Succession of Henry IV of France


Henry IV of France's succession to the throne in 1589 was followed by a four-year war of succession to establish his legitimacy, which was part of the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598). Henry IV inherited the throne after the assassination of Henry III, the last Valois king, who died without children. Henry was already King of Navarre, as the successor of his mother, Jeanne d'Albret, but he owed his succession to the throne of France to the line of his father, Antoine of Bourbon, an agnatic descendant of Louis IX. He was the first French king from the House of Bourbon.

Henry IV of France's succession
Part of the French Wars of Religion
Heinrich IV von Frankreich(1553-1610).jpg
King Henry IV of France, until 1589 known as Henry of Navarre. 17th century engraving by Henri Goltzius.
DateAugust 1589 – March 1594
  • Henry IV of France is recognised as king in most of France after converting to Roman Catholicism and under the condition of tolerance towards Protestants
  • Continued Catholic resistance with Spanish support leads Henry IV to declare war on Spain in January 1595
Kingdom of France Politiques and Protestants:
Croix huguenote.svg Huguenots
Emblem of the Papacy SE.svg Catholic League
Spain Spain
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of France Henry IV of France Emblem of the Papacy SE.svg Charles de Bourbon

Henry's succession in 1589 proved far from straightforward. He and King Henry III were moving to besiege Paris at the time of the latter's death. The city and large parts of France, mostly in the north, were in the hands of the Catholic League, an alliance of leading Catholic nobles and prelates who opposed the Protestant Henry of Navarre as heir to the throne. Instead, they recognized Henry's uncle, Charles of Bourbon, as the heir, and on Henry III's assassination, they declared Charles king. As a result, Henry IV was forced to fight a civil war to assert his position as king, followed by a war against Spain, who continued to question his legitimacy.

After the death of Charles of Bourbon, the Catholic League's failure to choose a replacement claimant to the throne, in combination with Henry IV's conversion to Catholicism, led to a general recognition of the king in France. Henry IV's successors ruled France until the French Revolution, then returned during subsequent Bourbon restorations, and they founded dynasties in Spain and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Bourbon claim to the throneEdit

Henry of Navarre was descended through his father from King Louis IX of France. Robert, Count of Clermont (d. 1317), the sixth and youngest son of Louis IX but the only son besides Philip III to produce a surviving line, had married Beatrix of Bourbon and assumed the title of sire de Bourbon. Bourbon was elevated into a duchy for Robert's son Louis, who became the first Duke of Bourbon.

Branches of the House of Bourbon
House of Bourbon
Dukes of BourbonBourbon-La Marche
Counts of MontpensierCounts of La MarcheCounts of VendômeBourbon-Carency
Bourbon-VendômeDukes of Montpensier
Kings of NavarrePrinces of Condé

At the death of Charles IV, Duke of Alençon in 1525, all cadet branches of the House of Valois had become extinct, with the only remaining Valois being the royal family itself. The chief of the Bourbons became the first prince of the blood, the closest to the succession to the throne should the immediate family of the king become extinct. At the death of Charles III, Duke of Bourbon in 1527, the Vendôme branch of the House of Bourbon became the senior line of the family. At that time, Charles de Bourbon was Duke of Vendôme. His son Antoine de Bourbon married the Queen of Navarre. Antoine's son, Prince Henry of Navarre, inherited this title on his death from an arquebus wound at the siege of Rouen in 1562.[1]

The legitimacy of Henry of Navarre's claim to the throne was still questioned, however. In similar cases, the throne had earlier passed to successors with a much closer blood link to the throne. Louis XII had succeeded Charles VIII as his second cousin once removed in the male line. Francis I had succeeded Louis XII as his cousin five times removed in the male line. The successions were legally unproblematic because consanguinity was acknowledged in law to the tenth degree. Henry of Navarre, on the other hand, could claim only an agnatic relationship to Henry III in the twenty-second degree.[2] When Henry had become the heir presumptive to the throne in 1584, on the death of Francis, Duke of Anjou, polemicist Jean Boucher had been among those who protested that such a distance in blood meant Henry's claim to the throne had effectively lapsed and that therefore the French States-General had the right to elect a new king.

When Henry was a boy, it seemed highly unlikely that he would ever inherit the throne of France since Henry II had produced four surviving sons. However, the prince of Navarre's pedigree gave him a special place of honour in the French nobility since all scions of the Bourbon line were acknowledged as the princes of the blood. As Head of the House of Bourbon, Henry was officially the First Prince of the Blood, the first nobleman of the kingdom.

The importance of the princes of the blood had been demonstrated when Antoine of Navarre's uncle Francis, Count of Enghien (d. 1546) had commanded the victorious royal armies at the battle of Ceresole in 1544. It was to be further demonstrated when Antoine of Bourbon's last surviving brother, Cardinal Charles (d. 1590), was chosen by the Catholic nobles as King of France in the face of Henry IV's Protestantism. Catherine de' Medici had ensured her regency of the nine-year-old King Charles IX in 1560 only by making a deal with Antoine of Bourbon, who many considered had the right, as First Prince of the Blood, to be the regent.[3]

In a kingdom that the Salic Law excluded women from succession to the throne,[4] Catherine had overcome prejudice against government by a woman and been elected governor (gouvernante) of France with sweeping powers. However, she accepted that none of her three daughters would ever inherit the French throne. By 1572, only two of her sons remained alive, she brokered a marriage between her daughter Margaret and Henry, who that year became King Henry III of Navarre after the death of his mother, Jeanne d'Albret while she was buying clothes for the wedding in Paris. The marriage was intended to unite the interests of the house of Valois with the house of Bourbon.

Henry of Navarre always emphasised the significance of his blood, rather than religion, when he challenged the Guise-led Catholic League. After the League forced Henry III to sign the Treaty of Nemours, which excluded Navarre from the succession, in July 1585, the latter issued a manifesto condemning the pact as:

A peace made with foreigners at the expense of the princes of the blood; with the House of Lorraine at the expense of the House of France; with rebels at the expense of obedient subjects; with agitators at the expense of those who have brought peace by every means within their power.... I intend to oppose it with all my heart, and to this end to rally around me... all true Frenchmen without regard to religion, since this time it is a question of the defence of the state against the usurpation of foreigners.[5]

The pull of such propaganda remained so potent that even after 25 years of civil war, An English agent reported that after that and similar declarations by Henry, "many good Catholics flooded to his standard".[6]

Kingdom of NavarreEdit

Château of Pau, where Henry of Navarre was born in 1553

Though most of the old Kingdom of Navarre was incorporated into Spain, the claim to the remaining part was retained by Queen Catherine (daughter of Magdalene of France), who married John, Count of Périgord, brother-in-law of Cesare Borgia and lord of vast lands in the southwest of France. John was chased out of Spanish Navarre by Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1512[7] and retreated to Navarre north of the Pyrenees, and the Navarrese Cortes (parliament) accepted annexation to Castile. The part that survived as an independent kingdom north of the Pyrenees, Lower Navarre, was united with the Viscountcy of Béarn in an independent kingdom. It was given a representative assembly by Catherine and John's son, Henry II of Navarre. By the time of Henry III of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France), the monarch of Navarre could call to arms 300 gentlemen and 6,000 footsoldiers from the kingdom.

Rival claimantsEdit

The Catholic League's candidate for the crown of France in 1589 was Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon. The brother of Antoine of Bourbon (and Henry of Navarre's uncle), he was the last surviving Catholic prince of the blood. However, two factors made him an unconvincing choice: he was 66 years old, and he was firmly in the custody of first Henry III and then Henry IV. The cardinal found himself imprisoned in 1588, when Henry III ordered the murder of Henry, Duke of Guise, at the Château of Blois and rounded up those he regarded as a threat to his crown, including the Cardinal of Bourbon. On Henry III's death, Henry IV assumed responsibility for his captive rival. The League proved unable to free the cardinal, and when he died on 9 May 1590, they were left without a plausible successor as claimant to the throne. That proved fatal to their opposition to Henry's rule.

During the period between the succession of Henry IV and the death of the Cardinal of Bourbon, the city of Paris had achieved a degree of independence. While acknowledging the Catholic League and accepting a Spanish garrison, the authorities there had championed their liberties against those of the crown so much that some citizens openly opposed the institution of monarchy altogether. In October 1589, a Parisian lawyer complained publicly, "Our civil disorder and factions have opened the door to a crowd of corrupt little men who, with effrontery, have attacked authority with such licence and audacity that those who have not seen it would not believe it. In so doing, they have wanted to jump from a monarchy to a democracy".[8]

The death of the Cardinal of Bourbon prompted measures to elect a new anti-king. Although the French monarchy was hereditary, the League's lawyers searched the early history of France for precedents to legitimise the election of a king.[9] The Protestant scholar and ideologue François Hotman had argued in his Francogallia that France was once a free country, whose liberties had been eroded over time, including the right to elect kings.[10] Hotman had asserted the right of the Estates-General to perform this function. Though Hotman was a Protestant, his argument also influenced Catholic jurists searching for a means to replace the Cardinal of Bourbon at the beginning of the 1590s and the decision to summon the Estates-General to elect a new "king".[11]

The meeting of the Estates General that opened on 26 January 1593 proved far from representative. Many royalist delegates refused to attend, and other delegates were blocked by royalist troops from reaching Paris. By then, deep divisions in the League had become apparent. The League's leader, Charles of Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne, had repeatedly disputed the strategy of the Duke of Parma, the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, whom Philip II sent into northern France to reinforce the League.[12] Mayenne had also quarrelled with his nephew, Charles, Duke of Guise, whom some wanted to elect king. Finally, Mayenne was at odds with many Parisian leaders, particularly with the Sixteen, a group of city representatives who pursued their own libertarian agenda and often worked with the Spanish behind Mayenne's back.[12]

In November 1591, when the Sixteen executed a group of moderates from the Paris parlement, Mayenne hanged or imprisoned the ringleaders. Mayenne, who nursed ambitions to be king himself, saw his grand alliance of Catholic nobles, French towns and Spain crumbling from a growing disunity of purpose and the absence of an obvious claimant to the throne.[12]

It was widely believed among Catholics that the pope's blessing was essential to the legitimacy of a king of France because of the Protestant faith of Henry.[13] At the time of his succession, Henry IV was under a papal excommunication, imposed by Pope Sixtus V on 21 September 1585 so the papacy considered it legitimate for Henry's subjects to oppose his rule, both as King of Navarre and, after 1589, as King of France. The persistence of rebellion and civil war in the early years of Henry's reign owed much to the papacy's refusal to accept anyone but a Catholic on the French throne.

Mayenne was opposed to the idea of summoning the Estates-General to elect a king, but in 1592, he finally caved in to Spanish pressure to do so. Mayenne opened the assembly with a symbolically empty chair beside him.[14] The influence of Spain on the assembly soon proved problematic. Spain sought the election of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, the daughter of Philip II of Spain and the granddaughter of Catherine de' Medici. The Spanish urged the Estates-General to repeal the Salic Law, which prevented the rule of a queen regnant, but in so doing, they failed to grasp a fundamental principle of the French royal succession.[15]

The Spanish ambassador in Paris had instructions to "insinuate cleverly" the rights of the Infanta to the French throne. His brief also stated that the Salic Law "was a pure invention... as the most learned and discerning of their lawyers recognise".[16] The Estates-General of the Catholic League insisted that if Clara Isabella Eugenia were to be chosen, she should marry a French prince. Philip II, however, wanted her to marry Archduke Ernest of Austria.[17] The Estates replied that "our laws and customs prevent us from calling forward as king any prince not of our nation".[14] On 28 June 1593, the Paris parlement followed up by resolving "to preserve the realm which depends on God alone and recognizes no other ruler of its temporal affairs, no matter what his status, and to prevent it from being overrun by foreigners in the fair name of religion".[18]

While the delegates of the Estates-General dithered in Paris, Henry IV dealt a well-timed blow to their deliberations by announcing his wish to be converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, a move that effectively cut the ground from under the Catholic League's feet. The Estates-General sent delegates to treat with Henry's representatives, and on 8 August, most members of the assembly returned home.[14]


Henry IV of France touching for scrofula, in an engraving of 1609

Henry's abjuration of the Protestant faith on 25 July 1593 at the abbey of Saint-Denis proved decisive in winning over many of his opponents. His legitimization proceeded in stages. The archbishop of Bourges raised his excommunication, though without papal authority, during the abjuration ceremony. The following year, Henry had himself anointed and crowned at Chartres cathedral.[19] After the ceremony, he demonstrated his sacred powers by touching people for scrofula, the king's evil.[20] Finally, on 12 July 1595, Pope Clement VIII agreed to lift Henry's excommunication; and he pronounced the absolution on 17 September.[21] For the first time, he gave Henry the title of "most Christian King of France and Navarre".[22]

When Pope Clement VIII absolved Henry, he, like Henry, was motivated by political pragmatism. The papacy lived in fear of further national churches breaking away from Rome to be governed instead by princes. The Gallican church already showed independent tendencies, and some of Henry's advisers advocated for him to declare himself the spiritual head of the French church.[21] At the same time, Clement feared that in the words of historian J. H. Elliott, "a Spanish victory in France could mean the end of papal independence".[23] Clement VIII's grant of absolution, therefore, contains an element of damage limitation. For two years, Henry had been recognised by many in the French church, and French theologians at the Sorbonne had confirmed the Archbishop of Bourges's lifting of Henry's excommunication.[21] To reassert papal jurisdiction, Clement made a point of declaring the absolution granted at St Denis in 1593 to be void, but in substituting his own absolution, he ruled all Henry's acts since that date as legitimate in retrospect.[24] Thus, the pope papered over the technical anomaly of the archbishop's abrogation of papal powers. Clement's absolution was contingent on a set of demanding conditions. Among other promises, Henry swore to establish a single religion in France, to recompense all Catholic clergy who had lost land or property to the Huguenots and to apply the decrees of the Council of Trent in France.[25]

After 1594, Henry's recognition doomed further armed opposition to his rule within France. One by one, the leaders of the Catholic League made peace with him. Mayenne surrendered in 1596 after the Peace of Follembray, and in 1598, the surrender of the last League commander, Philippe Emmanuel, Duke of Mercœur, who had hoped to restore Brittany to independence under his own rule, was followed by the Edict of Nantes in the same year. Even so, many of Henry's Catholic subjects were sceptical about his recantation. It was argued that until Henry fulfilled the daunting terms of his absolution, his conversion could not be considered sincere. Those who continued to believe that Henry was a heretic regarded him as a tyrant who had usurped the throne of France under false pretenses. One of the reasons François Ravaillac gave for assassinating Henry IV in 1610 was the king's "refusal to exercise his power to compel the so-called reformed Church Calvinist Protestants to the apostolic Catholic and Roman Church".[26]


Henry IV's assassination in 1610 was the last of a series of attempts on his life throughout his reign.[27] The constant threat of assassination was related to questions of his legitimacy as King of France. Even after his abjuration of the Protestant faith in 1593, doubts remained about the sincerity of Henry's conversion. In particular, there were those who believed that in failing to fulfill the terms of his absolution, he remained technically excommunicate and therefore a legitimate target of assassination. As a Catholic king, it was argued, Henry should have closed Huguenot churches and banned Protestant worship; instead, he made concessions to his former co-religionists in the Edict of Nantes and tolerated the existence of what was seen as a "state within a state", whole towns and regions of France where the Huguenots' right to worship, bear arms and govern their own affairs was protected by the crown.

According to Henry's murderer, François Ravaillac, "he made no attempt to convert these Protestants and was said to be on the point of waging war against the Pope so as to transfer the Holy See to Paris". Ravaillac stated that "he had felt obliged to take this step because, from rumours he had heard, he felt the King had seemed reluctant to punish the Huguenots for trying to murder all the Catholics last Christmas Day. Some Catholics still languished in the Paris gaols while their persecutors went scot free".[28]

Henry continued to promote Huguenots to office in France and to form alliances with Protestant princes abroad. In his home territory of Béarn, he did nothing to re-establish free Catholic worship, as the pope demanded. It seemed clear to Henry's Catholic opponents that he had recanted his Protestantism merely for political reasons to secure the French throne. Rebels and would-be assassins felt justified by what they saw as Henry's manifest failure to comply with the terms of his absolution. In their view, Henry remained a heretic and thus a usurper on the throne of France.[29]


On the death of King Henry III of France, who had no son, the crown passed to Henry IV, in application of Salic law, because Henry was the descendant of the eldest surviving male line of the Capetian dynasty.

House of BourbonEdit

Henry IV's descent in the male line from Louis IX of France.[30]

Simplified Bourbon family treeEdit

Simplified Bourbon family tree



  1. ^ Frieda, 192–93.
  2. ^ Mousnier, 106.
  3. ^ Robert Knecht, Catherine de' Medici, 72. Amongst other concessions, Catherine released Antoine's brother, Louis of Bourbon, prince of Condé, from prison, where he had been condemned to death for crimes against the king (lèse majesté).
  4. ^ Mousnier, 106. This practice had been made law in 1328.
  5. ^ Quoted by Buisseret, 18–19.
  6. ^ Buisseret, 19.
  7. ^ Knecht, Renaissance France, 104.
  8. ^ Quoted in Greengrass, 56.
  9. ^ Greengrass, 56.
  10. ^ Greengrass, 12.
  11. ^ Greengrass, 13.
  12. ^ a b c Buisseret, 42.
  13. ^ Mousnier, 108. There was also a belief in some quarters that the original papal blessing of Charlemagne was conferred automatically on his descendants, including Henry.
  14. ^ a b c Buisseret, 43.
  15. ^ Greengrass, 56–57; Mousnier, 119.
  16. ^ Greengrass, 56–57.
  17. ^ Mousnier, 119.
  18. ^ Mousnier, 119–120.
  19. ^ Henry chose Chartres because Rheims cathedral, the traditional venue for royal coronations, was still in the hands of the Catholic League.
  20. ^ Mousnier, 112–13.
  21. ^ a b c Mousnier, 114.
  22. ^ Mousnier, 115.
  23. ^ Quoted by Buisseret, 41.
  24. ^ Mousnier, 114–15.
  25. ^ Mousnier, 115; Buisseret, 62.
  26. ^ Mousnier, 36.
  27. ^ Buisseret, 56. There were two assassination attempts in 1593, three in 1594, two each in 1595 and 1596 and at least nine more after that.
  28. ^ Mousnier, 36–37.
  29. ^ Mousnier, 116.
  30. ^ See genealogical table in Baumgartner, France in the Sixteenth Century.
  31. ^ Knecht, genealogies,Renaissance France; Baumgartner, genealogical table, France in the Sixteenth Century.


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