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Henry IV of France

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Henry IV (December 13, 1553 - May 14, 1610) was King of France from 1589-1610, the first of the Bourbon kings of France. He was the son of Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre. Henri was born in Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, in the southwest of France.

On August 18 1572 Henri married Marguerite de Valois, sister of the then King Charles IX. In the same year he became king Henry III of Navarre, succeeding his mother Jeanne d'Albret, who had brought him up as a Huguenot. Jeanne herself was also a Protestant, and had declared Calvinism the religion of Navarre. Henry's marriage was part of a plan to help quell the French Wars of Religion. As part of this plan, he was forced to convert to Roman Catholicism on February 5, 1576, and kept in confinement, but later that year he gained his freedom and resumed Protestantism.

He became the legal heir to the French throne upon the death in 1584 of François, Duke of Alençon, brother and heir to King Henri III, who had succeeded Charles IX in 1574.

Since Henri of Navarre was a descendant of King Louis IX, King Henri III had no choice but to recognize him as the legitimate successor. (Salic law disinherited the king's sisters and all others who could claim descent by distaff line.) On the death of the king in 1589, Henri of Navarre became nominally the king of France. But the Catholic League[?], strengthened by support from outside, especially from Spain, was strong enough to force him to the south, and he had to set about winning his kingdom by military conquest. He was victorious at Ivry and Arques, but failed to take Paris.

With the encouragement of the great love of his life, Gabrielle d'Estrée, in 1593, declaring that Paris vaut bien une messe (Paris was worth a Mass), Henri permanently renounced Protestantism and was crowned King of France at the Cathedral of Chartres on February 27, 1594. His entrance into the Roman Catholic Church secured for him the allegiance of the vast majority of his subjects, while the Edict of Nantes, passed in 1598, gave complete toleration to the Huguenots.

Henry's first marriage was not a happy one, and the couple remained childless. Even before Henry had succeeded to the throne in August, 1589 the two had separated, and Marguerite de Valois lived for many years in the chateau of Usson in Auvergne. After Henry had become king various advisers impressed upon him the desirability of providing an heir to the French Crown in order to avoid the problem of a disputed succession. Henry himself favored the idea of obtaining an annulment of his first marriage and taking Gabrielle d'Estrée as a bride, who had already borne him three children. Henry's councillors strongly opposed this idea, but the matter was resolved unexpectedly by Gabrielle d'Estrée's sudden death in April, 1599 after she had given birth prematurely to a stillborn son.

Henri IV proved to be a man of vision and courage. Instead of costly war to suppress opposing nobles, Henri simply paid them off. As king, he adopted policies and undertook projects to improve the lives of all citizens that would make him one of the country’s most popular rulers ever.

During his reign, Henri IV promoted agriculture, drained swamps to create productive crop lands, and undertook many public works. He protected forests from further desecration, built a new system of tree-lined highways, and constructed new bridges and canals. He had a 1200m canal built in the park at the Royal Chateau at Fontainebleau (which can be fished today), and ordered the planting of pines, elms and fruit trees.

The king renewed Paris as a great city with the Pont Neuf[?], which still stands today, constructed over the River Seine to connect the Right and Left Banks of the city. Henri IV also had the Place Royale built (since 1800 known as Place des Vosges[?]) and he added the Grande Galerie to the Louvre. More than a quarter of a mile long and one hundred feet wide, this huge addition was built along the bank of the Seine River and at the time was the longest edifice of its kind in the world. King Henri IV, a promoter of the arts by all classes of peoples, invited hundreds of artists and craftsmen to live and work on the building’s lower floors. This tradition continued for another two hundred years until Emperor Napoleon I banned it.

King Henri's vision extended beyond France and he financed the expeditions of Samuel de Champlain to North America that saw France lay claim to Canada.

Henri IV said: "I rule with my ass in the saddle and a gun in my fist." Yet, he is the same man who once stopped in the midst of a battle to write a love letter. Frivolous, wise, tender, brave, and industrious, he embodied French qualities. Although he was a man of kindness, compassion, and good humor, and much loved by his people, King Henri IV was assassinated on 14 May, 1610 in Paris, by a fanatic called Ravaillac, and was buried at Saint Denis Basilica. His widow, Marie de Médicis, served as Regent to their 9-year-old son, Louis XIII until 1617.

While the rest of France marks the end of monarchist rule each year on Bastille Day, in Henri's birthplace of Pau, his reign as king of France is celebrated.


Issue (2)

  • Louis XIII (September 27, 1601 - May 14, 1643)
  • Gaston (April 25, 1608 - February 2, 1660)
  • Elisabeth (November 22, 1603 - October 6, 1644)
  • Henriette-Marie (November 26, 1609 - September 10, 1669)
  • Christine (February 12, 1606 - December 27, 1663)
  • Nicholas (April 16, 1607 - November 17, 1611)

Preceded by:
Henry III
List of French monarchs Succeeded by:
(Marie de Medici, regent for Louis XIII)

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