Henry IV, King of France

Henry IV (king of France)

Henry IV, 1553–1610, king of France (1589–1610) and, as Henry III, of Navarre (1572–1610), son of Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne d'Albret; first of the Bourbon kings of France.

Early Life

Raised as a Protestant, he was recognized (1569) by the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny as the nominal head of the Huguenots. As a result of the temporary reconciliation (1570) between the Huguenots and the crown, Henry was betrothed to Margaret of Valois, sister of King Charles IX. A few days after his marriage (Aug. 18, 1572) the massacre of the Huguenots (see Saint Bartholomew's Day, massacre of) took place. Henry saved his life by abjuring Protestantism; however, he remained a virtual prisoner of the court until 1576, when he escaped, returned to the Protestant faith, and joined the combined Protestant and moderate Roman Catholic forces in the fifth of the Wars of Religion (see Religion, Wars of).

Struggle for Succession

Henry became the legal heir to the French throne upon the death (1584) of Francis, duke of Alençon, brother and heir to King Henry III, who had succeeded Charles IX in 1574. The Catholic League, led by Henri, 3d duc de Guise, refused to recognize a Protestant as heir and persuaded the king to revoke concessions to the Protestants and to exclude Henry of Navarre from the succession. In the resulting war, known as the War of the Three Henrys, Henry of Navarre defeated (1587) the king's forces at Coutras but was reconciled with Henry III when the League revolted against him (1588).

After Henry III's death (1589), Henry IV defeated the League forces under the duc de Mayenne at Arques (1589) and Ivry (1590) but was forced to abandon the siege of Paris when the League received Spanish aid. In 1593 he again abjured Protestantism, allegedly with the remark, "Paris is well worth a Mass." He was received in Paris in 1594. His conciliatory policy soon won him general support. To rid France of Spanish influence, Henry declared war on Spain (1595) and brought it to a successful conclusion with the Treaty of Vervins (1598).

Internal and Foreign Policy

Henry soon turned to the internal reconstruction of his war-ravaged kingdom. With the Edict of Nantes (1598; see Nantes, Edict of), he established political rights and a measure of religious freedom for the Huguenots. Aided by baron de Rosny (later duc de Sully), Henry restored some measure of financial order, encouraged agriculture, founded new industries, built roads and canals, expanded foreign trade through commercial treaties with Spain, England, and the Ottoman Empire, and encouraged colonization of Canada. Anxious to see prosperity reach all classes, he is reputed to have said, "There should be a chicken in every peasant's pot every Sunday." In his foreign policy Henry sought to weaken the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. He was preparing to oppose them on the question of the succession to the duchies of Cleves and Jülich when he was stabbed to death by a fanatic, François Ravaillac.

Personal Life

Henry's marriage to Margaret of Valois was annulled in 1599. His mistresses included Gabrielle d'Estrées and Henriette d'Entragues. In 1600 he married Marie de' Medici, who was regent during the minority of their son Louis XIII. Numerous anecdotes and legends about Henry bear witness to his gallantry, his Gallic wit, and his concern for the common people, which have made him probably the most popular king among the French.


See biographies by P. G. Willert (1893), Q. Hurst (1938), H. Mann (2 vol., tr. 1937–39), and D. Seward (1971); R. Mousnier, The Assassination of Henry IV (tr. 1973).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Henry IV, King of France: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! Henry of Navarre and the Huguenots in France By P. F. Willert G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1893
FREE! The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre By Henry M. Baird Charles Scribner's Sons, vol.1, 1886
The Afterlife of Henry of Navarre By Salmon, J. H. M History Today, Vol. 47, No. 10, October 1997
Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century By T. A. Morris Routledge, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 20 "Henry IV and the Recovery of France"
`Reduced to Cinders': The Impact of the French Religious Wars By McKinnon-Bell, David History Review, September 2000
Who's Who in Europe, 1450-1750 By Henry Kamen Routledge, 2002
Librarian's tip: "Henry IV Bourbon" begins on p. 145
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