King Henry IV of France was called “Henry the Great”, but this monarch certainly wasn’t good. This bloodthirsty, grade-A hedonist had the messiest personal life Europe had ever seen—the infamous Tudors included. Believe me: King Henry IV has secrets, and I’m here to expose them.
King Henry IV Facts
1. He Had A Messy Home Life
The notorious King Henry VIII gets a lot of bad press, but he has nothing on King Henry IV of France.
Born Henry of Navarre, this French royal came from powerful stock. His mother was the formidable Queen Joan of Navarre—but drama also ran in his family. His father Antoine of Bourbon constantly flaunted his many mistresses in front of his wife. And when Joan got her revenge, little Henry was right in the middle.
2. His Mother Abandoned Him
As Henry grew up, his parents’ issues got worse, particularly after Joan converted to Protestantism while his father stayed Catholic. Fed up, Joan carted a seven-year-old Henry to the nearby French court and intended to stay for a good, long while.
So when Antoine ordered his queenly wife back to Navarre, Joan was even more annoyed—so much so that while she did return, she left Henry behind in France for four years. Yep, Henry’s mother abandoned him to make a perverse point. Is it any surprise Henry turned out so maladjusted?
3. His Bride-To-Be Was Stunning
In 1572, Henry’s mother decided it was high time her 19-year-old son looked for a bride. In response, the infamous Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother in France, put forth her daughter Margaret of Valois as an option.
Margaret was around Henry’s age, a renowned beauty, and from an equally influential family, seeing as her brothers were Kings of France. Easy peasy matchmaking, right? Except it turned into a total nightmare.
4. He Had A Controversial Romance
One of Margaret’s many admirers described her as “more divine than human, she is made to damn and ruin men rather than to save them”. Well, there were some definite signs ruin was on the way. For one thing, while Henry was a Protestant like his mother, Margaret was a staunch Catholic and swore she would never convert.
This was a huge obstacle. Even the Pope himself weighed in, warning he would never sanction Henry and Margaret’s marriage. When they continued anyway, cruel karma struck.
5. His Mother Met A Sudden End
As Henry and his family went on with wedding planning, a cataclysm hit the royal family. While picking up her wedding outfit in Paris, Henry’s usually hale and strong mother Joan took suddenly ill and died at the age of just 44. In the blink of an eye, Henry wasn’t just a groom-to-be, he was the reigning King of Navarre.
And instead of taking this as a bleak omen for his upcoming nuptials—which, spoiler, it was—he walked further down his ruinous path.
6. His Wedding Was Extremely Awkward
On August 18, 1572, just months after his mother’s death, Henry and Margaret of Valois married at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris very much without the blessing of the Pope or many of the French people. In fact, because of his Protestant faith, Henry had to awkwardly stand outside the Catholic cathedral while his own wedding mass went on.
Still, for days after, it was all glitter and glamour, with endless banquets and balls and early morning light. Then the other shoe dropped—and BOY, did it drop.
7. He Had A Red Wedding
On the fifth day after his wedding, Henry was plunged into bloodshed worthy of Game of Thrones. Taking advantage of how many prominent Protestants were in Paris for the marriage, a Catholic mob began killing French Protestants en masse in what became the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and inspired George R R Martin’s “Red Wedding”.
For days, high-ranking Catholics were literally hunting down noble Protestants in their own palace rooms, banging on their doors and killing whomever they could. And one day, they came right for Henry.
8. He Got A Terrifying Ultimatum
Henry and his new wife Margaret cowered in the Louvre Palace as this chaos went on around them, but they couldn’t hide forever. Soon enough, Catholic conspirators heaved Henry from his quarters, pulled him into a dark room, and gave him a violent ultimatum: Convert to Catholicism right then and there, or die.
Now, Henry was no fool. Knowing which choice left him breathing, he immediately said “sure thing”, and the conspirators released him. But he didn’t know one gasp-worthy thing.
9. His Mother-In-Law Plotted Against Him
In the centuries since the massacre and Henry’s near-death experience, historians have made a bone-chilling suggestion. They believe that it was Henry’s new mother-in-law Catherine de Medici who masterminded the entire conflict. Not the way you want to get welcomed into the family. But Henry had bigger problems ahead.
10. He Knew What He Was Doing In The Bedroom
With the massacre finally ebbing, Catherine de Medici made yet another power-play: She demanded that her daughter Margaret annul her marriage to Henry. Which is right about when Margaret made a scandalous confession. Despite all the distracting bloodshed, she and the lusty Henry had already consummated the marriage, and he was her true husband “in every sense”.
For the next couple of years, Margaret remained loyal to Henry and actively sided with him against her mother and the throne of France, which both grew increasingly hostile to Henry. Unfortunately for her, Henry repaid that loyalty with betrayal. A really stupid betrayal.
11. He Was The World’s Biggest Womanizer
Around this time, Henry began getting a reputation that follows him today—that of an insatiable lothario. Like his father, he womanized to the point of excess, and would soon keep his own train of royal mistresses. But it got so much more raunchy than that.
Even with a steady stream of beautiful courtiers at his feet, he liked to supplement his royal romps with visits to “night houses” or else just engage in purely random boudoir encounters. But his wild, bottomless bedroom needs were one of his biggest weaknesses…and he was about to make a huge mistake.
12. He Fell For A Honeypot
After learning about her hated son-in-law’s rapacious libido, Catherine de Medici knew just what to do. See, the French Queen Mother had a stable of beautiful spies called “The Flying Squadron” who she employed to seduce men she wanted to control. She chose the stunning Charlotte de Sauve to do just that for Henry, and he bought it hook, line, and sinker.
Yep, Henry could have any mistress he wanted in the land, and he went for his conniving mother-in-law’s right-hand woman instead. The wheels fell off with alarming speed.
13. He Became Estranged From His Wife
First, Charlotte purposefully drove a wedge between Henry and Margaret, insinuating to her lover that his wife was jealous of their love. In Margaret’s words, Charlotte “so completely ensnared my husband that we no longer slept together, not even conversed”. But if you think that’s messy, just wait.
14. Women Were His Great Weakness
Now that Henry was putty in the spy’s hands, Henry’s foe Catherine de Medici upped the ante. She had Charlotte also “fall in love” with one of Henry’s best’s friends, Francois de Alencon. It was a brilliant move, not to mention disastrous for Henry.
The romantic rivalry tore the BFFs apart, and Henry spent the next years distracted by his bedroom foibles instead of plotting any kind of counter-attack. But when Henry finally did wake up, his actions were jaw-dropping.
15. He Made A Great Escape
Henry’s weakness was certainly women, but his lust never lasted. So in 1576, when he finally fell out of all-consuming obsession with Charlotte de Sauve, he got a cold, hard look at his existence. What he saw wasn’t pretty: He was all but a prisoner in the French court, attacked at every side by the royal family, and no true King of Navarre.
Infuriated, Henry finally kicked it into high-gear and literally escaped France’s clutches while on a hunting trip. This had huge consequences.
16. He Revealed A Scandalous Truth
Henry of Navarre did nothing by halves, and his next move sent shockwaves through Europe. Free of his French shackles, Henry denounced his earlier conversion to Catholicism—which was under enormous duress anyway—and proclaimed himself a true Protestant. Yet this conversion came with a high, intensely personal price.
17. He Dumped His Wife
Just like his own mother once did to him, Henry had to abandon his wife Margaret in France in his haste to escape, and the poor woman remained a virtual prisoner to her own family for years. But that wasn’t all. When Margaret finally did manage to reunite with Henry, he dealt her a crushing insult.
18. He Liked Lolitas
Upon seeing Margaret and her retinue, Henry’s wandering eye landed on one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, the stunning Françoise de Montmorency-Fosseux, also called “La Belle Fosseuse“, which gives you some idea of how smoking hot people found her. There was just one supremely creepy detail.
The poor girl was just 14 years old at the time. Not that this stopped Henry from taking it into overdrive.
19. He Was Lecherous
In one of the most disturbing wooings in the history of royal romances—which is saying something—Henry plied the barely teenaged girl with juvenile delights, calling her “ma fille” and bestowing her with gifts of cakes and sweets. Of course, that’s not all he did. In a matter of months, La Belle Fosseuse was pregnant. And this is where Henry’s real troubles all began.
20. His Marriage Was Missing One Thing
Tragically, the girl’s child was stillborn, but her very pregnancy did damage enough. Because after nearly a decade of marriage, it underlined the fact that Henry and Margaret were still childless, and thus heirless—never a good position to be in back then. Even so, perhaps the royal couple thought they still had time. They didn’t.
21. He Got Surprising News
In 1584, when Henry was just entering his 30s, fate threw him a rapid curveball. After a death in the royal family, Henry found himself next in line for the French throne—a plot twist brought to you by supremely incestuous royal family bloodlines.
Not what the matriarch Catherine de Medici would have wanted, but Henry must have been chuffed…at first. Because now that Henry was the heir apparent to the current King Henry III, it was extra important they birthed an heir. It did not go well. Actually, it went about as badly as it could go.
22. His Was Disloyal To His Wife In More Ways Than One
Instead of now really focusing on baby-making with his wife, Henry embarked on yet another affair, this time with Diane d’Andouins, also called “La Belle Corisande”—yes, he had a type. And while his previous mistress had been a naïve teen, Diane was a widow with huge ambition. Soon, she was whispering in his ear that it was time to drop the childless Margaret and make her queen.
Henry’s wife responded with a complete, total, and dangerous breakdown.
23. His Queen Tried To Kill Him
After years of watching Henry gallivant around with other women, not to mention abandon her, Margaret of Valois went off the deep end. Wracked with fears about her barren state, Henry’s wife got a terrifying vengeance. First, she tried to poison him, and when that didn’t work she went ahead and tried to shoot him with a pistol, but missed.
Her deranged plans foiled, Margaret fled the kingdom before ending up in jail all the same. And before Henry could untangle that Gordian Knot, he was fighting for his life in another way entirely.
24. He Became The Most Hated Man In Rome
Ever since Henry became heir apparent to the French throne as a Protestant, all the Catholics in Europe were primed to want his demise. Well, in 1587, they put their dreams into action: They united as the “Catholic League”, with Henry as Public Enemy Number One.
In no time, the League plunged France into a civil war, with Henry fighting tooth and nail on the battlefield to keep his claim to the French throne. Even after the current king died in 1589, Henry’s nominal claim was nowhere near secure. But in the midst of this bloody milieu, Henry still managed to cause scandal.
25. He Took An Eerily Loyal Lover
A true man’s man, Henry liked nothing more after a long day of brutally attacking Catholics than to unwind with a bout of debauchery. Enter: His new favorite mistress, Gabrielle D’Estrees. The pair met in the midst of his war-time activities, and Gabrielle proved an eerily loyal lover.
Even when she was heavily pregnant with Henry’s child, she continued living with the king in his little battle tent. But Gabrielle wasn’t just a pretty face or a fertile womb—she also pushed Henry into the most important decision of his life.
26. He Said A Famous Quote
By 1593, Henry had pushed the Catholic League back to the margins…but he still hadn’t managed to take the all-important capital of Paris. Then his mistress had a brilliant idea. Gabrielle, who was Catholic herself and cunning as all get-out, convinced Henry to re-convert to Catholicism, since it now seemed to be the only way to get his crown.
Once more showing a weakness for women, Henry finally relented, supposedly quipping, “Paris is well worth a Mass”. Even better, it worked: Henry officially became king in February 1594.
He now had everything he ever wanted and more…but he soon found out it was a monkey’s paw to end all monkey’s paws.
27. He Wanted To Divorce His Wife
At this point, Henry was flying higher than he ever had. On top of officially being King of France, Gabrielle eventually gave him an (illegitimate) son, Cesar, and would go on to have two more children with him. Full of plans for the future, Henry began plotting a way to annul his marriage to his pesky wife Margaret and legitimize his relationship with Gabrielle.
Tragically, this plan was doomed from the start.
28. He Had A “Duchess Of Filth”
By 1599, Henry was full speed ahead with his plan to marry Gabrielle. But he was ignoring a crucial issue. For one, the common people hated her, calling her “The Duchess of Filth”. More importantly, naming his lovechild Cesar as his heir, legitimized or not, was a sure-fire way to start yet another war of succession.
No one wanted him to go through with it, but Henry didn’t listen. He proposed to a pregnant (again) Gabrielle that Mardi Gras. Fate, however, had much more barbarous plans.
29. He Lost The Love Of His Life
Brimming with happiness at her prospects, Gabrielle reportedly preened that “Only God or the king’s death could put an end to my good luck”. Well, God did indeed have ideas about that. In a stunning turn of events, a vicious attack of pre-eclampsia hit Gabrielle just days after she made this pronouncement, and by the next day both she and her newborn son were dead.
Henry’s response was nothing short of heartbreaking.
30. He Had Deeply Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Stunned at his love’s loss, Henry believed that Gabrielle’s death was God cruelly telling him that he’d been wrong to want to marry his mistress all along. All the same, he mourned her with the most extravagant funeral he could muster—but he took solace in darker comforts, too. Before long, Henry was back rampaging through houses of ill repute and drowning his sorrows in every bosom he could find.
Quick reminder: Women were Henry’s Achilles’ heel. And wow, did he make a huge mistake.
31. He Rebounded Hard
During this time, King Henry was about as hot a mess as you could find on the continent. So when he met the beautiful Henriette D’Etrangues, he was little more than a plaything for the ambitious woman’s desires. The child of a famous royal mistress, Henriette knew exactly what she was doing.
She used Henry’s lingering grief over Gabrielle to get him to write out a promise of marriage to her. Smart girl, stupid Henry. But it backfired big time.
32. He Double-Crossed His Mistress
In late 1599, Henry’s annulment from Margaret of Valois finally went through, and France really began pushing their 46-year-old king to marry someone and get a true-blue, legitimate heir before it was too late. That’s when Henry dealt his most callow betrayal yet. Instead of running to Henriette with the good news…he began courting the Florentine noble Marie de Medici.
Yeah, ouch for poor Henriette. And it all got very soap opera from here.
33. He Was A Liar To His Core
Henry’s motives for marrying Marie were, uh, not pure. Orphaned at a young age, Marie was a heiress in possession of massive wealth, and Henry had dollar signs, and dollar signs only, in his eyes.
Of course, that’s par for the course in Medieval marriages. Henry really soured the whole deal when he wrote effusive letters to Marie proclaiming his love…while sending almost the exact same letters to Henriette, who he was still keeping as his side piece. I’m sure you can tell that this is going to end great.
34. He Worked Fast In The Boudoir
Spurred on by his need for an heir—and his legendary libido—Henry wed and then bed Marie de Medici in rapid succession. The results were glorious for Henry. After decades of childlessness with Margaret, Henry’s new wife was pregnant before he even got her installed in her Paris apartments at the Louvre. But the scandal didn’t stop there.
35. He Manipulated The Women In His Life
The minute Marie arrived in Paris, she knew something was wrong. First, her rooms were so shabby that she actually thought Henry was playing a practical joke on her—but no, he just didn’t much care for her comfort. Then, Henry made his contempt obvious.
He orchestrated an interaction between Marie and his current chief mistress Henriette, where he played the women off each other by forcing Henriette into a ridiculously low curtsy in front of his wife. And as Marie grew into her role as queen, Henry only grew more villainous.
36. He Finally Got His Heir
In September 1601, Marie gave birth—and she gave birth to that long-awaited son, the future Louis XIII. Hardly believing his luck, Henry immediately made it all about him, inviting 200 courtiers into the birthing chamber to celebrate while his exhausted wife tried to recuperate on the bed. But he soon found a way to be intentionally cruel.
37. He Played His Own Children Off Each Other
The entire time that Marie de Medici was pregnant, she had to contend with an ugly truth. Henriette D’Etrangues was also carrying the king’s love child, and gave birth to a son, Gaston, just weeks later. Rubbing salt in the wound, Henry’s reaction was typically insensitive. He now toasted this boy just as much as Louis, and even proclaimed that Gaston was the better-looking of the two.
As it happened, this feud was just ramping up.
38. He Disrespected His Queen
According to the social mores of the day, Marie de Medici should have been able to rest on her laurels as a true queen the moment she provided Henry with an heir. Until, that is, Henry told her the cruel truth. He made it clear that she was nothing more than a breeder to him, and actively discouraged her from meddling in his political affairs. He even kept delaying Marie’s official coronation.
But he saved his most hurtful revelation for last.
39. He Had Unusual Living Arrangements
Over the next decade, Marie had a total of six children with Henry—but then again, Henriette bore him more too, and she always seemed to be pregnant at the same time as Marie. Cruelest of all, Henry informed Marie that all the children, legitimate and illegitimate, would live under the same roof. Soon, this became a whole can of worms.
40. His Wife Received A Cruel Nickname
Henry’s mistress Henriette had been understandably bitter about Marie ever since Henry had performed his marriage bait and switch. Now, Henriette began sneering at the queen that her children were the true legitimate heirs of France, and Marie was nothing more than a “fat banker”.
Had Henry actually showed Marie an ounce of respect, maybe Henriette would have backed off. Don’t worry, though: Henry was about to taste a big dose of karma.
41. His Own Mistress Plotted Against Him
Marie de Medici was desperately unhappy in her marriage, sure, but it was Henry’s mistress Henriette that he really had to watch out for. As the years went on, Henriette’s bitterness only grew—until the mistress performed a stunning act of betrayal.
In 1608, she actively plotted to overthrow him. Ridiculously enough, the lusty Henry managed to forgive her and welcome her back into his bed…even after Henriette tried and failed again to oust him just two years later. Of course, by then, disaster was imminent.
42. He Entered Full Creep Mode
As Henry entered into his mid 50s, his libido didn’t slow down at all. Unfortunately, his moral compass was as shoddy as ever, too. One of his final romances was with the sweet, pretty Charlotte de Montmorency…who was just 15 years old when the lecherous king’s eye landed on her. Pretty standard creepiness for Henry, sure. Until, that is, he outdid himself.
43. He Orchestrated A Sham Wedding
Charlotte was definitely a virgin when she and Henry met, and thus liable to married off, perhaps somewhere far away. So Henry came up with a despicable plan. In order to keep Charlotte close by him and scandal about her “purity” at bay, Henry simply married her to one of his courtiers, Henri de Bourbon, so he could have full access to her.
It was a low blow, even for him, and it blew up in his face.
44. His Plaything Ran Away From Him
Poor Charlotte and Henri actually quite liked each other, and had no desire whatsoever to let the King of France in on their bedroom life. Instead of giving into a lifetime of his demands, the pair fled Paris and settled down in Brussels. But they were hardly safe there. When Henry found out, he threw a fit unlike any before.
45. He Threw A Massive Temper Tantrum
Henry was used to getting exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it, and he didn’t much care for the humanity of any other people involved. His next move was truly heinous. He demanded that Charlotte and her husband return to his court immediately, or else he would march into Belgium himself with a flank of men.
It ended up all being hot air, but Henry had done major damage nonetheless.
46. He Made Lasting Enemies
People were getting pretty sick of dealing with King Henry’s bedroom appetites as well as his massive ego, and Henri de Bourbon never forgave the king for trying to steal away his wife. At one point, when someone asked him to give a toast to the Queen of France, the bitter noble quipped that he couldn’t…because there were probably four or five queens of France.
47. He Finally Crowned His Queen
In the spring of 1610, Henry did something he should have done a long time before. He finally agreed to hold an official coronation for his wife Marie de Medici, locking her in as Queen of France nearly a decade after they had first tied the knot.
Granted, he didn’t do it out of love, natch—he did it because he was off to fight in a burgeoning war and needed Marie to act as regent. He had no idea at the time that it was one of the last decisions he would ever make.
48. An Enemy Attacked Him In The Street
Fate is a cruel mistress, and when she finally came for Henry, she came in hard. The very day after Marie de Medici’s coronation, disaster struck. Henry was in a carriage and stalled in traffic—traffic likely produced by the queen’s coronation—when a man suddenly jumped in from the street and attacked him, stabbing him between the ribs.
As the dust cleared and the chaos settled, the ugly truth dawned.
49. His Life Ended Brutally
Throughout his life, Henry had dozens of attempts on his life, mostly from people angry about his Protestant faith or his conversion to Catholicism. This time was no different—except that it was gruesomely successful. The man who had attacked Henry was the Catholic zealot Francois Ravaillac, and his wound killed Henry almost instantly.
50. His Reputation Lives On
Henry had lived one of the fullest, lustiest lives in royal history, but it was taken from him in one cruel, senseless instant. Nonetheless, his memory lived on. Besides earning nicknames like “Henry the Great” or “The Good King Henry,” his reputation only grew after his death, and he soon became an emblem of the spirit of France, even after the French Revolution.