With numerous civil wars after 1562, Henri III’s reign (1574-1589) coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in French history. The wars were partly provoked by a monarchical crisis, triggered by the death of his father, Henri II, in a jousting accident. Henri was succeeded by his inexperienced son François (first husband to Mary, Queen of Scots), who died within a year and was replaced by a minor, Charles IX.
The resulting political vacuum was filled by competing noble factions, whose rivalry took on a religious flavour as some leading nobles adopted the Calvinist faith. Religious and political divisions provided the combustible fuel for the civil wars. In those difficult circumstances, and two years after the most violent outburst to date, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacres of 1572, Henri III acceded to the throne.
The publication of Knecht’s biography is long-awaited, with the last English biography of Henri III published in 1858. Within French historiography, Henri III has been overshadowed by his successor, Henri IV. Knecht partly attributes the denigration of Henri III’s character and achievements to “hostile contemporary sources”. Author of the seminal Rise and Fall of Renaissance France and biographer of François I, Knecht is well placed to take us through the complexities of the French civil wars and to reappraise Henri III’s career.
Knecht’s biography does go some way towards rehabilitating Henri III. Militarily, Henri secured some distinction on the battlefield, and his valour won praise from the contemporary diarist and esteemed commander, Blaise de Monluc. Appointed commander-in-chief of the army in 1567, his status as a Catholic hero was enhanced by the victories at Jarnac and Moncontour, though Knecht reminds us that the duc de Nemours and Marshal Tavannes should take the real credit. Nor were these military successes by Henri decisive; they were followed by the disastrous siege of La Rochelle four years later in 1573, in which the future king also played a leading role.
Described as a “well-organised sovereign of exceptional intelligence, well informed on all state affairs”, Henri gained important political experience from his mother, Catherine de Medici. Knecht indicates that, after the attempted assassination of the prominent Huguenot Gaspard de Coligny, Henri chaired the council meeting in August 1572 that made the decision to target Huguenot leaders.
Once on the throne, Henri travelled far less than his predecessors and fixed his court in the Louvre. He supervised the development of antechambers, ensuring that he was less accessible, even to those at court. He endorsed the 1579 Ordinance of Blois, considered to be the largest single legislative enterprise in 16th-century France. The royal budget was almost balanced by early 1585, an achievement that was shortlived owing to the outbreak of the longest and bloodiest of all the civil wars.
He invited criticism by granting a virtual monopoly of royal access to his favourites, the ducs de Joyeuse and Épernon. While it made sense to empower his most loyal supporters and marginalise the intemperate Guises, the extent of his generosity to favourites attracted unwelcome attention. Although this antagonised the Guises, Henri obviously benefited from having powerful courtiers who remained unswervingly loyal.
Yet the story of Henri’s rehabilitation can only go so far. Despite the King’s reputation as a Catholic hero in the early wars, Knecht does not ignore Henri’s later indecision and inconsistencies.
Having apparently tolerated the favourable concessions to Huguenots in the Peace of Monsieur (1576), that same year Henri took charge of the newly formed Catholic League, whose raison d’être was to expel heresy from France. Eight years later, he took the lead in fighting the Huguenots, though again his hand was forced by the staunchly Catholic Guises, who re-formed the League in response to the duc d’Alençon’s death.
No historical revisionism can challenge the view that the nadir of his reign remains the fateful years 1588 and 1589. Henri de Guise, who entered Paris in 1588 against the King’s wishes, eclipsed Henri’s authority. The Catholic masses rose up in the Day of the Barricades, culminating in the King’s flight from his own capital. Henri’s subsequent and most catastrophic blunder was to condone the meticulously planned murder of the popular Henri de Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine.
While some might have tolerated his earlier indecisiveness and caution, many refused to accept this treachery, even more so when in desperation he allied with the Protestant and heretical Henri de Navarre. Parisian preachers now sought revenge against this “wicked Herod” and within a year Henri was himself assassinated by a young Dominican friar, Jacques Clément.