Cunning Facts About Henry IV Of France, The Unlikely King

Rachel Seigel

Growing up, Henry IV never expected to one day become the King of France. Already heir to the crown of Navarre through his mother, an arranged marriage and a battle for succession put him on the French throne in 1589, where he remained until his brutal end in 1610. Despite intense turmoil and conflict, Henry managed to lead France to a golden age. He’s remembered as one of the most popular kings in history—but even a popular king has plenty of skeletons in his closet. Below are 50 cunning facts about the Henry IV of France, the Unlikely King.

1. He Came From A Powerful Line

While he was never meant to be King of France, Henry wasn’t a complete nobody. His father Antoine de Bourbon was legit descended from royalty. Aside from being the head of the House of Bourbon, one of the principal ruling houses in Europe, he could trace his lineage back to the legendary Louis IX, the Saint King of France.

Technically, this gave Antoine—and his kids—a distant claim to the French throne. Still, at the time of his birth, Henry would have been extremely far down the line, so becoming the king of France was really unlikely. But, as we’ll see, Henry IV loved to defy the odds.

2. He Was Born A Prince

In 1555, Henry IV’s mother Jeanne d’Albret and his father became the joint queen and king of Navarre. This made two-year-old Henry the heir to the throne of Navarre, which he assumed at age 19 in 1572 after his mother’s passing. And, despite being so young, the formidable Henry was more than up to the challenge.

3. He Came From Two Worlds

Henry IV’s mother was apparently madly in love with Antoine, but there was one sticky little issue: They were of different faiths. His father was Catholic, while his mother converted to Protestantism in 1560 and became leader of the Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants). These conflicting views made things overly complicated for Henry—but this was just the beginning.

Religious conflicts would make sure he never got a moment’s peace for the rest of his life.

4. His Father Solved It

In 1562, the Massacre of Wassy, the event that started the French Religious Wars, pushed Henry’s mother deeper into Protestantism. This led to fierce arguments over Henry’s religious upbringing. Antoine won the battle, threatening to divorce her if he didn’t get his way, and sent Henry to live with his aunt, the infamous Catherine de Medici, for about five years.

5. He Knew His Stuff

As befitted a prince, Henry IV received a well-rounded education, focusing on book learning as well as horsemanship and how to handle arms. His regular visits to court also taught him the key skills of secrecy and deception, which helped him become the political mastermind he needed to be. But most importantly, Henry’s tutors schooled him in “gallantry.”

This definitely earned him points with the ladies when he got older—but more on Henry’s complicated love life later.

6. He Couldn’t Avoid Conflict

Henry IV was just a child when the conflicts known as the French Wars of Religion began. On one side was the powerful Catholic Guise family. On the other, the Huguenots, of whom Henry eventually became the leader. The Guise family, disliking their religion and afraid of the Huguenot’s growing influence, created the Catholic League.

The Catholic League in turn ignited decades of conflict when in 1562, a Guise nobleman arranged for the slaughter of several Huguenots.

7. He Began His Soldierly Service

Henry IV was only 14 when he headed his first service expedition. When Henry returned home at age 13, the Protestants and the Catholics were already in conflict. In the fall of 1567, his mother appointed him the token head of a mission against rebellious Roman Catholics in South Navarre. He was just a kid, but Henry still made his mark.

His Huguenots were victorious, and people already started to take notice of this precocious prince.

8. He Furthered His Education

A year after his success against the rebels, Henry went on another fighting expedition under the guidance of his uncle and leader of the Protestant army, the formidable Louis I de Bourbon. But this time, Henry learned the painful sting of defeat. The French army, led by the future King Henry III, surprised and defeated the Protestants. But that wasn’t the worst part…

The French cut down Henry’s uncle in the fray. The battle was a major loss for the Huguenots—but there was plenty more fighting ahead.

9. His Battles Shaped Him

With Louis de Bourbon’s passing, Henry’s education continued with the new Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny. This new mentor managed to really put some backbone into the youthful prince. In June 1570, Henry personally led the first charge of the Huguenot cavalry into the Battle of Arnay-le-Duc. Most 17-year-olds would have crumbled in the bloody fray, but Henry thrived.

He’d end up taking the lessons he learned on the field at Arnay-le-Duc with him for the rest of his life.

10. She Tried To Make Peace

In order to make sure that the French Protestants and Catholics remained at peace, Henry’s mother arranged for him to marry Marguerite de Valois, the daughter of the deceased French king Henry II and Catherine de Medici. Since Henry and Marguerite were both still teenagers, a long engagement seemed like a great idea—but that allowed tragedy to strike before they could actually wed.

Sadly, Henry’s mother fell ill with a mysterious sickness and passed a few months before the ceremony, adding a new layer to his forthcoming nuptials.

11. His Marriage Preceded A Nightmare

The newly-crowned King Henry of Navarre and Marguerite’s controversial marriage took place at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on August 18, 1572. It was supposed to mean peace between Catholics and Protestants—but the horrific events that followed were a perfect example of Catherine de Medici’s ruthlessness.

Less than a week after the ceremony, French royal forces slaughtered thousands of Protestants who were in town for the wedding. Historians remember that day as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, but it has an even darker name: The Scarlet Nuptials. Even worse, Henry’s new mother-in-law allegedly spurred on the slaughter.

12. They Were Pawns

The bloodshed didn’t start on St. Bartholomew’s Day. Unbeknownst to the newlyweds, a few days before the wedding, Catherine was maneuvering behind the scenes.  She ordered a hit on Huguenot leader (and Henry’s mentor) Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Catherine believed Coligny was poisoning the mind of her son, the King of France, against her.

She convinced her son that the Huguenots were about to rebel, leading him to take action that would have dire consequences for Henry.

13. He Narrowly Escaped

Coligny survived the attack and, unsurprisingly, the Huguenots sought retribution. Coligny helped draw up a list of targets, but he wouldn’t get the chance to have his revenge. In the early hours of the morning, Catholic thugs burst into his bedroom, savagely beat him, ran him through with a sword, and tossed him out of the window. This was on August 24—the day of the massacre.

This fatal attack opened the floodgates, and hordes of Catholics started slaying Huguenots in Paris. Henry managed to escape the same dark fate as his compatriots—but only by making a devil’s bargain.

14. He Made A Terrible Choice

After 24 hours of senseless bloodshed, King Charles tried and failed to order a stop to the chaos. The fighting not only continued, but spread to other territories in France. Charles must have figured that Henry was more useful to him alive, because rather than try to eliminate him, he struck a deal. Charles forced Henry to renounce his faith and convert to Roman Catholicism to save his own skin—and that wasn’t all he did.

15. He Was a Captive

In agreeing to convert to Roman Catholicism, Henry did exactly what King Charles demanded, but that wasn’t enough to convince Charles Henry was no longer a threat. The French king took Henry captive in his court, where he’d remain for three and a half long years. Publicly, Henry was a model inmate, but he was only biding his time.

16. He Made His Escape

In 1576, Henry found his opportunity, and he escaped from the French court. Upon his return to Navarre, he immediately took back his conversion (which King Charles had rightly suspected was just for show) and joined a newly combined force of Protestants and Catholic rebels to fight against France and the Catholic League. This time, the ball was in Henry’s court.

17. He Had A Loose Claim To The Throne

When Henry IV was born, there was virtually no chance that he’d ever inherit the French throne. The King of France already had four sons, and nobody ever imagined that they’d even get as far as the fourth son. Our Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Valois gave him an outside claim to the crown, but even then there were still two sons left after the sitting King Charles IX.

But then Charles passed, and that left only two men between Henry and the throne—and one thing is for sure: Henry IV was good at getting what he wanted.

18.  She Just Wasn’t Into Him

It was pretty clear from the start that Henry and his wife Marguerite really weren’t into each other (can you blame them after that nightmare wedding?). They didn’t try to hide it, either. They had little in common and zero chemistry, and within a year of their marriage, they had both taken lovers. But, despite their chilly relationship, Marguerite’s brother, the new King Henry III, still thought that she helped her husband escape, so he locked her in her chambers.

While in confinement, the couple began secretly corresponding, both recognizing the benefits of remaining allies, even if they weren’t crazy about each other.

19. She Tried To Smooth Things Over

Unfortunately for her, Marguerite found herself right in the middle of this bloody conflict. When her brother finally released her from her rooms, she took it upon herself to try and end the fighting. So, to Henry’s surprise and delight, she turned up in Navarre in 1578, ready to start building bridges. However, it didn’t exactly go according to plan. If anything, the fighting was about to get worse.

20. He Was Back In Battle

This latest conflict ended in a stalemate. King Henry III signed a peace treaty known as the Edict of Beaulieu, mostly allowing the Protestants freedom of worship and giving them a seat at the table in the French Parliament. It was a half-measure at best, and it basically just made everyone even madder. So, despite the king’s best efforts, fighting started up again, with our boy Henry once again leading the Huguenots.

21. He Forged Temporary Peace

This time, the Huguenots weren’t making out so well in the conflict, and by the fall of 1577, Henry astutely realized that they weren’t going to win. So, he convinced his fellow Huguenots to end the fighting and accept yet another treaty. The terms of the treaty were pretty sucky for Henry’s side this time around, but at least it kept the peace for a while. For a while…

22. Their Marriage Started To Crack

Surprisingly, after their rocky start, things were going swimmingly between Marguerite and Henry…for a few years. He reportedly bought her jewelry and expensive gowns, and she publicly expressed pride in her husband’s victories in battle. Soon enough, though, there was trouble in paradise. Marguerite had not yet produced an heir, and Henry’s eyes started to wander…

Henry eventually became infamous for his many mistresses. Things were definitely not looking good for this “happy” couple.

23. He Moved On Up

After Charles IX passed in 1574, his brother Henry became King Henry III, making the youngest brother Francis the heir presumptive. But in 1584, Francis passed away from malaria, throwing a wrench in things. Since Henry III didn’t have any children and an ancient Frankish law forbade his sisters or any other descendants from his mother’s line from inheriting, guess who suddenly became presumptive heir?

You guessed it—Charles’ longtime enemy, good old Henry of Navarre!

24. His Succession Was Opposed

Just because the law made our Henry the presumptive heir to the French throne didn’t mean that everyone had to like it. The people who definitely hated it were the Catholic League, led by the Duke of Guise, one of the masterminds of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. They refused to accept a Protestant king and wanted to ensure that he would never succeed Henry III.

But the Catholic League was about to learn, you did not want to make an enemy of Henry of Navarre.

25. They Tried To Destroy Each Other

All of these shenanigans pitched Henry of Navarre into the final religious conflict known as the War of Three Henrys, (Henry III, Henry, Duke of Guise, and Henry of Navarre). Henry of Guise wanted zero tolerance for the Huguenots. Henry III wanted minimal tolerance, Henry of Navarre represented the Huguenot people, and they were all prepared to fight for their positions.

Things were about to get even more bloody—but our Henry had been preparing his whole life for this.

26. They Were Strange Bedfellows

Had King Henry III been a stronger leader, things probably would have played out differently, but to put it plainly, he wasn’t. He fought against Henry of Navarre for years, getting his butt handed to him at the Battle of Coutras in 1587, but things can change quickly. Suddenly, France’s king found himself begging for Navarre’s help, and our Henry was only too happy to oblige…for a price.

27. They Had A Common Interest

The French Catholic League was becoming an increasingly big problem for the king.  They had already taken control of a substantial part of France and secured help from the Catholic King of Spain. King Henry III forged a plan to settle the conflict, but it ended up backfiring horribly. Bad news for the king, great news for Henry of Navarre.

28. His Plan Backfired

King Henry III believed that if he could get rid of the third Henry, Henry of Guise, the Catholic League would be finished. He had Guise eliminated, but instead of calming things down, King Henry found himself with an uprising on his hands and severely limited power. Now, he had to beg Henry of Navarre for his help to try and take back France from the League.

They’d been enemies for years, but now the two Henries worked together to assume control of Paris and the French Countryside. Talk about an uneasy alliance!

29. He Was Officially Named

On July 30, 1589, the combined forces of Henry III and Henry of Navarre surrounded Paris, which the Catholic League controlled. They had no idea what was coming. The following day, Jacques Clement, an ardently religious member of the Catholic League, managed to get into King Henry III’s headquarters under false pretenses and fatally wound him with a dagger.

In his final moments, the king named Henry of Navarre, his uneasy ally, as his successor—but of course, things can’t be quite so simple.

30. They Weren’t Finished Yet

After King Henry’s regicide, Henry of Navarre became King Henry IV of France—but in name only. The Catholic League was still firmly against a Protestant king and worked to keep him from the throne. Pope Clement VIII sided with the League and he took the extreme step of excommunicating Henry from the Church and declaring him ineligible to inherit the throne.

But if you think that was going to stop a man like Henry IV, you’ve got another thing coming.

31. He Made A Promise

Navarre rightfully inherited the French throne, and he set about making it stick. Understanding the concerns of the French people, three days after the king’s passing, Henry IV issued the Declaration of St. Cloud, in which he swore to uphold the Catholic Church and listen to Catholic advisors. This was a good start, but there was still a big barrier to total acceptance.

32. He Didn’t Have Full Support

The same day that he made his pledge, members of the Catholic nobility swore their fidelity to Henry IV, on the condition that he kept his promise to convert to Catholicism. Not surprisingly, the Catholic League still wasn’t happy. Henry was, after all, a Huguenot who’d spent years fighting against them. They wanted Henry to hit the road and to install their own guy as king.

Unbeknownst to Navarre, they had previously signed a secret treaty with Phillip II of Spain to support their choice for king. As if it’s even possible, things were about to get even messier.

33. They Tried To Bypass Him

Choosing to ignore reality (and the law), the Catholic League declared Henry IV’s Catholic uncle, Cardinal Charles de Bourbon, the King of France. There was just one problem: Bourbon was being held captive at the time. Still, French Parliament proclaimed him King Charles X in November 1589. They even issued coins in his name.

Maybe they hoped Henry would just roll over and give up his crown—but not our Henry. In fact, he did the exact opposite.

34. He Was Losing The Battle

Despite Henry’s attempts at placating the French people, two years after his succession, the situation was not improving. And then, just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. The pope supported the phony King Charles X and excommunicated Henry and his supporters for a second time, putting Henry in an impossible position.

35. He Had No Other Choice

Things were not looking good for Henry IV. Nobles from Spain to France were fighting and directing their anger at him, and he was losing foreign support. In other words, he was running out of time to make his place as the King of France stick. Finally, he only had one option left: After fighting for the Protestants for years, he had to convert to Catholicism.

It must have been a huge decision, but Henry took it lightly, glibly commenting, “Paris is well worth a Mass.”

36. He Wanted To Cut Ties

After his conversion, Henry still had one more problem to take care of: His wife. He needed an heir, and it seemed less and less likely Marguerite was going to give him one. So, rather than simply chop off her head like some other King Henrys we know, he asked for an annulment. Marguerite agreed, but with a few conditions. He had to pay her debts in full and give her an annual allowance.

For Henry, that was a small price to pay. The marriage officially ended in 1599, and they parted on friendly terms. She even got to keep the title Queen of Navarre!

37. He Achieved Peace

After decades of religious conflict, in 1598, Henry signed the Edict of Nantes. It made Roman Catholicism the official religion of the state but allowed the Protestants a fair amount of religious freedom. The edict helped reunite the kingdom after decades of bloodshed. This peace lasted 40 years, until his grandson Louis XIV revoked it with the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685.

38. He Brought Prosperity To France

Henry IV was the rare king who actually seemed to care about his subjects. With France at peace and his dynasty secure, Henry was finally able to get to work making things better for his people. He accomplished quite a bit during his reign, including eliminating the national debt and building up a reserve of 18 million livres (the French currency at the time).

Not too bad for a guy who no one thought should have been king in the first place.

39. He Beautified Paris

While Henry reportedly didn’t have the same artistic eye as earlier kings, he understood enough to turn Paris into the world-class city it is today. He finished the royal Tuileries Palace, built Pont Neuf across the river Seine, the Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges), and the Grand Gallery to the Louvre Palace, where he allowed numerous artists and craftsmen to reside.

Even though he lived centuries ago, without Henry IV, the Paris we know and love today just wouldn’t be the same.

40. He Lost His Head

Not everybody was fond of King Henry or his ideas about religious tolerance, and during the French Revolution, revolutionaries pillaged the tombs in the royal chapel at St. Denis, removing the royal corpses and tossing them into a mass grave. Henry was among them. However, the rebels did keep a grim souvenir, removing Henry’s head—or at least so historians think.

41. His Head Was A Curiosity

Nobody knows for sure when the head went missing, but they do know that it was gone when Henry’s ancestor Louis XVIII ordered the public grave opened in 1817. After that, nobody thought much about the head, but the rebels presumably sold it to someone as it moved through various private collections for 100 years, more as a curiosity than as a royal head. Then, in 1919 something totally unexpected happened.

42. He Was Worth A Few Francs

A little more than a century after the discovery of Henry’s headless corpse, a photographer named Joseph-Emile Bourdais purchased the mummified head for three francs at an auction, completely unaware of what he’d just bought. Then, thanks to an article he saw in the Gazette years later, he came to believe he had Henry’s head—and he tried to prove it.

43. He Turned Up In An Attic

Bourdais tried his hardest to convince the world that the head belonged to Henry. He got x-rays and casts made of the head, took pictures, and published two brochures, but nobody believed him. He even tried to give the head to the Louvre, but they had zero interest in a seemingly random mummified head, so his sister ended up inheriting it.

44. He Made One More Journey

Bourdais’ sister kept the head for a couple of years, but having zero use for a creepy mummified head, she sold it to a retired tax collector and history buff named Jacques Bellanger. Not having any clue what to do with his purchase, he stuck it in a cabinet in his attic and kept it there until 2009, when a couple of journalists heard about it and started investigating.

45. He Divided France

The journalists found the collector and convinced him to pass the head over to Henry’s descendant Louis du Bourbon (Louis XX) who arranged for scientists to examine it. Using modern techniques, they determined what Bourdais couldn’t almost a century before­—that the head belonged to Henry IV. That should have been the end of the story, but there was still one more twist to come.

46. It Might Not Have Been Him

The scientists who examined the head thought they had pretty convincing evidence that it was in fact Henry IV. They wanted to reunite him with his body, but crazily enough, another faction was equally as convinced that it’s not him. In 2012, scientists took a DNA sample of the head and compared it to that of his great-great-grandson.

It supposedly matched, but now the groups are arguing about that too, so for the time being, the head’s identity remains a mystery.

47. He Was A Man Of Many Names

Giving an epithet or two to a royal figure is common in history, and in France, Henry IV had quite a few. For his multiple mistresses (many of whom bore him children) and his copious physical activities, he earned the name Henry the Green Gallant. Other nicknames included Henry the Great, Good King Henry, and the Gallic Hercules.

So, what do you think? Did he earn his names?

48. He Needed To Marry

After he left his wife, Henry desperately needed an heir to continue his line, which meant marrying again. His first choice was his long-time Catholic mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées, whom many believed influenced his decision to convert to Catholicism. She had three children by Henry, all of whom he had legitimized, and he planned to crown her Queen of France. Sadly, tragedy prevented either from happening.

49. He Found A Bride

Before he could carry out his plans, Henry lost Gabrielle in childbirth in 1599. Instead, he settled for Marie de Medici, the daughter of the former Grand Duke Francis of Tuscany. One of her selling points was that she came with a large dowry of 600,000 French crowns, some of which went towards settling his debts with her uncle Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the current Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Not exactly the most romantic meet-cute, but Henry and Marie went on to have several kids, so she must not have been too bad.

50. He Met His End

Henry IV turned out to be quite a popular king—but he’d still made a whole lot of enemies during his rise to the top. This meant that, as king, Henry had to deal with near-constant attempts on his life. He managed to survive the first 17, but you know what they say: 18th time’s the charm. In 1610, a Catholic fanatic named François Ravaillac succeeded in rushing the King’s stopped carriage and fatally stabbing him twice in the chest.

Ravaillac met an utterly horrific end for it, being drawn and quartered after a nightmarish inquisition, but that couldn’t bring Henry back.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13,14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19

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