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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

The birth of the "Lion of Béarn" (1553)

It was freezing on the night of 12 December 1553, when Henri d’Albret, the king of Navarre, was awakened and told that his daughter Jeanne was giving birth. A few months earlier, Jeanne had lost her only son, the duc de Beaumont, and in compliance with the wishes of her father, who was hoping for a new heir, she had made her way along the rugged roads of the kingdom to give birth in the Château de Pau at Béarn.

Among Henri's more sycophantic biographers, his birth was made into something of a legend, although today it is difficult to separate truth from fiction. As the story goes, Henri d'Albret encouraged his daughter to sing an old Béarnais song, Nouste Dame deu cap deu poun (Notre-Dame du bout du pont), which was supposed to give courage and lead to the birth of a son. When he saw the baby boy, his grandfather, it is said, laughingly seized hold of him, calling out "He is mine, he is mine!" Later, having brought the infant to his bedchamber, he rubbed his lips with garlic and made him breathe the vapours of a cup of Jurançon wine. When the boy reacted strongly, his grandfather then cried, "You will be a real Béarnais!"

Henri d’Albret had his heir, and his revenge. When Jeanne d’Albret was born in 1528, the Spanish had sarcastically remarked, "It's a miracle! The cow has given birth to a ewe!" On that cold morning in December 1553, Henri d’Albret was able to respond: "Behold, the ewe has given birth to a lion!"

Little Henri was baptised in the throne room of the Château de Pau on 6 March 1554. The ceremony was celbrated in great style by the cardinal Georges d’Armagnac, assisted by five bishops, in the presence of the child's two godfathers – his grandfather Henri d’Albret and his uncle Charles de Bourbon (whom the Holy League would proclaim as "Charles X") – and his godmother Isabeau d’Albret.

Related multimedia

Title: View of the royal château where Henri IV was born

View of the royal château where Henri IV was born
© Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau
Caption:
View of the royal château where Henri IV was born, oil on canvas, by Alexandre Millin du Perreux, 19th c. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau, inv. 876.4.1.

Title: Study for the birth of Henri IV

Study for the birth of Henri IV
© Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau
Caption:
Study for the birth of Henri IV, watercolour by Eugène Déveria, 19th c. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau, inv. 85.6.1.

Title: Birth of Henri IV

Birth of Henri IV
© RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
Caption:
Birth of Henri IV, French School, 18th c. Musée national du château de Pau, P799B

Title: Principatus Benearnia / The principality of Béarn

Map of Béarn
© Archives départementales des Pyrénées-Atlantiques
Caption:
Principatus Benearnia / The principality of Béarn, colour engraving by Evert Symons and Hamers, engravers, ca. 1630, AD des Pyrénées Atlantiques, 1 F I ½

Title: Mention of the birth of Henri IV

Mention of the birth of Henri IV
© Archives départementales des Pyrénées-Atlantiques
Caption:
Mention of the birth of Henri IV (Registre des Établissements de Béarn, volume V, f° 220, manuscript), Archives départementales des Pyrénées-Atlantiques (côte: C. 682).
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