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August 2, 1589 – Henri de Navarre Becomes King of France

French banknote featuring Le Bon Roi Henri
French banknote featuring Le Bon Roi Henri

Yes, yes, this is Tudor-adjacent – but it had a big effect on England as well. And it’s a great story…

A quick recap on who Henri was: the grandson of Marguerite d’Alencon (born Marguerite d’Angouleme, later also Marguerite de Navarre), sister to Francis I. Normally, Henri would be way outside the line of succession – since Francis’ son (Henri II) and wife Catherine de Medici had four sons. But each of these sons died young –  and with Salic law explicitly excluding inheritance through a female line, they had to go back up to Louis IX for the next successor: Henri de Navarre (whose claim was not based on his descent from Marguerite – I just mentioned her because Tudorphiles would recognize the Anne Boleyn connection and understand his place in the world).

But here’s the twist: they did not want to give him the crown. Although Henri was baptized a Catholic, he was raised as a Protestant…and France had just come through (was still going through…) the Wars of Religion. The Catholic League was insistent that he not be allowed to succeed – insistent enough to proclaim Henri’s Catholic uncle Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon, as king instead. Charles died childless (he was a Cardinal after all!) in 1590. The League scrambled to find an alternative – but their main choice would have been one of two Hapsburgs or a Guise, and the French Parliament hated all of them.

The fight went on for four years, and of course Elizabeth I supported Henri, even sending him military and financial support (which we all know is not something that Elizabeth did lightly!). She was thrilled at the potential of such a strong Protestant ally in the world (she had her own problems with Catholics, remember, this was not long after the first Armada that Spain sent to punish her for executing Mary of Scotland). In the end, though, Henri decided to be practical. He shrugged (well, the shrug was not officially recorded but I’m sure it happened), said his famous “Paris is well worth a Mass,” and converted to Catholicism. Checkmate.

Elizabeth was not pleased at the conversion (she felt a bit betrayed) – and neither were the Catholics. Still, Elizabeth sent her congratulations, while the Catholic League nursed their grudge with one last shot: they refused to let him be crowned at Reims, the traditional coronation place of French kings. So Henri IV was crowned at the Cathedral of Chartres with a magnificent new crown he had made…and a few years later promulgated the Edict of Nantes guaranteeing religious liberties to Protestants. Thus he earned his nickname, “Le Bon Roi Henri”…

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Cover of The Boy King

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