Catherine de Médici, César de Bourbon, Countess of Gramont, Diane d'Andouins, Duchess of Beaufort, Gabrielle d'Estrées, Henri IV of France and Navarre, Margaret de Valois
In 1585, Henry embarked on a passionate love affair with a widow called Diane d’Andouins, nicknamed La Belle Corisande. Margaret found it impossible to ignore this particular lover of Henri’s, since d’Andouins was pressing Henri to repudiate Margaret so that she could become queen of Navarre herself.
Margaret responded by attempting to poison Henri, and then she shot at him with a pistol but missed. To escape his revenge, she fled the Kingdom of Navarre again, this time to her property at Agen. From there she wrote to her mother begging for money. Catherine sent her enough “to put food on her table” but was contemptuous.
Margaret attempted to strengthen the fortifications at Agen, raise troops, and ally with the Catholic League against her husband. Before long, however, the officials and people of Agen drove her out of the town. Retreating to her lofty and impregnable fortress of Carlat, and refusing her mother’s pleas that she move to a royal manor, she there took a lover called d’Aubiac. Catherine’s patience ran out, and she insisted that King Henry III of France arrest “this insufferable torment” and act “before she brings shame on us again”.
On October 13, 1586, therefore, the king had Margaret forcibly removed from Carlat and locked up in the Château d’Usson. D’Aubiac was executed, though not, as Catherine demanded, in front of Margaret. Catherine cut Marguerite out of her will. Margaret never saw her mother or brother again.
Margaret assumed she was going to die and even employed a food taster at the château. In a “farewell” letter to her mother, she asked that after her execution a post-mortem be held to prove that she was not, despite gossip, pregnant with d’Aubiac’s child. At this point, her luck took a turn for the better.
Her gaoler, the Marquis de Canillac, whom she was rumoured to have seduced, suddenly switched from the royal side in the civil war to that of the Catholic League and released her in early 1587. Her freedom suited the League perfectly: her continued existence guaranteed that Henri of Navarre would remain without an heir. This problem became acute for Henri after he succeeded to the throne of France in 1589.
Henri IV was an energetic soldier who spent long periods at war. After military campaigns, he rewarded himself with bouts of idle pleasure, hunting during the day, gambling in the evening, and womanising at night. His companion in these leisure pursuits was often the banker Sébastien Zamet, who lent him vast sums of money and made his house available to the king for dalliances.
One drawback to Henri’s philandering, however, was a proneness to venereal diseases. In October 1598, he nearly died from an infection of the bladder, and an attack of gonorrhoea a few weeks later briefly brought on a heart problem. On November 6, he wrote to the Duke of Sully that the illness “has made me very depressed [tout chagrin], and I do everything that my doctors recommend, so keen am I to get better”.
Henry’s sexual appetite, said to have been insatiable, was often indiscriminate, but he always recognised a particular mistress as his first lady. One such was Gabrielle d’Estrées, whom he met at Cœuvres in 1590 and later made the duchess of Beaufort.
This relationship was castigated by Henri’s enemies in the church, particularly by the Capuchins. On one occasion, arriving at her apartments near the Louvre, Henri was stabbed in the face by a Jesuit would-be-assassin called Jean Chastel, who slashed his mouth and broke one of his teeth.
In June 1594, d’Estrées bore Henri a son, César, who was legitimized in Jan/Feb 1595. Henri’s duchess had gradually risen in prominence, and she acted as her royal lover’s hostess for diplomatic occasions, such as the surrender talks with the rebel Charles of Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne, in 1596.
In October of that year, an Italian observer reported that “among the French nobility people begin to expect that the king intends to name as his successor the natural son born of Gabrielle”. Henri’s advisers were deeply opposed to any such plan, however, which would guarantee a war of succession—but, for a while, Henri seemed determined.
When the last of the Catholic League rebels, Philippe Emmanuel, Duke of Mercœur, surrendered in 1598, Henri and Gabrielle’s son, César, was ceremonially promised in marriage to Mercœur’s daughter, though both were small children. The chronicler Pierre de L’Estoile records a vignette of Gabrielle d’Estrées’ status at this time: “
The duchess of Beaufort [was] seated in a chair, and Madame de Guise brought her the various dishes with great ceremony. Gabrielle took what she most liked with one hand, and gave her other to be kissed by the king, who was near her”.