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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

An assassination, and a king transfigured

The assassination of Henri IV on 14 May 1610 came at a time when Henri's image was compromised by tax increases, preparations for war against Catholic powers, and the king's very active love life. And yet, paradoxically, the shock of Ravaillac's gesture freed Henri from his own unpopularity. As Jean-Pierre Babelon has pointed out, a veritable transfiguration took place, one that ensured the king's long-term popularity, as if he had been born a second time. Grief and fear of the unknown impelled the French to rethink their opinion of their king, and to suddenly recall his qualities.

The poems, harangues and speeches written in the wake of his assassination were shot through with a desire to honour the virtuous ruler. Every one of them, like the Vers sur le Trespas de Henry Le Grand (published in 1611), emphasised the suffering, the work and above all the heroic dimension of Henri IV, "this great and powerful King, to whom the friendly gods had one day, of all the Universe, promised the Empire […]." Catherine de Parthenay, a Calvinist poet and playwright, lamented the death of the king, although she had criticised him for having abjured Protestantism: "Alas! Since he has, it is true, ceased to live / This glorious prince, loved by his subjects / At least let nothing hold back the flow of our regret / Either let us live on to mourn him, or die in order to follow him."

The funeral orations that were given in both Catholic and Protestant churches during the obsequies – and up until the anniversary of the assassination in 1611 – also provided an occasion to pronounce panegyrics for Henri IV. He was described as a new Christ, a new David, the successor to the Biblical kings, as well as a hero of battles, a knight and a "Very Christian" king. "In losing a King, we have been given a Saint as we had hoped," wrote Father Binet in one such eulogy. These orations were a crucible in which were formed the legend and the myth, which would perpetuate down through succeeding generations the image of a heroic sovereign who brought peace to his kingdom.

Related multimedia

Title: Vers sur le Trépas de Henry le Grand

Vers sur le Trépas de Henry le Grand
© Archives départementales de la Loire
Vers sur le Trépas de Henry le Grand, 1611

Title: Le pourtraict du défunct Roy Henry IIII sur son lit de deuil

Portrait of Henri IV on his deathbed
© Musée national du château de Pau / Jean-Yves Chermeux
The Portrait of the deceased King Henri IIII, King of France on his deathbed, gravure, 1610. Musée national du château de Pau, P.64-5-2

Title: France in mourning (frontispiece)

France in mourning (frontispiece)
France in mourning (frontispiece), P. de Lostal, Navarre in mourning, Rouen, 1611, cat. no. 68, AD des Pyrénées-Atlantiques, U. 3005/2R
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