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On this date in History: May 30, 1574. Death of King Charles IX of France and the accession of his brother, the Duke of Anjou, as King Henri III of France.

King Charles IX of France

Born Prince Charles Maximilian de Valois, third son of King Henri II of France and Catherine de’ Medici, in the royal chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and styled Duke of Angoulêm from birth, he was created Duke of Orléans after the death of his older brother Louis, his parents’ second son, who had died in infancy on October 24, 1560.

King Henri II died on July 10, 1559, and was succeeded by his eldest son, King Francis II (who married Mary I, Queen of Scots on April 6, 1558). After Francis II’s short rule, (Francis II died December 5, 1560) the ten-year-old Charles Maximilian was immediately proclaimed King Charles IX of France. When Francis II died, the Privy Council appointed his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, as governor of France (gouvernante de France), with sweeping powers, at first acting as regent for her young son. On May 15, 1561, Charles IX was consecrated in the cathedral at Reims. Prince Antoine of Bourbon, himself in line to the French throne and husband to Queen Joan III of Navarre, was appointed Lieutenant-General of France.

On November 26, 1570 Charles IX married Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria, the daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, and Maria of Spain (daughter of Carl V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, and Isabella of Portugal). With her flawless white skin, long blond hair and perfect physique, Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria was considered one of the great beauties of the era. She was also regarded as demure, pious, and warmhearted but naive and intensely innocent because of her sheltered upbringing.

Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria

Very early, around 1559, a match between Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria and the future King Charles IX of France was suggested. In 1562, the Maréchal de Vieilleville, a member of the French delegation sent to Vienna, after seeing the eight-year-old princess, exclaimed: “Your Majesty, this is the Queen of France!“. Although Vieilleville was not entitled to make an offer, Elisabeth’s grandfather, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, appeared interested: gifts were exchanged and contacts initiated between the two courts — but no one bothered to teach French to the young princess.

In 1559, after the failure of marriage plans with King Frederik II of Denmark and Prince Sebastian of Portugal, the French offer was seriously considered. Catherine de’ Medici, mother of Charles IX, and the power behind the throne, initially preferred Elisabeth’s elder sister Anna; but the latter was already chosen as the new wife of her uncle King Felipe II of Spain. Catherine de’ Medici finally agreed to the marriage with the younger Elisabeth, as France absolutely needed a Catholic marriage in order to combat the Protestant party, the Huguenots, as well as to cement an alliance between the Habsburg and the French Crown. Charles IX and Elizabeth of Austria failed to produce a male heir and the king and queen produced one daughter on October 27, 1572, born in the Louvre Palace. The child was named Marie Elisabeth after her grandmother, Empress Maria, and Queen Elizabeth I of England, who were her godmothers. In 1573, Charles IX fathered an illegitimate son, Charles, Duke of Angoulême, with his mistress, Marie Touchet.

Most of Charles IX ‘s nearly fourteen year reign was dominated by religious wars. After decades of tension, war broke out between Protestants and Catholics after the massacre of Vassy in 1562. In 1572, after several unsuccessful peace attempts, Charles ordered the marriage of his sister Margaret of Valois to King Henri III of Navarre (the future King Henri IV of France), a major Protestant nobleman who was in the line of succession to the French throne, in a last desperate bid to reconcile his people. Facing popular hostility against this policy of appeasement, Charles allowed the massacre of all Huguenot leaders who gathered in Paris for the royal wedding at the instigation of his mother Catherine de’ Medici. This event, known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, was a significant blow to the Huguenot movement, though religious civil warfare soon began anew. Charles sought to take advantage of the disarray of the Huguenots by ordering the Siege of La Rochelle, but was unable to take the Protestant stronghold.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the king’s fragile mental and physical constitution weakened drastically. His moods swung from boasting about the extremity of the massacre to exclamations that the screams of the murdered Huguenots kept ringing in his ears. Frantically, he blamed alternately himself – “What blood shed! What murders!”, he cried to his nurse. “What evil counsel I have followed! O my God, forgive me… I am lost! I am lost!” – or his mother – “Who but you is the cause of all of this? God’s blood, you are the cause of it all!” Catherine responded by declaring she had a lunatic for a son.

Charles’ physical condition, tending towards tuberculosis, deteriorated to the point where, by spring of 1574, his hoarse coughing turned bloody and his hemorrhages grew more violent.

On his last day, Charles IX called for King Henri III of Navarre, embraced him, and said, “Brother, you are losing a good friend. Had I believed all that I was told, you would not be alive. But I always loved you… I trust you alone to look after my wife and son. Pray God for me. Farewell.”

King Henri III of France

The previous year, May 16, 1573, Polish nobles chose Henri, Duke of Anjou, brother of King Charles IX, as the first elected monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania). Charles IX died on May 30, 1574, at the Château de Vincennes, aged twenty-three years and was succeeded by his brother as King Henri III of France. upon learning of the death of his brother Henri left Poland and headed back to France. Henri’s absence provoked a constitutional crisis that the Polish Parliament attempted to resolve by notifying Henri hat his throne would be lost if he did not return from France by May 12, 1575. His failure to return to Poland caused Parliament to declare his throne vacant.