Henry was born at the royal Château de Fontainebleau, the fourth son of King Henry II and Catherine de' Medici and grandson of Francis I of France and Claude of France. His older brothers were Francis II of France, Charles IX of France, and Louis of Valois. He was made Duke of Angoulême and Duke of Orléans in 1560, then Duke of Anjou in 1566.
He was his mother's favourite; she called him chers yeux ("precious eyes") and lavished fondness and affection upon him for most of his life. His elder brother, Charles, grew to detest him, partially because he resented his better health.
The royal children were raised under the supervision of Diane de Poitiers.
In his youth, Henry was considered the best of the sons of Catherine de' Medici and Henry II. Unlike his father and elder brothers, he had little interest in the traditional Valois pastimes of hunting and physical exercise. Although he was both fond of fencing and skilled in it, he preferred to indulge his tastes for the arts and reading. These predilections were attributed to his Italian mother.
At one point in his youth he showed a tendency towards Protestantism as a means of rebelling. At the age of nine, calling himself "a little Huguenot", he refused to attend Mass, sang Protestant psalms to his sister Margaret (exhorting her all the while to change her religion and cast her Book of Hours into the fire), and even bit the nose off a statue of Saint Paul. His mother firmly cautioned her children against such behaviour, and he would never again show any Protestant tendencies. Instead, he became nominally Roman Catholic.
Reports that Henry engaged in same-sex relations with his court favourites, known as the mignons, date back to his own time. Certainly he enjoyed intense relationships with them. The scholar Louis Crompton maintains that all of the contemporary rumors were true. Some modern historians dispute this. Jean-Francois Solnon, Nicolas Le Roux, and Jacqueline Boucher have noted that Henry had many famous mistresses, that he was well known for his taste in beautiful women, and that no male sex partners have been identified. They have concluded that the idea he was homosexual was promoted by his political opponents (both Protestant and Catholic) who used his dislike of war and hunting to depict him as effeminate and undermine his reputation with the French people. Certainly his religious enemies plumbed the depths of personal abuse in attributing vices to him, topping the mixture with accusations of what they regarded as the ultimate devilish vice, homosexuality. And the portrait of a self-indulgent sodomite, incapable of fathering an heir to the throne, proved useful in efforts by the Catholic League to secure the succession for Cardinal Charles de Bourbon after 1585.
Gary Ferguson found their interpretations unconvincing: "It is difficult to reconcile the king whose use of favourites is so logically strategic with the man who goes to pieces when one of them dies." Katherine Crawford, by contrast, emphasizes the problems Henry's reputation encountered because of his failure to produce an heir and the presence of his powerful mother at court, combined with his enemies' insistence on conflating patronage with favouritism and luxury with decadence.
In 1570, discussions commenced arranging for Henry to court Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth, almost 37, was expected by many parties in her country to marry and produce an heir. However, nothing came of these discussions. In initiating them, Elizabeth is viewed by historians as having intended only to arouse the concern of Spain, rather than contemplate marriage seriously. The chance of marriage was further blighted by differing religious views (Henry was Catholic, Elizabeth Protestant) and his opinion of Elizabeth. Henry tactlessly referred to Elizabeth as a putain publique (public whore) and made stinging remarks about their difference in age. Upon hearing (inaccurately) that she limped because of a varicose vein, he called her an "old creature with a sore leg".
Wars of Religion
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. (February 2013)
The Siege of La Rochelle
by the Duke of Anjou in 1573 ("History of Henry III" tapestry, completed in 1623)
Prior to ascending the French throne in 1574, Henry served as a leader of the royal army in the French Wars of Religion, taking part in the victories over Huguenots at the Battle of Jarnac (March 1569) and at the Battle of Moncontour (October 1569). While still Duke of Anjou, he helped plot the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. Though Henry did not participate directly, historian Thierry Wanegffelen sees him as the royal most responsible for the massacre, which involved the targeted killing of many key Huguenot leaders. Henry III's reign as King of France, like those of his elder brothers Francis and Charles, would see France in constant turmoil over religion.
Henry continued to take an active role in the Wars of Religion, and in 1572/1573 led the siege of La Rochelle, a massive military assault on the Huguenot-held city. At the end of May 1573, Henry learned that the Polish szlachta had elected him King of Poland (a country with a large Protestant minority at the time) and political considerations forced him to negotiate an end to the assault. Negotiators reached an agreement on 24 June 1573, and Catholic troops ended the siege on 6 July 1573.