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Henry IV (France) (1553–1610; Ruled 1589–1610)

HENRY IV (FRANCE) (15531610; ruled 15891610)

HENRY IV (FRANCE) (15531610; ruled 15891610), king of France and Navarre. Henry IV helped to end the Wars of Religion and established the foundation for France's emergence as a major power in early modern Europe. He was the first of the Bourbon kings, and his family ruled until the French Revolution of 1789 and again during the Restoration (18151830). Much admired by contemporaries for his bravery and his gallantry, Henry IV was known as the Gallic Hercules and endures to this day as one of France's most popular rulers.


Henry was born 14 December 1553 at thechâteau of Pau in Béarn. His father, Antoine de Bourbon, the duke of Vendôme (15181562), was a prince of the blood and headed the powerful Bourbon-Vendôme household, whose vast domains stretched from central to southwestern France. The Bourbons' lineage went back to Robert, count of Clermont (12561318), the sixth son of Louis IX (ruled 12261270). This remote royal ancestry assumed huge significance as Henry II's (ruled 15471559) sons each failed to sire an heir to continue the Valois dynasty. Henry IV's mother, Jeanne d'Albret, queen of Navarre (ruled 15551572), ruled a tiny kingdom straddling the Pyrenees. Her public embrace of Calvinism in 1555 soon introduced her young son and her daughter, Catherine, to the faith. Members of the Condé branch of the Bourbon-Vendôme family also converted, most notably Louis, Prince of Condé, who led the Huguenot movement until his violent death in 1569. Henry received his formal education from Pierre Victor Palma-Cayet and François de La Gaucherie, whoreinforced hisCalvinistupbringing in what was otherwise a typicalRenaissance curriculum that combined book learning with training in horsemanship and the handling of arms. He also frequented the royal court, which schooled him in the ways of intrigue and gallantry. Although not intellectually inclined, Henry matured to become a keen judge of character andprone to decisive, frequently impulsive acts of will to overcome the many obstacles that he faced during his eventful life. These qualities served him well as the country slipped into the chaos of the Wars of Religion (15621598).


In a bid to end factional strife, the queen mother, Catherine de Médicis (15101589), arranged a marriage between her daughter, Marguerite of Valois (15531615), and Henry on 17 August 1572. The wedding, which was held in Paris, instead led to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, during which thousands of Huguenots died, including the movement's leader, Gaspard de Coligny (15191572), admiral of France. Henry escaped death by renouncing his Calvinist faith and becoming a prisoner at the Valois court until his escape in February 1576. After recanting his forced conversion, Henry consolidated his leadership of the Huguenots during the course of the three wars that broke out over the next eight years. Henry's status dramatically changed when, according to the Salic law of succession, he became heir presumptive to the French throne as a result of the death on 10 June 1584 of Francis, Duke of Alençon (15551584). The specter of a Huguenot succession caused a clash between the rules governing a hereditary succession and the monarchy's long and close affiliation with Catholicism. As a result, the question of Henry of Navarre's confessional allegiances became the central issue of the day. Militant Catholics rallied to the Holy League revived in 1584 by Henry of Lorraine, duke of Guise (15501589), especially after Pope Sixtus V (ruled 15851590) excommunicated Navarre the next year. The inability of Henry III (ruled 15741589) to maintain order following his humiliating expulsion from Paris on the Day of the Barricades (12 May 1588) culminated in his calamitous decision on 24 December 1588 to order the murders of Henry, duke of Guise, and his brother, Louis, the cardinal of Guise. Rather than restore royal authority, the move sparked a general insurrection across the kingdom that eventually resulted in the king's own assassination at the hands of a fanatical monk on 1 August 1589. The regicide brought Henry of Navarre to the throne as Henry IV, though it was five years before he was able to command the obedience of his rebellious Catholic subjects.


Henry IV's promise in the Declaration of St. Cloud (4 August 1589) to consider in the near future a possible Catholic conversion, coupled with decisive military victories at Arques (21 September 1589) and Ivry (14 March 1590), shored up public support for him. The grueling siege of Paris (summer 1590) demonstrated that Catholic League resistance could not be overcome by sheer force, however. Three years later, while an Estates-General met in Leaguer Paris to contemplate the election of a new French ruler, Henry IV finally decided to convert to Catholicism amidst much fanfare on 25 July 1593 at St. Denis. The advice of Maximilien de Béthune, baron of Rosny and duke of Sully (15591641), himself a Protestant, and of Henry IV's Catholic mistress, Gabrielle d'Estrées (1573?1599), are thought to have heavily influenced the king's decision to make this "perilous leap." The famous phrase "Paris is worth a Mass" actually came from Catholics who wanted to impugn the sincerity of Henry IV's conversion. Crowned in accordance with Catholic ceremony on 27 February 1594 at Chartres, Henry IV triumphantly entered Paris on 24 March 1594. In 1595, Pope Clement VIII affirmed the converted king's standing as a Catholic by bestowing a papal absolution upon him. Assassination attempts came close to ending Henry IV's life on several occasions and eventually resulted in the expulsion of the Jesuits from the kingdom in 1595. Over the next three years, Henry IV gradually pacified the kingdom more by kindness than by force, winning the allegiance of former Catholic Leaguers through generous peace accords and allaying Huguenot fears in 1598 with the royal guarantees enshrined in the celebrated Edict of Nantes. The year 1598 also saw the signing of the Treaty of Vervins, which brought to a favorable conclusion France's long war with Spain.


With peace finally at hand, Henry IV initiated a program to restore the kingdom's well-being and the monarchy's authority. First he had to secure his dynasty's future. Against the better judgment of his advisors, Henry IV actively pursued the possibility of making Gabrielle his queen after the pope annulled his marriage to Marguerite of Valois in February 1599. Gabrielle had borne the king three children, all of whom he had legitimized by acts of the parliament. They were César, duke of Vendôme (15941665), Catherine-Henriette (15961663), and Alexandre, later grand prior of France (15981629). Gabrielle's death in childbirth on 10 April 1599, however, dashed Henry's hopes of marrying the woman he most adored and had come to rely upon during the early years of his reign. The king instead married Marie de Médicis (15731642), daughter of the Duke of Tuscany, in October 1600. On 27 September 1601, she bore him the future Louis XIII (d. 1643), who continued the Bourbon line.

Henry IV's military successes and dashing manner won him strong admiration from the nobility, whose support was crucial in pacifying the country. With the aid of Sully, who served as surintendant of finances, the king put the crown's fiscal house back in order through prudent expenditures, an overhaul of municipal finance, and the consolidation of the state's debt. By 1608, Sully estimated that the royal treasury had accumulated reserves totaling 32.5 million livres. Henry IV also introduced a ministerial style of government that restricted the judicial prerogatives claimed by the parlements and provincial privileges claimed by local representative assemblies. In 1604, Henry IV regularized the heritable nature of venal offices by the payment of a special fee known as the Paulette. He also cultivated close relations with the old nobility by showering them with pensions and titles; those aristocrats who conspired against him felt his full wrath, however, as demonstrated by the execution of Charles, duke of Biron (15621602). Henry IV also encouraged the beginnings of Catholic reform among both churchmen and the lay public, working hard at the same time to uphold the protections recently granted to the Huguenots. On the economic front, the king entrusted to Barthélemy de Laffemas (c. 15451611) the execution of innovative measures to restore commerce and living standardsa campaign reflected in the contemporary slogan of a "chicken in every pot" (la poule au pot).

Henry also initiated a major urban renewal project in Paris with the building of the Pont-Neuf, the Place Royale (now Place des Vosges), the Place Dauphine, a new Hôtel de Ville, the great gallery of the Louvre, and the completion of the Tuileries garden. During his reign, the eclecticism of the late French Renaissance gradually gave way to the more grandiose, royally inspired movement known as Classicism. Militarily, the king secured territorial gains for France in the southeast at the expense of the Duchy of Savoy; with Sully's help, he also substantially upgraded the country's armaments industry and invested heavily in fortification construction along the frontiers in the north and east.

As France became more unified and strengthened under his leadership, Henry thought it increasingly necessary to challenge Habsburg hegemony in Europe. An occasion to do so arose in 1609 in the lower Rhineland over the disputed succession to Jülich-Clèves. On the eve of his planned invasion, 14 May 1610, however, the king was struck down in the streets of Paris by the blade of a fanatical Roman Catholic assassin. He died a martyr in the eyes of his subjects and of later writers, such as Voltaire and Jules Michelet, who came to identify Henry IV as the very embodiment of what was best about the French. The style of rule and policy directions introduced by Henry IV led to France's rise under his successors as Europe's preeminent power during the next century.

See also Absolutism ; Bourbon Dynasty (France) ; Catherine de Médicis ; France ; Huguenots ; Marie de Médicis ; Nantes, Edict of ; St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre ; Wars of Religion (France).


Buisseret, David. Henry IV. London and Boston, 1984. An excellent biography that traces the course of Henry IV's life and contributions.

Finley-Croswhite, S. Annette. Henry IV and the Towns: The Pursuit of Legitimacy in French Urban Society, 15891610. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999. Studies the problems and eventual solutions shaping Henry IV's relations with urban elites during times of war and peace.

Greengrass, Mark. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. 2nd ed. London and New York, 1995. A brilliant analysis of France's evolution under the first Bourbon king.

Love, Ronald. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henry IV, 15531593. Montreal and Ithaca, N.Y., 2001. A sensitive study that argues Henry IV remained a lifelong Calvinist even after 1593.

Wolfe, Michael. The Conversion of Henri IV: Politics, Power, and Religious Belief in Early Modern France. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. Examines the struggles sparked by the issue of Henry IV's religion during the 1580s and 1590s.

Michael Wolfe

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Henry IV

Henry IV

Henry IV (1553-1610) was king of France from 1589 to 1610. The first Bourbon monarch, he faced internal discord caused by the Wars of Religion and the economic disasters of the late 16th century and external danger posed by the powerful Hapsburg monarchy of Spain.

Born at Pau in Béarn on Dec. 14, 1553, Henry IV was the son of Antoine, Duc de Bourbon, and Jeanne d'Albret, daughter of the king of Navarre. Henry's parents were sympathetic to the Huguenot (Calvinist) faith, and Henry was raised a Huguenot. Through his father, Henry was a descendant of King Louis IX of France and hence a prince of the blood royal, next in succession to the French throne should the children of Henry II and Catherine de Médicis have no issue.

Henry's early childhood was supervised by his grandfather, Henri d'Albret, the king of Navarre, and, after his grandfather's death in 1555, by his mother, now queen of Navarre. He was trained in physical as well as intellectual disciplines, and his later career showed the results of both aspects of his early life. His physical endurance and vigor were matched by a quick and tolerant mind, his skill as a soldier matched by his diplomatic and political astuteness in the course of his reign.

Historical Background

From 1559 to 1590 France was the scene of internal political and religious conflicts exacerbated by the constant threat of military intervention by Spain, the greatest military power in Europe. During this period France was ruled by the three children of Henry II and Catherine de Médicis in succession: Francis II (1559-1560), Charles IX (1560-1574), and Henry III (1574-1589). All three were weak-willed, and the first two had political minorities, thus making political power a prize to be controlled either by the queen mother, Catherine, or by one of the rival aristocratic factions, whose dynastic rivalry was further embittered by their religious differences.

The greatest of these rival clans were the ducal house of Lorraine, the family of Guise, and the house of Bourbon, led by Antoine of Navarre, Henry's father, and Antoine's brother, Louis, Prince of Condé. The Guise faction was the champion of orthodox Roman Catholicism, while the Bourbon faction spoke for French Protestantism. During the reign of Francis II the Guise faction acquired greater influence. Catherine's regency during the minority of Charles IX, however, favored playing off one faction against the other, and the French Wars of Religion began in 1562 and continued until 1598. The rival aristocratic houses used warfare or the threat of warfare to increase their own political power, calling for aid from their coreligionists outside France— Spain, the papacy, England, or the Protestant princes of Germany. Warfare, religious hatred, economic disorder, and the continual threat of outside intervention dominated the late 16th century in France.

The Reformation and its ensuing political complications thus struck France in a different way from that in which it had affected Germany and England. Exacerbating political rivalries, playing upon the instability and minority of French kings, and affording all dissident social elements the opportunity of evening old scores, the Reformation in France was not so much the arguing of theological points (as in Germany) or the vehicle of increasing royal authority (as in England), but the unleashing of political forces which the French monarchy was unable to contain. It was to be the task of Henry IV to create a monarchical state out of political and religious anarchy.

King of Navarre

Henry was brought into the center of political infighting before he was 20. Catherine de Médicis arranged for a marriage between Henry and her daughter, Margaret of France. Henry's mother, Jeanne, was in Paris to be persuaded that her son should marry the Catholic princess but died in 1572. Henry then became King Henry III of Navarre. He and Margaret were married in August 1572, a week before Catherine, fearful of Huguenot influence over Charles IX, ordered the execution of Huguenots in Paris and other French cities. Henry himself was spared, but he was kept a prisoner in various degrees of security from 1572 to 1576, when he escaped to his own kingdom.

Henry's appearance and personality in these years made him a favorite not only of his own subjects but even of many people at court who had every reason to wish him dead. A description of him in 1567 reads: "He demeans himself towards all the world with so easy a carriage that people crowd around wherever he is. He enters into conversation as a highly polished man. He is well informed and never says anything which ought not to be said. … He loves play and good living." Henry's physical skill and military prowess brought him the friendship of many men, and his passionate nature brought him the love of many women (too many, his wife and subjects often thought).

Between his amorous adventures (which continued all his life) and his new role as king of Navarre and leader of French Huguenots, Henry's life moved out of Navarre exclusively and out of the choking world of the court into France itself. From 1576 to his conversion to Catholicism in 1594, Henry was the center of opposition both to Catholic persecution of Huguenots and to the powerful political League, which the Duke of Guise had created to control the crown of France under the semblance of defending it from Protestants.

King of France

In 1584 the Duke of Anjou, the youngest son of Catherine de Médicis, died, thus making Henry of Navarre the heir apparent to the reigning king, Henry III. The League immediately became more powerful, fearing a Protestant king. The League, allied with Philip II of Spain, exceeded in power even Henry III, who in despair arranged the assassination of the Duke of Guise and allied himself with Henry of Navarre.

When Henry III was assassinated in 1589, France faced the prospect of a Protestant king, kept from most of his kingdoms by a League of Catholics backed by the power of Spain. Henry had to fight his way to his own throne. But Henry IV refused to fight in the way his predecessors had done. Although he agreed to be instructed in the Catholic faith, he promised his coreligionists that he would end persecution on both sides, and from the death of Henry III to his own death, Henry IV had to create a political state over the skepticism of both Catholics and Protestants and in the presence of bitter memories of a kind that few states have been able to survive.

Between 1589 and 1594 Henry fought his way to the throne. He slowly wore down the Catholic front, declared war on Philip II of Spain in 1595, and guaranteed his earlier promises of religious toleration with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, the first successful attempt in modern European history to reconcile the presence of two religions within a single kingdom. Henry's actions were dictated by political necessity as well as personal conviction. France was in dire economic straits and in the midst of a social crisis. He was aided by a strong civil service and by a minister of exceptional talents, Maximilien de Bethune, Duc de Sully, his director of finance. In 1599 Henry IV divorced his wife and in 1600 married Marie de Médicis, who in 1601 bore him a son, his successor Louis XIII.

In the course of his reign Henry turned his attention vigorously to those aspects of the kingdom which had virtually been ignored during the period of the civil wars: justice, finance, agriculture, the exploitation of foreign acquisitions in Canada, the calming of old religious and social hatreds, and the perennial task of the 16th-century French monarchy, the control of Spain and Hapsburg Austria through alliances with England and the United Provinces. In the case of Hapsburg power, Henry devised a general program for checking the ambitions of this great imperial house. Whether or not Henry was responsible for the famous "Grand Design" which Sully later attributed to him is doubtful, but his last act in the area of foreign affairs was to launch an invasion of the Spanish Netherlands.

As he left Paris for the new war, Henry IV was stabbed by the assassin Ravaillac on May 14, 1610. He died before he could be brought back to the Louvre. Henry's reign had witnessed the worst of the civil wars which had been fought in many parts of Europe in the name of religion. It had witnessed the immense threat of Spanish power as well as the fire of internal rebellion. It had begun the slow political, social, and economic reconstruction of France. Much of the success of the reign was directly the result of Henry's personality and political and military ability. In an age when monarchy is no longer considered a viable form of government, it is well to be aware of a point in European history when a victory for absolute monarchy meant social and political reform on a scale that no other form of government could provide—and meant, too, a victory for a monarch who was as personally appealing as any other figure in those 2 centuries his life touched.

Further Reading

The most recent, and the best, biography in English of Henry IV is Desmond Seward, The First Bourbon (1971). A well-balanced study is Henry D. Sedgwick, Henry of Navarre (1930). Other biographies are Paul F. Willert, Henry of Navarre and the Huguenots in France (1893), and Quentin Hurst, Henry of Navarre (1938). The best account of the period in recent literature is The New Cambridge Modern History, vol. 4: R.B. Wernham, ed., The Counter-Reformation and Price Revolution, 1559-1610 (1968). The complex political and diplomatic affairs of the period are brilliantly described in Garrett Mattingly, The Armada (1959).

Additional Sources

Provinces et pays du Midi au temps d'Henri de Navarre, 1555-1589: colloque de Bayonne, Pau: Henri IV 1989, 1989. □

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Henry IV (king of France)

Henry IV, 1553–1610, king of France (1589–1610) and, as Henry III, of Navarre (1572–1610), son of Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne d'Albret; first of the Bourbon kings of France.

Early Life

Raised as a Protestant, he was recognized (1569) by the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny as the nominal head of the Huguenots. As a result of the temporary reconciliation (1570) between the Huguenots and the crown, Henry was betrothed to Margaret of Valois, sister of King Charles IX. A few days after his marriage (Aug. 18, 1572) the massacre of the Huguenots (see Saint Bartholomew's Day, massacre of) took place. Henry saved his life by abjuring Protestantism; however, he remained a virtual prisoner of the court until 1576, when he escaped, returned to the Protestant faith, and joined the combined Protestant and moderate Roman Catholic forces in the fifth of the Wars of Religion (see Religion, Wars of).

Struggle for Succession

Henry became the legal heir to the French throne upon the death (1584) of Francis, duke of Alençon, brother and heir to King Henry III, who had succeeded Charles IX in 1574. The Catholic League, led by Henri, 3d duc de Guise, refused to recognize a Protestant as heir and persuaded the king to revoke concessions to the Protestants and to exclude Henry of Navarre from the succession. In the resulting war, known as the War of the Three Henrys, Henry of Navarre defeated (1587) the king's forces at Coutras but was reconciled with Henry III when the League revolted against him (1588).

After Henry III's death (1589), Henry IV defeated the League forces under the duc de Mayenne at Arques (1589) and Ivry (1590) but was forced to abandon the siege of Paris when the League received Spanish aid. In 1593 he again abjured Protestantism, allegedly with the remark, "Paris is well worth a Mass." He was received in Paris in 1594. His conciliatory policy soon won him general support. To rid France of Spanish influence, Henry declared war on Spain (1595) and brought it to a successful conclusion with the Treaty of Vervins (1598).

Internal and Foreign Policy

Henry soon turned to the internal reconstruction of his war-ravaged kingdom. With the Edict of Nantes (1598; see Nantes, Edict of), he established political rights and a measure of religious freedom for the Huguenots. Aided by baron de Rosny (later duc de Sully), Henry restored some measure of financial order, encouraged agriculture, founded new industries, built roads and canals, expanded foreign trade through commercial treaties with Spain, England, and the Ottoman Empire, and encouraged colonization of Canada. Anxious to see prosperity reach all classes, he is reputed to have said, "There should be a chicken in every peasant's pot every Sunday." In his foreign policy Henry sought to weaken the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. He was preparing to oppose them on the question of the succession to the duchies of Cleves and Jülich when he was stabbed to death by a fanatic, François Ravaillac.

Personal Life

Henry's marriage to Margaret of Valois was annulled in 1599. His mistresses included Gabrielle d'Estrées and Henriette d'Entragues. In 1600 he married Marie de' Medici, who was regent during the minority of their son Louis XIII. Numerous anecdotes and legends about Henry bear witness to his gallantry, his Gallic wit, and his concern for the common people, which have made him probably the most popular king among the French.


See biographies by P. G. Willert (1893), Q. Hurst (1938), H. Mann (2 vol., tr. 1937–39), and D. Seward (1971); R. Mousnier, The Assassination of Henry IV (tr. 1973).

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Henry IV

Henry IV (1553–1610) King of France (1589–1610), first of the Bourbon dynasty. From a Protestant upbringing, Henry was recognized as leader of the Huguenots. The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572) marred Henry's marriage to Margaret of Valois. Henry survived, but was forced to convert to Catholicism. In 1584 he became legal heir to Henry III. On Henry's death, the Guise family refused to recognize his claim, but were subdued. In 1593, Henry willingly converted to Roman Catholicism – allegedly remarking that “Paris is well worth a Mass”. He ended the Wars of Religion by the Edict of Nantes (1598), but remained sympathetic to Protestantism, secretly supporting the revolt of the Protestant Netherlands against Spain. A popular king, with a keen sense of social justice, he was assassinated by François Ravaillac.

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