Henry IV of France

Henry IV of France by Frans Pourbus the younger.
Henry IV of France by Frans Pourbus the younger.
French Monarchy-
Capetian Dynasty
(Bourbon branch)

Henry IV
   Louis XIII
   Christine Marie
   Nicholas Henry
   Gaston, Duke of Orléans
Louis XIII
   Louis XIV
   Philippe, Duke of Orléans
Louis XIV
   Louis, the Grand Dauphin
   Philippe-Charles, Duc d'Anjou
   Louis-François, Duc d'Anjou
   Louis, Duke of Burgundy
   King Philip V of Spain
   Charles, Duke of Berry
Great Grandchildren
   Louis, Duke of Brittany
   Louis XV
Louis XV
   Louis, Dauphin
   Marie Adélaïde
   Alexandrine-Jeanne d'Etiolles
   Louis XVI
   Louis XVIII
   Charles X
Louis XVI
   Louis-Joseph, Dauphin
   Louis XVII
Louis XVII
Charles X
   Louis XIX, Duke of Angoulême
   Charles, Duke of Berry
   Henry V, comte de Chambord

Henry IV (French: Henri IV; April 1, 1553May 14, 1610), was the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty in France.

As a Huguenot, Henry was involved in the Wars of Religion before ascending to the throne; to become king he converted to Catholicism and in 1598 promulgated (passed) the Edict of Nantes which guaranteed religious liberties to the Protestants and thereby effectively ended the civil war. One of the most popular French kings, both during and after his reign, Henry showed great care for the welfare of his subjects and displayed an unusual religious tolerance for the time. He was murdered by a fanatical Catholic, François Ravaillac.

Henry was nicknamed Henry the Great (Henri le Grand), and in France is sometimes called le bon roi Henri ("good king Henry") or le Vert galant ("the Green gallant").


Henry IV was the son of Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome and Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre. He was born in Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, in the southwest of France. At the death of King Henry III of France, who had no son, the crown passed to Henry IV, in application of the Salic Law, as Henry was the descendant of the eldest surviving male line of the Capetian Dynasty. The new king, however, had to fight for some years to be recognized as the legitimate king of France by the Catholics, most of whom were opposed to his Protestant upbringing.

Here is a short genealogy, that explains how Henry IV descends in male line from the Capetian Dynasty:

It should be noted that in reality, the line of Bourbon-Busset, descending from Peter I, Duke of Bourbon (1310 – 1356), was actually the eldest surviving male line of the Capetian Dynasty, whereas the line of Bourbon-Vendôme, to whom Henry IV belonged, only descended from Jacques de Bourbon-La Marche (1315 – 1362), the younger brother of Peter I of Bourbon. Thus, at the death of Henry III the crown should have passed to César de Bourbon-Busset (1565 – 1630), 7th cousin once removed of Henry IV. However, the great-great-grandfather of César de Bourbon-Busset, called Louis de Bourbon (1438 – 1482), Bishop of Liège, and 4th cousin of François de Bourbon-Vendôme (1470 – 1495), had married without the approval of his cousin King Louis XI, before becoming bishop. The king had thus annulled his marriage, and declared his children illegitimate. It still remains a matter of debate whether the customs of the kingdom actually gave Louis XI the right to exclude from royal succession the children of Louis de Bourbon. What is certain is that the Bourbon-Busset never claimed the crown, and César de Bourbon-Busset played no particular role when his cousin Henry IV became king.

The eldest male descendant of the Bourbon-Busset was the French writer Jacques de Bourbon Busset (1912 – 2001), member of the French Academy. President Charles de Gaulle was once quoted telling him: "Had it not been for the decision of King Louis XI, you might well be head of state of France today, instead of me."


On 18 August 1572 Henry married Marguerite de Valois, sister of the then King Charles IX. In the same year he became King 'Henry III of Navarre, succeeding his mother Jeanne d'Albret, who had brought him up as a Huguenot. Jeanne herself was also a Protestant, and had declared Calvinism the religion of Navarre. Henry's marriage was part of a plan to help quell the French Wars of Religion. As part of this plan, he was forced to convert to Roman Catholicism on 5 February 1576, and kept in confinement, but later that year he gained his freedom and resumed Protestantism.

He became the legal heir to the French throne upon the death in 1584 of François, Duke of Alençon, brother and heir to the Catholic King Henri III, who had succeeded Charles IX in 1574. Since Henry of Navarre was a descendant of King Louis IX, King Henry III had no choice but to recognize him as the legitimate successor. Salic law disinherited the king's sisters and all others who could claim descent by the distaff line. However, since Henry of Navarre was a Huguenot, this set off the War of the Three Henrys phase of the French Wars of Religion. The third Henry, Duke Henry of Guise, pushed for complete suppression of the Huguenots, and had much support among Catholic extremists. In December 1588 King Henry III had Henry of Guise murdered, along with his brother, Louis Cardinal de Guise. This increased the tension further, and Henry III was assassinated shortly thereafter by a fanatic monk.

On the death of the king in 1589, Henry of Navarre became nominally the king of France. But the Catholic League, strengthened by support from outside, especially from Spain, was strong enough to force him to the south, and he had to set about winning his kingdom by military conquest, aided by money and troops bestowed by Elizabeth I of England. The League proclaimed Henry's Catholic uncle, the Cardinal de Bourbon, King as Charles X, but the Cardinal himself was Henry's prisoner. Henry was victorious at the Ivry and Arques, but failed to take Paris.

After the death of the old Cardinal in 1590, the League could not agree on a new candidate. While some supported various Guise candidates, the strongest candidate was probably Infanta Isabella, the daughter of Philip II of Spain, whose mother Elisabeth had been the eldest daughter of Henry II of France. The prominence of her candidacy hurt the League, which thus became suspect as agents of the foreign Spanish, but nevertheless Henry remained unable to take control of Paris.

With the encouragement of the great love of his life, Gabrielle d'Estrée, on 25 July 1593 Henry declared that Paris vaut bien une messe ("Paris is worth a Mass") and permanently renounced Protestantism, thus earning the resentment of his former ally Queen Elizabeth. However, his entrance into the Roman Catholic Church secured for him the allegiance of the vast majority of his subjects, and he was crowned King of France at the Cathedral of Chartres on 27 February 1594. In 1598, however, he declared the Edict of Nantes, which gave circumscribed toleration to the Huguenots.

Monarchical Styles of
King Henry IV
Par la grâce de Dieu, Roi de France et de Navarre
Reference style His Most Christian Majesty
Spoken style Your Most Christian Majesty
Alternative style Monsieur Le Roi

Henry's first marriage was not a happy one, and the couple remained childless. The two had separated, even before Henry had succeeded to the throne, in August, 1589 and Marguerite de Valois lived for many years in the chateau of Usson in Auvergne. After Henry had become king, various advisers impressed upon him the desirability of providing an heir to the French Crown, in order to avoid the problem of a disputed succession. Henry himself favored the idea of obtaining an annulment of his first marriage, and taking Gabrielle d'Estrée as a bride, who had already borne him three children. Henry's councillors strongly opposed this idea, but the matter was resolved unexpectedly by Gabrielle d'Estrée's sudden death in April 1599, after she had given birth prematurely to a stillborn son. His marriage to Marguerite was annulled in 1599, and he then married Marie de Médicis in 1600.

Henry IV proved to be a man of vision and courage. Instead of waging costly wars to suppress opposing nobles, Henry simply paid them off. As king, he adopted policies and undertook projects to improve the lives of all subjects, which made him one of the country's most popular rulers ever.

A declaration often attributed to him is:

  • Si Dieu me prête vie, je ferai qu’il n’y aura point de laboureur en mon royaume qui n’ait les moyens d’avoir le dimanche une poule dans son pot!
  • God willing, every working man in my kingdom will have a chicken in the pot every Sunday, at the least!

This egalitarian statement epitomizes the peace and relative prosperity Henri brought to France after decades of religious war, and demonstrates how well he understood the plight of the French worker or peasant farmer. Never before had a French ruler even considered the importance of a chicken or the burden of taxation on his subjects, nor would one again until the French Revolution. After generations of domination by the extravagant Valois dynasty, which had caused the French people to pay to the point of starvation for the royal family's luxuries and intrigue, Navarre's charisma won the day.

Henry's forthright manner, physical courage and military success also contrasted dramatically with the sickly, effete langour of the tubercular Valois kings, as evinced by his blunt assertion that he ruled with "weapon in hand and arse in the saddle" (on a le bras armé et le cul sur la selle).

During his reign, Henry IV worked through his right-hand man, the faithful Maximilien de Bethune, duc de Sully (1560-1641), to regularize state finance, promote agriculture, drain swamps to create productive crop lands, undertake many public works, and encourage education, as with the creation of the College Royal Louis-Le-Grand in La Flèche (today Prytanée Militaire de la Flèche). He and Sully protected forests from further devastation, built a new system of tree-lined highways, and constructed new bridges and canals. He had a 1200m canal built in the park at the Royal Chateau at Fontainebleau (which can be fished today), and ordered the planting of pines, elms and fruit trees.

Statue of Henry IV on the Pont Neuf
Statue of Henry IV on the Pont Neuf

The king renewed Paris as a great city, with the Pont Neuf, which still stands today, constructed over the River Seine to connect the Right and Left Banks of the city. Henry IV also had the Place Royale built (since 1800 known as Place des Vosges), and added the Grande Gallerie to the Louvre. More than 400 meters long and thirty-five meters wide, this huge addition was built along the bank of the Seine River, and at the time was the longest edifice of its kind in the world. King Henry IV, a promoter of the arts by all classes of peoples, invited hundreds of artists and craftsmen to live and work on the building’s lower floors. This tradition continued for another two hundred years, until Emperor Napoleon I banned it. The art and architecture of his reign has since become known as the Henry IV style.

King Henry's vision extended beyond France, and he financed several expeditions of Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain to North America that saw France lay claim to Canada.

Death and Aftermath

Although he was a man of kindness, compassion, and good humor, and was much loved by his people, he was the subject of many murder attempts (for example by Pierre Barrière and Jean Châtel). On 14 May 1610, King Henry IV was assassinated in Paris by a fanatical monk named François Ravaillac, who stabbed the king to death while he rode in his coach. Henry was buried at Saint Denis Basilica. Henry's widow, Marie de Médicis, served as Regent to their 9-year-old son, Louis XIII, until 1617.

The reign of Henry IV made a lasting impact on the French people for generations after. Although the statue of Henri IV in Paris was destroyed during the French Revolution, as well as those of all the other French kings, it was the first one to be rebuilt when the monarchy was restored in 1814, and it still stands today on the Pont Neuf of Paris. A real cult surrounding the personality of Henri IV emerged during the Restoration. The restored Bourbons were keen to downplay the contested reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and instead emphasized the reign of the benevolent Henry IV. The song Vive Henri IV ("Long Live Henry IV") was used during the Restoration, as an unofficial anthem of France, played in the absence of the king. Also, when Princess Maria Carolina of the Two Sicilies managed to give birth to a male heir to the throne of France, seven months after the assassination of her husband Charles Ferdinand, duc de Berry by a Republican fanatic, the boy was conspicuously called Henri in reference to his forefather Henry IV. The boy was also baptized in the traditional way of Béarn/Navarre, with a spoon of vinegar and some garlic, as had been done when Henry IV had been baptized in Pau, although this custom had not been followed by any Bourbon king after Henry IV.

Today, while the rest of France marks the end of monarchist rule each year on Bastille Day, in Henry's birthplace of Pau, his reign as king of France is celebrated. It is a testament to the people's love and affection for Henry IV, whom the French people call 'le Grand' or 'The Great'.

Marriage and Children

On August 18, 1572, he married Marguerite de Valois, annulled in 1599, with no children.

He subsequently married Marie de Médicis on December 17, 1600. There were six children from this marriage:

Name Birth Death Notes
Louis XIII, King of France September 27, 1601 May 14, 1643 Married Anne of Austria (1601 - 1666) in 1615. Had issue.
Elizabeth, Princess of France November 22, 1602 October 6, 1644 Married Philip IV, King of Spain (1605 - 1665) in 1615. Had issue.
Christine Marie, Princess of France February 12, 1606 December 27, 1663 Married Victor Amadeus I, Duke of Savoy (1587 - 1637) in 1619. Had issue.
Nicholas Henry, Duke of Orleans April 16, 1607 November 17, 1611 Died young. No issue.
Gaston, Duke of Orleans April 25, 1608 February 2, 1660 Married (1) Mary of Bourbon, Duchess of Montpensier (1605 - 1627) in 1626. Had issue.
Married (2) Margaret of Lorraine (1615 - 1672) in 1632. Had issue.
Henrietta Maria, Princess of France November 25, 1609 September 10, 1669 Married Charles I, King of England (1600 - 1649) in 1625. Had issue.

Additionally, Henry IV had at least 11 illegitimate children, 3 of them with Gabrielle d'Estrée.


  • Mousnier, Roland The Assassination of Henry IV : the tyrannicide problem and the consolidation of the French absolute monarchy in the early seventeenth century, New York : Scribner, 1973 ISBN 0684133571.

Preceded by:
Jeanne III
King of Navarre
June 9, 1572May 14, 1610
Succeeded by:
Louis XIII
Preceded by:
Henry III
King of France
August 2, 1589May 14, 1610

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