Thursday 2 August 2012

2nd August, 1589: The murder of a King

Henri III was thirty-seven years old on the day he was stabbed to death at the Palace of St.-Cloud. He had inherited the throne fifteen years earlier when his elder brother, Charles IX, died without children. Despite the fact that most historians seem to think of him as a mentally defective moron, the unhinged behaviour that Henri III is now so famous for was in fact only on show in the last few months of his life, when he was under near-unimaginable stress. In many ways, Henri III should actually have made an excellent king - he was elegant, charismatic, tall, dark, handsome, hard-working, clever, exceptionally religious and devoted to preserving the power and prestige of the monarchy in an age when it was under attack. He was also, unfortunately, gay (which made many people dislike him) and prone to bouts of hysterical unhappiness (which made him dislike them.)

The issue of Henri III's tortured sexuality is still something of a hot-topic in the historiography of Renaissance France. Historians seeking to "defend" Henri from the charge of homosexuality often point-out how much he enjoyed the company of beautiful women, but he never took a mistress from any of these bevy of beauties and he was never romantically linked with a woman. Even his choice of his wife, Louise, seemed curious. In contrast, Henri was quite clearly smitten (and at times obviously in love with) some of his handsome gentlemen-in-waiting. At the time, the King's sexuality was a gold mine to his enemies. They portrayed him as the very worst kind of homosexual stereotype and one which unfortunately endures to this day. For centuries, Henri has been presented as a cross-dressing, idiotic, promiscuous, unnatural, mincing, effeminate fop. However, those portrayals tell us far more about our attitude to stereotypes than they do about the real Henri III of France.

The fifteen years in which he had been God's anointed ruler over the French had not been happy ones for King Henri. He had inherited a truly horrific situation from his father and brothers. Protestantism had been on the rise in France for over a generation and it had been his father's policy to treat it harshly; ghettoising the emergent Protestant community and isolating them from full participation in the political life of the nation. Then, Henri II had been killed in a jousting accident, leaving the sectarian tensions to be handled by his sons and his widow, the brilliant but over-worked Catherine de Medici. No-one really knew what to do and any proposed solution seemed to offend one side, whilst simultaneously failing to satisfy the other. For over a decade, the monarchy's attitude towards the country's religious violence had been either well-meaning but incompetent, or idiotic and duplicitous. Much like the British government's future attitude to Ireland, conciliation was often followed by a crackdown which was, in turn, then followed by another round of conciliation. Sixteenth century French Protestants quite simply did not trust their monarchy and they would be satisfied with nothing less than full religious toleration and equal rights; meanwhile, many Catholics resented the monarchy for giving any concession to the Protestants. In Spain, Protestants were burnt; in France, they were tolerated. Both communities became more extreme and French Catholicism gave birth to the Holy League, a militant band of Catholic paramilitaries, led by the Duke of Guise - the mightiest aristocrat in France, who shamelessly used the prestige of the Holy League to suggest that it was his family who were the real leaders of Catholic France, rather than the ineffective royal family. In 1572, these sectarian tensions resulted in the infamous Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, when thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered by the Holy League and its supporters.

As a young prince, Henri had initially been captivated by the Holy League. Despite his fondness for fine clothes, jewels, parties, handsome men and wine, there was also a side of Henri's personality which was devoutly religious. He was also quite an effective soldier and swordsman, which meant that he could participate in the Holy League's fiery defence of Catholicism. However, after the massacre, Henri realised that the Holy League and its leader, the Duke of Guise, were deliberately exploiting the situation so that the power of the Guise family could rival that of the monarchy. Driven by his total belief that monarchy was ordained by God, Henri was prepared to resort to fair means and foul in order to crush the Guise threat and re-establish the supremacy of royal authority in France. For all his undoubted talents, however, he had not been successful. Nor had he been happy. 

The last few years of Henri III's reign had been miserable, exhausting and demoralising. His marriage to the pretty and devoted Queen Louise remained childless. The King became increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of his own sinfulness and had resorted to whipping himself, starving himself, humiliating himself and pushing himself to the brink of a breakdown through his increasingly-unhinged acts of religious mortification. His beloved mother and closest political adviser, Catherine, had died at the start of the year. She had died worrying about her son's sanity in the face of the odds now surrounding him. The Guise family had seized control of Paris, forcing the King and his court into humiliating exile in the countryside. The Protestants had rallied again behind the banner of Henri's brother-in-law, Henri de Navarre. The Holy League and the Guises had tarnished the King's name throughout France, portraying him as a Protestant-loving pervert. His relationship with his former brother-in-law, King Philip II of Spain, was tense because of Henri's (accurate) suspicion that Philip was secretly funding the Holy League. Relations with Queen Elizabeth I of England were also shaky, ever since she had been forced to execute Henri's former sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots. (Henri had no time for Mary, but his refusal to declare war on England once she was beheaded was used by the Holy League as yet another example of his insufficient commitment to Catholicism.) One of his lovers, Philibert Le Vayer, had been found murdered in a narrow alleyway near the Louvre. His sister, Margot, once his favourite member of the family, seemed to have devoted herself to causing trouble for him wherever she went, with her string of lovers and reckless personal life. Crippled by internal fighting, France hadn't been able to defend herself when the Italian Duke of Savoy conquered the French territory of Saluzzo. Everywhere he looked, the power of the Holy League and the Guise family was growing. They were controlling his every action and thwarting his desires. They had even seized his late mother's favourite palace in Paris and given it to the duke's sister, the Duchesse de Montpensier.

During his mother's final few months alive, Henri III had dispatched a stream of angry letters to her, revealing his anguish at the situation he now found himself in. He complained that the Holy League was trying to "make my state semi-democratic," something which he, and his mother, found absolutely abhorrent. In another letter, he wrote, "I wish to be king and not a prisoner and a slave as I have been." He concluded by promising his mother, "I begin once more to be king and master." He did this by inviting the Duke of Guise to a dinner party in the palace and then having him stabbed to death. Apparently, as the duke who had once been called "the King of Paris" by his supporters lay bleeding to death, Henri III whispered, "There is only one king in France."

In killing the duke, Henri had hoped to divide the Holy League, so that the monarchy could re-assert itself. Instead, the mafia-style murder only spurred the Holy League on in its determination to destroy him. Only in time would the League begin to falter because of the duke's lack of leadership.

Ultimately though, it was not the Holy League which killed Henri III, but a delusional loner, disaffected with the world and convinced that he, and he alone, could really understand it. Jacques Clément was a twenty-two year-old friar with the Dominicans, a religious order that cheerleaded the Inquisition. Spurred on by the propaganda of the Holy League and reports of the King's unorthodox private life, the monk made his way to the palace of St.-Cloud, where the King was currently in residence. First, he gained an audience with the attorney-general by telling him that he had urgent news concerning the rebellion in Paris. He was brought immediately to the King's apartments, where Henri was still wearing his dressing gown, as he was dressed for the morning by his servants. Good Catholic boy that he was, the King remained so innately respectful of the clergy that he allowed the monk to approach him and whisper in his ear. Brother Jacques pulled a dagger from his robes and stabbed the King in the lower abdomen, twisting the knife in on impact.

Showing some of the great physical strength which he had been known for as a young man, Henri pulled the dagger from his own body with a scream. The royal bodyguard stabbed the monk to death and tossed his body out the window. As his blood and guts spilled into his hands, Henri III showed that he was far from the mincing stereotype of popular legend. He steadied himself and spoke calmly. He summoned his surgeons and then submitted to their operation, without anaesthetic. His 16 year-old nephew, Charles, the bastard son of Henri's late brother, came to see him and burst into tears to see his uncle in such a state. Henri comforted him and then tried to sleep.

He awoke later that evening and decided to carry on with the business of government. He had a letter sent to his wife and then to the provincial governors. After that, Mass was celebrated in the King's apartments, but his nephew noticed that the King seemed cold and he dutifully rubbed his uncle's feet to try to keep him warm. By nightfall, the King was wracked by a fever, infection and excruciating physical pain. 

Brother Jacques had stabbed Henri III because he believed the voice of God had told him to do it, in order to save the Catholic religion in France. Ironically, as Henri III lay dying, he began making preparations to leave the throne to a Protestant. He had no children of his own and all his brothers were dead; the only logical candidate was his Protestant cousin and brother-in-law, Henri de Navarre, a 34 year-old womaniser with a keen political brain. Summoning Navarre to his bedside, Henri III begged him to embrace the Catholic religion; even if it was only for politics' sake. He also warned him of all the many dangers which could face a king of France. Navarre was greatly moved and couldn't speak as Henri forced all his courtiers to swear an oath of allegiance to their future king. Navarre, who was not by nature a demonstrative man, wept and knelt to receive the King's blessing. A few hours later, Henri III made his last confession and passed away at four o'clock in the morning on 2nd August 1589. With his death, the direct line of Valois kings, who had ruled France since 1328, came to an end with one of their most glamorous, but unlucky, rulers. His life had been sucked-up and destroyed by prejudice, both sexual and religious; his own mistakes had been numerous and often unforgivable, but it is hard to see how the story of Henri III could have had a happy ending, given the time and situation he was born into. 

As Henri IV was proclaimed the new king of France, the rule of the equally glamorous and equally unlucky Bourbon family had begun. 


  1. Keep it up Gareth, the high light of my day. What r u planning for tomorrow?????

  2. Thanks Gareth for such an interesting and informative post!

  3. Thank you for illuminating the life of King Henri III. This is someone to whom history has NOT been kind. You are certainly right about how most of the time, history books treat him as totally useless.

    I wonder how many other historic figures need your help!

  4. Good post Gareth. I don't know a whole lot about the French monarchy. Know I know some!

  5. On a point of correction, Henri, while duc d'Anjou, had an affair with Marie de Clèves. He was evidently very much in love with her and her beauty was celebrated by the poet Ronsard. He had intended to marry her after arranging for her annulment but she died unexpectedly. It is probably more accurate to say he was bisexual in his inclinations, though most of his love interests were male.

  6. Thank you for this. I've always thought that his infatuation with Marie was interesting, but (and it's just a personal, historical opinion) he did not seem as deeply taken with her as he did with his male love interests. However, you're absolutely right that it's very possible that he was bisexual.


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