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