Henry IV Ascends the Throne of France

In the wake of Henry III’s assassination, Henry of Navarre became King Henry IV of France. The first French monarch of the House of Bourbon and a Protestant, Henry found his subjects at best distrustful and at worst openly rebellious. Once he converted to Catholicism, however, he was able to end the French Wars of Religion, to establish a limited degree of religious toleration, and to restore somewhat the power and authority of the French monarchy.

Summary of Event

The rise of Protestantism Protestantism;France in Europe set in motion a period of religious warfare between Protestants and Catholics. By the mid-1550’, John Calvin’s Protestant missionary efforts had produced approximately 1,250,000 converts in France, called Huguenots Huguenots , but this figure represented no more than 10 percent of the French population. Most French men and women remained staunchly Catholic. Henry IV (1553-1610)
Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of
Mayenne, Charles de Lorraine, duke of
Henry III (1551-1589)
Sully, Duc de
Jeanne d’Albret
Philip II (1527-1598)
Ravaillac, François
Guise, François de Lorraine, second duke of
Guise, François de Lorraine, duke of
Francis II (king of France)
Charles IX (king of France)
Henry III (king of France)
Catherine de Médicis
Philip II (king of Spain)
Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of
Mayenne, Charles de Lorraine, duke of
Clément, Jacques
Jeanne d’Albret
Sully, Maximilien de Béthune, duke of
Ravaillac, François
Henry IV (king of France)

People living during the sixteenth century could not envision a country with more than one religion and believed in the idea of “one faith, one law, one king.” War broke out in 1562, when the Catholic François de Lorraine, duke of Guise murdered a group of Huguenots at Vassy. Protestant retaliation ensued. There were eight religious wars altogether, and their history was marked by extreme religious intolerance and great atrocities. During the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572)[Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre (1572)] , for example, most of the Protestant leadership in France lost their lives in a night of violent slaughter. The religious wars lasted thirty-six years until 1598, and they brought Henry of Navarre to the throne of France as King Henry IV.

The wars were both political and religious in origin. Politically, the last Valois kings, Francis II (r. 1559-1560), Charles IX (r. 1560-1574), and Henry III (r. 1574-1589), were weak and manipulated by their mother, Catherine de Médicis (1519-1589). Three Henrys, War of the (1585-1588) Noble families such as the conservative Catholic Guises, the more moderate Catholic Montmorencys, and the Protestant Bourbons vied for control of each Valois king and engulfed court life in factional politics. Yet, the wars were also directly tied to religion, as fiery priests and evangelists went from town to town stirring the emotions of urban populations. Many people believed God’s Last Judgment was imminent, and outbreaks of collective violence associated with religious anxiety overwhelmed French society. Catholics killed Protestants as Protestants slew Catholics, each believing they needed to annihilate the other before Christ would return.

The last phase of the religious wars was dominated by the Catholic League Catholic League (1585-1598) Catholic League, War of the (1585-1598) , an association of zealous nobles, churchmen, and urban elites intent on preventing the Protestant Henry of Navarre from inheriting the French throne. The Guise family headed the Catholic League with support from the Spanish king, Philip II. In 1588, during the War of the Three Henrys, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Guise, entered Paris against Henry III’s wishes, and the king retaliated by bringing Swiss soldiers into the city. On May 12, 1588, the Day of the Barricades Day of the Barricades (1588) , the Parisian population drove the king’s troops out of Paris, and the king fled. Extreme Catholic zealots known as the Sixteen then controlled the capital in alliance with the Guise faction.

Henry III struck back at the duke of Guise several months later at a meeting of the States-General at Blois. Guise was murdered on December 23, 1588, by Henry’s royal guard. News of the duke’s murder radicalized the Catholic League, and League leaders quickly took control of most of the important urban centers in France, including Rouen, Amiens, Lyons, Orléans, Dijon, Reims, Toulouse, and Marseilles. The slain duke’s younger brother, Charles de Lorraine, duke of Mayenne, took over as League chief.

Henry III next allied with Henry of Navarre to try to recapture Paris, but the king never regained his authority, and League propaganda promoted the idea of tyrannicide. On August 1, 1589, a Dominican monk named Jacques Clément drove a dagger into Henry III. The childless king died the next day at his camp at St. Cloud outside Paris. Before expiring, he recognized his Protestant cousin, Henry of Navarre, as king of France.

Henry IV was reared a Protestant by his devout mother, Jeanne d’Albret. He had become the leader of the Protestant party after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. At Henry’s ascension, politiques, or individuals who put matters of state above religious issues, urged him to become Catholic, but Henry was in no position to turn his back on his Protestant supporters. He delayed talk of conversion but promised to protect Catholicism. Between 1590 and 1593, Henry won many battles against Catholic insurgents, including the Battle of Ivry Ivry, Battle of (1590) (1590), in which he defeated the duke of Mayenne’s army. In 1593, he felt secure enough to adopt Catholicism, and he abjured his Protestant faith on July 25, 1593, at a ceremony held at the cathedral of Saint-Denis near Paris.

Henry never uttered the famous words “Paris is worth a mass,” but the aphorism reflects his pragmatism and keen sense of timing. His conversion caused war-weary French men and women to flock to the king’s side at the very moment the Catholic League was becoming more dependent on Spain and a Spanish heir to the French throne. Henry represented himself as a forgiving conqueror and bought off many League nobles and urban elites with cash gifts. He was formally crowned at Chartres on February 17, 1594, and Paris capitulated the next month on March 22, 1594. Between 1593 and 1595, most of urban France left the Catholic League.

Henry ended the war against the League and Spain in 1598 with the Treaty of Vervins. Vervins, Treaty of (1598) To settle internal religious issues, on April 13, 1598, the Bourbon king issued the Edict of Nantes, Nantes, Edict of (1598) granting limited religious toleration to Huguenots in France. Huguenots;religious toleration of The liberty to exercise the reformed religion publicly was conceded to the Huguenots in approximately two hundred fortified towns throughout France. It is often said the document created “a state within a state.” Actually, the right to practice the reformed faith was tied to the will of the king. Although Henry declared the edict “irrevocable,” his grandson, Louis XIV, rescinded it in 1685.


After 1598, Henry IV and his minister, Maximilien de Béthune, marquis of Rosny, set about returning order and stability to France. Rosny (better known by his later title, duke of Sully) was an administrative genius who worked vigorously to reduce government corruption, oversee taxation, and build roads and canals. Henry possessed a dynamic personality and took his role as “father” of his people seriously. He exerted stronger control over the patron-client system, which in turn tied him to the nobility and French towns through reciprocal bonds of expectation and obligation. He placed men he could trust in key positions throughout the country and relied on their advice to oversee the realm. Even so, Henry faced minor revolts during his reign, and the sincerity of his abjuration was questioned. In the spring of 1610, Henry was preparing for what was perceived as an anti-Catholic war in Germany and Italy, and this led a fanatical Catholic named François Ravaillac to stalk him. On May 14, 1610, Ravaillac assaulted Henry IV’s carriage on a street in Paris and stabbed the king in the jugular vein, ending his life.

Henry IV strengthened the position of the French crown through his personal rule, but one must be careful in crediting him with founding an absolute monarchy. Henry IV never used the word “absolutism,” nor did he think in modern terms of centralization. He wanted his kingship recognized throughout France, and he promised a return to peace and order. In so doing, he took a more authoritative stance in dealing with nobles, towns, law courts, and provincial assemblies and brought new power and prestige to the Crown after decades of weak kingship. Nevertheless, Henry did not impose his will universally throughout France. His rule was based on negotiating power through key “client” subjects, and he successfully put himself at the head of several noble clienteles. The conclusion of the religious wars led to the development of a stronger monarchy in France. Yet Henry never envisioned “absolutism” as a systematic plan. His personal rule was predicated on the fact that he wanted to prevent Catholic League resurgence and secure the future for his dynasty.

Further Reading

  • Buisseret, David. Henry IV. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984. A solid biography of the first Bourbon monarch; particularly useful for those interested in Henry IV’s role as a military leader.
  • Conner, Philip. Huguenot Heartland: Montauban and Southern French Calvinism During the Wars of Religion. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. Study of the Wars of Religion, especially of the differences between the experiences of southern and northern France during the wars. Focuses on the southern town of Montauban as a case study of the larger religious, cultural, and political upheavals. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Finley-Croswhite, S. Annette. Henry IV and the Towns: The Pursuit of Legitimacy in French Urban Society, 1589-1610. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Study of Henry’s labors to win support from his subjects, focusing on his courtship of the urban population and the consolidation of his claims to legitimate sovereignty. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Greengrass, Mark. France in the Age of Henry IV: The Struggle for Stability. London: Longman, 1984. This entry in the Longman’s Studies in Modern History series provides a general survey of Henry IV’s reign with an emphasis on the king’s attempts to reestablish order after the religious wars.
  • Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A thorough survey written by a noted authority who argues that the French civil wars were primarily fought over religious issues. The work includes a chronological table of events and a section of brief biographies of key figures.
  • Love, Ronald S. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV, 1553-1593. Ithaca, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. An assessment of Henry’s reign against the background of civil war and religious strife. Concludes with a discussion of Henry’s perception of the conflicting requirements of his crown and his soul, and his 1593 conversion to Catholicism. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Mousnier, Roland. The Assassination of Henry IV: The Tyrannicide Problem and the Consolidation of the French Absolute Monarchy in the Early Seventeenth Century. Translated by Joan Spencer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. A profile of Henry IV’s assassin with emphasis on the political ramifications of the king’s murder.
  • Racaut, Luc. Hatred in Print: Catholic Propaganda and Protestant Identity During the French Wars of Religion. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. Rare study of the pro-Catholic pamphleteers in France. Analyzes the strategies, production, and impact of pro-Catholic propaganda of the period. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Sutherland, N. M. Henry IV of France and the Politics of Religion, 1572-1596. 2 vols. Bristol, Avon, England: Elm Bank, 2002. Extremely detailed account of the role of religion in France’s monarchy and political sphere during the late sixteenth century. Each chapter discusses a specific political event or issue from the point of view of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Wolfe, Michael. The Conversion of Henry IV: Politics, Power, and Religious Belief in Early Modern France. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. An in-depth analysis of the complicated dynamics surrounding Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism in 1593.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Mid-16th cent.: Development of the Caracole Maneuver

Mar., 1562-May 2, 1598: French Wars of Religion

1568-1648: Dutch Wars of Independence

Aug. 24-25, 1572: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

July 7, 1585-Dec. 23, 1588: War of the Three Henrys

Apr. 13, 1598: Edict of Nantes

May 2, 1598: Treaty of Vervins