June 9, 1572 — Henry Bourbon got his first taste of power on this day when, at 19, he became the King of Navarre in Spain. Later, he was to become King of France as Henry IV and turned out to be one of the most popular figures in French history for his amorous adventures as well as his political achievements.
Not that it was plain sailing. Baptised as a Catholic but raised in the Protestant faith, Henry was seen as a usurper by Catholics and as a traitor by Protestants. He escaped at least 12 assassination attempts, but his popularity greatly improved as time went by.
Henry had many lovers, earning himself the nickname “le vert galant” (the gay old spark). But he was also wise and clever and having restored the nation’s economy, in 1598 he signed the Edict of Nantes.
This confirmed Roman Catholicism as the state church but also guaranteed religious liberties to Protestants. It ended nearly 40 years of religious strife and civil war that threatened to bring France to its knees.
Henry, though, had his own personal problems to sort out. After 26 years of marriage, his wife Queen Margot, also known as Margaret of Valois or Margaret of France, had not produced any children and Henri announced his intention to have the marriage annulled.
His plan was to marry his favourite mistress, the beautiful, enchanting and intelligent Gabrielle d'Estrées, with whom he had two sons and a daughter – and who was pregnant again. Henry wanted to legitimise her sons as heirs to the throne.
Margot, a woman scorned, was absolutely furious. Herself famously promiscuous, she was happy to accept Gabrielle as her husband’s mistress over the previous nine years, but marriage was another thing altogether and she resolutely opposed the idea of agreeing to a divorce.
Henry decided on an appeal to the Vatican but for various reasons Pope Clement VIII was not enthusiastic about dissolving the marriage.
In the end, his indecision and Margot’s defiance became irrelevant. For although Gabrielle had easily given birth to Henry’s three children, her fourth pregnancy was to prove fatal.
While staying at a friend’s house in Paris she went into an extremely painful labour. She had convulsions and her face turned black. A couple of servants were so shocked by her appearance that they fainted. What happened was that her baby boy had died in her womb and surgeons had to work to remove him.
Gabrielle, who was about 26 years old, died in agony giving birth to a stillborn son. Her enemies declared it was the work of the Devil, saying she had sold her soul to become the King’s mistress.
Henry was distraught but after a while returned to his old ways, selecting mistresses to replace Gabrielle. Ironically, some months later, Margot agreed to a divorce and the Pope granted the annulment that Henry had wanted.
Then, heavily in debt to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Henry agreed to repay it by marrying his daughter, Marie de’Medici. A shrewish and plain woman, she could not have been more different from Gabrielle and complained bitterly – in vain – about Henry’s philandering.
She was, however, to produce the son and heir that Henry wanted – Louis XIII, who reigned as King of France from 1610 to 1643.
In 1610 Henry was stabbed to death in the street by a Catholic fanatic. He was 56.
Published: March 12, 2019