When King Henri IV came to the throne of France in 1589, France was at a low point. The country had been divided by decades of religious and civil wars, and there was no clear heir to the French monarchy.
Good King Henry as he became known, would step in to become one of the most celebrated Kings of France. With common sense and clear-sightedness, along with a good dose of of diplomacy, he managed to get to secure power through alliances and get the country to accept him as King. He also instituted many reforms throughout France, helping it economically recover and strengthened its position internationally.
But he had a dramatic personal life, with warring parents, deadly in-laws, and many assassination attempts on his life. For a man who was never meant to be King of France, he became considered by many to be among the best monarchs during the Renaissance era, and the man who put an end to France’s religious wars.
So let’s explore the history of Henri IV with a few facts about his life, his family, and more, shall we? Allons-y!
1. He was born in 1553.
Henri of Navarre was born in 1553 in the city of Pau, in the Kingdom of Navarre. Navarre was a tiny independent kingdom on the edge of the Pyrenees mountains between what is now France and Spain.
His mother was the reigning Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre, and his father Antoine, the Duke of Vendôme. Upon their marriage, Jeanne and her husband became joint rulers of Navarre, as women were not allowed to rule by themselves at the time.
2. He was a relative of the French royal family, the House of Bourbon.
Henri’s father Antoine was a member of the French royal Bourbon family, but not very close to the throne. In addition, his mother Jeanne was the niece of former French King François I, making Henri a royal on both sides of his family.
This would prove to be useful (along with a fortuitous marriage), as illness and death claimed those above him in the line of succession to propel him to the throne.
3. He was a Protestant and Huguenot.
Baby Henry of Navarre was baptised as a Catholic but raised in the Protestant faith by his mother Jeanne. Jeanne was the acknowledged spiritual and political leader of the French Huguenot movement.
His father changed allegiances and religions several times (just to antagonize his wife) but he too had family connections to the Protestant Huguenots, with his brother Louis, the Prince of Condé, being the leader of the Huguenots.
4. France was in a civil and religious war, as was Henri’s family.
As Henri of Navarre was growing up, on the throne was King Charles IX of France. However, Charles was a young and weak King and often sick. The real power lay with his mother, the Dowager Queen Catherine de Medici.
Catherine was Catholic, and deeply opposed to the Protestants and Huguenots. In addition, on the throne of nearby England was Protestant Elizabeth I, who posed a huge threat to Catherine.
With Catherine in charge, France was in full out civil and religious war, as Catholics in Paris and Protestant Huguenots in the south of France fought each other. Over 3 million French people are believed to have died during this period, making it one of the deadliest religious wars in Europe.
Henri of Navarre’s father was killed during this period, having died fighting for the Catholics at the age of 44.
5. He married Princess Margaret of Valois, the daughter of Queen Catherine de Medici.
In order to calm the tensions, Catherine de Medici arranged for her youngest daughter Margaret to marry the young Henri of Navarre. His mother Jeanne agreed and so when he was 19 years old, Protestant Henry of Navarre married Catholic Princess Margaret de Valois.
Henry of Navarre was the same age as Margaret and much hope rested on their betrothal. It would not get off to a good start however.
6. He became King of Navarre at the age of 19.
A couple of months before his marriage, Henri’s mother died, making 19-year-old Henri was now the King of Navarre.
Rumors at the time suggested that the French Queen Catherine had Henri’s mother Jeanne poisoned, as she died soon after having given her blessing to the marriage. The marriage between Henri of Navarre and Margaret de Valois went ahead anyway on 18 August 1572 at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
7. He survived the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre
A few days after the wedding, all hell would be unleashed. With the bride and groom staying at the Palais du Louvre, both Protestants Huguenots and Catholics had descended on Paris to be present at the marriage.
With some of the most prominent Huguenots in Catholic Paris, their leaders were ambushed. The massacre spread all across Paris, lasting several weeks and spreading outward to the countryside and other urban centres.
Estimates, the number of dead across France vary from 10,000 to 30,000 people at the end of the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre.
It is said that Catherine knew the massacre was going to occur and saw it as an opportunity to get rid of her enemies. Her middle daughter Claude tried to get their mother to warn her youngest daughter Margaret not to go, but that Catherine insisted she couldn’t be told as it it would tip off Henri and the Huguenots.
Henri of Navarre would survive the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre, but only because he was a royal prince and the husband of the Margaret. He was subsequently kept hostage under close watch for several years, and forced to convert to Catholicism. (He would revert back as soon as he was free to.)
8. The French King would die, leaving Henri in line to the throne.
Both of Catherine de Medici’s remaining sons, King Charles IX and Henri III would die without heirs, along with Catherine herself.
As a prince of the Royal House of Bourbon, and married to the sister of the King, the French throne was now bequeathed to Henri of Navarre and Catherine’s daughter Margaret in 1589. At the age of 36, Henri of Navarre was now King Henri IV of France.
9. He and his wife Margaret separated.
Not everyone was happy that protestant Henri IV was King of France, especially in Catholic Paris.
While Henri IV was fighting for the French crown, his Catholic wife Margaret chose to side with the Catholic League against her own husband. The couple had no children, with the fault falling on Margaret, as Henri had managed to produce several children out of wedlock with his mistresses.
In 1585, she abandoned any pretence by siding with the Catholics and was forced to live in Auvergne in an exile which lasted twenty years.
10. He laid siege to Paris.
By this time, Henri had already changed religions several times, leaving the Protestant Huguenots not particularly happy either.
In order to shore up support and attempt to take the French capital, Henri IV attempts to lay Siege to Paris in 1590. The siege would last a month and be unsuccessful, as France’s catholic allies from Netherlands and Italy chose to intervene against Henri IV’s siege.
11. He decided to convert to Catholicism.
By 1593, King Henri IV was not much further along in his quest to fully invested as King of France. He decided to take a drastic step.
Protestant King Henry IV uttered this famous quote about Paris: “Paris vaut bien une messe“, meaning “Paris is worth a mass” as he was converted to Catholicism.
On 25 July 1593, with the encouragement of his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, Henry permanently renounced Protestantism and converted to Catholicism.
12. He was crowned King in Chartres in 1594.
Once Henri IV converted, Henry was crowned King of France at the Cathedral of Chartres on 27 February 1594. Reims, the traditional seat where royals were crowned, and the iconic Notre Dame de Paris were still in Catholic hands.
13. He was nicknamed “Henri le Grand” and “le bon roi Henri”
His pragmatism earned him the nickname Henri le Grand, meaning “Henry the great”. In France, he is also called le bon roi Henri (meaning “the good king Henry”) or le vert galant (meaning “The Green Gallant”) due to his numerous mistresses.
14. He wanted to marry his favorite mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées.
Although Henri IV had many mistresses, he still had no legitimate heirs. He had fallen in love in 1590 with a young woman named Gabrielle d’Estrées. Gabrielle was not only his lover, but also one of his closest advisors. She was the daughter of the Marquis of Cœuvres, and the couple soon had 3 children.
Henri IV was still technically married to Margaret so he filed for an annulment to Pope Clement VIII in February 1599 to end his childless first marriage. He announced his intention to marry Gabrielle and have her crowned the next Queen of France, while legitimizing their 3 children that were born out of wedlock.
Unfortunately before the marriage could occur, Gabrielle died from pregnancy complications at the age of 26 while carrying the couple’s 4th child.
15. He annulled his marriage to Margeret de Valois.
A few months after Gabrielle died, Henri IV finally managed to get Margaret to agree to an annulment, which was granted by the Pope. (Divorce by a Catholic King was not allowed, hence the Protestant English church of Henry VIII of England.) Henri IV was now in the 50s and on the hunt for a wife.
16. He married his 2nd wife Marie de Medici.
While his former mother-in-law Catherine de Medeci may not have been Henri IV’s biggest fan, he was not as opposed to her. Henri decided to marry another member of the powerful House of Medici, Marie de Medici.
Maria de Medici was also the granddaughter of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, thus reinforcing royal descent for any of their heirs, since Henri IV own royal heritage was not clearcut.
It also helped that the Henri IV owed the banking House of Medicis a colossal amount of money for financing his wars until now. They agreed to a dowry and to cancel the debt if Henri IV married Marie. They married on the 17th of December 1600.
17. He had 6 children with Marie de Medici.
The couple managed to produce 6 children, 3 boys and 3 girls. But the marriage was not a happy one. Henri still kept numerous mistresses, and Marie was displeased at having to deal with them at court.
In addition, Henri kept putting off crowning Marie as Queen of France. Ironically, this would strengthen the bond between his 1st wife Margaret (who had Medici blood as well) and Marie. Margaret often helped plan events at court with Marie and became involved with their children.
18. He was considered a man of vision and courage.
Henri may not have been great at maintaining relations with his wife, but he proved much better at managing the country. Instead of waging costly new wars, Henri IV adopted policies and undertook projects to improve the lives of all subjects, which made him one of the country’s more popular rulers.
He regularized finances, promoted agriculture, drained swamps, and encouraged education.
19. He tried to restore the city of Paris after the wars.
Along with draining swamps and improving water flows, Henri began big architectural works. He had the Pont Neuf bridge on Ile de la Cité built over the river Seine to connect the Right and Left Banks of the city.
His aim was to restore Paris as a great city, after all its suffering during the religious wars. Henry IV also had the Place Royale (Place des Vosges) built, along with several other works.
20. He began renovating the Louvre and Tuileries Palaces.
Henri’s mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici had already begun building the new Palais de Tuileries during her lifetime, and Henri would continue to expand on this. He began renovating the Palais du Louvre as well as the Tuileries, with the intention of connecting the two.
At the time, the royal palace consisted of long, narrow buildings which were enlarged so that it could join the long gallery along the Seine river, the Grande Galerie. This Grande Galerie would run all the way to the older Louvre Palace in the east.
21. He signed the Edict of Nantes.
In an attempt to reduce Catholic and Protestant tensions, Henri signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598 which granted the Protestants of France (Huguenots) substantial rights in France to live and practise their religion. Henri, pragmatic as ever, wanted to live and let live.
22. The Catholic League continued to oppose him.
While Henri IV was relatively popular, he was still under serious threat. His Catholicism remained a question all of his life, and there were at least 12 assassination attempts on his life. War loomed with Spain, Germany, and the Holy Roman Empire opposing his rule.
23. He was assassinated at the age of 56.
On the eve of his departure to the join the Wars of succession in Germany, Henri IV finally had crowned Marie de Medici as his wife, so that she could act as regent in his absence.
On the very next day, the 14th of May 1610, Henri IV was assassinated at the age of 56. He was stabbed by a Catholic fanatic named François Ravaillac as his coach was stuck in traffic congestion related to the coronation of Marie.
Suspicion fell on the Catholic Marie de Medici, since she was related to the Holy Roman Emperor, although nothing was ever proven.
24. His wife became regent on behalf of their son.
Within hours after Henry IV’s assassination, Queen Marie de Medici was confirmed as Regent by the Parliament of Paris on behalf of their son and new King, eight-year-old Louis XIII.
She did however, reconfirm the Edict of Nantes to keep the peace. It was only revoked nearly a century later by Henri’s grandson Sun Louis XIV.
25. After his death, Henry was held up as an example.
During his lifetime, Catholics considered him a usurper, while Protestants accused him of treason since he changed his religion at least 6 times. After his death however, his assassination had made him a martyr.
Henry IV was held up as an ideal that future kings were urged to emulate. The legend of the good King Henry was formed. The song Marche Henri IV (“Long Live Henry IV”) became popular.
26. The high school Henri IV in Paris is named after him.
One of the most elite public schools in France, it was founded in the early 1796 after the French revolution, and was named Henri IV in 1815. It is located on Rue Clovis, a street named after the 1st King of the Franks.
The school did change names several times, but went back to being Lycée Henri IV in 1873. Today it remains one of the two best high schools in the French education system (along with Louis le Grand, named after Henri IV’s grandson Sun King Louis XIV).
27. His statue was built on the Pont Neuf.
Today the Pont Neuf is the oldest standing bridge in Paris. An equestrian statue of him was built there in 1618 along the Pont Neuf. It was pulled down during the French revolution, but rebuilt a few years later. It remains standing in the center of Paris, looking over the city he had tried to hard to win over.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about other French royals here. A bientôt!