Henri IV (December 13, 1553 – May 14, 1610), also known by the epithet Good King Henri or Henri the Great, was King of Navarre (as Henri III) from 1572 and King of France from 1589 to 1610. He was the first monarch of France from the House of Bourbon, a cadet branch of the Capetian dynasty.
The son of Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme and Jeanne III d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre, Henri was baptised as a Catholic but raised in the Protestant faith by his mother.
As a teenager, Henri joined the Huguenot forces in the French Wars of Religion. On June 9, 1572, upon his mother’s death, the 19-year-old became King of Navarre.
At Queen Jeanne III’s death, it was arranged for Henri to marry Margaret of Valois, daughter of Henri II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. The wedding took place in Paris on August 18, 1572 on the parvis of Notre Dame Cathedral.
On August 24, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre began in Paris. Several thousand Protestants who had come to Paris for Henri’s wedding were killed, as well as thousands more throughout the country in the days that followed.
Henri narrowly escaped death thanks to the help of his wife and his promise to convert to Catholicism. He was forced to live at the court of France, but he escaped in early 1576. On February 5 of that year, he formally abjured Catholicism at Tours and rejoined the Protestant forces in the military conflict. He named his 16-year-old sister, Catherine de Bourbon, regent of Béarn. Catherine held the regency for nearly thirty years.
Henri and his predecessor Henri III of France were direct descendants of Saint-King Louis IX. Henri III belonged to the House of Valois, descended from Philippe III of France, elder son of Saint Louis; Henri IV belonged to the House of Bourbon, descended from Robert, Count of Clermont, younger son of Saint Louis IX. As Head of the House of Bourbon, Henri was “first prince of the blood”.
When Henri III died, Henri of Navarre nominally became king of France. The Catholic League, however, strengthened by support from outside the country—especially from Spain—was strong enough to prevent a universal recognition of his new title.
Pope Sixtus V excommunicated Henri and declared him devoid of any right to inherit the crown. Most of the Catholic nobles who had joined Henri III for the siege of Paris also refused to recognize the claim of Henri of Navarre, and abandoned him. He set about winning his kingdom by military conquest, aided by English money and German troops. Henri’s Catholic uncle Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon was proclaimed king by the Catholic League, but the Cardinal was Henri’s prisoner at the time. Henri was victorious at the Battle of Arques and the Battle of Ivry, but failed to take Paris after besieging it in 1590.
When Cardinal de Bourbon died in 1590, the League could not agree on a new candidate. While some supported various Guise candidates, the strongest candidate was probably the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, the daughter of Felipe II of Spain, whose mother Elisabeth had been the eldest daughter of Henri II of France.
In the religious fervor of the time, the Infanta was recognized to be a suitable candidate, provided that she marry a suitable husband. The French overwhelmingly rejected Felipe’s first choice, Archduke Ernst of Austria, the Emperor’s brother, also a member of the House of Habsburg.
In case of such opposition, Felipe indicated that Princes of the House of Lorraine would be acceptable to him: the Duke of Guise; a son of the Duke of Lorraine; and the son of the Duke of Mayenne. The Spanish ambassadors selected the Duke of Guise, to the joy of the League. However, at that moment of seeming victory, the envy of the Duke of Mayenne was aroused, and he blocked the proposed election of a king.
The Parlement of Paris also upheld the Salic law. They argued that if the French accepted natural hereditary succession, as proposed by the Spaniards, and accepted a woman as their queen, then the ancient claims of the English kings would be confirmed, and the monarchy of centuries past would be nothing but an illegality.
The Parlement admonished Mayenne, as lieutenant-general, that the Kings of France had resisted the interference of the pope in political matters, and that he should not raise a foreign prince or princess to the throne of France under the pretext of religion. Mayenne was angered that he had not been consulted prior to this admonishment, but yielded, since their aim was not contrary to his present views.
Despite these setbacks for the League, Henri of Navarre remained unable to take control of Paris.
On July 25, 1593, with the encouragement of his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, Henri permanently renounced Protestantism and converted to Catholicism in order to secure his hold on the French crown, thereby earning the resentment of the Huguenots and his former ally Queen Elizabeth I of England.
He was said to have declared that Paris vaut bien une messe (“Paris is well worth a mass”), although there is some doubt whether he said this, or whether the statement was attributed to him by his contemporaries. His acceptance of Catholicism secured the allegiance of the vast majority of his subjects.
Coronation and recognition (1594–95)
Since Reims, traditional coronation place of French kings, was still occupied by the Catholic League, Henri was crowned King of France at the Cathedral of Chartres on February 25, 1594. Pope Clement VIII lifted the excommunication from Henri on September 17, 1595. He did not forget his former Calvinist coreligionists, however, and was known for his religious tolerance. In 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted circumscribed toleration to the Huguenots, thereby effectively ending the French Wars of Religion.
Henri was the target of at least 12 assassination attempts, being considered a usurper by some Catholics and a traitor by some Protestants. Though he faced much opposition during his reign, Henri IV gained more status after his death. An active ruler, he worked to regularise state finance, promote agriculture, eliminate corruption and encourage education. During his reign, the French colonization of the Americas truly began with the foundation of the colonies of Acadia and Canada at Port-Royal and Quebec, respectively. He is celebrated in the popular song “Vive le roi Henri” (which later became an anthem for the French monarchy during the reigns of his successors) and in Voltaire’s Henriade.
On August 18, 1572, Henry married his second cousin Margaret of Valois; their childless marriage was annulled in 1599. His subsequent marriage to Marie de’ Medici on 17 December 1600 produced six children:
HenrI’s first marriage was not a happy one, and the couple remained childless. Henri and Margaret separated even before Henri acceded to the throne in August 1589; Margaret retired to the Château d’Usson in the Auvergne and lived there for many years. After Henri became king of France, it was of the utmost importance that he provide an heir to the crown to avoid the problem of a disputed succession.
Henri favoured the idea of obtaining an annulment of his marriage to Margaret and taking his mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées as his bride; after all, she had already borne him three children. Henri’s councillors strongly opposed this idea, but the matter was resolved unexpectedly by Gabrielle’s sudden death in the early hours of April 10, 1599, after she had given birth to a premature and stillborn son. His marriage to Margaret was annulled in 1599, and Henri married Marie de’ Medici, daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Archduchess Joanna of Austria, in 1600.
Henri was the subject of numerous attempts on his life, including one by Pierre Barrière in August 1593 and Jean Châtel in December 1594.
Henri IV was killed in Paris on May 14, 1610 by a Catholic fanatic, François Ravaillac, who stabbed him in the Rue de la Ferronnerie. Henri IV’s coach was stopped by traffic congestion associated with the Queen’s coronation ceremony. Hercule de Rohan, duc de Montbazon, was with him when he was killed; Montbazon was wounded, but survived. Henri IV was buried at the Saint Denis Basilica.
His widow, Marie de’ Medici, served as regent for their nine-year-old son, Louis XIII, until 1617.