The Last Valois: A Tragic Story: Robert Knecht Describes the Shortcomings of Henry III, the Last Valois King, and the Circumstances That Led Him to Become the First-But Not the Last-French Monarch to Die at the Hands of One of His Subjects

By Knecht, Robert | History Today, August 2008 | Go to article overview

The Last Valois: A Tragic Story: Robert Knecht Describes the Shortcomings of Henry III, the Last Valois King, and the Circumstances That Led Him to Become the First-But Not the Last-French Monarch to Die at the Hands of One of His Subjects


Knecht, Robert, History Today


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On July 31st, 1589, a young Jacobin j friar, Jacques Clement, left Paris for the suburb of Saint-Cloud where Henry III of France had set up his military encampment. The capital was held by the Catholic League, an armed association which had rebelled against royal policy in 1588, forcing the king to flee the city. At 8 am on August 1 st, the friar, who claimed to be cartying an important message for the king from one of his supporters in the capital, was admitted to his presence. Henry was sitting on his close stool as the friar entered. Reassured by Clement's clerical garb, Henry invited him to draw closer and lent forward to hear his message. As he did so, the friar produced a knife that he had hidden in the capacious sleeve of his habit and plunged it into Henry's abdomen. The king cried out, pulled out the knife and struck his assailant with it. Royal guards drew their swords and fell on the friar, killing him instantly.

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Henry died early the next morning bringing to an end the Valois dynasty that had occupied the French throne since 1328. Henry III was the first king of France to be assassinated by one of his own subjects. News of his death was acclaimed by the Catholic League as an act of God and greeted with wild rejoicing in Paris: 'A new David has killed Goliath, a new Judith has slain Holofernes' exclaimed a popular preacher. 'Good news, my friends!' shouted the duchess of Montpensier from her coach as she toured the streets of the capital. 'The tyrant is dead! There is no more Henry of Valois in France!' But why and how had Henry aroused such hatred?

Henry was the sixth child and fourth son of Henry II and Catherine de' Medici. Born at Fontainebleau on September 19th, 1551, he was christened AlexanderEdward and only took on the name of Henry at his confirmation. As duke of Angouleme, he shared the upbringing of his siblings at Amboise and Blois and was taught by the classical scholar Jacques Amyot (1513-93). After taking part in the so-called 'Grand Tour of France' with his mother and his brother Charles IX in 1564-66, Henry became duke of Anjou.

France had been embroiled in a civil war between the crown and its Protestant or Huguenot subjects since 1562. In 1567 Henry took command of the royal army and in March 1569 won a resounding victory at Jarnac, a success soon followed by another at Moncontour. At this stage he seemed assured of fame as a military leader. His mother wanted him to marry the English queen, Elizabeth I, but he would not hear of this: Elizabeth was too old for him; as the daughter of the Protestant Anne Boleyn, he regarded her as a heretic and a bastard. He was also anxious to avoid ridicule as Elizabeth's 'affair' with the earl of Leicester was the subject of much gossip at the French court. The quest for her hand was taken up by Henry's younger brother, Francis, duke of Alencon.

Henry was reputed to be a Catholic hardliner and in August 1572 he seems to have been instrumental in preparing the plot to wipe out Admiral Coligny and other Huguenot leaders which led to the mass slaughter of their co-religionists on St Bartholomew's Day. Soon afterwards he laid siege to the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle. At this juncture, however, his career took a radical turn. In 1573 he was elected king of Poland, a kingdom unusual at the time for its culture of religious toleration. To be acceptable to his Polish subjects, Henry abandoned the extreme Catholic line he had so far pursued. He also seems to have lost interest in military matters. He travelled to Poland with an entourage, but during the summer of 1574 he was informed of the death of his brother, Charles IX. He thus became king of both France and Poland.

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Without so much as bidding adieu to his Polish subjects, Henry made haste to return to France by way of Austria and northern Italy. After being entertained in Vienna, he was given a spectacular reception in Venice. …

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