Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes

By Moina Arcee, Jul 2, 2013, edited August 28 2018

Signing of the Edict of Nantes

At his coronation as France’s King, Henry IV swore to “chase out of all lands under my jurisdiction all heretics denounced by the church.” When he swore this oath Henry himself was one of those denounced heretics, at least in the eyes of the Holy See and the Catholic League. This was easy to overlook in those heady days of Henry’s coronation in 1594, because Henry didn’t talk like a heretic anymore:

“I promise you, in God’s name and by His grace that, before two years are out, you shall see all the people of my Kingdom in one Church, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman, and that I shall know how to handle the Huguenots, whose chief I have been for twenty-two years, with such gentleness, that I shall bring them all into the bosom of the true Church.”

Perhaps Henry meant this. Perhaps he only wanted everyone to think he meant it. Henry knew better than most what a stiff-necked lot the Huguenots were. Yet it is likely he was guilty of over-optimism – or braggadocio – rather than dishonesty. And there was reason for optimism. Henry had won over his most formidable opponent, the Catholic League, with a combination of edifying piety and money. Most of the “peace dividends”, if they may so be called, went to Leaguers. They were the main force Henry had to mollify, and his great success was in coming to terms with Mayenne and the house of Guise. It is misleading to say that Henry purchased their loyalty. He made a good will gesture to reimburse the Guise, and they responded by rallying to Henry, and thereafter serving him faithfully. All that remained was for Henry to come to terms with his former comrades, the Huguenots.

The Huguenots (we call them Calvinists) constituted only one tenth of France’s population, but because of the many nobles in their ranks, their influence far exceeded their numbers. The Huguenots refused to come to Henry’s aid when royal and League forces besieged Amiens, a French town captured by Spanish troops. Instead, French Protestants made their involvement a bargaining chip in their bid for more privileges, and never made it to battle.

This was ironic, given the Huguenot penchant for decrying League leaders as divisive and unpatriotic. There was only one leaguer who remotely fit that bill: Mercouer, governor of the province of Brittany, who was also a no-show at Amiens. After recovering Amiens, Henry headed in force for Mercoeur’s stronghold in Nantes. The two parties came to terms without bloodshed. Mercoeur was well compensated for giving up Nantes and the other Breton towns under his rule. After Mercoeur left, Henry remained in Nantes to complete negotiations with the Protestants. The final deal, signed by Henry in April of 1598, became known as the Edict of Nantes.

signing the edict of nantes

Much of the Edict was similar in substance to previous proclamations issued by the Valois Kings during the Wars of Religion. With its ninety-two main articles and fifty-six secret articles, however, the Edict of Nantes was more specific and sweeping. Protestants were granted liberty of conscience, full civil rights, the right to exercise their religion where they wanted, except in Paris and episcopal cities. The Edict allowed Protestants to hold political office, maintain printing presses, and enjoy judicial protection by special courts. The Edict held Huguenots exempt from taxes or military conscription. Tax revenues from Catholics would pay the stipends of Protestant pastors, and for the garrisons in the French towns “occupied” by Protestants.

French Catholics were angered at the liberties granted the Protestants. Aspersions were cast on the King’s loyalty. It was rumored he was secretly a Huguenot. In fact, the Edict of Nantes was no sinister conspiracy between Henry and the heretics. Dr. Buisseret explains:

“From the time of his abjuration, in July 1593, Henry’s relations with his former companions had deteriorated. Successive assemblies at Sainte-Foy (1594), Saumur (1595), and Loudun (1596) had seen the development of an ever more intransigent group among the Protestants, who received no easy answers from the King, while he was desperately fighting the Spaniards. By 1597, as we have seen, they were so far alienated as to deny him help during the grave crisis which followed the Spanish capture of Amiens.”

Henry wanted peace badly enough to allow the Protestants to strike a hard bargain. Yet is unfair to say Henry favored Huguenot over Catholic. For their part, the Huguenots were appalled at the piles of money Henry shoved at League leaders, and how their religion remained marginalized and in Paris, suppressed. In other words, like previous treaties, there was something for everyone to dislike. Unlike the made-to-be-broken peace treaties signed by the Valois Kings, however, the Edict of Nantes was a determined, sincere effort by Henry IV to forge a religious peace for his nation.

That is not the same as saying that the Edict of Nantes was good policy, or that it had any better chance of securing peace than the cynical treaties of the Valois. The point is that Henry was serious about making the Edict work. This pitted him against the Paris Parlement, whose approval was required to make the Edict law. Henry was well loved because he was seen as one of the common people, but he also knew how to command. He had to use all his considerable powers of persuasion on the Paris Parlement, alternately speaking to them “as a father” and bullying them with threats, to force enactment of the Edict.

French provinces were equally stubborn. With them, as with the Paris Parlement, Henry’s ultimate trump – besides the considerable force of his personality – was an appeal to nationalism. He berated Toulouse lawmakers:

“It is strange you cannot cast out your ill-will. I see that you still have Spanish notions in your bellies…I see through all this, and wish that those of the (Protestant) religion should be able to live at peace in my realm and be eligible for all posts, not because they are Protestants, but because they have faithfully served me and the French crown. I wish to be obeyed, and that my edict shall be published and implemented throughout my kingdom. It is high time that all of us, drunk with war, sobered up.”

edict of nantes postage stamp

Not everyone opposed to the Edict of Nantes was drunk with war, of course. Many simply wanted Henry to keep his coronation oath and convert the Huguenots. Instead, the Edict encouraged the establishment of a separate Protestant state within France – like Calvin’s Geneva. It settled nothing, merely postponing the inevitable clash of opposing religions. For the short term, Henry got the peace he was convinced France must have. For many grateful French, this was enough. The benefits of this uneasy truce – the terms of which were immediately violated by both sides – would not last much longer than his reign. Even during Henry’s reign, it took eleven years before the Parlement of Rouen, seat of Normandy’s government, finally approved the Edict in 1609 – one year before Henry’s death.

The king’s powers of persuasion, so effective at home, were lost on Rome. It is said that when Pope Clement VIII read the Edict he cried, “This crucifies me!” French diplomats tried to maintain the Edict would result in a flood of Huguenot conversions. Clement was not convinced. The Pope had thought the Edict a political expedient to avoid alienating the Protestants, and was furious when he found out Henry was serious about it. Henry’s man in Rome, Arnauld d’Ossat, wrote the King that Clement felt “that the edict has wounded his own reputation, that he has been struck in the face.” Clement also said “by this edict, liberty of conscience is granted to each individual, which is the worst thing in the world.”

Pope Clement VIII

Clement’s outrage sounds comical to modern ears. Yet the Pope’s opinion was shared by most Catholics and Protestants. Calvin and his successor, Beza, echoed Clement’s opinion of “religious liberty” almost word for word. The Edict of Nantes, today seen as an act of enlightened statesmanship, was not the first of its kind. Religious liberty had been practiced in Poland for at least a century prior, due primarily to the influence of Poland’s sizable Jewish population. Its secular complement, a radical “democracy of nobles”, provided too much individualism to keep the country together, and the carving up of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria less than two centuries after the Edict of Nantes only symbolized the religious and political divisions that caused that once mighty nation’s peculiar suicide.

French Protestantism would eventually provide cover for Freemasonry and the radical enforcement of secular liberty, equality, and fraternity. The results surpassed the Wars of Religion in fanaticism and bloodshed. Should Henry have anticipated trouble? Probably, but there would be no words of warning from his advisors, who were almost all Protestants.

Henry IV was a religious Catholic and a political Protestant. He subordinated his faith to the perceived welfare of the state. This was not cynicism on Henry’s part so much as a lifetime’s accumulation of certain ideas that a one-time tonic of Catholic instruction could not counteract. William Thomas Walsh noted that “Henry did not cease to adorn his new buildings with that device of the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and Gnostics which was part of his inheritance from Jeanne d’Albret,” his mother, a fierce Huguenot. Henry was not himself a Mason, but he would not have immediately seen the consequences of their ideals.

King Henry IV

King Henry IV nearly died after issuing the Edict of Nantes.  He became feverish after playing tennis, which the royal medicine men diagnosed as an inflamed bladder. It was in fact an acute attack of venereal disease, so acute that Henry developed a heart condition and neared death.

The crisis passed and Henry began a slow recovery. His condition troubled royal advisors. If Henry died without an heir, his successor would be the Protestant Prince of Conde. The ascension of a Protestant to the throne of France would surely resurrect the Catholic League and the threat of a religious war. Henry, who at the time was forty-six, was aware of the danger.

Henry had been trying to get the Pope to annul his marriage to Margot de Valois. They had lived apart for most of their married life. Margot, who for the past ten years had lived alone in the chateau of Usson, was willing to agree to an annulment, provided Henry compensated her for her loss of status. Henry was willing to do so but Rome hesitated. Papal legates claimed the grounds for annulment were unclear. Privately, Pope Clement was as eager for Henry to remarry and sire an heir as Henry was. Neither wished for the turbulence the passage of the crown to a Protestant prince would cause. Yet Clement hesitated because he suspected the remarriage Henry wanted was to his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrees.

Gabrielle d'Estrees

Henry was silent regarding this intention, and most of those who knew him took his silence for guilt. Henry had proved more faithful to his mistress than to his wife, or any of his other mistresses, for that matter. Marrying Gabrielle would legitimize their two illegitimate sons, and solve the missing heir problem. This may have seemed a grand solution to Henry, but Clement wanted no part of it – even if the consequence was another schismatic King Henry.

In fact, the more one discovered about Henry’s personal life, the less one wanted to know. Like the messy fact that the first illegitimate son of Henry and Gabrielle, Cesar de Vendome, was not only the product of a double adultery, but may not have been Henry’s son at all. This of itself was enough to guarantee a dispute if the crown ever did pass to Cesar. The impasse in negotiations between Henry’s men and Rome was not aided when, shortly after the Edict of Nantes, Gabrielle became pregnant again.

Gabrielle was even less popular in France than she was in Rome. Gabrielle’s mother, Francoise, had six sisters; together they were known as the Seven Capital Sins.

Gabrielle inherited her mother’s beauty and ambition.  Admired at the court of Henri III at age fifteen, she was seventeen when she met thirty-seven year old King Henry. When Henry saw her he fell fast and hard. He never fell out of love with Gabrielle, and his passion caused political stupidities: he insisted the visibly pregnant Gabrielle attend his coronation ceremony. Their romance was public and unapologetic. Gabrielle flaunted her special status, and made a point in showing off the very expensive gifts Henry lavished on her. The spectacle angered and appalled Catholics and Protestants alike. The summer of her third pregnancy Henry bought the duchy of Beaufort for her, “and from that time on some people called her Duchesse de Beaufort but others called her the Duchesse d’Ordures (the Duchess of Dirt).”

On Shrove Tuesday, the day before the last Lent of the sixteenth century began, Henry announced that he and Gabrielle d’Estrees would marry the first Sunday after Easter. There was no papal dispensation, but as if to compensate, Henry

“placed upon her (Gabrielle’s) finger his coronation ring, that ancient symbol by which a king espouses his country. Lent fell like a pall upon France as the clerics pulled their cowls over their heads and the alleluias were stricken from the church ceremonies. It was a time of sorrow, of fasting, of supplication; but Easter would bring no surcease, for Easter would but see the climax of the tragedy. ‘We shall have a dynasty of bastards,’ murmured one courtier grimly.”

Gabrielle was six months pregnant, and radiant as she approached the consummation of all her ambitions. “Only God or the death of the King can keep me from being Queen of France,” she exulted, and rightly so.  The wedding was but two weeks away. Pope Clement was regretting his absolution of Henry, and may have been secretly relieved that Philip II, who had counseled strongly that Henry should not be absolved, was no longer alive (he died the previous fall) to witness the present catastrophe.

For his part, the King took the advice of his counselors that it would be prudent for he and Gabrielle to observe Holy Week separately. Henry remained in Fontainebleu. Gabrielle traveled to Paris, where she was greeted with horror and disgust. She fell ill, but recovered to attend Holy Thursday services. Then fever gripped her, and searing pain. Doctors tended to her, but on the afternoon of Good Friday she began hemorrhaging. The doctors tried to save the child, but only mutilated a stillborn boy.

Gabrielle may never have known. Torn by convulsions, she lost consciousness. The King was notified and rode hard to Paris. He was well on the way when he received another message: Gabrielle was already dead, and Henry would be happier if he did not observe the wicked liberties death had taken with the beauty of his beloved. He returned slowly to Fontainebleu, a solitary figure on horseback, crushed by fate or, as some believed, the hand of God.

While he wept Gabrielle’s death agony continued. The second message to Henry was a lie concocted by his advisers, who feared he would try to wed Gabrielle on her deathbed and thus plunge France into another religious war. The bit of truth in the lie was that Gabrielle d’Estrees was virtually unrecognizable. The French chancellor, Cheverny, was present and wrote:

“Her pain was so great that everyone stood helplessly by. Her servants were unable to do anything. Someone suggested the Last Sacraments but she was not capable of receiving them and so must be content with her Easter duty, which she had made a little while before. Her face once so beautiful, now, in a moment, became hideous and frightful to look on.”

Her perfect features twisted permanently by pain, her body mutilated by the doctors, it was only a few hours before she would become as still as her child. On the morning of Holy Saturday, she died. As the sun came up, Henry arrived at Fontainebleu. Those who greeted him saw that overnight the hair on his head and face had turned white.

henry iv

Notes and Sources

Henry’s promise to convert the Huguenots is from Sedgwick, Henry of Navarre, op. Cit., p 242. Buisseret’s explanation of Henry and the Huguenots is from Op. Cit., p. 70. Pope Clement’s reaction to the Edict of Nantes is from Rops, The Catholic Reformation, op. Cit., p. 183. Henry’s remarks to Toulouse lawmakers is from Buisseret, op. Cit., p. 73. Clement’s remarks to d’Ossat are from Mahoney, op. Cit., p. 344. For Calvin and Beza, see Rops, The Catholic Reformation, op. Cit., p. 183.

The quote from William Thomas Walsh is from Philip II, op. Cit., p. 684. See pp. 304-305 for the symbol Walsh refers to, an “S” with a diagonal line drawn through it. He explains:

“It is clear that Henry found this on the monogram of his mother, Jeanne d’Albret, and on her medals. Why should this particular device have gained such currency among the heretics who broke the unity of Christendom in the sixteenth century? Why should its trail extend from London to that court in the Pyrenees where Elizabeth’s mother became a Protestant, and Conde and the Colignys came and went familiarly? It is a very old talisman, possibly of Egyptian origin, certainly employed by some of the earliest enemies of Christianity. It was the Serpent which the Gnostics, like the later Theosophists, held in veneration; but which Catholic artists represented as trodden under foot by the Mother of God. (p. 305)”

Regarding Henry’s near death from acute gonorrhea, Dr. Buisseret writes that “for the previous twenty years he (Henry) had been paying for his various amatory escapades by venereal infections, but this one was exceptionally sharp and stubborn…which gave rise to a temporary but alarming heart condition.” (op. Cit., p. 76). The “Duchess of Dirt” is from Sedgwick, op. Cit., p. 251. The announcement of Henry and Gabrielle’s wedding is from Mahoney, op. Cit., pp. 349-350. Account of her death by Cheverney is from Ibid., p. 352.

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