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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Henry IV of France


Henry was born on December 13, 1553 in Pau, a city on the northern edge of the Pyrenees, in the southwest of France.

Pau is the only city in Europe that can boast of having witnessed two Kings at the origin of a dynasty, which is still the case in the 21st century: Henry IV of France and Charles XIV John of Sweden, born in 1763.

His parents were Queen Joan III of Navarre (Jeanne d'Albret) and her consort, Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, King of Navarre. Henry was raised as a Protestant.

As a teenager, Henry joined the Huguenot forces in the French Wars of Religion.


On June 9, 1572, upon his mother's death, Henry became King of Navarre.

Six days after his marriage to the Protestant Marguerite de Valois in August 1572, the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (see below) began in Paris. Over three thousand Huguenots who had come to Paris for Henry of Navarre's wedding were killed, as well as thousands more throughout the country in the days that followed. Henry narrowly escaped death thanks to his promise to convert to Catholicism. He was made to live at the court of France, but he escaped in early 1576.

Henry of Navarre became heir presumptive to the French throne in 1584 upon the death of Francis, Duke of Anjou, brother and heir to the Catholic Henry III, who had succeeded Charles IX in 1574. This was in application of the Salic Law, as he was the descendant of the eldest surviving male line of the Capetian Dynasty.

At the death of King Henry III of France on August 2, 1589, Henry of Navarre nominally became king. 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, because of his Protestant faith.

Henry III of France on his deathbed designating Henry IV of Navarre as his successor 

Henry permanently renounced Protestantism in July 1593. His acceptance of Roman Catholicism secured the allegiance of the vast majority of his subjects, and he was crowned King of France at the Cathedral of Chartres on February 27, 1594.

King Henry IV of France

Henry aided by his faithful minister, Maximilien de Béthune, first Duke of Sully (1559-1641), set about restoring the prosperity of the land. He wished, he said, that there should be no peasant in the kingdom so poor that he could not have a chicken in his pot for his Sunday dinner.

Henry succeeded in achieving economic growth although his political hold over the country remained precarious. Increased taxes led to discontent from the peasants as they struggled to live whilst the aristocracy and the new middle class achieved material prosperity.


Henry was a man of kindness, compassion, and good humor, and much loved by his people.

On August 18, 1572 Henry married the Protestant Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615), sister of the then King Charles IX  at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. In the same year he became King Henry III of Navarre, succeeding his mother Jeanne d'Albret, who had brought him up as a Huguenot.. Henry's marriage was part of a plan to help quell the French Wars of Religion.

Henry of Navarre and Margaret of Valois

Henry's first marriage was not a happy one and the couple remained childless. The two had separated even before Henry had succeeded to the throne in August 1589 and Marguerite de Valois lived for many years in the chateau of Usson in Auvergne.

After Henry had become king various advisers impressed upon him the desirability of providing an heir to the French Crown in order to avoid the problem of a disputed succession. Henry himself favored the idea of obtaining an annulment of his first marriage and taking Gabrielle d'Estrée as a bride..Henry's councilors strongly opposed this idea, but the matter was resolved unexpectedly by Gabrielle d'Estrée's sudden death in April 1599, after she had given birth prematurely to a stillborn son.

Henry and Marguerite's marriage was annulled in 1599 and the king married Marie de Médici (1573-1642) on December 17, 1600.

The opera Euridice was composed by Jacopo Peri in honor of the marriage between Henry  and Marie de Médici. The composition is considered to be the second work of modern opera, and the first such musical drama to survive to the present day. (The first, Dafne, was written by the same authors in 1597.)

Henry had four children, two sons and two daughters by Marie de Médici, including Henrietta who married Charles I of England (see below).

Henry IV had at least eleven illegitimate children, three of them with Gabrielle d'Estrée.


Although baptized as a Roman Catholic, Henry was raised as a Protestant by his mother, who had declared Calvinism the religion of Navarre.

At the age of 16, Henry was placed in the care of the Hugenot leader Coligny and became the main hope of the Protestant party during the French wars of religion.

Henry made a feigned abjuration of his faith to escape the St Bartholomew's massacre and spent three years virtually a prisoner of the French court. In 1576 he escaped and revoked his conversion.

At a ceremony in the Basilica of St Denis on July 25, 1593, Henry officially renounced his Protestant faith and was received into the Catholic religion. It was a political conversion aimed at bringing an end to the religious wars that had ravaged France for so long. Henry declared "Paris is worth a Mass" as he rode into his capital city.

Henry's conversion was prompted by the feeling that a lasting peace between the warring religious factions was more important than his personal religious inclinations. The French Catholics had formed an alliance with Philip II of Spain who had threatened to plunge the country into blood if the King remained a Protestant.

By the 1598 Edict of Nantes, the French Protestants were guaranteed freedom of worship. Henry also restored their old places of worship and granted them permission to build new ones.


Henry had a preference for sweet things and so sugared almonds, marzipan and jam became fashionable in France during his reign.  He also has a great fondness for melons, which grow in his gardens in glasshouses.

Henry often dined on boiled chicken with an appetising seasoning of pepper and cloves. He wanted to make this chicken dish the Sunday meal of the French as a symbol of modest comfort and an improvement in the condition of the commoners.

The king was described by a contemporary as "chewing garlic and having breath that would fell an ox at twenty paces."

Henry's trusted adviser and close friend, Phillipe de Mornay, known as "The Hugenot Pope" created for his King a tasty cheese sauce which became known as "sauce mornay".

On his way to dinner Henry was accosted by a suppliant who began his address with "Sire, Agesilaus, King of Lacedaemon." Alert to the danger signs of a bore, Henry interrupted him. "I have heard of him- but he had dined and I have not.”


Henry IV was assassinated as he was riding through Paris on May 14, 1610. A Catholic fanatic, François Ravaillac, stabbed the king to death in the Rue de la Ferronnerie.  Henry was buried at the Saint Denis Basilica.

Assassination of Henry IV, engraving by Gaspar Bouttats

His widow, Marie de' Medici, served as regent for their nine-year-old son, Louis XIII, until 1617

Sources Faber Book of Anecdotes, Food For Thought

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