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Henry IV. Of France

      Henry IV., the most celebrated, the most beloved, and perhaps, in spite of his many faults, the best of the French monarchs, was born at Pau, the capital of Bearn, in 1553. His parents were Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome, and in right of his wife, titular king of Navarre, and Jeanne d'Albert, the heiress of that kingdom. On the paternal side he traced his descent to Robert of Clermont, fifth son of Louis IX., and thus, on the failure of the elder branches, became heir to the crown of France. Educated by a Protestant mother in the Protestant faith, he was for many years the rallying point and leader of the Huguenots. In boyhood the prince of Bearn displayed sense and spirit above his years. Early inured to war, he was present and exhibited strong proofs of military talent at the battle of Jarnac, and that of Moncontour, both fought in 1569. In the same year he was declared chief of the Protestant League.

      The treaty of St. Germain, concluded in 1570, guaranteed to the Huguenots the civil rights for which they had been striving; and, in appearance, to cement the union of the two parties, a marriage was proposed between Henry, who, by the death of his mother, had just succeeded to the throne of Navarre, and Margaret of Valois, sister of Charles IX. This match brought Conde, Coligni, and all the leaders of their party, to Paris. The ceremony took place August 17, 1572, and a week later came the massacre of St. Bartholomew. For three years afterward Henry, who to save his life had conformed to the established religion, was kept as a kind of state-prisoner. He escaped in 1576, and put himself at the head of the Huguenot party. In the war which ensued, with the sagacity and fiery courage of the high-born general, he showed the indifference to hardships of the meanest soldier. Content with the worst fare and meanest lodging, in future times the magnificent monarch of France could recollect when his wardrobe could not furnish him with a change of linen. He shared all fortunes with his followers, and was rewarded by their unbounded devotion.

      Upon the extinction of the house of Valois, by the assassination of Henry III. in 1589, Henry of Navarre became the rightful owner of the French throne. But his religion interfered with his claims. The League was strong in force against him: he had few friends, few fortresses, no money, and a small army. But his courage and activity made up for the scantiness of his resources. With five thousand men he withstood the Duc de Mayenne, who was pursuing him with twenty-five thousand, and gained the battle of Arques, in spite of the disparity. This extraordinary result may probably be ascribed in great measure to the contrast of personal character in the two generals. Mayenne was slow and indolent. Of Henry it was said, that he lost less time in bed than Mayenne lost at table; and that he wore out very little broad-cloth, but a great deal of boot-leather. A person was once extolling the skill and courage of Mayenne in Henry's presence. "You are right," said Henry, "he is a great captain, but I have always five hours' start of him." Henry got up at four in the morning, and Mayenne about ten.

Henry IV. of France at home.

      The battle of Arques was fought in the year of his accession. In the following year, 1590, he gained a splendid victory at Ivri, over the Leaguers commanded by Mayenne, and a Spanish army superior in numbers. On this occasion he made that celebrated speech to his soldiers before the battle: "If you lose sight of your standards, rally round my white plume; you will always find it in the path of honor and glory." Nor is his exclamation to his victorious troops less worthy of record: "Spare the French!"

      Paris was soon blockaded, but the Parliament swore on the Gospels, in the presence of the Legate and the Spanish Ambassador, to refuse all proposals of accommodation. The siege was pushed to such extremities, and the famine became so cruel, that bread was made of human bones ground to powder. That Henry did not then master the capital, where two hundred thousand men were maddened with want, was owing to his own lenity. He declared that he had rather lose Paris, than gain possession of it by the death of so many persons. He gave a free passage through his lines to all who were not soldiers, and allowed his own troops to send in refreshments to their friends. By this paternal kindness he lost the fruit of his labors to himself; but he also prolonged the civil war, and the calamities of the kingdom at large.

      The approach of the Duke of Parma with a Spanish army obliged Henry to raise the siege of Paris. It was not the policy of the Spanish court to render the Leaguers independent of its assistance, and the duke, satisfied with having relieved the metropolis, avoided an engagement, and returned to his government in the Low Countries, followed by Henry as far as the frontiers of Picardy. In 1591 Henry received succors from England and Germany, and laid siege to Rouen; but his prey was again snatched from him by the Duke of Parma. Again battle was offered and declined; and the retiring army passed the Seine in the night on a bridge of boats; a retreat the more glorious, as Henry believed it to be impossible. The duke once said of his adversary, that other generals made war like lions or wild boars; but that Henry hovered over it like an eagle.

      During the siege of Paris, some conferences had been held between the chiefs of the two parties, which ended in a kind of accommodation. The Catholics of the king's party began to complain of his perseverance in Calvinism; and some influential men who were of the latter persuasion, especially his confidential friend and minister Rosny, represented to him the necessity of a change. Even some of the reformed ministers softened the difficulty, by acknowledging salvation to be possible in the Roman Church. In 1593 the ceremony of abjuration was performed at St. Denis, in presence of a multitude of the Parisians. If, as we cannot but suppose, the monarch's conversion was owing to political motives, the apostacy must be answered for at a higher than any human tribunal; politically viewed, it was perhaps one of the most beneficial steps ever taken toward the pacification and renewal of prosperity of a great kingdom. In the same year he was crowned at Chartres, and in 1594 Paris opened her gates to him. He had just been received into the capital, where he was conspicuously manifesting his beneficence and zeal for the public good, when he was wounded in the throat by John Chatel, a young fanatic. When the assassin was questioned, he avowed the doctrine of tyrannicide, and quoted the sermons of the Jesuits in his justification. That society therefore was banished by the Parliament.

      For two years after his ostensible conversion, the king was obliged daily to perform the most humiliating ceremonies, by way of penance; and it was not till 1594 that he was absolved by Clement VIII. The Leaguers then had no further pretext for rebellion, and the League necessarily was dissolved. Its chiefs exacted high terms for their submission; but the civil wars had so exhausted the kingdom, that tranquillity could not be too dearly purchased; and Henry was faithful to all his promises, even after his authority was so firmly established, that he might have broken his word with safety to all but his own conscience and honor. Although the obligations which he had to discharge were most burdensome, he found means to relieve his people, and make his kingdom prosper. The Duke de Mayenne, in Burgundy, and the Duke de Mercoeur in Brittany, were the last to protract an unavailing resistance; but the former was reduced in 1596, and the latter in 1598, and thenceforth France enjoyed almost uninterrupted peace till Henry's death. But the Protestants gave him almost as much uneasiness as the Catholic Leaguers. He had granted liberty of conscience to the former; a measure which was admitted to be necessary by the prudent even among the latter. Nevertheless, either from vexation at his having abjured their religion, from the violence of party zeal, or disgust at being no longer the objects of royal preference, the Calvinists preferred their demands in so seditious a tone, as stopped little short of a rebellious one. While on the road to Brittany, he determined to avoid greater evils by timely compromise. The edict of Nantes was then promulgated, authorizing the public exercise of their religion in several towns, granting them the right of holding offices, putting them in possession of certain places for eight years, as pledges for their security, and establishing salaries for their ministers. The clergy and preachers demurred, but to no purpose; the Parliament ceased to resist the arguments of the Prince, when he represented to them as magistrates, that the peace of the state and the prosperity of the Church must be inseparable. At the same time he endeavored to convince the bigots among the priesthood on both sides, that the love of country and the performance of civil and political duties may be completely reconciled with difference of worship.

      But it would be unjust to attribute these enlightened views to Henry, without noticing that he had a friend as well as minister in Rosny, best known as the Duke de Sully, who probably suggested many of his wisest measures, and at all events superintended their execution, and did his best to prevent or retrieve his sovereign's errors by uncompromising honesty of advice and remonstrance. The allurements of pleasure were powerful over the enthusiastic and impassioned temperament of Henry; it was love that most frequently prevailed over the claims of duty. The beautiful Gabrielle d'Estrees became the absolute mistress of his heart; and he entertained hopes of obtaining permission from Rome to divorce Margaret de Valois, from whom he had long lived in a state of separation. Had he succeeded time enough, he contemplated the dangerous project of marrying the favorite; but her death saved him both from the hazard and disgrace. The sentence of divorce, so long solicited, was at last granted, and the king married Mary de Medici, who bore Louis XIII. to him in 1601. The match, however, contributed little to his domestic happiness.

      While France was flourishing under a vigilant and paternal administration, while her strength was beginning to keep pace with her internal happiness, new conspiracies were incessantly formed against the king. Henriette d'Entragues, another favorite, not only exasperated the Queen's peevish humor against him, but was ungrateful enough to combine with her father, the Count d'Auvergne, and the Spanish Court, in a plot which was timely discovered. Spite of the many virtues and conciliatory manners of Henry, the fanatics could never pardon his former attachment to the Protestant cause. He was continually surrounded with traitors and assassins; almost every year produced some attempt on his life, and he fell at last by the weapon of a misguided enthusiast.

      Shortly before his untimely end, Henry is said by some historians to have disclosed a project for forming a Christian republic. The proposal is stated to have been, to divide Europe into fifteen fixed powers, none of which should be allowed to make any new acquisition, but should together form an association for maintaining a mutual balance, and preserving peace. This political reverie, impossible to be realized, is not likely ever to have been actually divulged, even if meditated by Henry, nor is there any trace of it to be found in the history, or among the state-papers of England, Venice, or Holland, the supposed co-operators in the scheme. His more rational design in arming went no further than to set bounds to the ambition and power of the house of Austria, both in Germany and Italy. Whatever may have been the motive, his means of success were imposing. He was to march into Germany at the head of forty thousand excellent troops. The army, provisions, and every other necessary were in readiness. Money no longer failed; Sully had laid up forty millions of livres in the treasury, which were destined for this war.

      His alliances were already assured, his generals had been formed by himself, and all seemed to forebode such a storm as must probably have overwhelmed an emperor devoted to the search after the philosopher's stone, and a king of Spain under the dominion of the Inquisition. Henry was impatient to join his army; but his mind had become harassed with sinister forebodings, and his chagrin was increased by a temporary alienation from his faithful minister. He was on his way to pay a visit of reconciliation to Sully, when his coach was entangled as it passed along the street. His attendants left the carriage to remove the obstruction, and during the delay thus caused he was stabbed to the heart by Francis Ravaillac, a native of Angouleme. This calamitous event took place on May 14, 1610, in the fifty-seventh year of his age. The Spaniards, who had the strongest interest in the catastrophe, were supposed to have been the instigators; but the fear of implicating other powers, and plunging France into greater evils than those from which their hero had rescued them, deterred not only statesmen, but even the judges on Ravaillac's trial, from pressing for the names of accomplices. Hardouin de Perefixe, in his "History of Henry the Great," says, "If it be asked who inspired the monster with the thought, history answers that she does not know; and that in so mysterious an affair, it is not allowable to vent suspicions and conjectures as assured truths; that even the judges who conducted the examinations opened not their mouths, and spoke only with their shoulders."

      The assertions of Ravaillac, as far as they have any weight, discountenance the belief of an extended political conspiracy. The house of Austria, Mary de Medici his wife, Henriette d'Entragues his mistress, as well as the Duke d'Epernon, have been subjected to the hateful conjectures of Mazarin and other historians; but he who actually struck the blow invariably affirmed that he had no accomplice, and that he was carried forward by an uncontrollable instinct. If his mind were at all acted on from without, it was probably by the epidemic fanaticism of the times, rather than by personal influence.

      Henry left three sons and three daughters by Mary de Medici. Of no prince recorded in history, probably, are so many personal anecdotes related, as of Henry IV. These are for the most part well known, and of easy access. Among them stands out prominently the tale of the Spanish ambassador who to his astonishment, found Henry on the floor playing hobby-horse for his children. "Are you a father?" asked Henry, looking up without any apparent embarrassment. "Yes, your majesty." "Then we will finish our game," said the king. And he did so, before taking up his business with the ambassador.

      The whole tenor of Henry's life exhibits a lofty, generous, forgiving temper, the fearless spirit which loves the excitement of danger, and that suavity of feeling and manners, which, above all qualities, wins the affection of those who come within its sphere: it does not exhibit high moral or religious principle. But his weaknesses were those which the world most readily pardons, especially in a great man. If Henry had emulated the pure morals and fervent piety of his noble ancestor, Louis IX., he would have been a far better king, as well as a better man; yet we doubt whether in that case his memory would have been cherished with such enthusiastic attachment by his countrymen.

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