The Assassination of Henry III
What a contrast between the way historians have treated the two great political assassinations of French history! That of the first Bourbon king, Henry IV, in 1610 became the focus for a powerful political legend which dominated the rest of the ancien regime. Reactions to his assassination were sufficient, it seems, to act as a powerful amalgam of royalist sentiments in early Bourbon France. Absolutist notions of the divinity which must hedge a king, and of kingship as a holy office with accountability to God alone, became imperative to protect a future king from the sacrilege of regicide. Hence the remarkable clause along those lines proposed by the third estate at the estates – general of the realm in 1614.
The treatment of the assassination, twenty-five years previously, of Henry IV's immediate predecessor as king of France, Henry III, was very different. Embarrassing at the time and since, the last Valois' death has evoked little sympathy. Even his body was left in its temporary resting-place in the church at Compiegne, never to he transferred to St Denis, the mausoleum of the kings of France. There is still no modern study of the event and its context. Yet it was of capital importance, the first regicide in the history of the French monarchy, the end of the Valois dynasty, the central political occurrence in the later wars of religion. If Henry III had died in his bed there might have been no wholesale takeover of power in France by the Catholic League for any length of time, and none of the multiple questioning of established and accepted verities of French political life which inevitably flowed from a radical political movement at the centre of power in a kingdom. Henry IV might even have assumed the throne of France later on without a fight, and that might have had incalculable effects upon the direction of the Bourbon monarchy, even (although it is unlikely) upon its religious direction. The enormous groundswell of reaction to Henry IV’s assassination was precisely because it was the second time such a thing had happened within living memory - and, with it, therefore, came the reawakening of all the collective guilts surrounding the first regicide.
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