Article abstract: Henry IV brought peace and national prestige to France within the structure of powerful monarchy after protracted strife, which had included eight civil wars. He settled the long-standing Catholic-Protestant conflict by embracing Catholicism while granting broad toleration to the French Reformed church. He is the most noteworthy of early modern rulers who made religious liberty the law of the state.
Henry of Navarre, first of the Bourbon line, was born in the castle of Pau in the Pyrenees Mountains to Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, and Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre. He was a direct descendant of Louis IX, one of France’s most illustrious rules. Although he was baptized a Catholic, Henry received instruction in the Calvinist (Reformed) faith at his mother’s direction, and he eventually joined the French Protestants, then known as Huguenots. In 1568, his mother placed Henry in the service of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the leader of the Protestant cause. As a soldier in the Huguenot army, he fought bravely and acquired a reputation as a skillful military leader. When Jeanne d’Albret died in 1572, Henry succeeded her as monarch of Navarre. That same year, he married Margaret of Valois, sister of King Charles IX of France.
By the time Henry joined Coligny in 1568, France had been wracked by civil war for more than eight years. The death of Henry II in 1559 initiated a power struggle in which political and religious considerations were intertwined. Francis II and Henry II had tried to crush the Protestants, but the Reformed faith had made impressive gains nevertheless, especially among the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Calvinism gained adherents who could exert far greater influence than their numbers would seem to indicate.
Because the sons of Henry II were feeble rulers, nobles asserted their authority and rival factions competed for power. Antoine de Bourbon and Louis I de Condé, both princes of the blood, allied with Coligny to promote the Protestant cause. The family of Guise, with Duke Francis at the head, led the Catholic faction. When Francis II succeeded to the throne as a minor in 1559, the Guises obtained control of the government. After they executed some of their opponents, Protestants responded with militant resistance. Francis II died after one year on the throne, and Charles IX became king with his mother, Catherine de Médicis, as regent. She then became the pivotal figure in French politics for the next quarter century. Catherine had no deep religious convictions, so she tried to manipulate both sides and to create a moderate party loyal to the Crown. In 1562, however, the Guises seized power and forced the regent to resume persecuting the Protestants. France became the scene of all-out civil war.
The marriage of Henry of Navarre to Margaret of Valois occurred in 1572, as Catherine de Médicis tried to placate the Huguenots by marrying her daughter to one of their most popular leaders. The nuptial festivities, however, became the occasion for the Saint Bartholomew’s Eve Massacre, in which Coligny and some other Protestants were murdered. Although the assassins may have intended to kill only a few Huguenot leaders, word of the slayings soon led to the slaughter of thousands of Protestants across France. The civil war resumed with renewed fury.
The sickly Henry III became king in 1574, and soon a militant Catholic faction, now led by Duke Henry of Guise, organized the Catholic League without royal approval. The civil strife then became the War of Three Henrys, as Henry III, Henry of Guise, and Henry of Navarre fought for control of the kingdom. The eventual assassination of the king and the duke left the Protestant Henry of Navarre the legal heir to the throne. He declared himself King of France in 1589. Civil war continued, however, until the last remnants of the Catholic League abandoned resistance in 1596. The concurrent war with Spain did not end until 1598.
Although Henry IV had become king legally, he knew that his throne would never be secure so long as he remained a Protestant. His Huguenot supporters, only 10 percent of the population, were unable to cement their leader’s authority. Moderate Catholics urged the king to convert, but Henry delayed because he wanted his enemies to recognize his kingship first. When he became convinced that that would not happen, he announced his decision to become a Catholic. An old but probably apocryphal account relates that he justified changing religions with the remark “Paris is well worth a Mass.” Henry’s embrace of Catholicism shows clearly that this king was a politique, that is, one without strong religious beliefs who follows the course of action he deems politically advantageous. He had done this before, when he had joined the Catholic Church to marry Margaret of Valois, only to return to the Reformed faith in 1576.
In order to obtain papal approval for his succession, Henry had to seek absolution for his Protestant heresies, something the Vatican was in no hurry to grant. Pope Sixtus V had tried to block his path to the French throne and had declared him deposed as King of Navarre. The reigning pontiff, Clement VIII, chose to defer action on the royal request, even though French prelates had hailed the king’s return to the Church.
Henry chose Jacques Davy Duperron as his emissary to Rome. Duperron, who had...
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