Henry III (France) (1551–1589)
HENRY III (FRANCE) (1551–1589)
HENRY III (FRANCE) (1551–1589), king of France. Henry III was the last of the Valois dynasty and has claim to be the only intellectual to have ruled France. Unfortunately he had the double misfortune of ruling at time of prolonged civil war and of failing to produce an heir, ensuring that during his reign monarchical authority plumbed new depths of impotence. He was the sixth child and the third surviving son of Henry II (ruled 1547–1559) and Catherine de Médicis (1519–1589). His political role began early with the death of his eldest brother Francis II (1544–1560) in 1560 and the accession of Charles IX (ruled 1560–1574), making him next in line to the throne. In 1566 he became duke of Anjou and entered the royal council, where he soon made his mark as a champion of the Ultra-Catholic faction and an enemy of the prince of Condé (1530–1569), leader of the Protestant party.
Henry was a more talented and cultured man than King Charles and was less interested than his brother in traditional aristocratic pursuits such as hunting. He was the favorite son of Catherine de Médicis, and when the Wars of Religion broke out once more in 1567, she secured his appointment as commander in chief of the royal armies. Aided by a council of experienced captains, his tenure was initially successful, defeating the Protestants at Jarnac (March 1569) and Moncontour (October 1569). These victories sealed his reputation as the youthful hero of renascent Catholicism. But otherwise outright victory remained elusive, and the war ended in a compromise peace. Henry's Ultra-Catholic sensibilities in this period gave him a vengeful streak. He transgressed chivalric convention in 1569 by ordering the murder of Condé, who had been captured at Jarnac. His role in the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew (24 August 1572) is obscure, but he was deeply implicated in the conspiracy to eliminate the Protestant leadership.
Henry's sojourn as king of Poland in the winter of 1573–1574 and his extensive travels on his return to France to claim the throne on the death of his brother (May 1574) were a turning point. Henry now believed that Protestantism would never be defeated militarily and that civil war merely served to weaken royal authority. The fortunes of the monarchy had reached their lowest ebb, and only thoroughgoing reforms of church and state could rebuild its power. Crucial to this project were the favorites, or mignons, who had shared his exile and who were rewarded with royal patronage; they were a valuable core of support at a time of political instability. Henry embarked on a series of reforms of the court, of royal administration, and of finances, and by the early 1580s he had succeeded in reestablishing royal authority and balancing the books. His devout Catholicism was now redirected to combating the threat posed by the Catholic League by promoting Counter-Reformation piety within his administration and to combating schism by winning lost souls back to the faith. A supporter of the new religious orders, he encouraged his subjects to greater piety through extravagant displays of public devotion and encouraged his nobles through the foundation of the Order of the Holy Spirit.
Henry was a controversial figure in his own lifetime. He improved royal finances through the unpopular practices of selling offices and by interfering in provincial administration. Henry's baroque piety was seen as undignified for a king, and many aristocrats were alienated by the favoritism shown to his mignons. Opposition would have remained marginal and Henry's private life the subject of harmless gossip had he not been childless. In 1584 his younger brother and heir died, leaving the Protestant Henry of Navarre (1553–1610) as his successor. Henry III believed he could outmaneuver the revived Catholic League as he had before, but support for the movement led by Henry, duke of Guise, and his brother Cardinal Louis II melded intense popular religiosity with the defense of the traditional rights under attack from the rejuvenated monarchy. Particular vituperation was reserved for Henry's belovedmignons the duke of Epernon and Joyeuse. Henry's lukewarm support for war against the Protestants led to an uprising in Paris (May 1588), which left the king at the mercy of the Guise brothers and their supporters in the Catholic League. In December 1588 Henry had the Guise brothers murdered and joined forces with Navarre, ensuring that most of northern France rebelled against him. Henry was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic while besieging Paris in August 1589.
Henry III was largely dismissed in the centuries after his death as too pious, too ineffectual, and responsible for the collapse of royal authority. However, his reputation has been revived by historians who see his reforming zeal as a precursor to the religious and political changes of the seventeenth century, and as a complex and intelligent man struggling against forces beyond his control.
See also Condé Family ; Guise Family ; Valois Dynasty (France) ; Wars of Religion, French.
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Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 1562–1629. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.
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Potter, David. "Kingship in the Wars of Religion: The Reputation of Henri III." European History Quarterly 25 (1995): 485–528.
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——. The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century. London, 1988.