Where do you even begin with Henry II of France? From his years as a captive in Spain, to his unlikely rise to the throne, to his sudden and violent end, there was never a dull moment for this infamous ruler. The fact that he was part of one of history’s most twisted love triangles didn’t hurt matters either! It’s high time for Hollywood to make a movie about this truly debaucherous king, but for now, dive into these scandalous facts about Henry II of France.
1. He Was A Charmed Child
Before he was Henry II of France, he was the little baby Henry, Duke of Orleans, born to the legendary King Francis I and Claude, Duchess of Brittany. Born in the ridiculously extravagant Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, young Henry knew nothing but the lap of luxury from the moment he was born. However, his father had some extremely powerful enemies, and soon enough, Henry would pay the price for his dad’s ambition.
2. His Dad Had Enemies
Henry was born in a time of turmoil. His father, King Francis I, also known as King Francis the Big Nose for pretty self-explanatory reasons, spent years carrying on a very expensive and ultimately pointless conflict with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, Francis’s military ability wasn’t quite as outsized his sniffer, and when Henry was young, Charles V’s forces captured the French king.
Francis had to think fast—and he ended up abandoning his own son to a grim fate.
3. His Father Sold Him Out
After the catastrophic Battle of Pavia, King Francis found himself a prisoner in Spain. Desperate to escape back to France, Francis made a truly heartless deal with Charles V. He negotiated his own release…in return for his two sons, Henry and Henry’s older brother. Henry was only seven years old when he found himself a victim of the game of thrones, shipped off to Spain as a political captive.
Sound like a pretty cold move from Henry’s dad? You don’t even know the half of it.
4. He Was Prisoner Prince
Henry and his older brother weren’t initially supposed to stay in Spain for very long, but clearly they weren’t very high on their dad’s list of priorities. Charles V would have released them if Francis paid a simple ransom, but the French king dragged his feet on the deal. Thanks to daddy’s neglect, Henry and his brother spent four long years as captives in Spain.
And despite their royal status, the two boys didn’t receive special treatment. Their stay was utterly harrowing.
5. He Spent Four Years In Hell
Henry had known only comfort and luxury as a boy, which only made his years in Spain all the more nightmarish. He was just a boy, and he had to endure four long years locked away in a stark and isolated castle. Each day, he wondered if he might go home—or if he might meet the headsman’s ax. Spoiled brat or not, the experience must have been chilling.
But through all his years in captivity, one particular fond memory kept him going…
6. He Remembered A Kiss
Just before Henry was taken from France to Spain, a woman two-decades his senior gave him a farewell kiss. Her name was Diane de Poitiers. Henry never forgot about that moment, and when he escaped his captivity, Diane de Poitiers would become the most important woman in his life. The only problem? Diane was not his wife. That was the infamous Catherine de Medici.
Buckle up, because you’re in for one heck of a love triangle.
7. He Got Married At 14
Things between France and Spain finally cooled down and Henry returned to France along with his brother. Not long after, he married Catherine de Medici, when they were both just 14 years old. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t the most remarkable wedding. Henry was a royal, but he wasn’t actually heir to the throne. Catherine was rich, but not a princess or anything.
And even worse, the groom couldn’t have been less into his new bride.
8. His Wife Wasn’t Exactly A Catch
One writer described Catherine de Medici as “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family.” If she was hoping to find her Prince Charming in Henry II, she had another thing coming. Henry’s lack of interest in his wife would be their undoing before long—but for now, at least they were in for one heck of a party.
9. He Showed Off For His Bride
Though Catherine de Medici’s life in France would soon devolve into a total nightmare, at least it started off pretty darn sweet. Her and Henry’s wedding was an insanely lavish affair with expensive gifts, grand dances, and a jousting tournament. At least on the big day, Henry did his best to play his part, dancing and jousting for his blushing bride.
Maybe, for a second, Catherine might have thought she could be happy with Henry—but it wasn’t long before he showed his dark side.
10. He Slept Around Constantly
Henry II absolutely loved women—just not his wife. If you think he sounds like a pretty bad guy already, you don’t know the half of it: Henry made zero attempt to hide his many mistresses from Catherine. Instead, he flaunted them around the palace for the entire court to see. And one of those mistresses in particular became infamous. You’ve already heard of her: Diane de Poitiers.
To call Henry and Diane’s relationship weird would be an understatement.
11. He Had A Thing For Cougars
Henry spent all of his years in captivity dreaming of the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, despite the fact that she was old enough to be his mother. Around a year after Henry’s marriage, when he was 15 and Diane was 35, she became his chief mistress. That alone was enough to raise eyebrows—but Henry took things so much further than that.
12. He Flaunted His Infidelity
Henry could not have been more eager to show off his new relationship with his mommy/mistress. Usually, at tournaments, men would wear their wives’ colors. But when Henry showed up to the tourneys, was he wearing the gold and red of the Medicis? Nope. He wore Diane’s black and white for everyone to see.
It must have been unbearable for Catherine to watch—but that’s not even close to the worst part.
13. His Relationships Were An Insane Mess
In Catherine’s defense, she was an awkward teenager who’d just arrived in a strange country. Diane de Poitiers was a strong, confident, beautiful woman in the prime of her life. It’s not exactly like Catherine stood much of a chance. But whenever Henry actually deigned to share a bed with his actual wife, it must have been unbearably awkward—for one specific reason.
Diane, for all the fun she had with Henry, realized he needed heirs, so she frequently pushed him into his marital bed to fulfill his husbandly duties. Sorry Henry, but when your mistress makes you sleep with your own wife, I think you’re doing something wrong.
14. His Brother Suddenly Croaked
The thing is, up to this point, our guy Henry was the Prince Harry in this entire equation. He had an older brother in line to become king, so he had a little more leeway to screw around. Well, a sudden tragedy changed all of that. Henry’s older brother Francis was a young man in the prime of his life. Then, after a quick game of tennis, he suddenly fell violently ill. In a matter of days, this strapping young future King of France went from healthy to dead as a doornail.
It seemed impossible for such a thing to happen naturally—so of course, twisted rumors began to swirl.
15. People Thought His Wife Did It
Many in France assumed someone must have poisoned Francis—and lots of fingers pointed directly at Henry’s long-suffering wife, Catherine de Medici. After all, the Medicis were infamous poisoners, and with Francis gone, Catherine stood to become the Queen of France. In the end, we’ll never know exactly what happened to Francis, but French authorities captured an Italian man who’d arrived with Catherine and forced him to admit to poisoning the Prince.
Now that was all settled, and suddenly, our guy Henry was in line to become the freaking King. This was not going to end well…
16. His Wife Had A Huge Problem
Especially now the Henry was heir to the throne, producing a child became priority numero uno. But, the years continued to pass, and no child was in sight. Pretty soon, new rumors started swirling around Catherine: Henry was going to dump her a find a more “fertile” wife. But Catherine of Medici had the throne of France within her grasp, and she wasn’t about to let it slip through her fingers.
She was going to have Henry’s baby—and she was willing to go to some pretty upsetting lengths to make it happen.
17. Her Methods Were Horrifying
Catherine tried every trick in the book to try and get pregnant. Unfortunately, back then, “the book” was absolutely disgusting. Some of the things that Catherine tried? Covering her “source of life” with cow poop and ground-up stag antlers. Horrifying, right? Well, how about drinking mule’s urine, because she did that too!
Clearly, there’s nothing Catherine de Medici wasn’t willing to do to have a child with Henry II—and some say it took her down a dark path.
18. It Was All His Fault
Some sources claim that Catherine de Medici turned to the occult in her pursuit of a child. Hey, after covering her lady bits in cow poop and drinking mule pee, casting a couple of incantations sounds pretty darn good to me. Clearly, Catherine would do anything to get pregnant—but here’s the thing, it seems pretty darn likely that the problem wasn’t with Catherine at all.
Rather, the was a pretty obvious issue with Henry’s…ahem…equipment.
19. His Manhood Wasn’t Normal
Let’s just get the words out of the way: Penile deformity. Henry II’s manhood had certain…peculiarities that made it extremely difficult for him to impregnate a woman. He wasn’t sterile by any means, but let’s just say his boys had trouble storming a lady’s castle. Now sure, no one was going to tell him that—it was a whole lot easier to blame Catherine and force her to try more and more disgusting home remedies.
And as if things weren’t bad enough for Henry’s wife—in 1537, her worst nightmare came true.
20. He Had A Lovechild
In 1537, against all odds, Henry II actually had a kid. The only problem is, his wife wasn’t the mother. That was Philippa Duci, one of Henry’s countless mistresses. This blatant confirmation of Henry’s infidelity was bad enough, but even worse, it proved that Henry could have a child. Heck, Hank even acknowledged the child publicly in a not-at-all pathetic display of his own virility.
The walls were starting to close in on Catherine. It felt like a matter of time before Henry dumped her for someone new—until one man changed everything.
21. They Put A Sex Doctor On The Case
Henry II and Catherine’s fertility woes eventually got so bad that they called in an expert: Dr. Jean Fernel. They brought Fernel into their bedchamber where he examined their…private areas. Now I know what you’re thinking: If the cow poop didn’t do anything, what was some quack doctor going to do? Well, Fernel took one look at Henry and Catherine’s bits, and claimed he knew exactly what the problem was.
He gave them some “tips” and sent husband and wife off to do their duty. And, against all odds—it worked!
22. They Finally Did It
Finally, after 11 years of unhappy marriage, Henry and Catherine welcomed a child: A strapping boy they named Francis, after his grandpa. Bet you didn’t think the creepy doctor looking at them naked would work, but look at them now! And this was no one-and-done deal, either. Once little Francis was born, the floodgates opened.
23. He Had So Many Kids
Henry couldn’t stand his wife, but at least he seemed to have no problem fulfilling his husbandly duties. Armed with Bernel’s tips, Henry and Catherine went on to have a whopping nine kids. And it happened just in time, too: Just before the birth of their third child, Henry and Catherine’s lives changed forever.
24. He Became A King
Henry’s father, King Francis Big Nose, passed on Henry’s 28th birthday. According to legend, he spent his last moments lamenting the crown on his head. He thought it was a gift from God at first—but on his deathbed, he realized what it really was: a curse. So, did his son learn from his mistakes when he became king? Of course not! He’d make an even bigger mess of things than his father.
25. His Mistress Took Control
Prince Henry was now King Henry II of France, and Catherine his queen—but if you think a crown on their heads changed anything, you’ve got another thing coming. Henry didn’t allow Catherine a shred of influence at the court. But that’s not to say he didn’t have any strong, female influences. Remember Diane de Poitiers? She’s been kicking around this whole time, and with Henry the king, she was about to become the most powerful woman in France.
And if you thought their relationship was a little odd before, it was about to get straight-up deranged.
26. They Got Creepily Close
Never has the phrase, “Behind every great man lies an even greater woman” been more true than with Henry and Diane. He asked her advice on pretty much every topic and even had her write all of his letters for him. As such, if you got an official letter from the king, you could expect the bizarre signature “HenriDiane” at the bottom.
So first, Catherine had to sit and watch Henry wear Diane’s colors. Now, she had to watch Diane become a political force while she waited in the wings. But that was just the beginning. Henry had a more direct betrayal in mind for his wife.
27. He Gave His Wife A Big Middle Finger
Kings give the best gifts. Henry gave Diane a literal castle: the Château de Chenonceau near Paris. One of the most stunning in all of France, it was actually built on top of a river. But Henry didn’t just give Diane the chateau because he was a nice guy. He did it because his wife specifically asked for it for herself. He gave it to Diane just to stick it to Catherine. Talk about cold.
But still, I could deal with my husband giving my castle to my mistress, I guess—what I couldn’t deal with was what Henry did with Diane in public.
28. He Was A Man-Baby
Picture this: The King of France, in front of guests, lying in a much older woman’s lap like a baby. A woman who was not his wife. Well, if you visited the French court, this is exactly what you’d see. Not hiding your mistress is one thing, but lying in her lap and fondling her breasts in front of the whole court is another.
I don’t know if it’s possible for Henry and Catherine’s relationship to get any worse—and yet somehow, it did.
29. He Nearly Lost His Wife
1556 saw the most harrowing moment of Catherine de Medici’s life. Serious complications arose while giving birth to twins, and Catherine found herself just barely clinging to life. Tragically, the doctors had to sacrifice one of the twins to save Catherine, and the other twin passed just seven weeks later. Between nearly dying and losing two daughters, Catherine was absolutely shattered—but the pain was only beginning.
This terrifying close call would end up being the final nail in the coffin for her marriage to Henry.
30. He Abandoned Her Completely
After the harrowing birth, doctors told Catherine that if she ever became pregnant again, she likely wouldn’t survive. Well, that was all Henry II needed to hear! After that, Henry abandoned his wife completely. His marital duties were pretty much the only thing that tied him to her. Now that he didn’t even have to do that anymore, he cast her aside and spent all of his time with Diane de Poitiers.
But don’t you worry: Catherine de Medici would get the last laugh in the end.
31. He Hatched A Scheme
While the vast majority of Henry II’s time was spent cavorting with Diane or another one of his mistresses, he did at least take some time to actually be a king. One of his greatest political schemes involved a young Mary, Queen of Scots, who grew up at his court. Henry saw an opportunity in the fiery young queen, and hatched a plot to do what no French king had done for centuries.
Step one: marry his son Francis to young Mary. This would fortify an alliance between Scotland and France—but Henry had much more sinister motives than that.
32. He Tried To Steal Scotland
On the surface, Henry’s plan seemed simple. With Francis and Mary as husband and wife, their child would be the King of France and the King of Scotland. They’d even have a claim to the throne of England! Uniting all three kingdoms would be quite the feat, and it’s something Henry II wanted desperately—so much so that he resorted to some despicable tactics.
33. His Methods Were Pretty Shady
Henry forced Mary to secretly sign documents that ensured Scotland would come under French rule even if she didn’t have a child with Francis. These papers were completely against Scottish Law and undoubtedly would have led to open warfare—but before Henry’s grand schemes could come to fruition, he met an utterly grisly end.
34. He Had Another Lovechild
Henry II didn’t just get a new daughter-in-law when Mary, Queen of Scots came to town. He got a brand new mistress too! One of Mary’s ladies was a woman named Janet Stewart. Henry took one look at her and knew he had to have her. Sorry Diane, but cheaters gonna cheat. Janet didn’t last long in France—once the Scots realized she’d taken the king to bed, they dragged her back to Scotland.
But not before she gave birth to a son, Henri, Bâtard de Valois, who went on to become the most famous of Henry’s three illegitimate kids. And to think, there was a time where this guy struggled to get anyone pregnant!
35. He Had A Chilling Dark Side
While Henry II wasn’t busy trying to claim Scotland or finding new mistresses, he loved to do one thing: Absolutely brutalize any and all Protestants. A fervent Catholic, Henry concocted pretty horrific punishments for anyone he caught preaching Calvinism. French Protestants, known as Huguenots, might end up burned at the stake, or with their tongues cut out.
And Henry was just getting started. France was quickly becoming a terrifying place for anyone who wasn’t Catholic. Protestants were entering a truly dark era—but before Henry could do any real damage, a gruesome accident changed everything.
36. He Ended Decades Of Fighting
While Henry II was busy sleeping his way through half the women in Paris, France was technically at war with the Holy Roman Empire. Clearly, it wasn’t that high on Henry’s list of priorities, and he finally put an end to the conflict in 1559. Now, you’d think ending a war would be a good thing—but little did Henry know, this peace agreement sealed his fate.
37. He Married Off His Daughter
The best way to seal a peace treaty is with a marriage, and that’s just what Henry did. He married his daughter Elisabeth to King Philip II of Spain. And of course, the best way to seal a marriage is with a huge tournament! For Henry II, this was two birds with one stone: He got to forge an alliance with Spain and show off his jousting skills? Win-win!
Unfortunately for him, his jousting skills would prove severely lacking.
38. He Was Getting Too Old For This…
What can we say, Henry II loved jousting. But he wasn’t exactly a spring chicken anymore. He started experiencing extreme giddiness after any physical exercise, and it started to concern the people around him. On the morning of the big tournament, Catherine begged him not to take part. But if we’ve learned anything by now, it’s that Henry didn’t exactly value his wife’s opinion.
He suited up anyway—wearing Diane de Poitiers’ colors, because of course. Let’s just say, he should have listened to Catherine…
39. He Got Knocked On His Butt
Henry II’s big day got off to a pretty good start. He personally defeated both the Dukes of Guise and Nemours in the joust. Now, were they taking it easy on him because he was the freaking King of France? Who’s to say? One thing is for sure, his next opponent, Gabriel de Montgomery, didn’t hold back. He managed to knock the king out of his saddle.
Now, most 40-year-old men would call it a day after taking a lance to the chest and landing on their backs. Not Henry—he just had to get up for one last chance at Montgomery. Three guesses as to what happened next…
40. He Was Fine…Until He Took A Lance To The Face
Allow me to remind you: Jousting is an insanely dangerous sport. Henry II saddled back up and rode against Montgomery once more—but this time, disaster struck. Montgomery’s lance struck Henry right in the face and shattered. The entire crowd could tell that something had gone terribly wrong, but still, it was even worse than any of them could have imagined.
41. He Was A Horrific Sight
Spectators could see the blood pouring out of Henry’s helmet, but once he got it off, the gruesome extent of the damage became clear. His wife, his mistress, and his son all took one look at him and passed out cold: He was a chilling sight. He had several large splinters sticking out of his eyes and head. Doctors rushed him inside, but it didn’t look good.
42. The Damage Was Gruesome
From a surgery table in the Château de Tournelles, doctors managed to extract five massive splinters from Henry’s head. One of the aforementioned splinters had gone straight through his eye and into his brain. That kind of damage would be nearly impossible to survive even with modern medicine—and Henry definitely did not have anything resembling modern medicine.
All his doctors could do was wrap him up and hope for the best—but it didn’t look good.
43. His Wife Stayed At His Side
Despite everything Henry had put her through, Catherine de Medici stayed right at his bedside for days. Somehow, she still clearly had some fondness for the father of her children. However, her place at his side only meant that Catherine had a front-row seat for Henry’s painful transformation.
44. He Withered Away
The damage should probably have slain Henry instantly, but remarkably, he clung to life. For a time, he was actually well enough to dictate some letters and listen to some music, but the writing was on the wall. Soon, he lost his sight. His mind went next, and his final days were spent rambling—but when the end finally came, his speech had devolved to a single, heartbreaking plea.
45. His Wife Denied His Final Request
In Henry’s final days, he repeatedly called out for the love of his life—and we all know I’m not talking about his wife. Henry begged to see Diane de Poitiers one last time, but Catherine vehemently banned her from Henry’s bedchamber. She’d spent nearly her entire life playing second fiddle to Diane, and now the power was finally in her hands.
Henry finally passed on July 10, 1559, never getting to say goodbye to his beloved Diane. And, to twist the knife, Catherine banned de Poitiers from his funeral as well. After decades of torment, Catherine finally had all the power—and she planned on using it.
46. His Wife’s Time Had Finally Come
From that day onward, Catherine de Medici began using a broken lance as her emblem, a grim reminder of Henry’s gruesome end. She also wore black for the rest of her days—but if anything, her life began on the day Henry died. He had never let Catherine hold a shred of power or influence. Now, with him gone, Catherine de Medici would prove she was one of the most ruthless women in all of France.
47. Catherine Took Control
Henry might not have had a high opinion of Catherine, but their kids adored her. As the imperious Queen Mother of France, Catherine controlled her sons just as Diane had controlled Henry for all those years. It only took decades of humiliation, but Catherine de Medici finally got the power she so craved. Meanwhile, she banished Diane de Poitiers from Paris.
De Poitiers lived out the rest of her days in total obscurity—but given what she’d put Catherine through, I’d say she got off easy.
48. He Showed Mercy—And It Came Back To Bite Him
There’s an ironic twist to Henry’s gruesome end. You would think that, accident or not, Gabriel de Montgomery would face some serious consequences for striking the blow that felled the King of France. Nope. Henry absolved Montgomery of all blame before his heart gave out—but that would prove to be a terrible mistake.
Montgomery would later go on to convert to Henry’s hated Protestantism and would even lead armies against Henry’s son in battle. Maybe shouldn’t have let that one get away…
49. He Did ONE Good Thing
Alright, Henry II of France wasn’t a great guy. He was a womanizer and a zealot who didn’t do very much for his people. BUT, we can say one decent thing about him: He invented the patent. Henry was the first guy to make sure that an inventor could patent an idea so no one else could take it. Hey, that’s more than most of us have accomplished, at least.
50. His Wedding Night Was So, So Awkward
I think it’s safe to say that Henry II and Catherine de Medici had one of the most disastrously awful marriages in history—but in their defense, it got off to one of the worst starts imaginable. On the night of their wedding, Henry’s dad, King Francis I, followed the couple back to their bedroom to make sure they made the marriage “official.” I would remind you that they were both 14 years old at the time, but I don’t think there’s any age that would make that not creepy.
I also have to tell you that Francis didn’t just watch his teenage son and daughter-in-law do the deed; he gave a review as well. He said that they both “showed valor in the joust.” Yikes…