The Murder of le Roi Henri: In May 1610 Henry IV of France Was Assassinated by a Religious Fanatic Apparently Acting Alone. Though Popular, Henry Had Nevertheless Aroused Animosity on His Way to Kingship, Not Least Because of His Protestant Beliefs

By Knecht, Robert J. | History Today, May 2010 | Go to article overview

The Murder of le Roi Henri: In May 1610 Henry IV of France Was Assassinated by a Religious Fanatic Apparently Acting Alone. Though Popular, Henry Had Nevertheless Aroused Animosity on His Way to Kingship, Not Least Because of His Protestant Beliefs


Knecht, Robert J., History Today


Paris was in festive mood on the morning of May 14th, 1610. The queen of France, Marie de' Medici, had been crowned the previous day at the basilica of Saint Denis and was due to make her formal entry into the capital. As usual on such occasions much effort had gone into cleaning the streets and decorating the processional route to Notre Dame with temporary monuments, such as triumphal arches made of timber and plaster statues of divinities, all painted in bright colours and adorned with adulatory inscriptions in letters of gold. French queens were not crowned as a matter of course and Henry IV, king of France since 1589, saw no reason to go to the expense of a coronation for his second queen whom he had married in 1610. However, under pressure from Marie and her circle, concerned that the queen would have no sovereign authority in the king's absence on military campaigns, Henry had grudgingly conceded the crowning. Traditionally kings played no part in this ceremony and Henry was no different though he may have been curious to see the decorations he had paid for. But, as he woke up in the palace of the Louvre that morning, the king had much else on his mind. Clouds of war had been gathering since the death of John William, Duke of Cleves-Julich in March the previous year. He had died childless and his inheritance had fallen prey to a host of competing relatives. The rich duchy lay close to the Dutch United Provinces which viewed with alarm its seizure by a cousin of the Habsburg emperor, Rudolph II. The alarm was shared by France, which had been at war with the Habsburg empire for much of the 16th century. Religion was also involved, as the Catholic Habsburgs were opposed by many German Protestant princes. Henry IV was urged to intervene militarily, but he had hesitated initially.

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An event nearer to home, however, helped him decide. In November 1609 the young Henri de Bourbon, Prince of Conde, fled to Brussels with his bride, Charlotte, a beautiful girl of 15, after whom the incorrigibly lecherous French king had been lusting. The matchmaker Henry had hoped to enjoy her favours and was incandescent on learning of her elopement. He publicly threatened to fetch the couple from Flanders at the head of 50,000 troops. As one biographer has written: 'Henry's judgement was always defective when Venus had the upper hand.' At a series of council meetings in February 1610 the king and his ministers planned to invade Flanders in the spring.

These were the preoccupations absorbing the king, who on May 14th decided he needed to consult his chief minister, the Duke of Sully, who was unwell at the time. As Grand Master of the Artillery, he lived at the Arsenal some distance from the Louvre. In order to reach it the king had to cross the area now known as the Marais, one of the busiest parts of the capital.

It was afternoon by the time that Henry IV left the Louvre and entered a coach standing in the palace courtyard with his entourage of noblemen. As usual, he wore a suit of black satin. Inside the coach the king sat on a bench next to the Duke of Epernon. Two seats attached to the doors on either side were occupied by four courtiers: Lavardin and Roquelaure on one side; Montbazon and La Force on the other. Facing the king and Epernon were Liancourt and Mirebeau. It was around 4pm that the coach rumbled out of the Louvre into the crowded streets of Paris. The king directed the coachman to go to the rue Saint-Denis where he might see the decorations for the queen's entry and had the leather shutters removed from the unglazed windows of the coach. As it came into the rue de la Ferronerie, it was brought to a standstill by traffic congestion.

The street was bordered on one side by the Cemetery of the Innocents and on the other by houses in front of which traders had set up stalls. Such was the narrowness of the carriageway that the king's mounted escort had to leave the side of the coach and ride ahead. …

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