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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

The making of a legend

Right from the start, some in Henri IV's entourage – including Duplessis-Mornay and Sébastien Garnier in his Henriade (1593) – took it upon themselves to establish the "canonical" images of the royal personage: strength, determination, tolerance, a desire for both justice and peace, a return to prosperity, and unity for the kingdom. This list of character traits, which was repeated ad infinitum by subsequent generations, was added to throughout the king's reign through the influence of adulatory works by authors with whom Henri surrounded himself.

Sully also took part, by inaugurating a cycle of works devoted to the Grand Roy Henry, with his Abrégé de la vie d’Henry-Auguste quatrième de nom, très victorieux et invincible roy de France et de Navarre (1609). Most of the other contributions were by historians such as Palma-Cayet, Jean de Serres, Girard du Haillan, Pierre Olhagaray and Pierre Matthieu. They related the king's exploits, emphasising his strength, determination and caution, and – given that fortune had smiled on Henri in both his life and his accession to the throne – these authors took care to place his reign under a lucky star. By distilling anecdotes and embellishments, and by narrating the primary stages of Henri's life and work, these hagiographers were unwittingly establishing the future leitmotifs of the legend: a bucolic childhood in the Béarn that forged both his character and his exceptional physical stamina, the image of a victorious warrior, leader of the Nation and a chivalrous figure.

Following in the footsteps of the chronicler Pierre de L'Estoile , who provided the first account, they all recounted the famous story of the meeting between the young Henri de Navarre and the famous astrologer Nostradamus. According to Lestoile, it was during the Grand Tour of the kingdom that Catherine de Médicis and her entourage stopped at Salon-de-Provence on 16 October 1564, in order to meet Nostradamus. The astrologer, catching sight of the young king, allegedly said, "And if God […] grants that you live to see the day, you shall have a king of France and of Navarre for a master." This story was retold twenty years later, when Henri was a pretender to the throne very much in need of legitimacy, and it supported his claim in a very timely fashion. Later, it was taken up to emphasise post facto Henri's exceptional destiny.

As if to illustrate this nascent legend, the words "Du Bon Roi Bonheur" were included in every portrait of Henri IV made after 1595. An anagram of "Henri de Bourbon", the phrase neatly captured the idea of a sovereign who brought hope, peace and prosperity.

Related multimedia

Title: Portrait of Henri IV in breastplate and white feather

Portrait of Henri IV in breastplate and white feather
© RMN (Château de Versailles) / Droits réservés
Caption:
Portrait of Henri IV in breastplate and white feather, king of France and Navarre (1553-1610), painting, French School, 16th c. Musée des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, MV6802

Title: A crowned bust of Henri IV

A crowned bust of Henri IV
© RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
Caption:
A crowned bust of Henri IV, engraving by Thomas de Leu, late 16th c. Musée national du château de Pau, P71-37-8

Title: Horoscope of Henri IV

Horoscope of Henri IV
© RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
Caption:
Horoscope of Henri IV, drawing, anonymous, 18th c. Musée national du château de Pau, P94-3-1

Title: Effigy of Henri IV

Effigy of Henri IV
© Archives départementales de la Loire
Caption:
Effigy of Henri IV, cast in bronze by Mathieu Jacquet, community of Fourneaux, 17th c.

Title: Injustice struck down at the feet of the king

Injustice struck down at the feet of the king
© BnF
Caption:
"Injustice struck down at the feet of the king" Frontispiece, unnumbered, 1600, cat. no. 24, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Title: Triumphal arch set up outside

Triumphal arch set up outside in Metz
© Archives départementales de la Moselle
Caption:
Triumphal arch set up outside. Illustration from Voyage du roy à Metz by Abraham Fabert (1610). BH 10936

Title: Illustration from "Voyage du roy à Metz"

Illustration from "Voyage du roy à Metz"
© Archives départementales de la Moselle
Caption:
Illustration from Voyage du roy à Metz by Abraham Fabert (1610). BH 10936

Title: Nocturnal battles and other fireworks

Nocturnal battles and other fireworks set off before Their Majesties
© Archives départementales de la Moselle
Caption:
Nocturnal battles and other fireworks set off before Their Majesties. Illustration from Voyage du roy à Metz by Abraham Fabert (1610). BH 10936

Title: Gouache of a stained-glass window

Henri IV in front of Troyes, stained-glass window
© Médiathèque de l’agglomération troyenne
Caption:
Gouache of a stained-glass window (late 16th c.) by Linard Gontier, by Alfred Gaussen, 1852
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