The Murder of le roi Henri

In May 1610 Henry IV of France was assassinated by a religious fanatic apparently acting alone. Though popular, Henry had nevertheless aroused animosity on his way to kingship, not least because of his Protestant beliefs, writes Robert J. Knecht.

Paris was in festive mood on the morning of May 14th, 1610. The queen of France, Marie de’ Medici, had been crowned the previous day at the basilica of Saint Denis and was due to make her formal entry into the capital. As usual on such occasions much effort had gone into cleaning the streets and decorating the processional route to Notre Dame with temporary monuments, such as triumphal arches made of timber and plaster statues of divinities, all painted in bright colours and adorned with adulatory inscriptions in letters of gold.

French queens were not crowned as a matter of course and Henry IV, king of France since 1589, saw no reason to go to the expense of a coronation for his second queen whom he had married in 1610. However, under pressure from Marie and her circle, concerned that the queen would have no sovereign authority in the king’s absence on military campaigns, Henry had grudgingly conceded the crowning. Traditionally kings played no part in this ceremony and Henry was no different though he may have been curious to see the decorations he had paid for. But, as he woke up in the palace of the Louvre that morning, the king had much else on his mind. Clouds of war had been gathering since the death of John William, Duke of Cleves-Jülich in March the previous year. He had died childless and his inheritance had fallen prey to a host of competing relatives. The rich duchy lay close to the Dutch United Provinces which viewed with alarm its seizure by a cousin of the Habsburg emperor, Rudolph II. The alarm was shared by France, which had been at war with the Habsburg empire for much of the 16th century. Religion was also involved, as the Catholic Habsburgs were opposed by many German Protestant princes. Henry IV was urged to intervene militarily, but he had hesitated initially.

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