The young men who surrounded Henry III of France have been dismissed by some historians as effeminate, inconsequential sycophants. Robert Knecht offers a very different account of their activities and influence.
Much of the information we have on day-to-day life in Paris during the troubled years of Henry III’s reign (1574-89) comes from the diary of the lawyer, Pierre de L’Estoile. Not content to describe events, he was also an avid collector of pamphlets, mostly scurrilous, which poured off the numerous Parisian printing presses. They enable us to share the tittle-tattle flourishing at the time and to penetrate the prejudices shaping public opinion. France was then sharply divided by religion. Thousands of Protestants, or Huguenots, had been massacred in Paris and other cities in 1572, but they remained strong in the south and west, while Paris was fiercely Catholic. Though a Catholic himself, Henry III lacked the means to take on the Huguenots in an all-out war. He was accused of timidity, even of double-dealing, by Catholic extremists, known as Leaguers. L’Estoile was a royalist, but not an uncritical admirer of the court. In particular, he shared public hostility towards Henry III’s small circle of favourites, known as his ‘mignons’. On October 20th, 1577 L’Estoile noted the arrival of the king at his country residence of Ollainville with a group of young mignons who were ‘heavily made-up, prettily coiffured, wore brightly coloured clothes and powdered with scent of violets and other perfumes which they exuded in the streets, squares and houses’. Such accounts were grist to the mill of 19th-century historians, brainwashed by Bourbon propaganda of the previous two centuries.