Henry’s mother, Jeanne d’Albret, the Huguenot queen of Navarre (1528–72), raised Henry as a Huguenot in Béarn. Henry received a military education from French general Gaspard de Coligny (1519–72) and became the Huguenot leader in 1569.
Henry succeeded to the throne of Navarre upon his mother’s death on June 9, 1572. On August 18, 1572, he married Marguerite de Valois (1555–1615), his second cousin and childhood playmate. The marriage was arranged to alleviate the divisions wrought by the French Wars of Religion and reconcile the Roman Catholics with the Huguenots.
Queen Mother Catherine de Médicis (1519–89) forced King Charles IX (1550–74) and the future Henry III (1551–89) to order the Huguenot guests at the wedding to be killed. Some 3,000 Huguenots were killed in Paris, including de Coligny.
Despite a royal order to stop the killing, the slaughter spread throughout France, and 70,000 more Huguenots were killed. To save his life, Henry was forced to become Roman Catholic and stay confined to the court. He escaped and returned to Navarre and the Huguenot faith.
The Catholic League was formed in 1576 to oppose the Huguenots. It operated under the guidance of Henry, duke of Guise (1550–88), who controlled Henry III. Henry III and Guise fought Henry of Navarre unsuccessfully at the Battle of Coutras on October 20, 1587. Henry III was afraid of Guise’s popularity and his secret longing for the throne and ordered his assassination; he promptly left Paris under threat by Guise supporters.
Henry III reconciled with Henry in Navarre to gain his military support against the league and to win control over Paris. Together, they besieged Paris on July 30. Henry III was assassinated on August 2, 1589, and Henry of Navarre became king. The Catholic League, which was financially supported by Roman Catholic Spain, would not accept him as monarch and forced him to fight for the throne.
On July 25, 1592, Henry was encouraged by his mistress and mother of three of his illegitimate children, Gabrielle d’Estrée (1571–99), to repudiate his Protestant faith and permanently become Roman Catholic. He did so in July 1593.
He was immensely popular not only because he ended decades of war, but also because he was conciliatory and practical. Henry declared the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which established Roman Catholicism as the state religion and offered religious toleration to the Huguenots, who were heavily engaged in trade.
The Wars of Religion had taken an enormous toll on France, so Henry’s immediate goal was reconstruction. Rather than exhaust the treasury with more wars, Henry paid off the nobles who disagreed with him. He systemized finances and soon created a reserve of 18 million livres.
Henry’s marriage to Marguerite of Valois was annulled by Pope Clement VIII (1536–1605) in 1599. Henry married Marie de Médicis (1573–1642) on December 17, 1600. They had six children, the first of whom would become Louis XIII.
The couple welcomed Marguerite of Valois into their family; she helped rear the children and was very popular with the French people. Henry also had eight more illegitimate children with various other mistresses.
Henry sent Samuel de Champlain, Pierre Dugua, sieur de Monts to the New World to claim it for France. Henry’s foreign policy was meant to bring France to the forefront of power. He made alliances with Italy, the Swiss, and some Protestant German princes.
He was assassinated on May 14, 1610, by a religious fanatic. He was buried at the Saint Denis Basilica, the burial place of French monarchs. His legal son and heir, the future Louis XIII, was only nine years old, so Marie de Médicis served as regent until 1617.