Henry IV - John S. C. Abbott

Reign and Death of Henry IV


The reconciliation of the king with the Pope presented a favorable opportunity for the Duke of Mayenne, consistently with his pride, to abandon the hopeless conflict. He declared that, as the Pope had accepted the conversion of the king, all his scruples were removed, and that he could now conscientiously accept him as the sovereign of France. But the power of the haughty duke may be seen in the terms he exacted.

The king was compelled to declare, though he knew to the contrary, that, all things considered, it was evident that neither the princes nor the princesses of the League were at all implicated in the assassination of Henry III., and to stop all proceedings in Parliament in reference to that atrocious murder. Three fortified cities were surrendered to the duke, to be held by him and his partisans for six years, in pledge for the faithful observance of the terms of the capitulation. The king also assumed all the debts which Mayenne had contracted during the war, and granted a term of six weeks to all the Leaguers who were still in arms to give in their adhesion and to accept his clemency.

The king was at this time at Monceaux. The Duke of Mayenne hastened to meet him. He found Henry riding on horseback in the beautiful park of that place with the fair Gabrielle, and accompanied by the Duke of Sully. Mayenne, in compliance with the obsequious etiquette of those days, kneeled humbly before the king, embraced his knees, and, assuring him of his entire devotion for the future, thanked the monarch for having delivered him "from the arrogance of the Spaniards and from the cunning of the Italians."

Henry, who had a vein of waggery about him, immediately raised the duke, embraced him with the utmost cordiality, and, taking his arm, without any allusion whatever to their past difficulties, led him through the park, pointing out to him, with great volubility and cheerfulness, the improvements he was contemplating.

Henry was a well-built, vigorous man, and walked with great rapidity. Mayenne was excessively corpulent, and lame with the gout. With the utmost difficulty he kept up with the king, panting, limping, and his face blazing with the heat. Henry, with sly malice, for some time appeared not to notice the sufferings of his victim; then, with a concealed smile, he whispered to Sully,

"If I walk this great fat body much longer, I shall avenge myself without any further trouble." Then turning to Mayenne, he added, "Tell me the truth, cousin, do I not walk a little too fast for you?"

"Sire," exclaimed the puffing duke, "I am almost dead with fatigue."

"There's my hand," exclaimed the kind-hearted king, again cordially embracing the duke. "Take it, for, on my life, this is all the vengeance I shall ever seek."

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


There were still parts of the kingdom which held out against Henry, and Spain and Flanders freely supplied men and ammunition to the fragments of the League. Calais was in the hands of the enemy. Queen Elizabeth of England had ceased to take much interest in the conflict since the king had gone over to the Catholics. When Calais was besieged by the foe, before its surrender she offered to send her fleet for its protection if Henry would give the city to her. Henry tartly replied, "I had rather be plundered by my enemies than by my friends."

The queen was offended, sent no succor, and Calais passed into the hands of the Leaguers. The king was exceedingly distressed at the loss of this important town. It indicated new and rising energy on the part of his foes. The more fanatical Catholics all over the kingdom, who had never been more than half reconciled to Henry, were encouraged to think that, after all their defeats, resistance might still be successful. The heroic energies of the king were, however, not depressed by this great disaster. When its surrender was announced, turning to the gentlemen of his court, he calmly said,

"My friends, there is no remedy. Calais is taken, but we must not lose our courage. It is in the midst of disasters that bold men grow bolder. Our enemies have had their turn. With God's blessing, who has never abandoned me when I have prayed to him with my whole heart, we shall yet have ours. At any event, I am greatly comforted by the conviction that I have omitted nothing that was possible to save the city. All of its defenders have acquitted themselves loyally and nobly. Let us not reproach them. On the contrary, let us do honor to their generous defense. And now let us rouse our energies to retake the city, that it may remain in the hands of the Spaniards not so many days as our ancestors left it years in the hands of the English."

A large body of the nobles now combined to extort from the king some of the despotic feudal privileges which existed in the twelfth century. They thought that in this hour of reverse Henry would be glad to purchase their powerful support by surrendering many of the prerogatives of the crown. After holding a meeting, they appointed the Duke of Montpensier, who was very young and self-sufficient, to present their demands to the king. Their plan was this, that the king should consent to the division of France into several large departments, over each of which, as a vassal prince, some distinguished nobleman should reign, collecting his own revenues and maintaining his own army. Each of these vassal nobles was to be bound, when required, to furnish a military contingent to their liege lord the king.

Montpensier entered the presence of the monarch, and in a long discourse urged the insulting proposal. The king listened calmly, and without interrupting him, to the end. Then, in tones unimpassioned, but firm and deliberate, he replied,

"My cousin, you must be insane. Such language coming from you, and addressed to me, leads me to think that I am in a dream. Views so full of insult to the sovereign, and ruin to the state, can not have originated in your benevolent and upright mind. Think you that the people, having stripped me of the august prerogatives of royalty, would respect in you the rights of a prince of the blood? Did I believe that you, in heart, desired to see me thus humiliated, I would teach you that such an offense is not to be committed with impunity. My cousin, abandon these follies. Reveal not your accomplices, but reply to them that you yourself have such a horror of these propositions that you will hold him as a deadly enemy who shall ever speak to you of them again."

This firmness crushed the conspiracy; but still darkness and gloom seemed to rest upon unhappy France. The year 1596 was one of famine and of pestilence. "We had," says a writer of the times, "summer in April, autumn in May, and winter in June." In the city and in the country, thousands perished of starvation. Famishing multitudes crowded to the gates of the city in search of food, but in the city the plague had broken forth. The authorities drove the mendicants back into the country. They carried with them the awful pestilence in every direction. At the same time, several attempts were made to assassinate the king. Though he escaped the knife of the assassin, he came near losing his life by a singular accident.

The Princess of Navarre, sister of the king, had accompanied him, with the rest of the court, into Picardy. She was taken suddenly ill. The king called to see her, carrying in his arms his infant son, the idolized child of the fair Gabrielle. While standing by the bedside of his sister, from some unexplained cause, the flooring gave way beneath them. Henry instinctively sprang upon the bed with his child. Providentially, that portion of the floor remained firm, while all the rest was precipitated with a crash into the rooms below. Neither Henry, his sister, or his child sustained any injury.

The financial condition of the empire was in a state of utter ruin—a ruin so hopeless that the almost inconceivable story is told that the king actually suffered both for food and raiment. He at times made himself merry with his own ragged appearance. At one time he said gayly, when the Parliament sent the president, Seguier, to remonstrate against a fiscal edict,

"I only ask to be treated as they treat the monks, with food and clothing. Now, Mr. President, I often have not enough to eat. As for my habiliments, look and see how I am accoutred," and he pointed to his faded and thread-bare doublet.

Le Grain, a contemporary, writes, "I have seen the king with a plain doublet of white stuff, all soiled by his cuirass and torn at the sleeve, and with well-worn breeches, unsewn on the side of the sword-belt."

While the king was thus destitute, the members of the council of finance were practicing gross extortion, and living in extravagance. The king was naturally light-hearted and gay, but the deplorable condition of the kingdom occasionally plunged him into the deepest of melancholy. A lady of the court one day remarked to him that he looked sad.

"Indeed," he replied, "how can I be otherwise, to see a people so ungrateful toward their king? Though I have done and still do all I can for them, and though for their welfare I would willingly sacrifice a thousand lives had God given me so many, as I have often proved, yet they daily attempt my life."

The council insisted that it was not safe for the king to leave so many of the Leaguers in the city, and urged their banishment. The king refused, saying,

"They are all my subjects, and I wish to love them equally."

The king now resolved, notwithstanding strong opposition from the Catholics, to place his illustrious Protestant friend, Sully, at the head of the ministry of finance. Sully entered upon his Herculean task with shrewdness which no cunning could baffle, and with integrity which no threat or bribe could bias. All the energies of calumny, malice, and violence were exhausted upon him, but this majestic man moved straight on, heedless of the storm, till he caused order to emerge from apparently inextricable confusion, and, by just and healthy measures, replenished the bankrupt treasury of the state.

The king was now pushing the siege of Amiens, which had for some time been in the hands of his enemies. During this time he wrote to his devoted friend and faithful minister of finance,

"I am very near the enemy, yet I have scarcely a horse upon which I can fight, or a suit of armor to put on. My doublet is in holes at the elbows. My kettle is often empty. For these two last days I have dined with one and another as I could. My purveyors inform me that they have no longer the means of supplying my table."

On the twenty-fifth of June, 1597, Amiens capitulated.

One of the kings of England is said to have remarked to his son, who was eager to ascend the throne, "Thou little knowest, my child, what a heap of cares and sorrows thou graspest at." History does, indeed, prove that "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." New perplexities now burst upon the king. The Protestants, many of them irritated by his conversion, and by the tardy and insufficient concessions they received, violently demanded entire equality with the Catholics. This demand led to the famous Edict of Nantes. This ordinance, which receives its name from the place where it was published, was issued in the month of April, 1598. It granted to the Protestants full private liberty of conscience. It also permitted them to enjoy public worship in all places where the right was already established. Protestant lords of the highest rank could celebrate divine service in their castles with any number of their retainers. Nobles of the second rank might maintain private worship in their mansions, to which thirty persons could be admitted. Protestants were pronounced to be eligible to public office. Their children were to be admitted to the schools, their sick to the hospitals, and their poor to a share of the public charities. In a few specified places they were permitted to print books. Such, in the main, was the celebrated "Edict of Nantes."

The Catholics considered this an enormous and atrocious concession to deadly heresy. New clamors blazed forth against Henry, as in heart false to the Church. The Catholic clergy, in one combined voice, protested against it, and Pope Clement VIII. declared the Edict of Nantes, which permitted liberty of conscience to every one, the most execrable that was ever made.

It has required centuries of blood and woe to teach even a few individuals the true principles of religious liberty. Even in Protestant lands, the masses of the people have not yet fully learned that lesson. All over Catholic Europe, and all through the realms of paganism, intolerance still sways her cruel and bloody sceptre. These miserable religious wars in France, the birth of ignorance, fanaticism, and depravity, for seventy years polluted the state with gory scaffolds and blazing stakes. Three thousand millions of dollars were expended in the senseless strife, and two millions of lives were thrown away. At the close of the war, one half of the towns and the majestic castles of beautiful France were but heaps of smouldering ruins. All industry was paralyzed. The fields were abandoned to weeds and barrenness. The heart and the mind of the whole nation was thoroughly demoralized. Poverty, emaciation, and a semi-barbarism deformed the whole kingdom.

Neither the Catholics nor Protestants were satisfied with the Edict of Nantes. The Parliament of Paris, composed almost entirely of Catholics, for a long time refused its ratification. Henry called the courts before him, and insisted with kindness, but with firmness, that the edict should be verified.

"Gentlemen," said he, in the long speech which he made upon the occasion, "there must be no more distinction between Catholics and Protestants. All must be good Frenchmen. Let the Catholics convert the Protestants by the example of a good life. I am a shepherd-king, who will not shed the blood of his sheep, but who will seek to bring them all with kindness into the same fold."

The Catholic Parliament, thus constrained, finally adopted the edict. The Protestants also, perceiving clearly that this was the best that the king could do for them, after long discussion in their Consistory, which was, in reality, their Parliament, finally gave in their adhesion. The adjoining hostile powers, having no longer a party in France to join them, were thus disarmed. They sent embassadors to promote peace. Friendly treaties were speedily formed, and Henry was the undisputed monarch of a kingdom in repose.

Henry now commenced, with great energy, the promotion of the prosperity of his exhausted kingdom. To check the warlike spirit which had so long been dominant, he forbade any of his subjects, except his guards, to carry arms. The army was immediately greatly reduced, and public expenditures so diminished as materially to lighten the weight of taxation. Many of the nobles claimed exemption from the tax, but Henry was inflexible that the public burden should be borne equally by all. The people, enjoying the long unknown blessings of peace, became enthusiastically grateful to their illustrious benefactor.

In the month of October, 1598, the king was taken dangerously ill. The whole nation was in a panic. The touching demonstrations which Henry then received of the universal love and homage of his subjects affected him deeply. But few men find enough happiness in this world to lead them to cling very tenaciously to life when apparently on a dying bed. Henry at this time said to his attendants,

"I have no fear of death. I do not shrink at all from the great journey to the spirit land. But I greatly regret being removed from my beloved country before I have restored it to complete prosperity."

Happily, the fever was subdued, and he again, with indefatigable diligence, resumed his labors. To discourage the extravagance of the nobles, he set the example of extreme economy in all his personal expenses. He indulged in no gaudy equipage, his table was very frugally served, and his dress was simple in the extreme. No man in the kingdom devoted more hours to labor. He met his council daily, and in all their conferences exhibited a degree of information, shrewdness, and of comprehensive statesmanship which astonished the most experienced politicians who surrounded him.

It was a fierce battle which the king and his minister were compelled to fight for many years against the haughty nobles, who had ever regarded the mass of the people but as beasts of burden, made to contribute to their pleasure. The demands of these proud aristocrats were incessant and inexorable. It is a singular fact that, among them all, there was not a more thorough-going aristocrat than Sully himself. He had a perfect contempt for the people as to any power of self-government. They were, in his view, but sheep, to be carefully protected by a kind shepherd. It was as absurd, he thought, to consult them, as it would be for a shepherd to ask the advice of his flock. But Sully wished to take good care of the people, to shield them from all unequal burdens, from all aristocratic usurpations, and to protect them with inflexible justice in person and in property. His government was absolute in the extreme.

The Marchioness of Verneuil, in a towering rage, bitterly reproached the duke for preventing her from receiving a monopoly from the king, which would have secured to her an income of some five hundred thousand dollars a year.

"Truly the king will be a great fool," exclaimed the enraged marchioness, "if he continues to follow your advice, and thus alienates so many distinguished families. On whom, pray, should the king confer favors, if not on his relatives and his influential friends?"

"What you say," replied the unbending minister, "would be reasonable enough if his majesty took the money all out of his own purse. But to assess a new tax upon the merchants, artisans, laborers, and country people will never do. It is by them that the king and all of us are supported, and it is enough that they provide for a master, without having to maintain his cousins and friends."

For twelve years Henry, with his illustrious minister, labored with unintermitted zeal for the good of France. His love of France was an ever-glowing and growing passion for which every thing was to be surrendered. Henry was great in all respects but one. He was a slave to the passion of love. "And no one," says Napoleon, "can surrender himself to the passion of love without forfeiting some palms of glory." This great frailty has left a stain upon his reputation which truth must not conceal, which the genius of history with sorrow regards, and which can never be effaced. He was a great statesman. His heart was warm and generous. His philanthropy was noble and all-embracing, and his devotion to the best welfare of France was sincere and intense. Witness the following memorable prayer as he was just entering upon a great battle:

"O Lord, if thou meanest this day to punish me for my sins, I bow my head to the stroke of thy justice. Spare not the guilty. But, Lord, by thy holy mercy, have pity on this poor realm, and strike not the flock for the fault of the shepherd."

"If God," said he at another time, "shall grant me the ordinary term of human life, I hope to see France in such a condition that every peasant shall be able to have a fowl in the pot on Sunday."

This memorable saying shows both the benevolence of the king and the exceeding poverty, at that time, of the peasantry of France. Sully, in speaking of the corruption which had prevailed and of the measures of reform introduced, says,

"The revenue annually paid into the royal treasury was thirty millions. It could not be, I thought, that such a sum could reduce the kingdom of France so low. I resolved to enter upon the immense investigation. To my horror, I found that for these thirty millions given to his majesty there were extorted from the purses of his subjects, I almost blush to say, one hundred and fifty millions. After this I was no longer ignorant whence the misery of the people proceeded. I applied my cares to the authors of this oppression, who were the governors and other officers of the army, who all, even to the meanest, abused, in an enormous manner, their authority over the people. I immediately caused a decree to be issued, by which they were prohibited, under great penalties, to exact any thing from the people, under any title whatever, without a warrant in form."

The king co-operated cordially with his minister in these rigorous acts of reform, and shielded him with all the power of the monarchy from the storm of obloquy which these measures drew down upon him. The proud Duke of Epernon, exasperated beyond control, grossly insulted Sully. Henry immediately wrote to his minister, "If Epernon challenges you, I will be your second."

The amiable, but sinning and consequently wretched Gabrielle was now importunate for the divorce, that she might be lawfully married to the king. But the children already born could not be legitimated, and Sully so clearly unfolded to the king the confusion which would thus be introduced, and the certainty that, in consequence of it, a disputed succession would deluge France in blood, that the king, ardently as he loved Gabrielle, was compelled to abandon the plan. Gabrielle was inconsolable, and inveighed bitterly against Sully. The king for a moment forgot himself, and cruelly retorted,

"Know, woman, that a minister like Sully must be dearer to me than even such a friend as you."

This harshness broke the heart of the unhappy Gabrielle. She immediately left Fontainebleau, where she was at that time with the king, and retired to Paris, saying, as she bade Henry adieu, "We shall never meet again." Her words proved true. On reaching Paris she was seized with convulsions, gave birth to a lifeless child, and died. Poor Gabrielle! Let compassion drop a tear over her grave! She was by nature one of the most lovely and noble of women. She lived in a day of darkness and of almost universal corruption. Yielding to the temptation of a heroic monarch's love, she fell, and a subsequent life of sorrow was terminated by an awful death, probably caused by poison.

Henry, as soon as informed of her sickness, mounted his horse to gallop to Paris. He had proceeded but half way when he was met by a courier who informed him that Gabrielle was dead. The dreadful blow staggered the king, and he would have fallen from his horse had he not been supported by his attendants. He retired to Fontainebleau, shut himself up from all society, and surrendered himself to the most bitter grief. Sully in vain endeavored to console him. It was long before he could turn his mind to any business. But there is no pain whose anguish time will not diminish. New cares and new loves at length engrossed the heart where Gabrielle had for a few brief years so supremely reigned.

The utterly profligate Marguerite, now that Gabrielle was dead, whom she of course hated, was perfectly willing to assent to a divorce. While arrangements were making to accomplish this end, the king chanced to meet a fascinating, yet pert and heartless coquette, Henriette d'Entragues, daughter of Francis Balzac, Lord of Entragues. Though exceedingly beautiful, she was a calculating, soulless girl, who was glad of a chance to sell herself for rank and money. She thus readily bartered her beauty to the king, exacting, with the most cool financiering, as the price, a written promise that he would marry her as soon as he should obtain a divorce from Marguerite of Valois, upon condition that she, within the year, should bear him a son.

The king, having written the promise, placed it in the hands of Sully. The bold minister read it, then tore it into fragments. The king, amazed at such boldness, exclaimed in a passion, "Sir, I believe that you are mad."

"True, sire, I am," replied Sully; "but would to God that I were the only madman in France."

But Henry, notwithstanding his anger, could not part from a minister whose services were so invaluable. He immediately drew up another promise, which he placed in the hands of the despicable beauty. This rash and guilty pledge was subsequently the cause of great trouble to the king.

Henry having obtained a divorce, the nation demanded that he should form a connection which should produce a suitable heir to inherit the throne. Thus urged, and as Henrietta did not give birth to the wished-for son, Henry reluctantly married, in the year 1600, Maria of Medici, niece of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Maria was a domineering, crafty, ambitious woman, who embittered the life of the king. She was very jealous, and with reason enough, of the continued influence of Henrietta; and the palace was the scene of disgraceful domestic broils. Henry, in one of his letters to Sully, describes the queen as "terribly robust and healthy." But when she gave birth to a son who was undeniably heir to the throne, thus allaying the fears of a disputed succession, the whole nation rejoiced, and Henry became somewhat reconciled to his unattractive spouse. The king was exceedingly fond of this child. One day the Spanish embassador, a dignified Castilian, was rather suddenly ushered into the royal presence at Fontainebleau. The monarch was on all fours on the floor, running about the room with the little dauphin on his back. Raising his eyes, he said to the embassador,

"Are you a father?"

"Yes, sire," was the reply.

"Then I may finish my play," said Henry, and he took another trot around the room.

Henrietta and her relatives were greatly exasperated that the king did not fulfill his promise of marriage. The father and daughter, joined by the Count d'Auvergne, plotted against the king's life. They were arrested and condemned to death. The king, however, transmuted their punishment to exile.

One of the grandest schemes of Henry deserves particular mention. Reflecting deeply upon the wars with which Europe had ever been desolated, and seeing the occasion for this in the innumerable states and nations into which Europe was divided, of various degrees of power, and each struggling for its own selfish interest, he proposed to unite all the states of Europe in one vast Christian Republic. The whole continent was to be divided into fifteen states, as uniform in size and power as possible. These states were to be, according to their choice, monarchical or republican. They were to be associated on a plan somewhat resembling that of the United States of America.

Nothing can more conclusively show the entire absence of correct notions of religious toleration prevailing at that day than the plan proposed to prevent religious quarrels. Wherever any one form of faith predominated, that was to be maintained as the national faith. In Catholic states, there were to be no Protestants; in Protestant states, no Catholics. The minority, however, were not to be exterminated; they were only to be compelled to emigrate to the countries where their own form of faith prevailed. All pagans and Mohammedans were to be driven out of Europe into Asia. To enforce this change, an army of two hundred and seventy thousand infantry, fifty thousand cavalry, two hundred cannon, and one hundred and twenty ships of war, was deemed amply sufficient.

The first step was to secure the co-operation of two or three of the most powerful kings of Europe. This would render success almost certain. Sully examined the plan with the utmost care in all its details. Henry wished first to secure the approval of England, Sweden, and Denmark.

But, in the midst of these schemes of grandeur, Henry was struck down by the hand of an assassin. On the fourteenth of May, 1610, the king left the Louvre at four o'clock in the afternoon to visit Sully, who was sick. Preparations were making for the public entry of the queen, who, after a long delay, had just been crowned. The city was thronged; the day was fine, and the curtains of the coach were drawn up. Several nobles were in the spacious carriage with the king. As the coach was turning out of the street Honore into the narrow street Ferronnerie, it was stopped by two carts which blocked up the way. Just at that instant a man from the crowd sprang upon a spoke of the wheel, and struck a dagger into the king just above the heart. Instantly repeating the blow, the heart was pierced. Blood gushed from the wound and from the mouth of the king, and, without uttering a word, he sank dead in the arms of his friends.

The wretched assassin, a fanatic monk, was immediately seized by the guard. With difficulty they protected him from being torn to pieces by the infuriated people. His name was Francis Ravaillac. According to the savage custom of the times, he was subsequently put to death with the most frightful tortures.

The lifeless body of the king was immediately taken to the Tuileries and placed upon a bed. Surgeons and physicians hurried to the room only to gaze upon his corpse. No language can depict the grief and despair of France at his death. He had won the love of the whole nation, and, to the present day, no one hears the name of Henry the Fourth mentioned in France but with affection. He was truly the father of his people. All conditions, employments, and professions were embraced in his comprehensive regard. He spared no toil to make France a happy land. He was a man of genius and of instinctive magnanimity. In conversation he had no rival. His profound and witty sayings which have been transmitted to us are sufficient to form a volume. His one great and almost only fault sadly tarnishes his otherwise fair and honorable fame.

In Henry commenced the reign of the house of Bourbon. For nearly two hundred years the family retained the crown. It is now expelled, and the members are wandering in exile through foreign lands.

There is one great truth which this narrative enforces: it is the doctrine of freedom of conscience. It was the denial of this simple truth which deluged France in blood and woe. The recognition of this one sentiment would have saved for France hundreds of thousands of lives, and millions of treasure. Let us take warning. We need it.

Let us emblazon upon our banner the noble words, "Toleration—perfect civil and religious toleration." But Toleration is not a slave. It is a spirit of light and of liberty. It has much to give, but it has just as much to demand. It bears the olive-branch in one hand, and the gleaming sword in the other. I grant to you, it says, perfect liberty of opinion and of expression, and I demand of you the same.

Let us then inscribe upon the arch which spans our glorious Union, making us one in its celestial embrace, "Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and free men."

Then shall that arch beam upon us like God's bow of promise in the cloud, proclaiming that this land shall never be deluged by the surges of civil war—that it never shall be inundated by flames and blood.

The human mind is now so roused that it will have this liberty; and if there are any institutions of religion or of civil law which can not stand this scrutiny, they are doomed to die. The human mind will move with untrammeled sweep through the whole range of religious doctrine, and around the whole circumference and into the very centre of all political assumptions.

If the Catholic bishop have a word to say, let him say it. If some one, rising in the spirit and power of Martin Luther, has a reply to make, let him make it. Those who wish to listen to the one or the other, let them do so. Those who wish to close their ears, let them have their way.

Our country is one. Our liberty is national. Let us then grant toleration every where throughout our wide domain, in Maine and in Georgia, amid the forests of the Aroostook and upon the plains of Kansas.