As François died, Henri still had not managed to produce and heir…. which meant that the next senior agnatic descendant of Louis IX would be the new heir… and that was Henri de Navarre.

Whether he liked it or not, Henri III of France had no other choice than to accept his brother-in-law Navarre Henri as heir to France. That this Henri had, in the meanwhile, converted back to Protestantism was a bit of a problem. A Huguenot as King of France? Many people disliked this idea greatly and among those people were the Guise/Lorraines. What followed entered the history books as the War of the Three Henries, Henri III of France versus Henri III of Navarre versus Henri de Lorraine, and did only really end with the death of two of those Henries.

Political disagreements among the parties set off a series of campaigns and counter-campaigns, then Henri III of France had Henri de Lorraine, and his brother, murdered. French Henri thought the move might help to restore his royal authority, but it backfired. The Pope excommunicated him and some cites started to rebel against him after it, which made the French Henri turn to the Navarre Henri and his protestant friends. By murdering Henri de Lorraine, who was pretty much the leader of the Catholic League of France, French Henri made a lot of enemies. Together the two remaining Henries tried to persuade the population that they had only the best in mind for France. Henri III let everyone know that this Henri de Navarre was a decent men and not a fanatic Huguenot…. and then Henri III of France was assassinated at Saint-Cloud by a fanatical monk.

Now Henri de Navarre became nominally the new King of France… but the struggle was real. There still were people who really really really did not want this Henri as their King. The Catholic League, with support from abroad, prevented the universal recognition of Henri de Navarre as new King of France. The Pope excommunicated him and declared him unfit to rule over France. Plenty of nobles, who had joined the cause of the two Henries, abandoned him too… and on top of it, the Catholic League declared someone else to be King, although that someone, the Cardinal de Bourbon, did not even really want the job.

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Henry III on his deathbed designating Henri de Navarre as his successor.

In the meanwhile, the new King of France set out to win France by military conquest, aided by English money and German troops, and was quite successful with it.

The Cardinal de Bourbon died in 1590, but that still wasn’t the end of it. The Catholic League still did not want Henri as King and looked for a different candidate. Their gaze went to Spain, or rather to the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II and Élisabeth de France, sister of the late Henri III and oldest daughter of Henri II. The Salic Law did actually prevent females or those who could claim descent through only the female line from inheriting, but a Spanish catholic sounded very good to people during those days. Of course, the Infanta needed a suitable husband first…. Papa Philip suggested the brother of the Emperor as groom for his daughter and thus as future King of France… but that was a bit too much. A Spanish maybe…. but an Austrian… who is the brother of the Emperor? No way.

Thus Philip suggested a Lorraine Prince could be the groom. The Lorraines were rather pleased about that… but could not quite decide who of the many Lorraine Princes should be King of France. Then the Parlement of Paris got involved and threw in a subtle hint that if the League would really go ahead with accepting the claims of a women, it would mean it might have to also accept the claim of the English Kings to the crown of France.

In the end, three years later, after all that ado, Henri decided that Paris vaut bien une messe – Paris is well worth a mass-. (He mostly likely did not really say that, like Louis XIV did not say he is the state, but that ‘quote’ sums it up quite well.) He converted to Roman Catholicism again and secured the allegiance of the vast majority of his subjects… apart from the protestants. Those who still did not want to accept him, where lured with gifts, promises, or simply conquered.

Then the great day came, after all the struggle, Henri de Navarre was crowned Henri Quatre par la grâce de Dieu, Roi des Français et de Navarre, on 27 February 1594 at the Cathedral of Chartres. Usually coronations took place at Reims, but Reims still was under control of the League. Afterwards, Henri slowly but surely conquered the rest of his Kingdom, managed to get pardoned by the Pope, survived another assassination attempt, and waged war against Spain.

Once things calmed a bit for Henri, he issued the famous Edict of Nantes, which granted circumscribed toleration to the Huguenots until his grandson Louis XIV revoked it 87 years later. France was somewhat at peace with itself and it was the perfect time for some modernisation. New streets were built, new canals, new harbours, taxes were lowered and agriculture supported. France was doing well again.

Yet there was one big problem, which if not solved might in the future create another ‘we do not want that person as our King’ situation after the death of Henri. He still had no legitimate children. Henri had fathered some bastards by various mistresses, but he and Margot were still childless. Plus he and Margot did not get along so great. Although she was Queen of France as his wife, they did not live together for many years by then. At that point, Henri was madly in love with Gabrielle d’Estrées, who had given him three children already. Henri fancied the idea of marrying her…

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Marguerite de Valois

Henri’s councillors strongly opposed this idea, but Henri was eager to obtain an annulment of his current marriage in order to marry Gabrielle…. she died shortly later after giving birth of a stillborn son. Henri was devastated and buried her with royal pomp.

Margot and Henri settled for an annulment of their marriage anyway. A new wife was needed, one with money preferably. Marie de Médicis, the sixth daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Archduchess Joanna of Austria, was the perfect choice. Her dowry was large enough to erase a whole year of France’s debt.

Henri, approaching his fifties, wasted no time in making her his bride. About a year after obtaining the annulment of his first marriage, in 1699, Henri married Marie per procurationem. And hurray, a healthy heir, the future Louis XIII, was born on 27 September 1601. The new wife, however, did not keep Henri from wooing the ladies. Shortly after the death of Gabrielle, he wooed the ambitious Henriette d’Entragues, who then tried to blackmail him and conspired against him.

Henri and Marie had six children born between 1601 and 1609. Their second son, commonly called Nicolas-Henri, died young. Their third son, Gaston, became a bit of a nightmare for his older brother Louis. Their oldest daughter Élisabeth became Queen of Spain, their second daughter Christine became Duchesse de Savoie, their youngest daughter Henriette became Queen of England as wife of Charles I.

In matters of producing children, the marriage was a proper success, but it had also plenty of disagreements. Marie did not like Henri’s mistresses, they did not like her either, there was constant feuding. Especially with Henriette d’Entragues, who had managed to get a promise from Henri that he would marry her, shortly after Gabrielle died and he was still mourning her, and was now quite displeased by the fact that Henri married Marie instead of her. It even went so far that this Henriette d’Entragues called the Queen of France a “fat banker’s daughter“. What did Henri do? Nothing.

At least not in that department. While the ladies feuded, Henri and his skilled counsellors and ministers worked on making France the place-to-be. They worked on improving the state finances, the promoting of agriculture, draining of swamps, to improve the general well-being of the people and encouraged education. Henri established the Collège Royal Henri-le-Grand in La Flèche. Promoted the protection of the environment by protecting the forests and improved the infrastructure of France with the creation of new roads, tree-lined highways, bridges and canals. Promoted crafts and arts, like painters, sculptors, embroiderers, goldsmiths, gunsmiths and engineers. „Si Dieu me prête vie, je ferai qu’il n’y aura point de laboureur en mon royaume qui n’ait les moyens d’avoir le dimanche une poule dans son pot!“

…but all good things come to an end. Amidst rising tension over a conflict of succession between the catholic Emperor and the protestant German princes, the coronation of Marie de Médicis was planned as well as a possible war. The coronation was necessary in order for Marie to act as Regent with all possible authority, during the absence of her husband. It was planned that, three days after the coronation, Henri would depart for war… but it did not come to that.

Marie de Médicis was crowned, with Queen Margot assisting, on 13 May 1610 at Saint-Denis. The following day, Henri, accompanied by six nobles, went to met Maximilien de Béthune. The route led through narrow Parisian streets. In the Rue de la Ferronnerie, an especially narrow street, the royal carriage was stopped by two carts attempting to squeeze through the street in opposite directions. The nobles, apart from the Duc de Montbazon, left the royal carriage to have a look what was going on… as suddenly a man named François Ravaillac jumped towards the carriage and stabbed the King of France three times in his chest. The first stab hit Henri’s ribs, the second opened a aorta to the heart and pierced the lungs, the third slipped a little and also injured the Duc de Montbazon.

François Ravaillac was seized at once and brought to the Louvre along with the bleeding Henri. By the time the Louvre was reached, Henri was dead.

France went into mourning for a great King that has not been forgotten to this very day. Upon Henri’s death, his their nine-year-old son Louis succeeded to the crown of France as Louis XIII with Marie de Médicis acting as Regent.

Henri IV was buried at Saint-Denis, where he rested in peace until the French Revolution. His grave was among the many graves that were opened, plundered and destroyed. But unlike it happened to his royal colleagues, Henri’s body was not tossed into a mass grave at once and was instead exhibited in front of Saint-Denis for quite a while, before being placed in a mass grave.

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