King Henry III of France 1551–1589

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King Henry III of France

Born on September 19, 1551, the future King Henry III was the preferred son of Catherine de Médicis and King Henry II of France. By the age of eighteen he had gained a reputation as a military hero, defeating the Protestants in two key battles (Jarnac and Montcontour) of the Wars of Religion (1562–1598). Not long after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), which he is assumed to have partially instigated, he was elected king of Poland. But in 1574, upon the death of his brother, Charles IX, he returned to France as heir to the throne. His coronation and marriage were celebrated in tandem, and Henry again entered the fray of the Protestant-Catholic struggle, this time as ruler. The king who returned from Poland was remarkably changed, preferring poetry to his former interest in military matters. Catholics became dissatisfied with him when he secured a peace treaty with the Protestants in 1576. Later, in 1589, when he recognized his cousin, the Protestant Henry of Navarre, as heir to the throne, Henry further incurred their wrath, leading to a flood of political pamphlets attacking him. Sodomy was the most frequent accusation, facilitated by the fact that Henry III's marriage had not produced a child. Parallels were also more generally drawn between his failure as a husband and the failure of the regime, claiming his political weakness resulted from effeminacy and lack of male strength.

Henry had surrounded himself with a group of young male courtiers, his mignons. Many of the attacks were levied against his fourteen favorites, who were divided into two groups, the mignons d'état, those young nobles who supported Henry's political positions, and the more scandalously named mignons de couchette, his bedchamber companions. Henry III lavished attention and money on his favorites, arousing suspicion and discontent among his enemies and even some of his allies. Although no concrete proof exists to establish that Henry III had sexual relations with his mignons, it was reported that while in Poland Henry had a same-sex relationship, initiated by a member of his entourage. Accusations of effeminacy often applied to the mignons, especially because of their elaborate dress and hairstyles and use of cosmetics as well as the supposed fashion of chausses à la bougrine—tights without a codpiece.

Henry himself frequently threw extravagant balls and other festivities, where he occasionally dressed as a woman. His female attire, including two pearl earrings (one earring was acceptable for men), further compromised his authority. Further, the mignons were the primary members of the Penitential Society to the Annunciation of Our Lady, a religious society established by Henry III in 1583, as well as members of the Order of the Holy Spirit (1578)—giving rise to satirical verse.

Other politically motivated comments, such as those found in the works of Agrippa d'Aubigné (1552–1630), paint the king as devoted to sodomitical practices, and, more grievously, as taking a passive role. L'isle des hermaphrodites, although not published until 1605, added to the portrait of Henry III as gender deviant. Its frontispiece came from an earlier engraving portraying a figure whose dress recalls the elaborate fashions of Henry's court. However, not all accounts of the court were written by enemies of the king. Pierre de L'Estoile's Mémoires-Journaux, covering the period both before and after Henry's reign, not only include L'Estoile's observations but also collect numerous materials that concern the court and criticisms of Henry and his mignons. Although a supporter of Henry III, even L'Estoile comments that Henry's behavior at the death of Quélus (Caylus)—remaining by his bedside, kissing him, retrieving the earrings Henry gave him, and taking a lock of his hair—was not fitting for a king. L'Estoile identifies that incident and similar acts as partial sources for many of the attacks against Henry.

The court of Henry III thus brought to the fore gender standards that disrupted dominant masculinity. That Henry III was referred to as "buggerer" and the term Ganymede was bandied about in relation to his favorites indicates that sexual behavior had entered the discourse of political discontent. The accusations themselves formed an arsenal exploited equally on the Protestant and the Catholic sides of the conflict and may have led in part to Henry's assassination on August 2, 1589.

see also Effeminacy; Homosexuality, Defined; Mignons.


Cady, Joseph. 1996. "The 'Masculine Love' of the 'Princes of Sodom' 'Practising the Art of Ganymede' at Henry III's Court: The Homosexuality of Henri III and his Mignons in Pierre de L'Estoile's Mémoires-Journaux." In Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West, ed. Jacqueline Murray and Konrad Eisenbichler. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Conner, Randy P. 1997. "Les Molles et les chausses: Mapping the Isle of Hermaphrodites in Premodern France." In Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia and Kira Hall. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crawford, Katherine B. 2003. "Love, Sodomy, and Scandal: Controlling the Sexual Reputation of Henry III." Journal of the History of Sexuality 12(4): 513-542.

Poirier, Guy. 1996. L'homosexualité dans l'imaginaire de la Renaissance [Homosexuality in the Renaissance imagination]. Paris: Honoré Champion.

Solnon, Jean-François. 2001. Henri III: Un désir de majesté [Henri III: A desire for majesty]. Paris: Perrin.

                                            Holly E. Ransom