The Bourbon succession
At the time of the accession of Henri III, upon the death of his brother, Charles IX on May 30, 1574, France was plagued by the Wars of Religion, and Henri III’s authority was undermined by violent political parties funded by foreign powers: the Catholic League (supported by Spain and the Pope), the Protestant Huguenots (supported by England and the Dutch) and the Malcontents, led by Henri III’s own brother, the Duke of Alençon, which was a party of Catholic and Protestant aristocrats who jointly opposed the absolutist ambitions of the king. Henri III was himself a politique, arguing that a strong and religiously tolerant monarchy would save France from collapse.
Henri III, King of France.
He was expected to produce an heir after he married Louise of Lorraine, age 21, on February 1575, no issue resulted from their union. Louise was the third daughter and youngest child of Nicholas of Lorraine, Duke of Mercœur, and Countess Marguerite d’Egmont. However, as early as the death of François, Duke of Anjou, brother of Henri III of France, in 1584, the succession of Henri of Navarre, Head of the House of Bourbon, had been a likely eventuality. Henri III was the sole remaining representative of the House of Valois, and he was still childless.
Reports that Henri III engaged in same-sex relations with his court favourites, known as the mignons, date back to his own time. Certainly he enjoyed intense relationships with them. The scholar Louis Crompton maintains that all of the contemporary rumours were true. Some modern historians dispute this. Jean-Francois Solnon, Nicolas Le Roux, and Jacqueline Boucher have noted that Henri III had many famous mistresses, that he was well known for his taste in beautiful women, and that no male sex partners have been identified. They have concluded that the idea he was homosexual was promoted by his political opponents (both Protestant and Catholic) who used his dislike of war and hunting to depict him as effeminate and undermine his reputation with the French people.
Louise of Lorraine
The laws of succession designated the head of the next branch of the Capetian family as heir presumptive. Normally this would not have been controversial; but the 16th century was a period of religious discord in France, and Henri of Navarre was the chief of the Protestant party and he was also next in line to the French throne.
This was an unacceptable choice for Catholic France which was considered the eldest daughter of the Church; and anointing the king implied that he must belong to the Catholic faith. Ultra-Catholics rejected Henri of Navarre as a relapsed heretic; they would not accept him even if he converted. Moderate Catholics supported Navarre, provided that he would convert.
How did Henri of Navarre derive his claim to the French throne? And the objection to his claim was not predicated solely on religious reasons, but also upon genealogical issues.
Bourbon claim to the throne
Henri of Navarre was descended through his father from King Louis IX of France, via Robert, Count of Clermont (d. 1317), the sixth and youngest son of Louis IX, and the only son besides Philippe III to produce a surviving line. Robert married Beatrix of Bourbon and assumed the title of sire de Bourbon. Bourbon was elevated into a duchy for Robert’s son Louis, who became the first Duke of Bourbon.
At the death of Charles IV, Duke of Alençon in 1525, all cadet branches of the House of Valois had become extinct, with the only remaining Valois being the royal family itself. The chief of the Bourbons became the first prince of the blood, the closest to the succession to the throne should the immediate family of the king become extinct. At the death of Charles III, Duke of Bourbon in 1527, the Vendôme branch of the House of Bourbon became the senior line of the family. At that time, represented by Charles de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme. His son Antoine de Bourbon was the King of Navarrethrough his marriage (jure uxoris) to Queen Jeanne III of Navarre. Antoine’s son, Prince Henri of Navarre, inherited the throne of Navarre on his death from an arquebus wound at the siege of Rouen in 1562.
Despite meeting the criteria for the crown under the Fundamental Laws of the Kingdom, the legitimacy of Henri of Navarre’s claim to the throne was still questioned, however. In similar cases, the throne had earlier passed to successors with a much closer blood link to the throne. Louis XII had succeeded Charles VIII as his second cousin once removed in the male line. François I had succeeded Louis XII as his cousin five times removed in the male line. The successions were legally unproblematic because consanguinity was acknowledged in law to the tenth degree.
Henri of Navarre
Henri of Navarre, on the other hand, could claim only an agnatic relationship to Henri III in the twenty-second degree. When Henri of Navarre had become the heir presumptive to the throne in 1584, on the death of François, Duke of Anjou, polemicist Jean Boucher had been among those who protested that such a distance in blood meant Henri of Navarre’s claim to the throne had effectively lapsed and that therefore the French States-General had the right to elect a new king.