History is littered with tragic kings, but Henry II, King of France stakes his claim as one of the most calamitous. His story starts off in woe, but features an unlikely turn of fate that sees him become the king of one of Europe’s great empires. But, just as he was breaking through the ranks of history to stamp his name as one of the greats, he met a swift and sudden ruin. And all the while, this scandalous monarch kept dark secrets behind bedroom doors. Dive into the dark history of Henry II, the Lecherous King.
1. Cat’s in the Cradle
Henry II of France followed in his father’s footsteps. King Francis I was famous for many things, including his unending crusade against his greatest rival, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. As sworn enemies, the two kings engaged in years of battle, until finally, Charles managed to capture Francis and take him prisoner. But don’t worry, Francis had a way out—even if it was far from ideal.
2. Two for One Trade
Francis was a skilled conniver, and he knew how to get himself out of tricky situations. So, after his capture, he used his most valuable bargaining chips: his sons. Francis negotiated his release by handing over young Henry and his older brother to Charles. Henry was only a child at the time, thrust into the belly of the beast.
3. Spanish Prison Blues
Henry wasn’t even the heir to the throne. That title belonged to his older brother, Francis III. That didn’t stop Charles V from wanting to keep him prisoner, though. Henry lived in Spain as a captive for four long years. Although Charles treated him relatively well for a prisoner, it was a grim lesson for the future king about playing the game of thrones, and he never forgave Charles or Spain for the rest of his life.
4. Keeping Chivalry Alive
Henry no longer had a mother when his father sent him to Spain for imprisonment. Instead, a woman named Diane de Poitiers, nearly 20 years his elder, served as his mother figure. It was de Poitiers who gave him a farewell kiss on his forehead before he left. While serving his sentence, he became obsessed with romantic chivalry books. In turn, he formed an obsession with Diane—one that would come to define his entire life.
5. Just a Regular Guy
The early years of Henry’s life were quite uneventful—minus that whole being held prisoner in Spain thing, of course. That is, it was uneventful until the romance started. When he was 14 years old, he married Catherine de’ Medici. Their arranged marriage was supposed to be of little consequence because neither of them was in line to be king or queen. If only they knew what fate had in store for them…
6. Welcome to the Show
Henry and Catherine weren’t at the top of the food chain, but their wedding was still ridiculously extravagant. King Francis put a show on for the ceremony, and gifts were flying all over the place. But even though the marriage was a done deal, young Henry still had to put on a show for his new wife by dancing and jousting for her. As the day wore on, his fatigue began to show, but he had to keep some strength—there was still the grand finale.
7. Mysterious Disposal
Henry’s brother Francis was the rightful heir, and the court was grooming him to be a great king. However, tragedy struck before that could happen. Francis fell ill after a day of tennis and mysteriously passed away soon after. No one knows how Henry’s brother became so sick so suddenly; suspicions rose and rumors circulated, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Henry was soon to be the king.
8. He Was an Absent Husband
Henry and Catherine may have had fun on their marriage night (even if it was awkward), but Catherine did not have much fun afterward. In the first year of their marriage, Henry basically disappeared from Catherine’s life and kept himself busy with other women. He did not show Catherine much respect and publicly took mistresses. That sounds scandalous enough, but it’s even more disturbing than you imagined…
9. Ménage à Trois
When he was only 15 years old, Henry took the 35-year-old Diane de Poitiers as his mistress. Remember, the woman who was his mother figure before he went off to Spain? And, to make things even more awkward, Diane and Catherine were actually related. Because of how much Henry loved Diane, she effectively became the most powerful woman in France during his reign.
As you can imagine, that didn’t exactly make his queen happy—but her time would come.
10. Playing Favourites
When Henry became Henry II, King of France, he bestowed much power to Diane de Poitiers, sidestepping Catherine and her wishes. Most of all, the remarkable Château de Chenonceau, one of the most famous and luxurious Châteaux in the world. Catherine wanted to live in it and keep it all for herself, but Henry gave it to Diane instead. He also gave her the Crown Jewels of France.
11. Problems Down Under
Henry and Catherine were supposed to produce an heir and keep the family line going, but for the first ten years of their marriage, they were childless. While people blamed Catherine, Henry was the real person at fault. Some historians believe that he suffered from a urological condition that made it difficult for him to conceive. Not that that was any help to Catherine at the time, though…
12. Born This Way
Henry suffered from multiple deformities in a very…sensitive area. He was born with both hypospadias and chordee, which both affected his manhood and made it difficult for him to conceive. However, of course, people placed the blame squarely on Catherine. The French Court assumed that she was infertile, and that’s why no royal babies were popping up.
But, to be fair, people had one very good reason to assume that the problem lay with Catherine.
13. Knocked Up
Henry’s deformities certainly made it difficult for him to conceive…with Catherine, that is. In 1538, Henry got his mistress Filippa Duci pregnant. The child was born healthy and proved Henry’s fertility while thrusting more pressure on Catherine to produce a proper royal child.
14. The Plumbing Does Work
I know what you’re thinking: Henry’s relationship with Diane de Poitiers was a little weird. Well, it’s actually even weirder than we ever imagined. When Henry had a child with Filippa Duci, he had her name the baby girl…Diane. Yep, that’s right. Henry had a child with a woman who was not his wife, nor his true love, and named her after another mistress.
15. Diane Meet Diane
As if it wasn’t hard enough for Filippa Duci, Henry took her child from her almost immediately. Even worse, he gave the infant to none-other than her namesake, Diane de Poitiers, to raise as her own! Though illegitimate, Henry recognized his daughter, and she grew up with Diane de Poitiers’ other two children. That must not have inspired confidence in Catherine during these difficult years trying to conceive a child of her own.
16. Henry the Philanderer
Henry just couldn’t keep it in his pants. He eventually had two more illegitimate children with two other women, meaning he had three children with three different women outside of his marriage. He only legitimized two of these children, however. Ouch, to the third one.
17. All Hands on Deck
It took a decade for Henry and Catherine to finally produce an heir, and it took all hands on deck. Pretty much everyone close to him tried to help, including Diane de Poitiers herself. She would make sure that Henry slept with Catherine often to have a child, helped hire doctors to aid the couple, and even helped train Catherine in the act of lovemaking.
18. My Wife, the Voyeur
Henry and Catherine tried hard to have a baby, but they had one really big problem: Henry was not very invested in making love to Catherine. Thankfully, Catherine didn’t realize this for a long time—but eventually, she took matters into her own hands to learn the dark truth. She drilled holes in the ceiling of Diane’s bedroom, and upon watching the festivities within, noticed how her husband gave a much more enthusiastic performance with his mistress.
19. Just When He Thought He Was Out…
As a young man, Henry wasn’t happy to be married to a woman he didn’t love, and who was to be his queen. He discussed the situation with his father, and the king agreed with Henry on a divorce. To Henry, it seemed like his salvation had arrived—but he counted his chickens before they hatched. Francis would go back on his word after talking to Catherine.
She knew the only way to ensure her place as queen was to have a child, and after a decade of trying, the couple finally did.
20. Persistence and Patience
Ten years without a child was a long time for Henry to wait, but it was worth it. After one came another, and another, and another…The royal couple went from no children to ten children just like that. Talk about breaking the seal.
21. Mr. Melancholy
King Francis I of France was a larger than life figure—and unfortunately, Henry II paled in comparison. He allegedly suffered from “melancholy,” and it made him a real bummer to be around. After having such a gregarious king for many years, the grim Henry II was a tough pill to swallow.
22. Don’t Mess with His Favourite
Not everyone was as fond of Diane de Poitiers as Henry II was. When Francis was king, de Poitiers was just one of many court favorites. She had to bite and claw for every bit of influence she could get. That all changed once Francis kicked the bucket and her lapdog Henry took over. One of the first things he did as king was ban all of de Poitiers’ competition from court. Finally, she was officially Queen Bee—even if she wasn’t the actual queen.
23. Trust Issues
Henry didn’t have many people he could trust around him. Perhaps this was a side effect of being used as prisoner bait by his father. Thankfully, he always had Diane de Poitiers. Henry trusted her political savvy and respected her opinion so much so that he entrusted her with the duty of writing his official letters.
24. One Love, One Name
Henry didn’t care who knew about Diane’s influence over him, and he made sure that whoever received his official letters knew who wrote them. He would sign those letters written by Diane with a one name signature: HenriDiane.
25. Exhibitionist King
Diane de Poitiers was Henry’s greatest obsession. Did we make that clear yet? He didn’t hide it from anyone, whether it was his wife or foreign guests, but sometimes, he could go a little far. At many parties, Henry would play the guitar or discuss politics with guests while perched on Diane’s lap. He would even shamelessly play with her breasts as the guests looked on.
26. Christian Capitalist King
When Henry II needed money, he tended not to care where that money came from. And even though he gave himself the title of the “Most Christian King,” he was not the most religious of men. So, when he was strapped for cash, he simply sent men to take inventory of the churches and taxed them based on their treasures. Did this make people angry? Of course. Did Henry care? Not one bit.
27. He Had a Thing For Heads
The 16th-century Reformation movement scared the French royalty, and they worked hard to snuff it out. In 23 years, Francis I had 87 executed people for heresy. Well, in this case, Henry proved even more malevolent than his father. In only 12 years, Henry II publicly executed 97 people for heresy. He took pride in quelling the Reformation.
28. The Burning of Notre-Dame
Henry must have had a personal beef with the Reformation, more personal than his father’s. For his part, Francis I had refused to attend any of the public executions that he ordered. Henry II, on the other hand, broke this unwritten rule by showing up to one of the stake burning execution spectacles he ordered in front of Notre-Dame.
29. Nobody Expects the French Inquisition
Everyone knows about the Spanish Inquisition, but the French Inquisition was nearly as chilling. In his fight against Protestantism and the influence of John Calvin, Henry II tried to root out heresy wherever he could find it. Henry was a traditionalist and scared that the new religious ideas would infect his government, so he got help from the pope to set up an inquisition and declare war against heretics.
30. Burning the Books
Henry II set up the “burning chamber,” a judiciary committee to enforce the suppression of heretical ideas. The censorship made sure that authorities checked every book that entered the country for heresy and strictly controlled the books published in France. Henry enacted these laws because John Calvin had set up shop in Geneva, Switzerland, frighteningly close to his own border. Burning people, burning books, this guy just had a thing for burning!
31. An Eye on the Prize
Always looking to the future, Henry II set his sights on more than just the French crown. While Scotland and England were embroiled in civil conflict, he allied himself with Scotland in the hopes he could maneuver himself, or at least his family, onto the English throne. He adopted Mary, Queen of Scots when she was a child in an agreement for her to marry his son Francis–who was three at the time.
32. Taking Advantage of the Youth
Henry’s idea was that he would create a dynasty in Scotland through Mary when she had a child with Francis. He believed so much in this objective that he created secret documents for Mary–still a child at the time–to sign. The documents stated that if Mary were to die without bearing a child from Francis, his family would still maintain rule in Scotland.
These documents would have been completely invalid under Sottish law, of course, but hey, it was worth a try.
33. King of the Patents
It may not be what Henry II hoped to be remembered by, but it may as well be his most lasting impact on the world. What could Henry have done that was so great as to be remembered five centuries later? Patents. That’s right. Henry first established the concept of giving an inventor monopoly rights over an invention by publishing the invention’s description. What were you expecting?
34. Creativity Takes Courage
Henry’s father was a true Renaissance man. Francis brought in many figures from Italy to contribute to the arts in France–including Leonardo da Vinci. Henry wasn’t nearly as intellectual or concerned with art as his father, but he still worked to promote the arts in his country. The arts flourished under his reign, particularly music, which was his favorite.
35. Parlez-vous français?
Henry’s promotion of culture oversaw the development of French literature, as his court explicitly moved away from the use of Latin. For the first time, writers expressively used the French language in literature and poetry. Imagine that, French writers who actually wrote in French! A weird idea, but it just might work!
36. Jousting Nemesis
Henry was a big fan of sports, and he particularly loved hunting and jousting. He was a prideful man who loved the competition. Little did he know that his favorite hobby would be what led to his demise.
37. The Colors of a Lover
During sporting events like jousting, the participants would wear the colors of their houses or loved ones. Typically, one would wear the colors of their wife. Not Henry. When Henry II jousted, he wore Diane de Poitiers’ colors. Through all the years of royal events where Henry would participate in jousting, Catherine had to watch him wear another lover’s mark.
38. Shield of Love
Henry wasn’t content simply wearing Diane’s colors during sporting events. Nope. He was the type of man who really committed to things. On his shield, which is on exhibition at the Met Museum, he had a D cut into the strapwork. A crescent moon accompanied the D because the name of the Moon goddess was…Diane.
39. The Beginning of the End
Henry was in the business of setting up the future by marrying off his many children. His most consequential marriage agreement was that of his daughter, Elisabeth, to Philip II of Spain. The wedding was part of a truce putting an end to the long-running Italian Wars, and there was an incredible amount of fanfare to celebrate the wedding. But the fanfare wouldn’t last long…
40. Where’d the Money Go?
The agreement reached between Henry II and Philip II was mainly a financial one. Both kings waged chaos across the continent and were bankrupt. Henry’s hand was forced because he had run the national debt to staggering heights: 2.5 times the national revenue. With debt like that, keeping peace at home during his conflict with the protestants would have been nearly impossible.
He planned the wedding to solve his finacial woes—unaware he’d sealed his own fate.
41. Sweet Dreams Are Not Made of Jousting
The grand celebrations in honor of the wedding included not one, not two, but five days of jousting. Did I mention Henry loved jousting? Maybe that’s an understatement. Anyway, the jousting tournament kicked off swimmingly. That is, until the third day of activities. The doom began during the second night when Catherine had a dream of Henry lying bloody on the ground.
After years of mistreatment, maybe the dream made her smile—but I doubt she realized she’d see it come true.
42. Sore Loser
Day three of jousting was going great for Henry. He had defeated two dukes before going up against a young knight, Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery, the head of Henry’s Scots Guard. The young knight got the better of Henry on their first joust, which frustrated the prideful king. He forced the knight to ride against him again, ignoring the plea of his wife Catherine not to. Let’s just say, he should have listened…
43. Dream Come True
During their second joust, Gabriel’s lance splintered on collision. Shards flew in Henry’s face. The air filled with chaos. When the dust cleared, Henry lay on the ground, a bloody mess, with a giant shard of wood piercing his eye. He lay unconscious as doctors rushed in and the audience sat in dismay.
44. Pride But no Prejudice
Henry regained consciousness not too long after the joust. Gabriel knelt beside him, a mess of guilt, begging for forgiveness. “Behead me,” he blurted. Henry may have been a touch too proud, but he wasn’t a megalomaniac. He soothed Gabriel and absolved him; Gabriel was only acting on his duty to obey the king’s orders. Still, good intentions or not, Henry’s outlook was grim.
45. Roller Coaster Recovery
A group of Western Europe’s best doctors attended to the fallen king, from his own to Philip II’s personal physician. They successfully removed five full splinters from the king’s head, and within a few days, he had miraculously recovered. Though confined to his bed-chamber, he was going about business as usual, dictating orders and letters, listening to his favorite music. It seemed too good to be true—and it was.
Just as quickly as things improved, they again worsened, and only ten days after the incident, he suddenly passed away.
46. No Chance to Say Goodbye
During the final days of Henry’s life, he was deprived of seeing the love of his life. Because he couldn’t leave his bed and his condition was worsening, Henry was at the mercy of his wife, Catherine. He called out over and over again for Diane, but because Catherine still harbored jealousy, she refused to allow her greatest rival to enter the king’s bed-chamber.
47. Achy Breaky Heart
It was custom in France to preserve the heart of a recently deceased king inside of an urn. Today these urns carrying hearts can be seen in museums; Henry’s is at the Louvre. Except not. Henry’s heart isn’t actually in the urn on show at the Louvre because, during the French Revolution, looters destroyed the real one.
48. Remembrance of Broken Things Past
Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother, was a wreck after Henry passed away. She dealt with a lot during her time with Henry; nevertheless, she loved him immensely. To honor her lost husband, she adopted a broken lance as her emblem. A broken emblem and a patent: that is how Henry II, King of France, is remembered to this day.
49. She was Vindicated
Catherine was cordial to Henry’s mistress Diane de Poitiers…during his lifetime. As Henry lay dying from his jousting accident, her true feelings revealed themselves. Catherine denied de Poitiers any access to Henry’s deathbed, ignoring her husband’s final, desperate pleas for his lover. After his death, she banished de Poitiers and her friends from Paris. But Catherine was just getting started…
50. She Took Everything
Exiling de Poitiers wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy Catherine. She also ordered the surrender of de Poitiers’ fine jewels and her great castle, the Chateau de Chenonceau, all of which had been given to her by Henry during his lifetime. Even years later, Catherine made her real opinion heard on de Poitiers in a letter to one of her children: “Never has a woman who loved her husband liked his whore.”
51. And If You Feel Like I Feel
Nuptial duties are a serious deal. Obviously, it’s important for any relationship to work in the bedroom, but back in Henry’s day, it carried even greater importance. Henry’s father King Francis was well aware of the importance that consummation held when his son wed Catherine de Medici. When Henry arrived with Catherine to the nuptial chamber, his father was sitting there, waiting to watch.
52. King Creepy
King Francis did not leave the room until Henry and Catherine finished consummating their marriage. Francis was happy with what he saw and reported to the party that “each had shown valor the joust.” Henry stayed in bed with Catherine through the morning. As the sun came up, Pope Clement VII, Catherine’s guardian, paid a visit and found that the young couple were satisfied with one another.
It wasn’t a great start to a marriage—and as we’ve seen, it didn’t get much better from there.