Henry IV - John S. C. Abbott

The Conversion of the King


This bloody war of the succession had now desolated France for four years. The Duke of Sully, one of the most conspicuous of the political Calvinists, was at last induced to give his influence to lead the king to accept the Catholic faith. Sully had been Henry's companion from childhood. Though not a man of deep religious convictions, he was one of the most illustrious of men in ability, courage, and integrity. Conversing with Henry upon the distracted affairs of state, he said, one day,

"That you should wait for me, being a Protestant, to counsel you to go to mass, is a thing you should not do, although I will boldly declare to you that it is the prompt and easy way of destroying all malign projects. You will thus meet no more enemies, sorrows, nor difficulties in this world. As to the other world," he continued, smiling, "I can not answer for that."

The king continued in great perplexity. He felt that it was degrading to change his religion upon apparent compulsion, or for the accomplishment of any selfish purpose. He knew that he must expose himself to the charge of apostasy and of hypocrisy in affirming a change of belief, even to accomplish so meritorious a purpose as to rescue a whole nation from misery. These embarrassments to a vacillating mind were terrible.

Early one morning, before rising, he sent for Sully. The duke found the king sitting up in his bed, "scratching his head in great perplexity." The political considerations in favor of the change urged by the duke could not satisfy fully the mind of the king. He had still some conscientious scruples, imbibed from the teachings of a pious and sainted mother. The illustrious warrior, financier, and diplomatist now essayed the availability of theological considerations, and urged the following argument of Jesuitical shrewdness:

"I hold it certain," argued the duke, "that whatever be the exterior form of the religion which men profess, if they live in the observation of the Decalogue, believe in the Creed of the apostles, love God with all their heart, have charity toward their neighbor, hope in the mercy of God, and to obtain salvation by the death, merits, and justice of Jesus Christ, they can not fail to be saved."

Henry caught eagerly at this plausible argument. The Catholics say that no Protestant can be saved, but the Protestants admit that a Catholic may be, if in heart honest, just, and true. The sophistry of the plea in behalf of an insincere renunciation of faith is too palpable to influence any mind but one eager to be convinced. The king was counseled to obey the Decalogue, which forbids false witness, while at the same time he was to be guilty of an act of fraud and hypocrisy.

But Henry had another counselor. Philip of Mornay, Lord of Plessis, had imbibed from his mother's lips a knowledge of the religion of Jesus Christ. His soul was endowed by nature with the most noble lineaments, and he was, if man can judge, a devoted and exalted Christian. There was no one, in those stormy times, more illustrious as a warrior, statesman, theologian, and orator. "We can not," says a French writer, "indicate a species of merit in which he did not excel, except that he did not advance his own fortune." When but twelve years of age, a priest exhorted him to beware of the opinions of the Protestants.

"I am resolved," Philip replied, firmly, "to remain steadfast in what I have learned of the service of God. When I doubt any point, I will diligently examine the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles."

His uncle, the Archbishop of Rheims, advised him to read the fathers of the Church, and promised him the revenues of a rich abbey and the prospect of still higher advancement if he would adhere to the Catholic religion. Philip read the fathers and declined the bribe, saying,

"I must trust to God for what I need."

Almost by a miracle he had escaped the Massacre of St. Bartholomew and fled to England. The Duke of Anjou, who had become King of Poland, wishing to conciliate the Protestants, wrote to Mornay in his poverty and exile, proposing to him a place in his ministry. The noble man replied,

"I will never enter the service of those who have shed the blood of my brethren."

He soon joined the feeble court of the King of Navarre, and adhered conscientiously, through all vicissitudes, to the Protestant cause. Henry IV. was abundantly capable of appreciating such a character, and he revered and loved Mornay. His services were invaluable to Henry, for he seemed to be equally skillful in nearly all departments of knowledge and of business. He could with equal facility guide an army, construct a fortress, and write a theological treatise. Many of the most important state papers of Henry IV. he hurriedly wrote upon the field of battle or beneath his wind-shaken tent. Henry III., on one occasion, had said to him,

"How can a man of your intelligence and ability be a Protestant? Have you never read the Catholic doctors?"

"Not only have I read the Catholic doctors," Mornay replied, "but I have read them with eagerness; for I am flesh and blood like other men, and I was not born without ambition. I should have been very glad to find something to flatter my conscience that I might participate in the favors and honors you distribute, and from which my religion excludes me; but, above all, I find something which fortifies my faith, and the world must yield to conscience."

The firm Christian principles of Philip of Mornay were now almost the only barrier which stood in the way of the conversion of Henry. The Catholic lords offered Mornay twenty thousand crowns of gold if he would no more awaken the scruples of the king. Nobly he replied,

"The conscience of my master is not for sale, neither is mine."

Great efforts were then made to alienate Henry from his faithful minister. Mornay by chance one day entered the cabinet of the king, where his enemies were busy in their cabals. In the boldness of an integrity which never gave him cause to blush, he thus addressed them in the presence of the sovereign:

"It is hard, gentlemen, to prevent the king my master from speaking to his faithful servant. The proposals which I offer the king are such that I can pronounce them distinctly before you all. I propose to him to serve God with a good conscience; to keep Him in view in every action; to quiet the schism which is in his state by a holy reformation of the Church, and to be an example for all Christendom during all time to come. Are these things to be spoken in a corner? Do you wish me to counsel him to go to mass? With what conscience shall I advise if I do not first go myself? And what is religion, if it can be laid aside like a shirt?"

The Catholic nobles felt the power of this moral courage and integrity, and one of them, Marshal d'Aumont, yielding to a generous impulse, exclaimed,

"You are better than we are, Monsieur Mornay; and if I said, two days ago, that it was necessary to give you a pistol-shot in the head, I say to-day entirely the contrary, and that you should have a statue."

Henry, however, was a politician, not a Christian; and nothing is more amazing than the deaf ear which even apparently good men can turn to the pleadings of conscience when they are involved in the mazes of political ambition. The process of conversion was, for decency's sake, protracted and ostentatious. As Henry probably had no fixed religious principles, he could with perhaps as much truth say that he was a Catholic as that he was a Protestant.

On the 23d of July the king listened to a public argument, five hours in length, from the Archbishop of Bourges, upon the points of essential difference between the two antagonistic creeds. Henry found the reasoning of the archbishop most comfortably persuasive, and, having separated himself for a time from Mornay, he professed to be solemnly convinced that the Roman Catholic faith was the true religion. Those who knew Henry the best declare that he was sincere in the change, and his subsequent life seems certainly to indicate that he was so. The Duke of Sully, who refused to follow Henry into the Catholic Church, records,

"As uprightness and sincerity formed the depth of his heart, as they did of his words, I am persuaded that nothing would have been capable of making him embrace a religion which he internally despised, or of which he even doubted."

In view of this long interview with the Archbishop of Bourges, Henry wrote to the frail but beautiful Gabrielle d'Estrees,

"I began this morning to speak to the bishops. On Sunday I shall take the perilous leap." The king's connection with Gabrielle presented another strong motive to influence his conversion. Henry, when a mere boy, had been constrained by political considerations to marry the worthless and hateful sister of Charles IX. For the wife thus coldly received he never felt an emotion of affection. She was an unblushing profligate. The king, in one of his campaigns, met the beautiful maiden Gabrielle in the chateau of her father. They both immediately loved each other, and a relation prohibited by the divine law soon existed between them. Never, perhaps, was there a better excuse for unlawful love. But guilt ever brings woe. Neither party were happy. Gabrielle felt condemned and degraded, and urged the king to obtain a divorce from the notoriously profligate Marguerite of Valois, that their union might be sanctioned by the rites of religion. Henry loved Gabrielle tenderly. Her society was his chiefest joy, and it is said that he ever remained faithful to her. He was anxious for a divorce from Marguerite, and for marriage with Gabrielle. But this divorce could only be obtained through the Pope. Hence Gabrielle exerted all her influence to lead the king into the Church, that this most desired end might be attained.

The king now openly proclaimed his readiness to renounce Protestantism and to accept the Papal Creed. The Catholic bishops prepared an act of abjuration, rejecting, very decisively, one after another, every distinguishing article of the Protestant faith. The king glanced his eye over it, and instinctively recoiled from an act which he seemed to deem humiliating. He would only consent to sign a very brief declaration, in six lines, of his return to the Church of Rome. The paper, however, which he had rejected, containing the emphatic recantation of every article of the Protestant faith, was sent to the Pope with the forged signature of the king.

The final act of renunciation was public, and was attended with much dramatic pomp, in the great church of St. Denis. It was Sunday, the twenty-fifth of July, 1593. The immense cathedral was richly decorated. Flowers were scattered upon the pavements, and garlands and banners festooned the streets and the dwellings.

At eight o'clock in the morning Henry presented himself before the massive portals of the Cathedral. He was dressed in white satin, with a black mantle and chapeau. The white plume, which both pen and pencil have rendered illustrious, waved from his hat. He was surrounded by a gorgeous retinue of nobles and officers of the crown. Several regiments of soldiers, in the richest uniform, preceded and followed him as he advanced toward the church. Though a decree had been issued strictly prohibiting the populace from being present at the ceremony, an immense concourse thronged the streets, greeting the monarch with enthusiastic cries of "Vive le roi!"

[Illustration] from Henry IV by John S. C. Abbott


The Archbishop of Bourges was seated at the entrance of the church in a chair draped with white damask. The Cardinal of Bourbon, and several bishops glittering in pontifical robes, composed his brilliant retinue. The monks of St. Denis were also in attendance, clad in their sombre attire, bearing the cross, the Gospels, and the holy water. Thus the train of the exalted dignitary of the Church even eclipsed in splendor the suite of the king.

As Henry approached the door of the church, the archbishop, as if to repel intrusion, imperiously inquired,

"Who are you?"

"I am the king," Henry modestly replied.

"What do you desire?" demanded the archbishop.

"I ask," answered the king, "to be received into the bosom of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion."

"Do you desire this sincerely?" rejoined the archbishop.

"I do," the king replied. Then kneeling at the feet of the prelate, he pronounced the following oath:

"I protest and swear, in the presence of Almighty God, to live and die in the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion; to protect and defend it against all its enemies at the hazard of my blood and life, renouncing all heresies contrary to it."

The king then placed a copy of this oath in writing in the hands of the archbishop, and kissed the consecrated ring upon his holy finger. Then entering the Cathedral, he received the absolution of his sins and the benediction of the Church. A Te Deum was then sung, high mass was solemnized, and thus the imposing ceremony was terminated.

It is easy to treat this whole affair as a farce. The elements of ridicule are abundant. But it was by no means a farce in the vast influences which it evolved. Catholic historians have almost invariably assumed that the king acted in perfect good faith, being fully convinced by the arguments of the Church. Even Henry's Protestant friend, the Duke of Sully, remarks,

"I should betray the cause of truth if I suffered it even to be suspected that policy, the threats of the Catholics, the fatigue of labor, the desire of rest, and of freeing himself from the tyranny of foreigners, or even the good of the people, had entirely influenced the king's resolution. As far as I am able to judge of the heart of this prince, which I believe I know better than any other person, it was, indeed, these considerations which first hinted to him the necessity of his conversion; but, in the end, he became convinced in his own mind that the Catholic religion was the safest."

Others have affirmed that it was a shameful act of apostasy, in which the king, stimulated by ambition and unlawful love, stooped to hypocrisy, and feigned a conversion which in heart he despised. He is represented as saying, with levity,

"Paris is well worth a mass."

Others still assert that Henry was humanely anxious to arrest the horrors of civil war; to introduce peace to distracted France, and to secure the Protestants from oppression. His acceptance of the Catholic faith was the only apparent way of accomplishing these results. Being a humane man, but not a man of established Christian principle, he deemed it his duty to pursue the course which would accomplish such results. The facts, so far as known, are before the reader, and each one can form his own judgment.

The announcement throughout the kingdom that Henry had become a Catholic almost immediately put an end to the civil war. Incited by the royal example, many of the leading Protestants, nobles and gentlemen, also renounced Protestantism, and conformed to the religion of the state. The chiefs of the League, many of whom were ambitious political partisans rather than zealous theologians, and who were clamorous for Catholicism only as the means of obtaining power, at once relinquished all hope of victory. For a time, however, they still assumed a hostile attitude, and heaped unmeasured ridicule upon what they styled the feigned conversion of the king. They wished to compel the monarch to purchase their adhesion at as dear a price as possible.

Many important cities surrendered to the royal cause under the stipulation that the preaching of the Protestants should be utterly prohibited in their precincts and suburbs. Even the Pope, Clement VIII., a weak and bigoted man, for a time refused to ratify the act of the Archbishop of Bourges in absolving Henry from the pains and penalties of excommunication. He forbade the envoy of Henry to approach the Vatican. The Duke of Nevers, who was the appointed envoy, notwithstanding this prohibition, persisted in his endeavors to obtain an audience; but the Pope was anxious to have the crown of France in the possession of one whose Catholic zeal could not be questioned. He would much have preferred to see the fanatic Duke of Mayenne upon the throne, or to have promoted the Spanish succession. He therefore treated the Duke of Nevers with great indignity, and finally gave him an abrupt dismission.

But the mass of the French people, longing for repose, gladly accepted the conversion of the king. One after another the leaders of the League gave in their adhesion to the royal cause. The Duke of Mayenne, however, held out, Paris being still in his possession, and several other important cities and fortresses being garrisoned by his troops. The Pope, at length, having vainly done every thing in his power to rouse France and Catholic Europe to resist Henry, condescended to negotiate. His spirit may be seen in the atrocious conditions which he proposed. As the price of his absolution, he required that Henry should abrogate every edict of toleration, that he should exclude Protestants from all public offices, and that he should exterminate them from the kingdom as soon as possible.

To these demands Henry promptly replied, "I should be justly accused of shamelessness and ingratitude if, after having received such signal services from the Protestants, I should thus persecute them."

Henry was fully aware of the influence of forms upon the imaginations of the people. He accordingly made preparations for his coronation. The event was celebrated with great pomp, in the city of Chartres, on the 27th of February, 1594. The Leaguers were now quite disheartened. Every day their ranks were diminishing. The Duke of Mayenne, apprehensive that his own partisans might surrender Paris to the king, and that thus he might be taken prisoner, on the 6th of March, with his wife and children, left the city, under the pretense of being called away by important business.

Three hours after midnight of the 21st of the month the gates were secretly thrown open, and a body of the king's troops entered the metropolis. They marched rapidly along the silent streets, hardly encountering the slightest opposition. Before the morning dawned they had taken possession of the bridges, the squares, and the ramparts, and their cannon were planted so as to sweep all the important streets and avenues.

The citizens, aroused by the tramp of infantry and of cavalry, and by the rumbling of the heavy artillery over the pavements, rose from their beds, and crowded the windows, and thronged the streets. In the early dawn, the king, accompanied by the officers of his staff, entered the capital. He was dressed in the garb of a civilian, and was entirely unarmed. All were ready to receive him. Shouts of "Peace! peace! Long live the king!" reverberated in tones of almost delirious joy through the thoroughfares of the metropolis. Henry thus advanced through the ranks of the rejoicing people to the great cathedral of Notre Dame, where mass was performed. He then proceeded to the royal palace of the Louvre, which his officers had already prepared for his reception. All the bells of the city rung their merriest chimes, bands of music pealed forth their most exultant strains, and the air was rent with acclamations as the king, after all these long and bloody wars, thus peacefully took possession of the capital of his kingdom.

In this hour of triumph Henry manifested the most noble clemency. He issued a decree declaring that no citizen who had been in rebellion against him should be molested. Even the Spanish troops who were in the city to fight against him were permitted to depart with their arms in their hands. As they defiled through the gate of St. Denis, the king stood by a window, and, lifting his hat, respectfully saluted the officers. They immediately approached the magnanimous monarch, and, bending the knee, thanked him feelingly for his great clemency. The king courteously replied,

"Adieu, gentlemen, adieu! Commend me to your master, and go in peace, but do not come back again."

La Noue, one of Henry's chief supporters, as he was entering the city, had his baggage attached for an old debt. Indignantly he hastened to the king to complain of the outrage. The just monarch promptly but pleasantly replied,

"We must pay our debts, La Noue. I pay mine." Then drawing his faithful servant aside, he gave him his jewels to pledge for the deliverance of his baggage. The king was so impoverished that he had not money sufficient to pay the debt.

These principles of justice and magnanimity, which were instinctive with the king, and which were daily manifested in multiplied ways, soon won to him nearly all hearts. All France had writhed in anguish through years of war and misery. Peace, the greatest of all earthly blessings, was now beginning to diffuse its joys. The happiness of the Parisians amounted almost to transport. It was difficult for the king to pass through the streets, the crowd so thronged him with their acclamations. Many other important towns soon surrendered. But the haughty Duke of Mayenne refused to accept the proffered clemency, and, strengthened by the tremendous spiritual power of the head of the Church, still endeavored to arouse the energies of Papal fanaticism in Flanders and in Spain.

Soon, however, the Pope became convinced that all further resistance would be in vain. It was but compromising his dignity to be vanquished, and he accordingly decided to accept reconciliation. In yielding to this, the Pope stooped to the following silly farce, quite characteristic of those days of darkness and delusion. It was deemed necessary that the king should do penance for his sins before he could be received to the bosom of holy mother Church. It was proper that the severe mother should chastise her wayward child. "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth."

It was the sixteenth of September, 1595. The two embassadors of Henry IV. kneeled upon the vestibule of one of the churches in Rome as unworthy to enter. In strains of affected penitence, they chanted the Miserere—"Have mercy, Lord." At the close of every verse they received, in the name of their master, the blows of a little switch on their shoulders. The king, having thus made expiation for his sins, through the reception of this chastisement by proxy, and having thus emphatically acknowledged the authority of the sacred mother, received the absolution of the vicar of Christ, and was declared to be worthy of the loyalty of the faithful.

We have called this a farce. And yet can it be justly called so? The proud spirit of the king must indeed have been humiliated ere he could have consented to such a degradation. The spirit ennobled can bid defiance to any amount of corporeal pain. It is ignominy alone which can punish the soul. The Pope triumphed; the monarch was flogged. It is but just to remark that the friends of Henry deny that he was accessory to this act of humiliation.

The atrocious civil war, thus virtually, for a time, terminated, was caused by the Leaguers, who had bound themselves together in a secret society for the persecution of the Protestants. Their demand was inexorable that the Protestants throughout France should be proscribed and exterminated. The Protestants were compelled to unite in self-defense. They only asked for liberty to worship God according to their understanding of the teachings of the Bible. Henry, to conciliate the Catholics, was now compelled to yield to many of their claims which were exceedingly intolerant. He did this very unwillingly, for it was his desire to do every thing in his power to meliorate the condition of his Protestant friends. But, notwithstanding all the kind wishes of the king, the condition of the Protestants was still very deplorable. Public opinion was vehemently against them. The magistrates were every where their foes, and the courts of justice were closed against all their appeals. Petty persecution and tumultuary violence in a thousand forms annoyed them. During the year of Henry's coronation, a Protestant congregation in Chalaigneraie was assailed by a Catholic mob instigated by the Leaguers, and two hundred men, women, and children were massacred. A little boy eight years old, in the simplicity of his heart, offered eight coppers which he had in his pocket to ransom his life; but the merciless fanatics struck him down. Most of these outrages were committed with entire impunity. The king had even felt himself forced to take the oath, "I will endeavor with all my power, in good faith, to drive from my jurisdiction and estates all the heretics denounced by the Church."

The Protestants, finding themselves thus denounced as enemies, and being cut off from all ordinary privileges and from all common justice, decided, for mutual protection, vigorously to maintain their political organization. The king, though he feigned to be displeased, still encouraged them to do so. Though the Protestants were few in numbers, they were powerful in intelligence, rank, and energy; and in their emergencies, the strong arm of England was ever generously extended for their aid. The king was glad to avail himself of their strength to moderate the intolerant demands of the Leaguers. Many of the Protestants complained bitterly that the king had abandoned them. On the other hand, the haughty leaders of the League clamored loudly that the king was not a true son of the Church, and, in multiform conspiracies, they sought his death by assassination.

The Protestants held several large assemblies in which they discussed their affairs. They drew up an important document—an address to the king, entitled, "Complaints of the Reformed Churches of France." Many pages were filled with a narrative of the intolerable grievances they endured. This paper contained, in conclusion, the following noble words:

"And yet, sire, we have among us no Jacobins or Jesuits who wish for your life, or Leaguers who aspire to your crown. We have never presented, instead of petitions, the points of our swords. We are rewarded with considerations of state. It is not yet time, they say, to grant us an edict. And yet, after thirty-five years of persecution, ten years of banishment by the edicts of the League, eight years of the king's reign, four years of proscription, we are still under the necessity of imploring from your majesty an edict which shall allow us to enjoy what is common to all your subjects. The sole glory of God, the liberty of our consciences, the repose of the state, the security of our property and our lives—this is the summit of our wishes, and the end of our requests."