top cx logo
cx logo
Explorearrow down
search icon

Henri IV: not so 'bon' after all?

Scientists have recently recreated his face using his skull, but who was King Henri IV - and are the French right to hold him in such reverence?

SCIENTISTS claim to have recreated the face of "Good" King Henri IV.

The head was only discovered in 2010 having disappeared for hundreds of years, only to have apparently spent several decades wrapped up in a towel and hidden in the wardrobe of a pair of amateur historians.

The investigation that led to its identification is the subject of a book, Henri IV:L'énigme du roi sans tête by journalist Stéphane Gabet.

Henri IV (1553-1610) is remembered for putting an end to the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants, beautifying Paris and for his caring attitude to the people.

He was also a ladies' man, nicknamed "le Vert Galant" (Green Gallant).

His sayings include, "Paris vaut bien une messe" (Paris is worth a mass), on deciding to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism to bring religious peace, or his wish that every peasant should be able to afford une poule au pot (a chicken in the pot) for Sunday lunch.

But not all historians agree with this rosy picture of history. In an interview with Connexion in 2011, historian Philippe Delorme (author of Henri IV: Les réalités d'un mythe; l'Archipel) said his legend is greatly exaggerated.

"At the time of his death, he was hated because taxes had never been so high; he caused scandal because he spent so much on mistresses; and he started a war that devastated Europe because he wanted to get back the [15-year-old] Princesse de Condé whom he fancied, who had fled with her husband to Brussels."

As for his building projects, Paris's much-loved Pont Neuf was "nearly finished" by the time of his accession and other schemes were built by private individuals to whom the state rented land.

Image management

"There was no personal input from the king; and as for the poule au pot, it's a legend that we find in a history book 40 years after his death and he doubtless never said it.

"He knew how to manage his image. He succeeded to a distant cousin, he was the first Bourbon, and needed to show he had the right qualities. Those days were the start of the press, with the Mercure de France, and he managed his propaganda well. He puts in place this image of the ‘People's King', who has discussions with peasants. We see that in propaganda pamphlets from his reign. That was not necessarily how his subjects saw him.

"After that he was mostly forgotten and it is above all in the 18th century, with Voltaire's Henriade, and the other philosophes who are against the absolutism of Louis XIV, XV, XVI, that they put forward this image of a down-to-earth, tolerant, democratic king. Then in the Third Republic [1870-1940] he was taught in schools to have been the ancestor of the secular state. But it wasn't ecumenism like today where everyone recognises everyone else's beliefs. It was a pragmatic decision: he realised that 10 per cent of the population was Protestant, so it was necessary to tolerate them."

Mr Delorme added: "He's seen as a great lover: in fact, he was more of a predator, who would probably be in jail for paedophilia these days: he jumped on everything that moved. He was the king and had money and power, so women felt obliged."

16th Century Berlusconi

The king was not an "ideologue", he said, and readily adapted to political realities, including switching his religious allegiance six times. "He was also, despite everything, quite an open-natured person, easy to get on with, a bon vivant, a larger-than-life Mediterranean personality. A bit like Berlusconi today."

A leading French historian Jean-Pierre Babelon (author of Henri IV; Fayard), who helped with the inquiry into the king's head, said Mr Delorme looked on the negative side too much. "I am perfectly aware of Henry IV's imperfections, for example this kind of sexual bulimia. He gambled a lot and spent a lot on the women he courted and on architecture. When he won at the gaming table, he would put the money to one said and say, ‘That's for my builders'.

"He found himself in a difficult position torn between two religious camps. He was a man from the South, originally King of Navarre. He was at one time the head of the Protestants before discovering a future as French monarch. A man with two different destinies, he found himself as a child bounced between his mother's Protestantism and his father's Catholicism.

"Yes, he changed religion several times, but he was forced into it. He had a deep faith, often prayed and thought seriously about how to find unity, which we can see in his correspondence with the Pope. He wanted to create a council uniting Protestants and Catholics by finding what they had in common deep down."

The Edict of Nantes was the first time a French ruler successfully enforced religious tolerance between the two denominations, he said. In the same year, he achieved peace with the King of Spain, creating harmony in foreign policy. In war, he was courageous, often fighting in the heart of the battle.

Sully's Elms

Mr Babelon added he knew his kingdom better than any other king. "He travelled to every area apart from the tip of Brittany and the centre of Auvergne. Unlike most kings, he knew the places and climates, which helped him to organise, with [his trusted minister] Sully, agricultural improvements and marsh draining. He had a gift for commerce and industry and, with Sully, renovated the road network, with large new roads with bridges. We talk about ‘Sully's elms' that lined the roads, which supplied the wood to renew the navy."

He put his trust in Sully, Mr Babelon said. "This old Protestant companion-in-arms stayed at his side with continually increasing power. He was the one who first worked out a proper annual budget for France."

Henry IV made use of regular taxation, in the modern style, rather than the medieval-style kingship where periods of few taxes were interspersed with heavy ones to pay for a certain war etc.

Mr Babelon said: "A huge amount was written after his death, some of it anecdotal. What's sure is he was concerned for the lives of the farmers, whom he knew from his childhood in rural Béarn. He also wanted to renovate France architecturally, to make Paris a new city. He wanted to build on vacant spaces inside the city walls, notably what is now the Place des Vosges.

"People paid taxes to be able to build on what used to be royal land. He had realised the beauty of great, well planned city squares, notably in Metz, and he decided there would be this immense, unique esplanade. He finished off the Pont Neuf with a new kind of presentation: a bridge with no houses on it, and with viewing places along it to look up the river.

"He made sure the sewers drained properly, there were no more wooden houses with a fire risk, and wider streets; a general tidying up."

Interview originally published March 2011, updated with new information about the construction of his face in February 2012

Resident or second-home owner in France?
Benefit from our daily digest of headlines and how-to's to help you make the most of life in France
By joining the newsletter, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy
See more popular articles
The Connexion Help Guides
featured helpguide
Healthcare in France*
Featured Help Guide
- Understand the French healthcare system, how you access it and how you are reimbursed - Useful if you are new to the French healthcare system or want a more in-depth understanding - Reader question and answer section Aimed at non-French nationals living here, the guide gives an overview of what you are (and are not) covered for. There is also information for second-home owners and regular visitors.
Get news, views and information from France
You have 2 free subscriber articles left
Subscribe now to read unlimited articles and exclusive content
Already a subscriber? Log in now