From the Midst of Massacre: The Religious Tolerance of King Henry IV
You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than in the mid-sixteenth century. While the Renaissance had its share of opportunistic, treacherous types, there was always something identifiably human at the bottom of their machinations. After the launching of Luther’s Reformation, however, a century-long spasm of fanaticism twisted Europe, unleashing the darkest of dark from the moral gray that preceded it—religiously driven murderers on a continental scale like Philip II or the Duke of Guise who thought nothing of decimating a province in the service of their God.
But if the bad was unleashed, so too was the good, and the heroes of this age exhibited a humanity unknown since the most idealistic musings of ancient Greece—the noble and tragic Count Egmont, the wise and brave William the Silent, the clever and humane Elizabeth I, and possibly the greatest of them all, the man who made toleration his guiding principle in an age when bloody persecution was the banal norm, Henry of Navarre, later King Henry IV of France.
Henry of Navarre was born in 1553, when France was ripping itself apart in spurts of religious self-annihilation. Catherine de Medici ruled France on behalf of her indecisive and weak-willed son, Charles IX. Her goal was to perpetuate her family’s rule, and her strategy was simple and effective—she kept her rivals in a perpetual state of holy civil war that consumed their resources and attention, each peace merely a cynical stepping stone to further bloodshed. At the time, the two major families with claims to the throne were the morbidly Catholic Lorraines, controlled by the house of Guise, and the stringently Huguenot Bourbons of Navarre. Armies of fanatics and mercenaries lumbered through the French countryside in a decade-long orgy of vengeance and destruction that depopulated entire villages in an afternoon in the name of essentially the same God.
Henry represented the Bourbon family’s best chance to gain the throne, and he was given a Spartan upbringing to toughen him up towards that end. He was allowed no toys, only the most primitive food and clothing, and his teachers were forbidden to praise or flatter him. The result was that rarest of things in the sixteenth century: a child of the nobility possessed of simple interests and broad humanity. His father passed away in 1562, making him effectively the leader of the French Protestant cause at the ripe and wise age of nine.
War and intrigue were his constant companions throughout adolescence, but in 1572, an opportunity was offered him to end the bloodshed at last by marrying Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter. His Protestant followers told him not to go to Paris for the marriage, that it was surely a trap to gather all the Huguenot leaders together in one place for extermination, but go he did. Catherine’s secret plan was to push Henry’s rival, the Duke of Guise, to assassinate Henry’s second in command, Admiral Coligny, thereby provoking Henry to eliminate Guise, doing away with one of Catherine’s most powerful rivals. As it happened, Coligny was merely wounded, and by his explicit orders no vengeance was to be taken against the Duke of Guise.
As Catherine’s plan was falling apart, she resolved that the only way out was to throw her royal influence on the side of the Duke and permit a wholesale slaughter of the Protestants. Thus began the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a country-wide butchering of Huguenots to satisfy the Duke’s perverse religious loyalty and Catherine de’ Medici’s grasping cunning. Henry himself was merely placed under arrest on the promise that he would become a Catholic, and upon finally escaping he took his place at the head of the Huguenot army, renounced his conversion, and entered into alliances with England and the German Protestant princes to fight back against the oppression of the mighty, Spanish-backed Catholic League.
In the field, he was an indomitable force, wading into the thick of battle, risking his life almost recklessly, knowing that only through his own personal courage would this rag-tag collection of dour Protestants and moderate Catholics possibly continue fighting for him as a unit. He retook Catholic strongholds, always offering absolute pardon and full military honors to their vanquished defenders. Vengeance was simply not part of his nature. Even after sixteen separate attempts on his life by fanatic assassins and innumerable treacheries from those he had considered closest to him, his first instinct was always forgiveness and toleration. The death of any Frenchman, enemy or friend, grieved him: “I cannot rejoice to see my subjects lying dead upon the field. I am a loser at the very moment when I win.”
Henry knew that, as long as he continued as a Protestant, the wars would continue, Frenchmen would die, and all to the benefit of hypocritical politicians and power-hungry clergymen. And so, some years after the death of the ineffectual Henry III, who would really rather have spent his days designing clothes and wearing baskets of puppies around his neck than dealing with the intricacies of statesmanship, Henry made the decision at last to convert to Catholicism and assume the title of Henry IV.
It wouldn’t end his (or France’s) problems but it gave him a platform from which to effect his country’s healing. The Catholics didn’t like his lenience towards the Protestants, and the Protestants abhorred how he gave all the best positions in government to Catholics in an attempt to buy their loyalty away from the Catholic League that had spent the better part of two decades gutting France for its own ends. But the country was weary of war, and glad to see a Frenchman on the throne again, and Henry had his way, guided by one of the phenomenally undersung figures of the human story, Maximilien Rosny, the eventual Duke of Sully.
Rosny was a Protestant who rose at four in the morning, worked until ten at night, and then went to bed to start the process over again. He and Henry marched in lockstep sympathy to establish a new era of toleration and justice in France. “Compassion and tenderness are the only means that do any service to religion, and the only means that religion dictates. The [religious] zeal which is so much boasted is only rage or obstinacy, disguised under a reputable appellation,” he said in a condemnation of religious strife and military posturing.
While Henry ruled, Rosny governed, traveling to the countryside to witness firsthand the gross corruption of the tax machine that bled the peasants in order to fatten the collectors and their subcontractors. With Henry’s backing, he redesigned the structure of taxation, which improved revenue flow for the state while simultaneously lessening the burden of taxation for the poor. That newly found money went towards preparing a grand coalition to limit the influence of the Inquisition-fueled Habsburgs. It was to be a community of European nations that would solve problems through joint arbitration rather than war, a United Nations four centuries before its time.
When, through large-scale amnesty and unheard of bribery, Henry had brought peace to France at last, he felt established enough to produce his great legislative landmark, the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed freedom of conscience throughout his lands, and a broad-based (though not complete) freedom of public worship with it. It stood for a century as the cornerstone of French religious policy until Louis XIV repealed it in 1685 under the influence of the drably fanatic Madame de Maintenon. In an age when you could call on huge resources by affiliating yourself strongly with one branch of Christianity or another, Henry walked a harder path, facing constant criticism and threats to his life from all sides by maintaining a policy of steady, thankless toleration.
It was what France needed, however. From the passing of the edict to his death twelve years later, France was free of religious war. The population rebounded, native industries developed, and tax revenue soared under Sully’s tireless and fair watch, allowing Henry to commit resources to public projects that included a thorough reworking of sanitation systems, new roads, and public hospitals for veterans. Henry IV was, in all ways, the king of the people, willing to accept any hardship for himself if it would mean an improvement in France’s day-to-day lifestyle.
Well, almost any hardship. For if Henry’s virtues were great, his one weakness was towering: women. Like his grandson, Charles II of England, he was pathologically incapable of monogamy, kept several mistresses simultaneously, and spent lavishly on them the money that could have gone to bolstering his plan for a European alliance. The faithful Rosny grumbled at the expense, and at having to act as intermediary between Henry, his legitimate wife (by this time, the pro-Spanish, eternally scheming Marie de’ Medici, Henry having obtained papal approval for a divorce from his first wife), and his various mistresses. It was a source of eternal embarrassment to the upstanding, superhumanly moral Rosny to spend so much time soothing domestic rage, but as often as Henry would abjure his weakness and promise to reform, the next morning would see him composing letters of abject love to his various mistresses again.
As he got older, this penchant for women only grew in intensity, and his last amour was with a fifteen-year-old girl some forty-one years his junior. It was a passion so intense that it seemed to fire every other aspect of his rule with its intensity. After two decades of preparation, he suddenly resolved to go to war against Spain to secure the freedom of Europe from Habsburg oppression, finally putting to use the money and weapons that Rosny had been storing up. At fifty-six years of age he was set to remake the face of Europe, to bring a principle of balance that might have avoided the horrid depredations of the Thirty Years War, when one evening a religious fanatic leapt upon him in a narrow street and stabbed him through the heart.
The age of Henry was over. For the next half-century, Europe would subject itself to a destruction that would make the religious wars of Henry’s youth look positively quaint by comparison, fueled by a religious zeal unchecked by compassion for humanity. The moderation of Henry and Rosny became but a memory, but the example had been set. For twenty years Henry IV ruled France for the people, with their happiness and freedom of thought, belief, and speech his primary concerns. That memory would last, tucked away in the joint memory of the peasant classes, to emerge again in the fires of Revolution as a glimmering example of a people-centered state that had happened once and might yet happen again.
Henry is on anybody’s top-three list of important French rulers, and biographies and fictional portrayals aren’t lacking. For a popular account, I can’t help but liking Hesketh Pearson’s 1963 Henry of Navarre: The King Who Dared. In French, I like Francois Bayrou’s 1993 Henri IV: Le Roi Libre for its focus on the proto-republicanism of good king Henry.