City Readers Digital Historic Collections at the New York Society Library
Henry IV, King of France (1553-1610)
Henry IV (French: Henri IV, read as Henri-Quatre [ɑ̃ʁi katʁ]; 13 December 1553 – 14 May 1610), also known by the epithet Good King Henry or Henry the Great, was King of Navarre (as Henry III) from 1572 and King of France from 1589 to 1610. He was the first monarch of France from the House of Bourbon, a cadet branch of the Capetian dynasty. He was assassinated in 1610 by François Ravaillac, a fanatical Catholic, and was succeeded by his son Louis XIII.
Baptised as a Catholic but raised in the Protestant faith by his mother Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre, Henry inherited the throne of Navarre in 1572 on the death of his mother. As a Huguenot, Henry was involved in the French Wars of Religion, barely escaping assassination in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. He later led Protestant forces against the royal army.
Henry IV and his predecessor Henry III of France are both direct descendants of the Saint-King Louis IX. Henry III belonged to the House of Valois, descended from Philip III of France, elder son of Saint Louis; Henry IV belonged to the House of Bourbon, descended from Robert, Count of Clermont, younger son of Saint Louis. As Head of the House of Bourbon, Henry was "first prince of the blood." Upon the death of his brother-in-law and distant cousin Henry III in 1589, Henry was called to the French succession by the Salic law.
He initially kept the Protestant faith (the only French king to do so) and had to fight against the Catholic League, which denied that he could wear France's crown as a Protestant. To obtain mastery over his kingdom, after four years of stalemate, he found it prudent to abjure the Calvinist faith. As a pragmatic politician (in the parlance of the time, a politique), he displayed an unusual religious tolerance for the era. Notably, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes (1598), which guaranteed religious liberties to Protestants, thereby effectively ending the Wars of Religion.
Considered a usurper by some Catholics and a traitor by some Protestants, Henry became target of at least 12 assassination attempts. An unpopular king among his contemporaries, Henry gained more status after his death. He was admired for his repeated victories over his enemies and his conversion to Catholicism. The "Good King Henry" (le bon roi Henri) was remembered for his geniality and his great concern about the welfare of his subjects. An active ruler, he worked to regularise state finance, promote agriculture, eliminate corruption and encourage education. During his reign, the French colonization of the Americas truly began with the foundation of the colony of Acadia and its capital the Port-Royal. He was celebrated in the popular song "Vive le roi Henri" (which later became an anthem for the French monarchy during the reigns of his successors) and in Voltaire's Henriade.