Childhood and adolescence
Henry de Bourbon was born in Pau, the capital of the joint Kingdom of Navarre with the sovereign principality of Béarn. His parents were Queen Joan III of Navarre (Jeanne d'Albret) and her consort, Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, King of Navarre. Although baptised as a Roman Catholic, Henry was raised as a Protestant by his mother, who had declared Calvinism the religion of Navarre. As a teenager, Henry joined the Huguenot forces in the French Wars of Religion. On 9 June 1572, upon his mother's death, the 19-year-old became King of Navarre.
First marriage and Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre
At Queen Joan's death, it was arranged for Henry to marry Margaret of Valois, daughter of Henry II and Catherine de' Medici. The wedding took place in Paris on 18 August 1572 on the parvis of Notre Dame Cathedral.
On 24 August, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre began in Paris. Several thousand Protestants who had come to Paris for Henry's wedding were killed, as well as thousands more throughout the country in the days that followed. Henry narrowly escaped death thanks to the help of his wife and his promise to convert to Catholicism. He was forced to live at the court of France, but he escaped in early 1576. On 5 February of that year, he formally abjured Catholicism at Tours and rejoined the Protestant forces in the military conflict. He named his 16-year-old sister, Catherine de Bourbon, regent of Béarn. Catherine held the regency for nearly thirty years.
Wars of Religion
Henry became heir presumptive to the French throne in 1584 upon the death of Francis, Duke of Anjou, brother and heir to the Catholic Henry III, who had succeeded Charles IX in 1574. Because Henry of Navarre was the next senior agnatic descendant of King Louis IX, King Henry III had no choice but to recognise him as the legitimate successor. Salic law barred the king's sisters and all others who could claim descent through only the female line from inheriting. Since Henry of Navarre was a Huguenot, the issue was not considered settled in many quarters of the country, and France was plunged into a phase of the Wars of Religion known as the War of the Three Henries. Henry III and Henry of Navarre were two of these Henries. The third was Henry I, Duke of Guise, who pushed for complete suppression of the Huguenots and had much support among Catholic loyalists. Political disagreements among the parties set off a series of campaigns and counter-campaigns that culminated in the Battle of Coutras.
In December 1588, Henry III had Henry I of Guise murdered, along with his brother, Louis Cardinal de Guise. Henry III thought that the removal of Guise would finally restore his authority. Instead, however, the populace were horrified and rose against him. In several cities, the title of the king was no longer recognized. His power was limited to Blois, Tours, and the surrounding districts. In the general chaos, the king relied on King Henry of Navarre and his Huguenots.
The two kings were united by a common interest—to win France from the Catholic League. Henry III acknowledged the King of Navarre as a true subject and Frenchman, not a fanatic Huguenot aiming for the destruction of Catholics. Catholic royalist nobles also rallied to the king's standard. With this combined force, the two kings marched to Paris. The morale of the city was low, and even the Spanish ambassador believed the city could not hold out longer than a fortnight. But Henry III was assassinated shortly thereafter (2 August 1589) by a fanatical monk.
When Henry III died, Henry of Navarre nominally became king of France. The Catholic League, however, strengthened by support from outside the country—especially from Spain—was strong enough to prevent a universal recognition of his new title. The Pope excommunicated Henry and declared him devoid of any right to inherit the crown. Most of the Catholic nobles who had joined Henry III for the siege of Paris also refused to recognize the claim of Henry of Navarre, and abandoned him. He set about winning his kingdom by military conquest, aided by English money and German troops. Henry's Catholic uncle Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon, was proclaimed king by the League, but the Cardinal was Henry's prisoner at the time. Henry was victorious at the Battle of Arques and the Battle of Ivry, but failed to take Paris after besieging it in 1590.
When Cardinal de Bourbon died in 1590, the League could not agree on a new candidate. While some supported various Guise candidates, the strongest candidate was probably the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, the daughter of Philip II of Spain, whose mother Elisabeth had been the eldest daughter of Henry II of France. In the religious fervor of the time, the Infanta was recognized to be a suitable candidate, provided that she marry a suitable husband. The French overwhelmingly rejected Philip's first choice, Archduke Ernest of Austria, the Emperor's brother, also a member of the House of Habsburg. In case of such opposition, Philip indicated that princes of the House of Lorraine would be acceptable to him: the Duke of Guise; a son of the Duke of Lorraine; and the son of the Duke of Mayenne. The Spanish ambassadors selected the Duke of Guise, to the joy of the League. But at that moment of seeming victory, the envy of the Duke of Mayenne was aroused, and he blocked the proposed election of a king.
with portrait of King Henri IV, made in Nuremberg
(Germany) by Hans Laufer
The Parlement of Paris also upheld the Salic law. They argued that if the French accepted natural hereditary succession, as proposed by the Spaniards, and accepted a woman as their queen, then the ancient claims of the English kings would be confirmed, and the monarchy of centuries past would be nothing but an illegality. The Parlement admonished Mayenne, as Lieutenant-General, that the Kings of France had resisted the interference of the Pope in political matters, and that he should not raise a foreign prince or princess to the throne of France under the pretext of religion. Mayenne was angered that he had not been consulted prior, but yielded, since their aim was not contrary to his present views.
Despite these setbacks for the League, Henry remained unable to take control of Paris.
"Paris is well worth a Mass"
Entrance of Henry IV in Paris, 22 March 1594, with 1,500 cuirassiers
On 25 July 1593, with the encouragement of his great love, Gabrielle d'Estrées, Henry permanently renounced Protestantism and converted to Roman Catholicism—in order to obtain the French crown, thereby earning the resentment of the Huguenots and his former ally Queen Elizabeth I of England. He was said to have declared that Paris vaut bien une messe ("Paris is well worth a mass"), although there is some doubt whether he said this, or whether the statement was attributed to him by his contemporaries. His acceptance of Roman Catholicism secured the allegiance of the vast majority of his subjects.
Since Reims, the traditional location for the coronation of French kings, was still occupied by the Catholic League, Henry was crowned King of France at the Cathedral of Chartres on 27 February 1594. Pope Clement VIII removed the ban of excommunication from Henry on 17 September 1595. He did not forget his former Calvinist coreligionists, however and was known for his religious tolerance. In 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted circumscribed toleration to the Huguenots.
Henry IV and Marie de Médicis
Henry's first marriage was not a happy one, and the couple remained childless. Henry and Margaret separated even before Henry acceded to the throne in August 1589. Margaret lived for many years in the Château d'Usson in the Auvergne. After Henry became king of France, it was of the utmost importance that he provide an heir to the crown to avoid the problem of a disputed succession. Henry favoured the idea of obtaining an annulment of his marriage to Margaret and taking his mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées as his bride; after all, she had already borne him three children. Henry's councillors strongly opposed this idea, but the matter was resolved unexpectedly by Gabrielle's sudden death in the early hours of 10 April 1599, after she had given birth to a premature and stillborn son. His marriage to Margaret was annulled in 1599, and Henry married Marie de' Medici in 1600.
For the royal entry of Marie into Avignon on 19 November 1600, the citizens bestowed on Henry the title of the Hercule Gaulois ("Gallic Hercules"), justifying the extravagant flattery with a genealogy that traced the origin of the House of Navarre to a nephew of Hercules' son Hispalus.