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Home | Centuries | The 16th century - Great figures | Henri IV (1553-1610)
Henri IV (1553-1610)
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King of Navarre (1572), King of France (1589)

After having established himself as king of France, Henri IV restored civil peace to the country.

The «scarlet wedding»
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Henri of Navarre was the son of Antoine de Bourbon - a descendant of king Saint-Louis and first prince of royal blood - and of Jeanne d'Albret, queen of Navarre. Both his parents were Protestants.

He joined the wars of religion at an early age - first riding to war at La Rochelle in 1568.

He married Marguerite de Valois on 18th August 1572 in Paris. She was the daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Medici, also sister to King Charles IX. This wedding was supposed to be a symbol of reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics in France - but it proved to be explosive. Henri of Navarre, a firm Huguenot, did not attend the mass celebrated in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but received a blessing in the square situated in front of it. Besides, many important Huguenot leaders had come to the capital for the ceremony and this created tensions in the city. One cannot dissociate this « scarlet wedding » from the massacre of St. Bartholomew, which took place on 24th August, 1572.

Go to top The leader of the protestant party
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Since Henri of Navarre was a prince of royal blood, he had been spared at the massacre of St Bartholomew. However, he was obliged to forswear his faith and was kept imprisoned at the court. After three years, he managed to escape ; he returned to his State of Navarre, joined the ranks of Protestantism once more and became leader of the protestant party.

He became heir to the crown in 1584 after the death of the duke of Alençon, the last surviving brother of Henri III.

In 1588, Henri III's power was seriously threatened by the League, which benefited from the help of Spain. So Henri III joined forces with Henri of Navarre and in 1589 they both laid siege to Paris which was in the hands of the League. Henri III was assassinated by a monk, a member of the League, called Jacques Clément. Before his death he had already confirmed Henri of Navarre as his heir to the throne.

Go to top A kingdom to conquer and pacify
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Henri of Navarre was named Henri IV. He inherited a kingdom which was penniless, divided and partly occupied by the Spanish. He had yet to conquer it. In March 1590, the famous battle of Ivry led on to the siege of Paris.

Henri IV returned to Catholicism in 1593 and was crowned in Chartres in 1594. This rallied the Catholics to his cause, but deeply shocked the Protestants. The king made a triumphal entry into Paris in 1594.

He now had to eliminate the League. In order to do this, he declared war on Spain. The war lasted three years, and ended with the peace treaty of Vervins in 1598 when the Spanish troops finally left France. Brittany, led by the last surviving prince of the League, the duke of Mercœur, submitted to the crown in the spring of 1598.

Go to top Religious strife came to an end with the Edict of Nantes
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In 1598 the Edict of Nantes was signed, bringing peace to the kingdom between the two religious factions.

The king enforced the registration of the edict on the provincial parliaments.

    Extract from Henri IV's speech to parliament in Paris, requesting the registration of the Edict of Nantes :
    « There are no longer to be any distinctions between Catholics and Huguenots - all must be loyal French citizens. I am the king and shepherd of my flock ; I do not wish their blood to be shed, but I wish them be gathered together gently and without violence » ("...il ne faut pas faire de distinction de catholique et de huguenot, mais il faut que tous soient bons Français... Je suis roy et berger qui ne veux répandre le sang de mes brebis, mais les veux rassembler avec douceur et non par force...).

Henri IV curbed violence and unrest throughout the provinces and restored prosperity to his kingdom.

He chose both Catholic and Protestant counsellors. Sully, a Protestant whom he made counsellor in 1595, was his most important minister and successfully straightened out the financial situation in the country.

Henri IV took measures to build up agriculture and farming, as well as industry. Communications and transport were greatly improved by the building of bridges, roads, canals and lighthouses.

In 1595 the Pope granted Henri IV''s request for the annulment of his marriage to Marguerite de Valois (Queen Margot), who had been unable to give him an heir. Henri IV married Marie de Medici, the niece of the great duke of Tuscany, in 1600.

Go to top The threat of war
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In 1601 he led an expedition against the duke of Savoy, an ally of Spain, and, by the treaty of Lyon, he won over both the Bresse country and the Gex country.

In 1610 Henri IV formed an alliance with the German Protestants of the Evangelical Union and began preparing for war. He wanted to prevent an alliance between Spain and the Habsburg families of Austria.

Go to top The assassination of a great king

Henri IV was murdered on 14th May, 1610 by François Ravaillac, a catholic fanatic who still stood by the old ideas of the League ; tragically, this happened just as the country was approaching a time of growing peace and prosperity.

BABELON, Jean-Pierre, Henri IV, Fayard, Paris, 1982
BARNAVI, Elie, La guerre des trois Henri 1573-1598, Perrin, Paris, 2006
GARRISSON, Janine, Henri IV, Le Seuil, rééd. 2008, Paris, 1984
GARRISSON, Jeanine, Henri IV, le roi de la paix, Tallandier, 2006
LE ROY LADURIE, Emmanuel, Henri IV ou l'aventure, Bayard, Paris, 2005
PETITFILS, Jean-Christian, L'assassinat d'Henri IV, mystère d'un crime, Perrin, Paris, 2009
Bulletin de la Société des sciences, lettres et arts de Pau et du Béarn
Henri de Navarre et le royaume de France, 1984
Related articles
In this collection
St. Bartholomew's Day (24th August 1572)
The Edict of Nantes (1598)
Jeanne d'Albret (1528-1572)
Sully (1559-1649)
Other collections
Jeanne d'Albret (1528-1572) Themes
St. Bartholomew's Day (24th August 1572) Themes
The Edict of Nantes (1598) Themes
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