Henry IV (1553–1610), the first Bourbon king of France, brought to an end the religious wars that devastated France in the second half of the 16th century. He was born in Pau, on Dec. 14, 1553, the son of Antoine de Bourbon, a French prince of royal blood, and Jeanne d'Albret, of the house of Navarre. His mother raised him to be a good Calvinist. When his father died in 1562, Henry became king of Navarre and titular leader of the Huguenot faction. He assumed an active role in the Huguenot armies in 1569 on the death of his uncle, Louis I de Condé.
When peace returned to France two years later, it was sealed by a marriage arranged between Henry and Marguerite de Valois, of the French royal house. Extremist Roman Catholics, led by Henri, Duke de Guise, and encouraged by the royal family, seized the opportunity offered by the festivities accompanying the marriage to assassinate Gaspard de Coligny and other Huguenot leaders in Paris, on Aug. 24, 1572, thus touching off the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Henry of Navarre's life was spared, but he was kept under virtual arrest and forced to convert to Roman Catholicism. In 1576 he escaped from the royal court, renounced his conversion, and resumed command of the Huguenot armies in revolt against the government.
Succession to the Throne
The reigning king, Henry III, had no children, and when his brother and heir, François, died in 1584, Henry of Navarre became the immediate heir to the French throne. The prospect of a Protestant king infuriated the extremist Roman Catholics, led by members of the Guise family, and they resolved to use the resources of the Holy League to prevent the accession of Henry as king. Pope Sixtus V was persuaded to excommunicate Henry and rule that no heretic could ever become king of France. The League went to war against both the Huguenots and the royal government.
League fears became a reality in 1589, when Henry III was assassinated by a Roman Catholic fanatic, and many Frenchmen of the Politique faction, Roman Catholic in religion but loyal to the crown, rallied to Henry of Navarre as their new king. Henry at first tried to make good his claim by war but found he could not conquer the capital, Paris, the chief center of League strength. He then decided in 1593 to convert back to Roman Catholicism, and this so undercut League power that he was able to occupy Paris in 1594 and most of the other Roman Catholic strongholds in the succeeding years.
Following some successful military mopping-up operations, directed against the Guises and their Spanish allies, Henry IV was able at last to restore peace to France in 1598. He then issued the Edict of Nantes, which confirmed Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the nation but granted the Huguenots freedom of worship in much of the kingdom, the right to hold government offices, and the right to maintain military forces in certain fortified cities. Thus ended nearly 40 years of ferocious civil wars, which had left France devastated.
Most of the rest of Henry IV's reign was devoted to the rebuilding of France. In this he was aided by a number of extremely able ministers, the most notable of whom was the Huguenot Maximilien de Béthune, Duke de Sully. Sully reordered the finances of the French crown, vastly increasing its income without increasing the tax rates significantly—indeed, even reducing the rates in some instances. Some of the expedients to which he resorted, notably the sale of government offices, were to create severe problems for the crown in the future. But the immediate result of these measures was to obtain for the government adequate income for the first time in decades—income that was skillfully used to rebuild the French economy.
Henry's government promoted agriculture by such measures as the introduction or further encouragement of relatively new forms of culture, notably of silk; the development of forest management; and the draining of marshes, with the assistance of Dutch technicians. It encouraged industry by sponsoring the establishment of and subsidizing many new factories. Most of these factories were designed to produce luxury products such as tapestries, silk cloth, glassware, and lace, for which there was a large market but which the French had traditionally imported from the Netherlands or Italy. Commerce was stimulated by the construction of new highways and canals. Important steps were taken to establish a French colonial empire, as the government encouraged the explorations of Samuel de Champlain and others in the New World.
Guiding all these policies was a determination to make France economically self-sufficient. They were early expressions of the doctrine of mercantilism, which was to guide economic planning in France and other European nations for much of the succeeding two centuries.
In foreign policy, Henry IV generally worked to maintain peace. He even proposed the establishment of a league of European governments to keep the peace—a proposal that anticipated in interesting ways such modern arrangements for maintaining collective security as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Henry did make some exceptions to this policy, however. In 1601, he annexed several pieces of territory on France's eastern border, which he had conquered from the Duke of Savoy, an ally of Henry's traditional foreign enemy, Spain. At the time of his death in 1610, he was preparing to go to war with Spain itself and the Holy Roman Empire, renewing France's traditional conflict with the Habsburgs.
These plans to attack the chief secular supports of Roman Catholicism may have rekindled the fears of a small but persistent group of Catholic extremists in France, who had never accepted the sincerity of Henry's last conversion and continued to resent his toleration of Protestantism. One of these Catholics, a fanatic named François Ravaillac, stabbed Henry to death in Paris on May 14, 1610. Henry was succeeded by his son, Louis XIII, a child of his second marriage, in 1600, to Marie de Médicis.
Henry IV was one of the most popular men ever to sit on the French throne. Though his wit and good humor, sometimes homely and sometimes flamboyant, concealed a strong authoritarian streak, he ruled with tolerance and moderation and showed genuine concern for the welfare of his common subjects. The restraint that characterized his reign was less apparent in his personal life. His many love affairs earned him the nickname of le Vert-Galant
Kingdon, Robert M. "Henry IV (France) (1553–1610)." Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Online, 2012. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.