ALTHOUGH HE SURVIVED several assassination attempts, King Henry IV of France, the first French monarch from the House of Bourbon, finally succumbed to the knife-wielding catholic zealot, François Ravaillac, in the Rue de la Ferronnerie in Paris in May 1610.
Henry ruled France from 1589 until his assassination and although not universally popular in the early years of his reign his reputation soared after his death.
Henry IV of France: Henri Goltzius, graveur : Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, RESERVE FOL-QB-201 (16)
Henry did not succeed to the French monarchy unopposed. Although baptised a catholic, he was raised a protestant. Upon the death of his brother-in-law and distant cousin Henry III of France in 1589, Henry became monarch and to begin with kept the Protestant faith. This set him against the Catholic League, a collection of powerful catholic aristocrats aided by Pope Clement VIII and Philip II of Spain, who denied that Henry could wear France’s crown as a protestant. It would take a nine-year siege of Paris and his conversion to catholicism for Henry to secure his crown from the influence of the Catholic League and Spanish interference.
Despite having come close to assassination in 1572 during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, a wave of catholic mob violence and targeted assassinations against the protestant Huguenots, Henry displayed an unusual religious tolerance for the time. In 1598, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, confirming Roman Catholicism as the state religion but granting religious freedom to protestants. The Edict of Nantes effectively ended the French ‘Wars of Religion’, which had lasted for thirty-five years and cost some three million lives.
Having established his monarchy Henry had secured relative peace at home but he also set out to secure peace abroad. Although his reign saw a continuation of the rivalry between France, the Habsburg rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire for the mastery of Western Europe, something that would not be resolved until after the Thirty Years War following his death, Henry set about successfully resolving more immediate disputes with Spain, Italy and the Ottoman Empire.
His vision also extended beyond France; he financed several expeditions to North America, which saw France lay claim to Canada.
While Henry’s reign was characterised by his forthright manner, physical courage and military successes: he once asserted that he ruled ‘on a le bras armé et le cul sur la selle’, with ‘weapon in hand and arse in the saddle’, he was also a pragmatic politician.
Working with his long-time faithful and trusted lieutenant, the nobleman, soldier and statesman, Maximilien de Béthune, Duc de Sully, Henry set about creating prosperity at home. He built a strong centralised administrative system, regularised state finances and encouraged education; he promoted agriculture, public works, the construction of highways and the first French canal and started some important industries including the Gobelins Manufactory, later to become tapestry makers to the court of the French monarchs.
Henry restored Paris to a great city and some examples of this can still be seen today.
He built the Place Royale, now the Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris and, for a time, the French nobility’s favourite place of residence. Along the Right Bank of the Seine he added the 400 metre long Grande Galerie to the Louvre Palace inviting hundreds of artists and craftsmen to live and work on the building’s lower floors.
In 1607, Henry inaugurated the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge across the river Seine and to mark the occasion a statue of him was erected on the bridge ‘on a le bras armé et le cul sur la selle’ in 1614.
Unfortunately, Henry was unseated from his saddle during the French Revolution when his statue was destroyed. The statue we see today is a replica erected in 1818.
Henry IV was undoubtedly a man of vision and courage and he became, perhaps more posthumously than at the time, a popular monarch often known by the epithet, ‘le bon roi Henry’ or ‘Good King Henry’.
But he also gained an epithet that reflected another side of ‘le bon roi Henry’ and at the Pont Neuf there is a reminder of this.
Jutting out into la Seine from the span of the Pont Neuf is a promontory that forms the western tip of the Île de la Cité. This promontory was created in 1607 by joining two existing small islets, the Île aux Juifs and the Île du Passeur. It was on the Ile aux Juifs that Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar and his lieutenant Geoffroy de Charnay, were burned at the stake on the orders of King Philip the Fair in March 1314.
In 1884, this promontory was bought by the City of Paris, landscaped into a public garden and named the Square du Vert Galant, a rather sardonic reference to the other side of ‘le bon roi Henry’.
Sounds in the Square du Vert Galant:
Not only was Henry regal in public, it seems he was also regal in the boudoir – he was a serial philanderer. He became notorious for his sexual exploits, taking on many lovers and earning the epithet “Le Vert Galant”.
Le Vert Galant doesn’t translate literally into English but, in this context, one can approximate ‘vert’ to ‘racy’ or ‘risqué’ and ‘galant’ to ‘a man who loves to seduce women’. Anyway, you get the idea!
The women in Henry’s life played a significant role in the politics of his reign.
He married his first wife, Marguerite de Valois, in 1572. They were repeatedly unfaithful to each other and their childless marriage collapsed leading first to their estrangement and then to an annulment in 1599.
Despite fathering several children with a variety of mistresses Henry was in need of a legitimate heir. In 1600, at the age of forty-six, he married his second wife, Marie de’ Medici, who bore him six children, including the future Louis XIII. Henry was unfaithful to her as well and insisted that she raise his illegitimate children along with her own.
Henry’s womanising became legendary; he always kept mistresses, often several at a time, as well as engaging in random sexual encounters. Even so, he tended to elevate one mistress above the others and shower her with money, honours, and promises. His two most famous mistresses were Gabrielle d’Estrées, who died in 1599, and her successor, Henriette d’Entragues, who involved herself in plots against the crown. Henry promised marriage to each of them, exposing himself to a series of political problems.
After decades of religious war, Henry brought peace and relative prosperity to France and his reign had a lasting impact for generations. He was one of the first monarchs to elevate national unity above religion in terms of importance for a ruler.
A cult surrounding the personality of Henry emerged during the Bourbon Restoration, the period following the fall of Napoleon in 1814 until the July Revolution of 1830. Although his statue on the Pont Neuf was torn down during the French Revolution, it is significant that it was the first to be rebuilt afterwards.
The Square du Vert Galant and the statue of Henry IV sitting proudly atop the Pont Neuf close by represent two very different sides of Henry IV.
Sitting under the weeping willow trees on the western tip of the Square du Vert Galant listening to and recording the sounds around me, I was reminded of the final paragraph of Desmond Seward’s book, ‘The First Bourbon: Henry IV of France and Navarre’:
… He was a great and charming man, and what is remarkable about his legend, what makes it so different from that of any other hero king, is that it preserves the memory of his failings as well as of his virtues. It is the most human of all royal legends.