09 September 2008

The War of the Three Henries (1584-88) - Part 1

To avoid confusion, a quick note on the Henris involved. There's far more that could be said about each of them, of course, but what follows is a quick summary of their lives up to 1584: Henri de Guise (born 1550)

This Henri (hereafter referred to as "de Guise" to avoid confusion) was born to Francis de Guise, one of the uncles of Marie Stuart (Mary I of Scotland). A very zealous Catholic, de Guise was one of the instigators and leaders of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and leader of the Catholic League.[1] He was not what would be considered a terribly nice man -- a number of witnesses report him positively rejoicing in the slaughter of Huguenots.

He was, nonetheless, considered something of a hero to Paris, and his decisiveness, masculine virtues, and military ability were often compared quite favourably to those of Henri de Valois.

Henri de Valois (born 1551)

Although in his youth regarded as the best of Henri II and Catherine d'Medici's sons, this Henri (henceforth referred to as "de Valois" [2]), and was elected King of Poland in 1573. The sister to the previous king, Anna Jagiellon, had strongly influenced the Polish-Lithuanian parliament to elect Henri, with the understanding that they would be married thereafter in order to legitimise his reign. Less than a year after his election as King of Poland, however, Henri secretly left Poland, abandoning that throne in favour of assuming the French throne after his brother's death. Shortly thereafter, Anna herself was elected King of Poland.[3]

On his return, Henri began to indulge more prominently in rather irritating and politically destructive habits. Unlike the preceeding monarchs, Henri chose for his closest circle of courtiers sons of lesser noblility who became noted for their effeminate appearance and irksomely high-handed manners to the rest of the nobility. Indeed, the two so-called arch-mignons, Epernon and Joyeuse, recieved such extravagant patronage from the king that they in turn were were able to offer their followers and family positions lucrative enough to put them on par with far more established, older families.

This sort of patronage may not have been seen as quite as much of a threat, had France been in a more stable situation. Kings before de Valois had waged expensive wars in Italy, civil disorder and war over religion was a constant financial drain, and to make matters worse, and the seemingly arbitrary promotion of men seen as upstarts only accellerated popular disenchantment with the king.

Just as important was the king's inability to produce an heir. Despite hopes that his "powder will catch fire", the lack of a dauphin cast increasingly accusative doubts over de Valois' symbolic and literal potency as king.[4] Indeed, especially in light of the king's rather inappropriate penchant for cross-dressing and surrounding himself with courtiers he seemed to love overmuch, it was an easy connection to make: just as the mignons had usurped the rightful place of the nobility in the Valois court, so too might they be usurping the rightful place of the queen consort herself in his bed.[5] A poem composed after the amusingly named Duel of the Mignons suggests the level of contempt had for

Quelus not knowing how
To take men from the front;
If he'd taken Bussy from behind,
He'd really have stuffed it to him.

It was not a far step to insinuate that the mignon's misappropriation of royal favour might well be mirrored by their usurption of his most immediate reproductive duty. The lavish gifts and favours the king bestowed were unnatural -- and this was expounded on by the factions who had a decided interest in representing the king as unfit, weak, and in need of rather firm guidance.

Cue the de Guises -- who proved quite apt at fanning the rumours of sexual deviancy and royal impotency, particularly in light of the King's inability to produce an heir.

Henri de Navarre (born 1553)

This Henri (henceforth de Navarre) became Henri III of Navarre, later Henri IV of France. Navarre, under this Henri's grandfather, Henri II (not to be confused with Henri II of France), was remarkably tolerant of the new Protestant religion -- due, in large part, to the effort of Henri II (of Navarre)'s wife, Marguerite.[6] Under his grandfather's insistence, the young prince spent a good part of his youth in close contact with the "ordinary" people of his realm -- and seems to have been well-loved and admired by his subjects for his bravery, good manners, and intelligence.

Henri de Navarre's mother, Jeanne, became a staunch Huguenot in the first year of her reign, eventually banning Catholicism altogether from Navarre. Under her reign, Navarre provided military support to the Protestants in France during the Wars of Religion, which earned her son a great deal of respect and loyalty from the French Huguenots, and suspicion from the Catholics.

After the St Bartholomew's day massacre, Henri de Navarre was kept at the French court. At this point, the heir to the French throne was still the youngest Valois son of Henri II and Catherine d'Medici -- Francis, duke of Alençon and Anjou. Francis was disliked by his brother, and seems to have found common cause with de Navarre, as they both wished to see an end to the religious wars, and both were kept close at court and under suspicion of the King.[7] When Francis died in 1584 of malaria, de Navarre was the heir presumptive.


[1] Sort of an Early Modern French version of the Southern Baptist League. Hobbies include: making pamphlets, spreading rumours, and crediting natural disasters, famines, etc. with being God's Special Way Of Punishing His Faithful For Permitting The Continued Existence Of Heretics Among Them.

[2] I chose not to refer to him as Henri III of France because it is long and awkward to type, and shortening it to Henri III opens the door to all manner of confusion with Henri de Navarre, who (before taking the French throne) was Henri III of Navarre, but became Henri IV of France. Who says history is confusing?

[3] The Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II was given a brief stint on the Polish throne before Anna -- mostly to spite the man who would later become her husband, Stefan Báthory. After only four days, Maximillian's election was contested, and he left Poland with even greater haste than that demonstrated by de Valois.

[4] to Villeroy (c 1586?), BN MS n. a. f. 1245, fol. 148.

[5] Admittedly, he usually had the excuse of a masquarade or ball, and royal cross-dressing wasn't _entirely_ without precident as an amusing joke to play on one's courtiers. That it was remarked upon with disapproval by his contemporaries, however, suggests that even if not indicative of sexual identity and preference, it was nonetheless a social abrasion he could ill-afford.

[6] This Marguerite (not to be confused with her grandson's wife, also named Marguerite) was the sister of Francis I of France, and by all accounts a truly fascinating woman. Like her husband and grandson, she would walk through the streets of Navarre unescorted by guards or nobles, and seems to have taken a genuine interest in trying to help relieve the daily needs and concerns of the (gasp common!) people she ruled. Both she and Henri II financed poor students, wrote plays and poetry, provided a safe-haven for protestants fleeing her brother's oppressive measures in France, and generally ruled Navarre as the embodiment of humanist and Renaissance ideals.

[7] Largely for his unfortunate habit of rebelling and scheming against his elder brother and king, and over-friendliness with Elizabeth I of England, with whom he had a rather prolonged and seemingly intense courtship.

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