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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

Heir to a major political and territorial power

Although at his birth in 1553, he was only prince de Viane (Viana) and duc de Beaumont, Henri had been born into a family whose extensive holdings and titles made them the object of much attention on both sides of the Pyrenees.

His father, Antoine de Bourbon, belonged to a cadet branch of the House of Bourbon and was first prince of the blood. Under the provisions of the Salic Law, he was, after the four sons of Henri II, heir apparent to the French crown. This made him an important figure, and this honour reflected upon his offspring. It also provided him with positions at the very highest levels of government, such as a seat on the Conseil d'Etat. He also possessed vast tracts of land, most of them north of the Loire, to which were added those that came with the dowry of his first wife, Françoise d’Alençon.

The family of Henri's mother, Jeanne d’Albret, provided Henri with even more. Most of the holdings of this side of the family were in the south of France. In addition to Béarn and the kingdom of Navarre – which the Spanish conquest of 1512 had reduced to a small area around Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port – the Albret family were seigneurs of the countships of Foix, Gaure, Armagnac, Fezensac, Isle-Jourdain, Rodez and Périgord, of the duchy of Albret, of the viscountcies of Limoges, Tursan et Gabardan, Fezensaguet, Lomagne, Quatre-Vallées and Carlat, and finally of Bazadais and the cities of Tartas and Buch. This territorial ascendancy was matched by not inconsiderable political power. The head of the lineage was the king of Navarre, who was the sovereign viscount of Béarn (which had its own currency, language, institutions and laws) and, since 1528, lieutenant general of the king and admiral of Guyenne.

This explains the attention paid by the kings of France to this family and their eagerness to use strategic marriage alliances to forge close ties with the Albrets. Thus, François I married his beloved sister, Marguerite d’Angoulême, to Henri d’Albret in 1527. Their daughter Jeanne was obliged to marry Guillaume de Clèves in 1541. The marriage was annulled in 1545, and Henry II told Jeanne to choose between two suitors. She selected Antoine de Bourbon, whom she married in 1548. Henri de Navarre himself was subjected to the same treatment – in 1557, when he was only three, Henri II proposed an alliance between the boy and his daughter, Marguerite de Valois. What started as a joke came to pass in 1572. The geopolitical stakes were enormous, and the kings of France kept a close watch on the Albrets.

Related multimedia

Title: Henri IV as a child of four

Henri IV as a child of four
© RMN / Gérard Blot
Henri IV as a child of four, during a stay in Paris with his parents in 1557, oil on wood by François II Bunel. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, MV3282

Title: Marguerite de Valois (1553–1615) as a child

Marguerite de Valois (1553–1615) as a child
© RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
Marguerite de Valois (1553–1615) as a child, daughter of Henri II, painting by François Clouet, 1560. Musée Condé de Chantilly, PE255

Title: Map of the Kingdom of Navarre (Spain and France)

Map of the Kingdom of Navarre
© Archives départementales des Pyrénées-Atlantiques
Map of Navarre (Spain and France), Sanson d’Abbeville; J. Samer, engraver, 1652 (colour engraving). AD des Pyrénées-Atlantiques, 1 F i. 4/1.
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