King Henry III of France was born on 19th September 1551; he was the fourth son of King Henry II and Catherine de’Medici and was born at the Château de Fontainebleau. In 1560 he was created Duke of Angloulême and Duke of Orléans and later in 1566 the Duke of Anjou. Henry was his mother’s favourite son and was affectionately known as chers yeux (precious eyes).
Henry showed more interest in the arts and reading rather than hunting and sport like his father and brothers. He was heavily influenced by his mother. At an early age he showed a leaning towards Protestantism by refusing to attend mass, singing Protestant psalms and calling himself a ‘little Huguenot’. Catherine de’Medici cautioned Henry and his siblings and he remained a Roman Catholic.
In 1570 discussions were opened between France and England regarding a possible marriage between Henry and Queen Elizabeth I however, nothing came from the negotiations for many reasons including their religious differences as well as the large age gap. It is reported that Henry also called the Queen a ‘putain publique’ (public whore) and even called her an ‘old creature with a sore leg’ due to false reports that she limped due to a varicose vein.
Whilst as a Prince of France he led the royal army during the French Wars of Religion and was present at the Battle of Jarnac in March 1569 and the Battle of Moncontour in October 1569. In 1572 whilst still the Duke of Anjou he was allegedly involved in the plot of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Henry would go on to lead the siege of La Rochelle in 1572/73.
Following the death of Sigismund II Augustus on 7th July 1572 a French envoy was sent to Poland to negotiate the case for Henry to be elected as the next ruler of Poland in exchange for military support against Russia, financial subsidies and diplomatic assistance with the Ottoman Empire. On 16th May 1573 Henry was the first elected monarch of the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A Polish delegation was sent to La Rochelle, where Henry was still fighting, to meet the newly elected King.
On 10th September 1573 the delegation asked Henry to take an oath at Notre Dame Cathedral, where he would swear to ‘respect traditional Polish liberties and the law on religious freedom that had been passed during the interregnum.’ Before his election could be confirmed Henry was also required to sign the Pacta Conventa and the Henrician Articles which would allow religious tolerance throughout the Commonwealth. At a ceremony on 13th September before the Parlement of Paris a Polish delegation handed over the certificate of election to the throne and under the Henrician Articles and Pacta Conventa Henry acknowledged that he had no claims to succession due to free election.
Henry arrived at the borders of Poland in January 1574 and his coronation was held in Kraków on 21st February 1574. However, upon learning of his brothers, Charles IX, death Henry left Poland for France. His absence caused a constitutional crisis and Parliament warned Henry that if he did not return to Poland by 12th May 1575 then he would lose his throne. Henry failed to return and the throne was declared vacant.
Henry’s time in Poland although short lived was influential on France, upon his return he ordered the building of septic facilities at the Louvre and other royal palaces, Henry was also introduced to forks and a bath that had regulated hot and cold water.
On 13th February 1575 Henry was crowned King of France at Reims Cathedral and he married Louise of Lorraine on 14th February 1575.
In 1576 Henry signed the Edict of Beaulieu, which granted concessions to the Huguenots. This caused the Duke of Guise to form the Catholic League and Henry was forced to revoke many of the concessions.
In 1578 Henry created the Order of the Holy Spirit to commemorate being the first King of Poland as well as the King of France. This order would give precedence over the previous Order of St. Michael, which had been awarded too frequently and lost its meaning. The Order of the Holy Spirit remained the most prestigious order of France until the fall of the French monarchy.
Francis, Duke of Anjou, was Henry’s younger brother and heir presumptive to the throne of France until his death in 1584. The next heir was to be Henry of Navarre, a Protestant and direct descendant of Louis IX. With pressure from the Duke of Guise, Henry issued an edict that suppressed Protestantism and therefore also annulled any claims that Henry of Navarre had to the throne of France.
The Duke of Guise had been incredibly popular in France and following the defeat of the Spanish Armada Henry feared that the Spanish support for the Catholic League would falter. On 23rd December 1588 at the Château de Blois the Duke of Guise was invited to the council chamber where his brother, Louis II, Cardinal of Guise was also waiting. They had been told that the King wished to see them both in a private room next to the royal bedroom. Upon entering the room the Duke and the Cardinal were murdered by royal guardsmen who also imprisoned the Duke’s son. The Duke of Guise was very popular in France and the King’s subjects began to blame him for the murders and turned on hm. The Parelement issued criminal charges against the King who was then forced to join with his former heir, Henry of Navarre to form the Parliament of Tours.
On 1st August 1589 Henry was lodged at Saint-Cloud with his army preparing an attack on Paris. It was here that a Dominican friar, Jacques Clément was granted access to the King under the illusion that he was delivering important documents. The friar approached the King and stated that he had a message just for the King’s ears, Henry signalled for his attendants to step back for the message to be delivered. As the friar whispered in Henry’s ear he stabbed him with a knife to the abdomen. Clément was killed instantly but it was thought that the King’s wound was not fatal. As the guards gathered around the King to attend to his injury Henry spoke that if he was to die then they should be loyal to Henry of Navarre as the new King of France.
The following morning King Henry III of France died, it was received within the city with joy it was even considered by some as an act of God. Henry was interred at the Saint Denis Basilica but during the French Revolution he was disinterred, his body desecrated and thrown into a common grave. Henry III was the last of the Valois Kings of France.
A painting of Henry whilst he was the Duke of Anjou