Henry IV 1553–1610 King of France
King of France
Henry IV was the first monarch in the Bourbon dynasty, which ruled France until the French Revolution of 1789. One of France's most popular leaders, Henry united the country after the Wars of Religion in the late 1500s and helped bring peace between Catholics and Protestants in France.
Henry of Navarre was the son of Antoine de Bourbon, one of France's most powerful nobles, and Jeanne d'Albret, queen of the tiny country of Navarre, between France and Spain. As a descendant of the French king Louis IX, Henry held a distant claim to the French throne. His mother converted to Protestantism in 1555, a decision that would have a major impact on Henry and on France.
The Wars of Religion, a prolonged struggle between Catholics and Huguenots*, began in France in 1562. Ten years later Catherine de MÉdicis, mother of the French king Henry III, arranged a marriage between her Catholic daughter and Henry of Navarre, a Protestant. The goal was to bring peace between the two faiths. Instead, the marriage set off a wave of violence that took the lives of thousands of Huguenots. Henry survived only by denying his Protestant faith.
Henry of Navarre was held prisoner at the French royal court until 1576, when he escaped and became a Huguenot leader. Eight years later the king's younger brother died, leaving Henry next in line to the throne of France. Catholics who strongly opposed Henry joined forces with the Catholic League, a militant group of Catholic leaders. To maintain order, the reigning king, Henry III, ordered the murder of the league's leaders. The plan backfired, however, and led to a general uprising in which the king was assassinated. On August 1, 1589, Henry of Navarre succeeded to the throne, but it would be five years before he fully controlled the kingdom.
Shortly after the assassination, Henry IV promised to consider converting to Catholicism. That pledge, along with military victories over Catholic opponents, increased his support among the people. Many Catholics continued to resist, however, and three years later Henry finally converted. He was crowned in 1594, and over the next few years he made generous peace offers to his former opponents. He also reassured Huguenots that they would not be persecuted, a promise that became law with the Edict of Nantes in 1598.
As king, Henry IV rebuilt France's treasury, which had been drained during the costly religious wars. He also named ministers to assume important government functions once handled by local assemblies. To win the support of the nobility he gave titles and pensions to his followers, but he dealt harshly with those who continued to oppose him. With France's finances restored and the kingdom unified, Henry planned to challenge the power of the Habsburg dynasty, which dominated European politics. However, his plans were cut short by his assassination in 1610.
- * Huguenot
French Protestant of the 1500s and 1600s, follower of John Calvin