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The Last Valois: A Tragic Story

Robert Knecht describes the shortcomings of Henry III, the last Valois king, and the circumstances that led him to become the first – but not the last – French monarch to die at the hands of one of his subjects.

Henry in Polish costume, 1574.On July 31st, 1589, a young Jacobin friar, Jacques Clément, left Paris for the suburb of Saint-Cloud where Henry III of France had set up his military encampment. The capital was held by the Catholic League, an armed association which had rebelled against royal policy in 1588, forcing the king to flee the city. At 8 am on August 1st, the friar, who claimed to be carrying an important message for the king from one of his supporters in the capital, was admitted to his presence. Henry was sitting on his close stool as the friar entered. Reassured by Clément’s clerical garb, Henry invited him to draw closer and lent forward to hear his message. As he did so, the friar produced a knife that he had hidden in the capacious sleeve of his habit and plunged it into Henry’s abdomen. The king cried out, pulled out the knife and struck his assailant with it. Royal guards drew their swords and fell on the friar, killing him instantly.

Henry died early the next morning bringing to an end the Valois dynasty that had occupied the French throne since 1328. Henry III was the first king of France to be assassinated by one of his own subjects. News of his death was acclaimed by the Catholic League as an act of God and greeted with wild rejoicing in Paris: ‘A new David has killed Goliath, a new Judith has slain Holofernes’ exclaimed a popular preacher. ‘Good news, my friends!’ shouted the duchess of Montpensier from her coach as she toured the streets of the capital. ‘The tyrant is dead! There is no more Henry of Valois in France!’ But why and how had Henry aroused such hatred?

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