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Bourbon Family and Dynasty

Bourbon Family and Dynasty

The Bourbon family, the leading noble house in Renaissance France, controlled vast amounts of wealth and territory. However, ambition occasionally led the Bourbons into conflicts with the French crown. The family's fortunes reached a peak in 1589, when a Bourbon became king of France.


Shifting Fortunes. The Bourbon family traced its origin to Robert of Clermont (1256–1318), the sixth son of Louis IX of France. The family grew steadily in wealth, power, and prestige. Through a series of strategic marriages, the Bourbons gained control of vast amounts of territory. Many members of the family obtained high positions in the church and in the government.

By the 1400s, the power of the Bourbons led them to challenge the French crown. In 1461 Jean II, duke of Bourbon (1426–1488), was tried for treason after supporting a revolt against the king of France, Charles VII. However, the new king, Louis XI, released Jean and made him commander of the royal army. The Bourbon family remained loyal to the crown throughout Louis's reign.

The Bourbon family faced a more serious threat in 1521. Louise of Savoy, mother of the French king Francis I (reigned 1515–1547), attempted to seize some of the Bourbons' family lands. The head of the Bourbon family, Charles III (1489–1524), responded by forming an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor* Charles V against Francis. The emperor's forces captured the French king in 1525. However, Francis was released a year later and took control of the lands of Charles de Bourbon. After Charles died, the king tried him for treason and seized all the Bourbon lands.


Return to Power. The younger brother of Charles III, Charles, duke of Vendôme (1489–1537), had remained loyal to Francis I during his brother's rebellion. The king recognized Charles as the new head of the Bourbon family and married him to his own sister-in-law, Françoise d'Alençon. Their son Antoine (1518–1562) wed Jeanne d'Albret, who became queen of Navarre, a tiny kingdom in the Pyrenees Mountains. These alliances gave the Bourbons control of much of central and southwestern France.

During the 1560s, the Bourbons became involved in the French Wars of Religion. Catholic and Protestant parties struggled for control of the French crown after the death of Henry II in 1559. Antoine de Bourbon and his son, Henry of Navarre (1553–1610), sided with the Protestants. Known as Huguenots, the Protestants were followers of John Calvin.

In 1572 Henry of Navarre married Margaret of Valois, daughter of Henry II. This marriage, which placed him in the line of succession to the French crown, was intended to bring peace between Catholics and Huguenots. Instead, it fueled an outbreak of violence known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in August 1572. Henry survived only by agreeing to convert to Catholicism. He was held captive at the court for four years. When he escaped in 1576, Henry reclaimed his role as protector of the Protestant faith.

In 1589 Henry mounted the throne as Henry IV, becoming the founder of the Bourbon royal dynasty. However, he faced a challenge to his throne from his uncle Charles, cardinal of Bourbon. The Catholic Holy League, a group of nobles and other opponents, supported Charles against Henry. To secure his throne, Henry converted to Catholicism in 1593. Five years later, he signed treaties with French Huguenots and with the Spanish. These treaties brought a much-needed period of peace to France.

Henry IV received an annulment* to his marriage in 1599 and took Marie de MÉdicis as his second wife. Their son, Louis XIII, set France on a path toward absolute monarchy. The Bourbon dynasty controlled the French throne until a revolution toppled the monarchy in 1792.

(See alsoFrance; Francis I. )

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* annulment

formal declaration that a marriage is legally invalid

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