Henry IV (1553-1610)

Henry IV, also called (until 1572) Prince De Béarn, byname Henry of Navarre, or of Bourbon, French Henri de Navarre, or de Bourbon, king of Navarre (as Henry III, 1572-89) and first Bourbon king of France (1589-1610), who, at the end of the Wars of Religion, abjured Protestantism and converted to Roman Catholicism (1593) in order to win Paris and reunify France. With the aid of such ministers as the Duke de Sully, he brought new prosperity to France.

Prince of Béarn

Henry de Bourbon-Navarre was the son of Antoine de Bourbon, Duke de Vendôme, and Jeanne d' Albret, queen of Navarre from 1555. Henry, through his father, was in the sole legitimate line of descent from the Capetian kings of France. It was scarcely to be expected, however, that he would one day succeed to the throne of France, since Catherine de Médicis had already borne three sons to the reigning king, Henry II, and would soon bear him a fourth. Prince Henry spent most of his early childhood in Béarn. From 1561 to 1567 he lived with his second cousins, the children of the king of France, among whom was his future wife Margaret.

The religious crisis between Roman Catholic and Protestant (Huguenot) forces was then coming to a head, leading to a long period of civil war. Antoine de Bourbon temporarily allied himself with the Protestants but changed sides and was mortally wounded in battle against them. Henry's mother, Jeanne d'Albret, held firm and announced her Calvinism in 1560. Henry had just turned 13 when his mother brought him back to Béarn. At a crucial age in his intellectual development, he was brought up in the strict principles of Protestantism. About the same time, he began his military education. In the autumn of 1567, he served as nominal head of a punitive expedition launched against the rebellious Roman Catholic gentry of lower Navarre, which ended in an easy victory.

In 1568 his mother put him into the charge of her brother-in-law Louis I de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, who was the leader of the Protestant forces. The Protestants were surprised and defeated near Jarnac on March 13, 1569, by the Duke d'Anjou, the future Henry III, and Condé was killed. Jeanne d'Albret took Henry to the new leader of the Protestant forces, Gaspard de Coligny, who gave the young prince his military education. Henry distinguished himself at the Battle of Arnay-le-Duc on June 26, 1570, when he led the first charge of the Huguenot cavalry. The long campaign through the ravaged provinces, extending from Poitou to the heart of Burgundy, forged in him the soldierly spirit that he would retain throughout his life and made him reflect on the disaster that had befallen the kingdom.

King of Navarre

Peace was concluded in August 1570, and a very liberal edict was granted the Protestants. Many persons, including Catherine de Médicis, hoped the civil war had come to an end. In order to strengthen the peace, a marriage was arranged between Prince Henry and Margaret of Valois of the French royal house. Meanwhile, upon his mother's death in June 1572, Prince Henry became king of Navarre and sovereign lord of Béarn. On August 18, 1572, he and Margaret were married in Paris, but on August 24 came the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Protestants were massacred by royal forces. The marriage was publicly styled the "scarlet nuptials" because of the bloodshed. Ordered by his brother-in-law Charles IX to abjure his Protestant faith, Henry yielded. His conversion to Roman Catholicism was obviously of dubious sincerity, and he was therefore held for three-and-a-half years at the courts of Charles IX and then Henry III. Careful to restrain his impatience, he hid his forceful personality from his detainers. In February 1576, however, he at last succeeded in escaping from the French court, whereupon he recanted and joined the combined forces of Protestants and Catholic rebels against Henry III. Once free, he displayed his sharp intellect and political acumen in his role as protector of the Protestant churches. His common sense--one of his outstanding traits, except in love affairs--manifested itself when civil war broke out anew at the end of 1576. The Huguenots fared badly, and Henry, evaluating the situation, was able to persuade his coreligionists to give up the struggle and accept the Treaty of Bergerac on Sept. 17, 1577, despite the sacrifices it imposed on them.

Heir presumptive to the throne

On the death of Henry III's brother, François, Duke d'Anjou, in 1584, Henry de Bourbon-Navarre became the heir presumptive to the throne of France. He was irrevocably opposed, however, by the militant Roman Catholics of the Holy League, who were unwilling to accept a Protestant king, and by the pope, who excommunicated him and declared him devoid of any right to inherit the crown. Headed by Henri, Duke de Guise, and his brothers, the League claimed to be the defender of the ancestral faith of France, but its increasing reliance on Spanish support rapidly became a serious threat to French independence. Henry III lacked the strength to contain the League's overwhelming influence.

Excluded from the succession by the Treaty of Nemours (1585) between Henry III and the Holy League headed by the Duke de Guise, Henry of Navarre fought the War of the Three Henrys mainly in southwestern France. In this crucial episode in which the very independence of France was at stake, Henry's activity was the essential factor. Though too prone in peace to neglect public affairs for private pleasure, he was an unrivaled leader in times of peril. Quick to grasp the significance of every situation, he was equally prompt to act, and victory was invariably the reward of his bold swiftness. He was not a brilliant strategist but had the ability to inspire his men to action. Four centuries later, his notes and speeches still have the impact and clarity of a clarion call. The outcome of the war hinged on the encounter between Henry and the army of Henry III, who had come increasingly under the influence of the League; and at the Battle of Coutras (Oct. 20, 1587) Henry of Navarre defeated the French king's army under Anne, Duke de Joyeuse. Meanwhile, the League had accepted the daughter of Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth of Valois as the next ruler of France. Henry III grasped the full meaning of this situation for the future of France and had the Duke de Guise assassinated in December 1588. He was then reconciled with Henry of Navarre because he needed the latter's help to recover Paris from the control of the League. Their united forces laid siege to Paris on July 30, but on August 1 Henry III, the last of the Valois dynasty, was stabbed in his headquarters at Saint-Cloud. He died the next day, after staunchly proclaiming Henry of Navarre, the head of the house of Bourbon, as his successor to the French crown.

Henry IV

Henry IV was now king of France, but it would take him nine years of struggle against the Holy League to secure his kingdom. Many of the Roman Catholic gentry who had remained loyal to Henry III deserted him, and his army was growing exhausted. He had to withdraw from the outskirts of Paris, which remained the League's principal stronghold. Henry won victories at Arques in 1589 and Ivry in 1590 and mounted unsuccessful sieges of Paris in 1590 and of Rouen in 1591-92. He was able to capture Chartres and Noyon from the League, but the war dragged on interminably, and the king realized that it had to be ended at any cost. After long hesitation, he undertook a final conversion back to Roman Catholicism in July 1593. Though many remained unconvinced of his sincerity, Henry's conversion removed all legitimate pretext for resistance, and important towns, notably Orléans and Lyon, submitted to him in growing numbers. On March 22, 1594, Paris finally gave in to him. Whether or not he made the comment attributed to him--"Paris is well worth a mass!"--he went, amid cheers, to hear the Te Deum at Notre Dame.

Yet even after Pope Clement VIII removed the ban of excommunication from Henry IV on Sept. 17, 1595, Spain continued to support the remaining resistance to him in France, chiefly in Brittany under the leadership of Philippe-Emmanuel, Duke de Mercoeur (the younger brother of the late Duke de Guise). In order to bring this situation to an end, Henry declared war on Philip II of Spain in January 1595 and undertook mopping-up operations against the League and its Spanish allies, defeating them at Fontaine-Française in Burgundy (June 1595) and retaking Amiens from Spanish control (September 1597). The Duke de Mercoeur came to terms with the king in March 1598, and the Peace of Vervins was reached between France and Spain on May 2, 1598. On April 13, 1598, Henry signed the Edict of Nantes, which confirmed Roman Catholicism as the state church but granted a large measure of religious freedom to Protestants, who were also given the right to hold public office and who retained their fortresses in certain cities. The Edict of Nantes ended nearly 40 years of religious strife and civil war that had left France tottering on the brink of disintegration.

The achievements of the reign

Henry IV had united the kingdom and achieved peace at home and abroad. He now proceeded to bring order and prosperity back to France. The rapidity with which he restored order surprised his contemporaries, and the effect of his personal policy in that achievement cannot be ignored. This policy stemmed from the wide experience that he had acquired during the conquest of the kingdom; acquainted with all the social classes of France, he knew what each one needed (he is traditionally credited with having desired for every labourer la poule au pot, a chicken to eat, every Sunday); and he used his geniality and his persuasive manner to win obedience.

It was the wealthy merchants and the crown officials who had contributed most to Henry's success in acquiring his kingdom, and he looked to them for its rehabilitation and economic progress. Though he succeeded in suppressing certain useless government offices, he consolidated many others by according the "annual right," or paulette (1604), whereby the holder of an office could make it hereditary through yearly payments of one-sixtieth of the price he had originally paid for it. This practice would later create serious problems for Henry's successors, but its immediate effect was to restore an adequate income to the government, which skillfully put it to use rebuilding the French economy. At first Henry controlled the Parlements (high courts) through the moderate approach of the chancellor Pomponne de Bellièvre, but gradually he asserted his personal authority more and more, relying for this purpose on Maximilien de Béthune, Duke de Sully. Among Henry's other able councillors were Nicolas Brulart de Sillery, Nicolas de Neufville, and Pierre Jeannin.

Henry's government eliminated the formidable national debt and realized a reserve of 18 million livres. To revive the economy he undertook projects to develop agriculture, planting colonies of Dutch and Flemish settlers to drain the marshes of Saintonge. He introduced the silk industry to France and encouraged the manufacture of cloth, glassware, and tapestries, luxury items that had formerly been imported from Holland or Italy. Under the direction of Sully, new highways and canals were constructed to aid the flow of commerce. New treaties were concluded with the Ottoman sultan Ahmed I (1604), and commercial treaties were signed with England (1606) and with Spain and Holland. Support was given to Samuel de Champlain's exploration in Canada. The French army was reorganized, its pay was raised and assured, a school of cadets formed, the artillery service was reconstituted, and strongholds on the frontier were fortified. Though he lacked the artistic taste of the Valois kings, Henry beautified Paris, completing the Tuileries and building the great gallery of the Louvre, the Pont Neuf, the Hôtel-de-Ville, and the Place Royale (now Place des Vosges).

Although he was himself a convert, Henry managed to reassure the Protestants and to grant them privileges in the state while at the same time promoting the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, protecting the monastic orders, and improving the recruitment of the Roman Catholic clergy in France. Pope Clement VIII's annulment of Henry's marriage to Margaret of Valois made it possible for him to marry the princess of Tuscany, Marie de Médicis, in October 1600. The new queen gave birth on Sept. 27, 1601, to the dauphin, the future Louis XIII, and eventually to four other children.

Henry IV's foreign policy, without being aggressive toward Spain, was designed to diminish Spanish influence in Europe. He was able to force Savoy to sign the Treaty of Lyons (1601), thereby acquiring Bresse, Bugey, and other pieces of territory on France's eastern border. He also concluded alliances with the German Protestant princes, with Lorraine, and with the Swiss. A great French success was the mediation between Spain and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, which led to the conclusion of the Twelve Years' Truce in 1609.

In the latter year difficulties arose with the Holy Roman emperor over the Cleves-Jülich succession. After some hesitation, Henry finally decided on a military expedition to expel the imperial troops from Jülich, but whether he would have gone on to risk a new general war against the Habsburgs is unknown. He was assassinated in Paris on May 14, 1610, by a fanatical Roman Catholic named François Ravaillac.


The first of the Bourbon kings of France, Henry IV brought unity and prosperity to the country after the ruinous 16th-century Wars of Religion. Though he was not a great strategist, his courage and gallantry made him a great military leader. And though he was never an efficient administrator, his political insight, his willingness to enlist the cooperation of well-chosen ministers, and his understanding of his people made him an efficient ruler.

Henry IV died a victim of the fanaticism he wanted to eradicate. Centuries ahead of his own time, he said, "Those who follow their consciences are of my religion, and I am of the religion of those who are brave and good." Too often misunderstood during his lifetime, his tragic end seemed finally to have opened the eyes of his people. They soon bestowed on him the appellation Henry the Great.

Henry is one of the most popular figures in French history for his amorous propensities as well as his political achievements. His love affairs were numerous, the most celebrated being those with Gabrielle d'Estrées, Henriette de Balsac d'Entragues, and Charlotte des Essarts. His many amours earned him the appellation of le vert galant ("the gay old spark").

Please send your comments, sign our guestbook and send a postcard.
© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.