Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Henry IV of Navarre: King of France and Catholic Convert


              The period known as the French Wars of Religion saw much of France under chaos and disarray. It was a period between mid and late sixteenth century that saw not only civil wars and massacres among the French people, but also infighting amongst the French nobility for the throne. These conflicts were also sown by foreign interests such as Spain and England, which in turn added even more emphasis on the dire situation caused by these wars. All these events had one theme in common, and that is the overbearing influence of religion, particularly French Catholicism and French Protestantism (who are referred to as the Huguenots). While it was a time of great turmoil, it was also a time of critical actions and drastic political maneuvers. 
              At the center of French Wars of Religion is Henry of Navarre (Henry IV). At the time of the death of Henry III (who was the king of France), Navarre was recognized as heir presumptive of the French throne by France’s strict adherence to the tradition of Salic law, which secured Navarre’s right to the throne through agnatic male descendance. Despite Navarre being born a Catholic, he was strictly brought up by his mother Jeanne d’Albert to be a Protestant. D’Albert, while at the same time being the queen regent of the Kingdom of Navarre, had proclaimed the state religion of Navarre to also be Calvinist (Protestant).[1] This of course was not a favorable trait to possess from the perspective of French Estates General while examining Henry IV’s claim to the throne, seeing as how France had always been ruled by a Catholic. Ever since Clovis I (the first king of the Franks) France adhered to Catholicism. France was even unofficially dubbed “the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church”, just as an illustration of how much French identity and the stability of French society hinged on being ruled by a Catholic monarch, and having a Catholic state religion. One such group that sought to preserve this tradition during the period of the French Religious Wars was the Catholic League which had been the bane of Henry of Navarre’s existence.  In the end, religion was both a lasting testament for Navarre to embrace, and an obstacle for him to overcome, if he wanted to fulfill his destiny to become king of France.
            After a long series of battles, assassination attempts (and successes), massacres and conspiracies, the conflict of interests over the succession of the French throne had reached a period that was seen as an uneasy balance. Between Henry IV and the Catholic League, there was no end to the conflict in sight except for more wars. Despite there being a few decisive victories for both camps, what little victories were won by either side were mostly pyrrhic in the sense that they did not yet change the outcome of the conflict. The Battle of Ivry in 1590 for example, was seen on the surface to be a great blow to the Catholic League from Navarre’s camp. Yet despite this victory, the Catholic League doubled down on their efforts and requested Spain’s aid (who had been a big supporter of the Catholic League) to both relieve and bolster their cause.[2] This was a frustrating development for Henry IV. It was just one of the many outcomes which proved to him that no matter how great his efforts and victories were, they would prove to be ineffective in nature.
            Yet despite everything, in July 1593, Navarre renounced Protestantism and was admitted into the Church, and at long last the French Wars of Religion were coming to an end.[3]  This was seen as the major turning point in the conflict, which quickly gave way to Navarre’s both legitimate and orthodox reign as the king of France.
            Within the framework of all the events that took place from beginning to end of Navarre’s campaign for the throne, one has to wonder what exactly were the motives for his conversion. The act of conversion was seen as a very important matter not just from a public perspective, but from a personal one as well. The process of a genuine conversion in medieval France, generally speaking, involved deep soul searching on a personal, theological, and metaphysical level. Then again, others might view religion as being just a social instrument that can be used to fulfill personal or political ambitions. All of these aspects beg the question of whether or not the sincerity of such an act done by Henry IV was justified through spiritual and altruistic causes, or ulterior political motives. In the end after all, it was the ancient image of France that was at stake, and her reputation of whether she was truly a kingdom ruled by a monarch, that is, through the grace of God and divine Catholic right. What Navarre’s experience surrounding his conversion meant to his Catholic and Huguenot subjects and how they could come to accept it as sincere, merits very close attention.[4]
            Niccolo Machiavelli once said,
“Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing; it would be against his interest when the reasons for which made him bind himself to it in the first place no longer exist.”[5]
It is interesting that this quote should mirror
precisely the predicament which Henry IV found himself in before his conversion and ultimate ascent to the French throne. Navarre’s conversion, while genuine to his causes, was ultimately not sincere with respect to the Catholic faith and how a general conversion is performed. His decision to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism in the end reflected a staunch contemporary Machiavellian practice whereby the ends justified the means. This was also largely bunched with immense pressures he experienced from those around him, and the resolute stance of the Politique school of thought. He thought he could ultimately win the wars and reap their rewards of keeping his protestant status and become king of France at the same time, but it turned out that in the end, he had to sacrifice one to obtain the other; and the throne was what he ultimately wanted.
            Like many before him, Henry IV had a lot of temptations throughout his life. Those temptations often resided with the pressures put forth by others towards him which forced him to choose between what he wanted and what was expected. In 1593 the figure head of the Catholic League, Charles the Duke of Mayenne, had called a meeting of the Estates General to further discuss the selection of a Catholic king for France. In this invitation to the constituents of the Estates General, Charles, after a long and tiresome war, had made some surprising concessions on behalf of the Catholic League. The main concession was that unlike for a long time before, he acknowledged Navarre’s hereditary right to the throne. Much like the League supported the claim of Navarre’s uncle Cardinal de Bourbon (who had been Navarre’s prisoner who later died); they too would have given Henry their support provided that he underwent “a true and not feigned conversion.” [6] It was instances of peer pressures such as this that began to take an effect on Navarre’s judgement- that continued to serve as catalysts for his conversion. At this stage, Henry IV began to realize more vividly that it was more reasonable to convert rather than to waste away trying to both hold onto Protestantism and obtain the throne. The sincerity of the conversion was largely overlooked by the Estates General because of the lack of ability to produce any evidence that suggested his conversion was not sincere. After all, it was not in anyone’s place to judge a person’s faith against what that person says or does, so long as people tried their best to be bons françois catholiques.[7]
One other factor that compelled Henry to convert was the creeping pressure of the weariness from war that grew quite apparent with Henry and among the people of France.[8] War had taken a toll on everyone during the Religious Wars period. War and destruction proved to be more expensive than societal progress and development within the realm. “Between 1591 and 1593, Henry IV had suffered a series of critical defeats that had dangerously weakened his position and, consequently, had strained royalist unity almost to the point of breaking.”[9] He had the support of Royalist Catholics who supported the cause of a rightful and hereditary French king over just any Catholic king. However, at the rate of Henry’s progression at the time of these developments, the probability of getting it his way (being a Protestant king of France) was growing insurmountable. He was ultimately losing the war and costing the realm many lives and monies. His support among the Catholics was growing thin to the point where they threatened to not stay the course if he refused to abjure his Calvinist faith.[10] As he exhausted his options, he knew by that time that he had to act based on what he wanted, or risk losing what he had.
The announcement of Navarre’s long speculated conversion was made in the midsummer of 1593 and came from St. Denis, the tomb of the kings of France. This was done so with the intent to make a symbolic statement that it truly was only Catholic kings who ruled the country.[11] The question of the validity of the conversion quickly became apparent, as Rome was reluctant at this point to make any official remarks or endorsements towards Henry IV. This earned Navarre good faith from his Protestant supporters, thus solidifying his control over matters concerning both sides of France’s religious struggle. Still, despite Rome’s reluctance to recognize the conversion of Henry IV, the consequences that were in store had they not recognized his conversion were far more devastating. Rome had already experienced losing the influence and prestige that came with being the head of the state religion in England (instead letting it be turned over to Anglicanism under king Henry VIII). The Curia did not want to risk making the same mistake twice with France and Navarre, lest they lose their footing to the then popular movement of Gallicanism which posed the same existential threat to their influential control of French Catholicism.[12]
This development worked out to Navarre’s advantage, for he was promptly recognized by Pope Clement VIII as the true Catholic Sovereign of France. On September 17th 1595, St. Peter’s Basilica officially held a formal service in honour of Henry’s conversion and abjuration of Protestantism. Interestingly, Henry did not attend this service in Rome.[13] In view of this gesture of absence, a familiar motif appears of a lack of concern for the process of conversion, on Henry’s behalf. From the laity’s perspective, it was understandable why he could not be bothered to attend; he was after all a king with kingly errands. But from a clergy’s perspective, it is all the more proof that he did not truly care for the traditions and customs of the church of Peter and Paul. Not only that, but it put Rome in an awkward position, because prior to Navarre’s conversion, Pope Sixtus V (who preceded Clement VIII) was a supporter of the Catholic League that not only sought to stop Henry from taking the throne, he also tried to parlay with him and insisted that he became Catholic.[14] Although when his attempt to parlay did not work, Sixtus V in the end decided to excommunicate him by labeling him a relapsed heretic unworthy of the grace of salvation (should he decide to rejoin the church) in the bull Brutum Fulmen.[15]This made Rome appear very contrarian indeed when they decided to change their mind about Navarre and instead flip flop on their words. Contrary to expectations, yet at the same time to no one’s surprise, Navarre sent dignitaries to represent him in the service held in St. Peter’s in his stead. Navarre’s absence that day was almost comparable to not making an appearance to one’s own baptism.
During his youth, Henry IV had been a captive in the court of Catherine de Medici for some time shortly after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the death of King Charles IX. Catherine de Medici at one point was the Queen consort of France, who happened to have been an avid observer of the Politique.[16] During that time, Navarre was forced to abjure his Calvinist convictions and pretend to be a Catholic as was intended of him.[17] One has to wonder, if under the same circumstances which proved to be beyond Navarre’s control, yet proved to be in his best interests back in 1574 had forced him to play the role of a Catholic; what would hypothetically be stopping him from taking on that same role again when faced with the same dilemma in 1593?
At the latter stages of the French Wars of Religion, Henry IV was battling Henry III (king of France) when the Catholic League convinced Henry III to turn on Navarre by outlawing Protestantism and rejecting Navarre’s right to the throne.[18] Despite this development Henry III grew wary of the power and influence of the Catholic League, eventually forcing him to drop his attention on Navarre and focus on the bigger threat to his rule. Against all precedent, Henry III combined forces with Navarre against Henry the Duke of Guise who was not only Henry III’s brother but also the leader of the Catholic League. This gave Navarre a chance to study and learn from someone who had been exposed more to what goes on surrounding the political climate of France and Europe in general.
Henry III was also the son of Catherine de Medici. Catherine’s reputation preceded her being a Queen consort insofar as being labelled a disciple of Machiavelli by both Catholics and Protestants. While there were no tangible links between the two, it was a strange coincidence that she had acted and ruled to the tune of how Niccolo had advised the Italian courts to rule during her time as the Queen consort of France. It therefore is no stretch of the imagination that Henry III had to have picked up on the ideas and practices passed down by his mother growing up: and if that was the case, than it would be absurd to think that a ruler of Navarre’s caliber passed up the opportunity to learn from his former adversaries. In the end, the assassination of Henry III happened shortly after both Henrys had combined forced. Despite this, Henry III already had enough of a lasting effect on Navarre to make him consider over the following few years that he now was the only legitimate heir to the throne alive, and that there was no other choice he had left to take that throne except to convert.
The way that these scenarios unfolded for Navarre fell under the familiar architype of ends justifying the means. Navarre’s ensurance that he stayed safe from harm during his time as captive of Catherine’s court justified the repudiation of his steadfast Calvinist faith. This was not only because it was in his best interest to stay safe by not drawing the ire of the Catholics in court, but his desire for safety trumped his desire for religious preference and devotion. Likewise can be said about Navarre’s conversion to Catholicism when he solidified his hold on the throne. Navarre’s conversion to Catholicism justified his desire for the throne over religious preference and devotion, despite his spirit to continue his campaign and become the Protestant King of France. A bargain like that would take some tough convincing on Henry’s part in trying to prove to France and the Catholic League that his conversion was sincere and not just an act. Based on this comparison, it is reasonable to think that Henry IV’s conversion was not sincere, but that it was a product of circumstances and an exhibition of opportunism.
The Politique was a school of thought among some of the members of the ruling class in France during the period of the French Wars of Religion. The Politique valued the well-being and preservation of France above all other aspects of governance, yet at the same time were depicted by many ultra-Catholics to be treacherous for their willingness to sometimes yield and make concessions in the political arena.[19] They were unusually centrist in their methods for their time and were even willing to mediate between Catholic interests and Protestant interests. This means that the questions which they were dealing with were non-partisan, about how whether or not France was primarily Catholic, or if it had a Catholic ruler. Those questions were secondary qualities to them. What was really the main concern of the Politiques was ensuring that France remained successful, functioning, and dominant to the best of its abilities. Naturally, this sort of prioritization was seen as an unfavorable mode of thinking by the zealous Catholic League for much of its existence. The Catholic League wanted to reduce the middle ground as best as they could so that there could be no wiggle room for any other type of party. They essentially wanted Catholic demeanor to prevail over all matters concerning France, especially matters concerning who should be king.
Being a Huguenot as it were, Navarre was no stranger to compromising on many matters that riddled the establishment of the French courts. He had loyalists on his side who were Catholic when he was bidding for the throne as a Protestant. Navarre too had Protestant supporters even after his conversion, who did not exhibit such pride in their belief to the extent of denying fealty to their newly converted Catholic king.
Navarre did not shy away from challenging the status quo. This was after all someone who sincerely and ideally wanted to become to first Protestant king in French history. The brilliance of Navarre’s and his ability to compromise like a true adherer to Politique, came with his eventual passing of the Edict of Nates, which would truly be a testament of his desire to unite the country on peaceful terms so that it would strengthen France internally and put an end to the massacres that had become common sight for so long.
      One of the most renowned achievement of Henry IV tenure as king of France is him signing the Edict of Nantes in 1598 whereby he emancipated the Huguenots granting them civil rights and the ability to legally practice their religion in areas of France where it was already done so. This event some 4 years after his coronation serves as a keen reminder of his true nature as a king who united the country, effectively putting an end to the wars, and making peace within France. Having Protestantism become a relevant part of France has undoubtedly been Navarre’s intentions for quite some time. It was a conciliation prize of sorts that Navarre got for being king. If he could not have gotten the crown while being a protestant, than surely he would have had it so that Protestants in France would get religious liberty of which they so desperately in need.
The Edict of Nates itself was limiting in its nature, and it did not put Protestantism on the same pedestal as Catholicism. However, the Edict allowed France’s Calvinist population the “liberty of conscience and a limited freedom of worship…in perpetuity.”[20] Navarre had done all of this, yet the way in which the Edict was received among many Huguenots themselves was not overly celebrated. This was the case mainly because of Navarre’s decision to convert in the first place, and that they saw the Edict little more than a hollow act of appeasement.[21] In an attempt to counter their disapproval, he wrote to various Calvinist nobles and groups alike to try and explain to them that the reasons for his conversion were purely political, and that he assured them that he would continue to provide to them goodwill.[22] To put this into perspective, it is one thing for noblemen and politicians to recognize that there is obvious political motive and stock put into a public display of conversion. It is sort of an unspoken truth that everyone acknowledged as being a part of politics as usual. But to purposefully write your intentions and the reasoning behind them on a letter in order to explain this truth to a certain audience, that is a cause for concern. The fact that Navarre himself had written an explanation for his conversion and written it off as purely political (in order to continue his good relations with the Huguenots) was all the figuratively incriminating evidence one would possibly need to come to the undeniable conclusion that his conversion was not sincere: a crime that would have undoubtedly force a number of ultra-Catholics to reject Navarre once more from the throne and possibly even prosecute him. As it so happened, Henry IV did eventually get a taste of ultra-Catholic justice, as he was assassinated by a Catholic zealot by the name of François Ravaillac in 1610. [23] It turned out that there were some out there who could look past Navarre’s façade and not bare to let a sin and heresy go unpunished.
 After Navarre’s success at capturing the throne, the Catholic League eventually disintegrated because there was no longer a visible threat of a Protestant trying to usurp the French throne; and anyone who continued to falsify Navarre’s conversion and ascension was just branded a Spanish fifth columnist, and for good reason. One might think that it was because of their weariness from war and quarrel over all those years. But what Henry IV was able to convince the French courts, quickly made France open their eyes and realize that they have let down their guard and allowed their foreign adversary get the best of them. As Navarre had explained it, France had gotten too comfortable and trusting of Spain, who had been a notoriously passionate supporter and sponsor of the Catholic League ever since its formation. One year after his coronation in 1594, Henry IV declared war on Spain.[24] It was a well-played gambit on Navarre’s part, as it took the majority of the focus off of him and his spontaneous appearance in stately matters, and moved the focus to an exterior looming threat. As one of Navarre’s Protestant supporter Sully said,
“The true means of setting the realm at rest is by keeping up a foreign war, towards which one can direct, like water in a gutter, all the turbulent humors of the kingdom.”[25]
This sort of tactic of diversion is arguably a favorite among rulers and politicians, especially when they are trying to cover up or hide something. In this case, it is quite clear that he was trying to hide his conversion from the nobles’ attention, because Navarre did go through some episodes of regret after he converted. A conversion does not happen overnight, and while it is true that it was prolonged and premeditated, it was a sudden change in Navarre’s life after all. He was someone who truly cared for the salvation of his soul. In a letter to his Catholic mistress, Gabriel d’Estrées, he alluded to making his conversion (which was in two days-time while writing that letter) as the “perilous leap”, and it went without saying that he continued to feel like this about his conversion well after the ceremony happened.[26] Navarre even went as far as having blamed his sickness on the fact that he converted and that the severity of the sickness was a punishment by God.[27]
 In conclusion, the sort of non-sectarianism that Navarre displayed in a lot of his behavior and decision making as king of France is reminiscent of the same exact Navarre prior to his conversion. The familiar attitude towards matters of unity and devotion to religion, on his part, were all seen as secondary. It was not so much of a taboo for him to let down his guard in front of certain groups of people and act in such a way that in all fairness would equally annoy conflicting groups at the same time. This was the sort of attitude a ruler of France desperately needed to possess in times of crisis, such as the French Wars of Religion were. The sheer thought of having a king that could mediate in such a tolerant facon was somewhat of a rare phenomenon at the time, and that is what made Navarre stand out. But it was a travesty that Navarre had spent many years focused on disaccord and befuddlement rather than using his talents to aid France sooner and for longer. To add to that, it was Navarre’s keen ability to mediate as a centrist that could have saved many lives resulting from waging war in the first place. He effectively emancipate the Huguenots, making massacres an impossibility (in practice), given the Edict of Nates that he passed, but one has to realize that if he had been on the throne sooner, he would have implemented these changes much sooner and France would have been set on track to recovery much quicker.
Ever since his upbringing by his mother Jeanne d’Albert, Henry IV promised not to forget his Calvinist upbringing. That he would try to emulate the good example set by her in terms of not only how he brought up his future children, but how he brought up France. Yet Navarre had flip flopped his religion more than anyone could say about themselves during that period. The question of whether or not Henry IV remained Calvinist until the end when he was assassinated is not the topic that matters. What really mattered was what sort of man he was. The ambitions he had in mind, proved to be of greater importance than his devotion to Calvinism or his feelings towards converting in the first place could ever be. While this realization may not have come as a surprise to most, it certainly seemed like the cause for his conversion was depicted as one dimensional from the start: he wanted to be king. Yet as was proven to be the case, he had more complicated ideas and convictions about France and how to rule it. Luck and skill are a powerful combination, and in the end Navarre had both at his disposal. He had the skill and know-how of a true scholar and mediator to convince Catholics, Protestants, Rome, the Catholic League to grant him his Salic rite, and he had the luck to warrant a perfect scenario for him to become king in the first place. Sure it meant that sometimes he could not execute actions or make maneuvers in his favor due to the fact that his hands were often tied. When Spain’s constant resupplyment of aid to the Catholic League forced Navarre to halt his advances, it put a damper on his desire to become a Protestant King of France. There was nothing he could do about it, but he did what he saw as a confident means of action to justify his desire in the end for the throne, and this is to convert in order to rule.

Buisseret, David. Henry IV. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.
Greengrass, Mark. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. London: Longman     Group Limited, 1984.
Holt, Mack. The French Wars of Religion,1562-1629. New York: Cambridge University Press,     1995.
Love, Ronald. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s           University Press, 2001.
Love, Ronald. “The Symbiosis of Religion and Politics: Reassessing the Final Conversion of         Henri IV.” Historical Reflections 21 no. 1 (1995): 27-56.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. Wootton, David. The Prince. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995.
Mazur, Peter. “Searcher of Hearts: Cesare Baronio’s History of Conversion.” Journal of the          History of Ideas 75 no. 2 (2014): 213-235.
Pitts, Vincent. Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University   Press, 2009.
Racaut, Luc. “Reason of State, Religious Passions, and the French Wars of Religion.” The Historical Journal 52 no. 4 (2009): 1075-1083.
Tulchin, Allan. “Ending the French Wars of Religion.” The American Historian Review 120 no.    5 (2015): 1696-1708.
Wolfe, Michael. The Conversion of Henri IV: Politics, Power, and Religious Belief in Early           Modern France. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.

[1] Vincent Pitts, Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 27.
[2] Ronald Love. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s        University Press, 2001), 178.
[3] Mark Greengrass. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. (London: Longman Group Limited, 1984), 73.
[4] Michael Wolfe. The Conversion of Henri IV: Politics, Power, and Religious Belief in Early          Modern France. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 6.
[5] Niccolo Machiavelli and David Wootton. The Prince. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995).
[6] Michael Wolfe. The Conversion of Henri IV: Politics, Power, and Religious Belief in Early          Modern France. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 116.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 115.

[9] Ronald Love. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 269.
[10] Ibid, 270.
[11] Mark Greengrass. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. (London: Longman Group Limited, 1984), 73.

[12] Mazur, Peter. “Searcher of Hearts: Cesare Baronio’s History of Conversion.” Journal of the History of Ideas 75 no. 2 (2014): 214.
[13] Ibid, 215.
[14] Michael Wolfe. The Conversion of Henri IV: Politics, Power, and Religious Belief in Early Modern France. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 95.
[15] Ibid, 35.

[16] Mark Greengrass. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. (London: Longman Group Limited, 1984), 9.

[17] Michael Wolfe. The Conversion of Henri IV: Politics, Power, and Religious Belief in Early Modern France. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 66.

[18] Ronald Love. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 166.

[19] Mark Greengrass. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. (London: Longman Group Limited, 1984), 9.
[20] Ronald Love. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 303.

[21] Ibid, 304.

[22] Ibid

[23] Vincent Pitts, Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 325.

[24] Mark Greengrass. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. (London: Longman Group Limited, 1984), 189.

[25] Ibid, 189-190.

[26] Ronald Love. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 290.

[27] Vincent Pitts, Henri IV of France: His Reign and Age. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 208.

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