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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

The "fashion" of regicide

Section 1/2

In the late 16th and early 17th century, Europe and France experienced what Janine Garrisson has called the "fashion" of regicide and, more generally, of political assassination. Ravaillac was, after all, only the last link in a long chain of murderers. In 1563, the Huguenot Poltrot de Méré had assassinated François de Guise , the military leader of the Catholics during the first War of Religion. In 1584, William the Silent, the Stadtholder of Holland who led the revolt that resulted in the independence of the United Provinces, met the same fate. In December 1588, Henri III , Henri IV's predecessor, ordered the killing of the Guise brothers to free himself of their influence, before he was in turn killed by the monk Jacques Clément. Finally, in England there was the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which the Catholic Guy Fawkes attempted to kill James I and blow up the House of Lords.

When he finally acceded to the throne, Henri IV experienced a number of assassination attempts. According to Jean-Claude Cuignet, there were no less than twenty-five such attempts in various stages of preparation! Henri appeared to have understood this quite early. Well before becoming king of France, when he was prisoner of the French court after the St Bartholomew's Day massacre, he wrote a letter to Jean de Miossens, his governor in Béarn. In it, he confided his fears: "The court is the strangest that you have ever seen. We are nearly always ready to slit each other's throats […]. I am waiting for the moment to put up a fight, because they say that they will kill me, and I want to get the jump on them […]" (letter dated 2 January 1576). Later, at Nérac in March 1588, he discovered a plot against his life, and wrote to Corisande : "I uncovered a killer who was after me."

Related multimedia

Title: Assassination of Henri III by Jacques Clément

Assassination of Henri III by Jacques Clément
© Musée national du château de Pau / Jean-Yves Chermeux
Caption:
Assassination of Henri III by Jacques Clément, 2 August 1589. Henri III confirms Henri de Navarre as his successor. Execution of Jacques Clément, engraving by Frans Hogenberg, late 16th c. Musée national du château de Pau, P 67.44.2

Title: Assassination of Henri III

Assassination of Henri III
© Musée du château royal de Blois / François Lauginie 2008
Caption:
Assassination of Henri III, by Merle, oil on canvas, Blois, Musée national du château, Inv. D.89.5.1.

Title: The dying Henri III transfers the kingdom to Henri de Navarre

The dying Henri III transfers the kingdom to Henri de Navarre
© RMN / Gérard Blot
Caption:
The dying Henri III transfers the kingdom to Henri de Navarre, tapestry. Musée national de la Renaissance d’Écouen

Title: Henri III on his death bed

Henri III on his death bed
© RMN / Daniel Arnaudet
Caption:
Henri III on his death bed, by Joseph Baume, 19th c. Musée du Louvre

Section 2/2

Matters became more serious once Henri IV was on the throne. In his twenty-one-year reign, the chroniclers recorded only seven years in which there was no assassination attempt. During the rest of the time, his life was punctuated with the discovery of plots against his life. Some were outlandish, like the one dreamed up by a man from the province of Bigorre named Piedefort, who had planned to kill the king with a homemade miniature crossbow and garrotte. Other plots were more serious and came much closer to succeeding. Before Ravaillac, one man got sufficiently close to the king to kill him.

He was Jean Châtel, the Jesuit-educated son of a wealthy Parisian clothier. In December 1594, the young man, aged nineteen, managed to slip into the king's retinue as the sovereign, who had just returned from a military campaign in Picardy, was greeting his mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées . As Henri bowed to greet a courtesan, Châtel struck him in the neck. The blade, which should have pierced the throat, was turned aside by the king's neckpiece. Henri suffered only a cut lip and a broken tooth, but it was a close call, and it drew blood. Henri immediately ordered a circular to be published in which he reassured his subjects about this "unhappy incident", and asked them to ask for God's grace so that "it shall please him to keep [the king] forever under his holy protection against such assassination attempts, to which [his] enemies make frequent recourse […]. This was a moving display of vulnerability, even though Châtel, who was caught red-handed, suffered the same punishment meted out to all regicides at the Place de Grève on 29 December 1594.

Related multimedia

Title: Portraits of Henri III and Henri IV

Portraits of Henri III and Henri IV
© BnF
Caption:
Portraits of Henri III and Henri IV, 1593 (Hennin n° 912). Département des estampes et de la photographie

Title: The attempted assassination and the torture of Châtel

The attempted assassination and the torture of Châtel
© RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
Caption:
The attempted assassination and the torture of Châtel, 27 December 1594. Assassination attempt on the life of Henri IV by Châtel, former student of the Jesuits, engraving by Frans Hogenberg, 16th c. Musée national du château de Pau, P67-48-49

Title: Attempt to assassinate king Henri IV

Paris, engraving, 1605
© Archives départementales de Tarn-et-Garonne
Caption:
Attempt to assassinate king Henri IV, 1605, engraving. Cote: F. Serr IX/10/1
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