Saturday, May 13, 2017

Monarch Profile: King Henri II of France

The French House of Valois in the Sixteenth Century is often seen, rather dismissively, as a dynasty in decline and Henry II, succeeding the ‘larger than life’ King Francis I, is all too often glossed over, particularly in English-language histories, and remembered only for his tragic and unusual demise. However, this is to do an injustice to a monarch who deserves to be remembered as a formidable man and one of the great “might have been” figures in French history. King Henry II was an astute leader, a man who endeavored to do much with little and, as such, had an active mind. He almost always had a number of irons in the fire, was constantly plotting some geopolitical maneuver and would not have been out of place in the city states of Italy of the time with their numerous intrigues and plans within plans. Had he lived long enough to see even some of these brought to fruition, he would almost have certainly changed the fate of Christendom and brought the Kingdom of France to a position of preeminence long before the glory days of the Bourbon.

Henry as a child
Henry was born on March 31, 1519 at Chateau de Saint Germain-en-Laye, the second son of King Francis I of France and Claude, Duchess of Brittany and, as the second son, was not expected to ever be king. He was the “spare”. However, even as a child, his life was not uneventful. The Italian Wars were still raging and at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 King Francis I was defeated by the German Emperor Charles V, who was also King of Spain, and taken prisoner. This, along with the subsequent sacking of Rome, allowed Emperor Charles V to dictate terms to King Francis I and his ally Pope Clement VII. A treaty was signed and it was agreed that Francis I would be released from his Spanish captivity but the Emperor demanded that this be a prisoner exchange and so, in the place of the King of France, little Henry and his brother the Dauphin had to take the place of their father. In effect, they were to be held hostage by the Emperor to ensure that King Francis I adhered to the agreement he had obviously signed under duress. So, for more than four years, Henry and his brother were prisoners in Spain. They were not held in terrible conditions of course, were generally treated appropriately for their status but this may have had an impact on young Henry and his future development.

Henry learned from an early age that being a prince was serious business, that this was a high stakes game and that you always had to be on guard for any threat and reaching for any opportunity. He also learned that it was important to always have a backup in case things did not work out. He never wanted to be a prisoner again. Later on, in case he needed any further coaching in political intrigue, he was married to Catherine de’ Medici on October 28, 1533 at the age of fourteen. This was, of course, an arranged marriage on the part of King Francis I and Pope Clement VII, the pontiff being from the Medici family, the Italian clan which ruled the city-state of Florence, Tuscany. Catherine’s own parents had been brought together in a similar alliance by King Francis I of France and the Medici Pope Leo X in opposition to Emperor Maximilian I. Previously, King James V of Scotland had hoped to marry Catherine but ties to France were seen as more valuable than the more remote land of Scotland and so her hand went to Henry, Duke of Orleans.

Henry and Catherine, brought together by Clement
However, this marriage, which neither bride nor groom had any desire for, was ill-fated from the start, partly because of the intrigues of Italian politics. A year after the wedding, Pope Clement VII died and was succeeded by Pope Paul III, from the Farnese family, who opposed the Medici, cancelled the papal alliance with France and stopped payment on the dowry for Catherine, making her immediately less than popular with the King.

Catherine would go on to no small amount of notoriety herself but she and Henry lived mostly separate lives with the Duke of Orleans taking as his mistress Diane de Poitiers, with whom he had a very long and very close relationship to the point that she seemed to be his wife in all but name. Diane, not Catherine, would be the dominant woman in France, at least as long as Henry lived but, as she was mistress and not wife, she was enough of a French patriot to insist that Henry still do his marital duty and maintain conjugal relations with his wife in order to secure the succession. That was certainly important as, in 1536, the Dauphin suddenly died and Henry, Duke of Orleans moved up in the ranks to be heir to the French throne. Just over ten years later King Francis I died and on July 25, 1547 the Duke of Orleans was crowned King Henry II of France according to ancient and sacred French royal tradition, at the Cathedral in Reims. He was 28-years old, his father passing away on his birthday.

Once the crown of France was on his head, King Henry II quickly showed himself to be an ambitious and energetic monarch. He had many grand aspirations and while he might focus on one thing at a time, he always had other projects simmering on the back burner. Such was necessary as the Kingdom of France was in a precarious position. After the defeat of his father and the resulting treaty, Emperor Charles V was dominant in Germany, Italy and Spain while King Henry VIII of England still had a foothold at Calais and dreamed of becoming King of France himself. To make matters worse, King Henry and Emperor Charles had previously been allied against France before Henry VIII decided to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who happened to be the Emperor’s aunt. Nonetheless, France was encircled with an enemy on every border and a few enemies on the inside as well. Along with the usual rebels here and there, Protestantism had spread from its birthplace in Germany to France where the Huguenots were a major concern for King Henry II who, while he may not have been the most pious man in the world, was certainly a staunch Catholic and adamant that the Catholicism of France was non-negotiable.

King Henri II
In Germany, Emperor Charles V had been urging the Pope to call a council to enact Church reform and, hopefully, appease the Protestants in that way. Eventually, when bloodshed persisted, he made peace with them in order to focus on his external enemies such as the French or the Turks or even the Pope himself. His Spanish lands were safe thanks to the well established Inquisition which prevented Protestantism from ever taking root. In England, religious divisions had already started to cause problems but like King James V of Scotland, King Henry II of France was determined to see Protestantism eradicated. The measures taken would certainly seem harsh by modern standards but, it is simply a fact of history that where religious differences were allowed to spread, horrific wars were the inevitable result while countries which prevented such differences, escaped such calamities. Had more French monarchs been as harsh as King Henry II, a great deal of future bloodshed and civil war might have been avoided. The Wars of Religion took a terrible toll on France and it just possible that the suppression of King Henry II might have prevented them. So, while Henry II was King of France, heretic leaders were burned, people who spoke heresy might lose their tongues, censorship was enforced and suspected Protestants were imprisoned. Henry II certainly had no qualms about it, as far as he was concerned, he was protecting the sacred foundations of the monarchy and protecting the souls of his subjects from eternal damnation.

The major goals of King Henry II were too secure his power and defend the Church at home and supplant Emperor Charles V as the dominant monarch of western Europe. Swift suppression of dissent and dissident opinion at home took care of the first while the second required a number of plans. King Henry II planned to make use of the rivalries in Italy to thwart the Emperor there, remove the German/Spanish domination of Italy and replace it with French dominance while going for a more direct offensive on his own. At the same time, he also had more long-term plans to gain a pro-French Great Britain through dynastic alliance and perhaps a little subterfuge. For a man who began his reign with a recently defeated country, literally surrounded on all sides by hostile powers, this was certainly an ambitious program indeed but, King Henry II could never be accused of lacking in audacity.

King Henri II curing by his touch
As for his domestic life, King Henry II, despite his bad relationship with Queen Catherine, did his duty to secure the French succession for the House of Valois. He fathered no less than ten children by Catherine de’ Medici, though, sadly, many died young and those which reached adulthood seemed invariably doomed to lives of tragedy. He also had three illegitimate children by three different mistresses, though none by his most long-standing favorite, Diane de Poitiers. The relationship would be extremely odd probably anywhere other than France. Diane and Catherine de’ Medici were actually distant cousins, Diane approved of the marriage between Henry and Catherine, encouraged Henry to do his duty by her and even nursed Catherine backed to health when she became extremely ill. In any event, any sympathy people might have for Queen Catherine as the wife of an unfaithful husband, tends to be non-existent given her reputation and later actions in life.

For King Henry II, the first pot that came to boil on his political stove was the renewal of the Italian Wars. After the defeat of the Pope and the imperial subjugation of Italy, the Medici family in Florence had allied with the Habsburgs and were to be rewarded with a monarchical title to all of Tuscany. However, there remained one city-state in Tuscany that was outside their control which was the Republic of Siena. When Florence moved to conquer Siena, the city-state called on France for help and King Henry II answered, sending a small French force to back up a largely Italian one commanded by Pietro Strozzi, an accomplished soldier whose family, the Strozzi, were long-standing rivals of the Medici. King Henry II also launched a direct offensive against the Germans and their allies west of the Rhine. To do this, King Henry II allied with some minor Protestant powers and also maintained the existing alliance with the Ottoman Turks whose naval forces cooperated in attacking imperial ports on the Mediterranean.

This requires a bit of explanation as modern readers tend to raise an eyebrow at a staunch Catholic like King Henry II of France being allies with Protestants and Muslims against a Catholic emperor. Of course, it would be nice if such conflicts never happened, however, it was all too common and King Henry II was certainly not unusual in this regard. The Anglican King Henry VIII of England hired Catholic Italian mercenaries to subdue a Catholic uprising in Cornwall. Emperor Charles V, certainly a staunch Catholic, made concessions to win Protestant support for his wars. Even when he made war on the Pope, the German army he sent in to Italy consisted in large part of Protestants. Likewise, at the end of their long reign, the last Habsburg monarch, Blessed Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary, would fight his last war as an ally of the Ottoman Turks, sending troops to help maintain the Islamic empire in the Middle East. Even the Pope himself, when France later became the dominant power in Europe, made common cause with Protestant powers against the Catholic King of France. For purists, this is irritating but, again, it was certainly not unusual nor unique to Henry II.

Henry II decorates a hero at Renty
In the course of the war, King Henry II made some major gains but was ultimately thwarted in his effort to establish French dominance over Italy, supplanting the Germans. At the Battle of Marciano in 1554 the French backed forces of Siena under Strozzi were defeated by a larger German-Spanish-Florentine army under Gian Giacomo Medici, securing Medici control over the whole of Tuscany. Yet, nearer to home, the French were more successful. King Henry II launched an offensive into Lorraine and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Renty on August 12, 1554. Emperor Charles V had commanded the Germans and Francis, Duke of Guise, commanded the French. The imperial offensive into France was stopped and the cities of Metz, Toul and Verdun all fell into the hands of King Henry II. Dispirited by these losses and tired from a lifetime of stress and struggle, Emperor Charles V abdicated in 1556, dividing his massive empire into a Spanish branch and a German branch. King Philip II inherited the Spanish half and Ferdinand I became Emperor over the German half.

King Henry II carried on the fight, hoping to secure a victory that would enable him to negate the loss in Italy, however, King Philip II of Spain allied with Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, an accomplished soldier, who led the Spanish army to a great victory over the French at the Battle of Saint Quentin on August 10, 1557. England then decided to join in the fun, King Philip II of Spain being married to Queen Mary I of England, however the French still had some fight left in them and aside from some minor victories in Belgium, struck an extremely painful blow against the English by taking Calais, the last English foothold on French soil. However, King Henry II realized that the war had not been the great success he hoped and he had no choice but to agree to a compromise peace. He would keep Calais, Metz, Toul, Verdun and Saluzzo but would give Piedmont back to the Savoy, give some French princesses to be married to the Habsburg and Savoy families and give up on trying to dominate Italy.

King Henri II
It seemed as though the grand aspirations of King Henry II had been thwarted, however, as stated at the outset, Henry II was a man who kept a ‘backup plan’ in reserve. For King Henry II, that backup plan was a certain Stuart princess later to be Mary Queen of Scots. Her mother was from the Guise family, the most stalwart Catholic family in France, and King Henry had her brought to France to be raised and to make sure that, come what may, France would dominate Scotland. Yet, there was still more to it than Scotland alone for according to the Catholic Church, Queen Elizabeth I of England was illegitimate and, as such, Mary of Scots was to be considered the true Queen of England as well as Scotland. Mary of Scots was supposed to be the real “secret weapon” of King Henry II of France. With her, he could secure the whole of Britain and Ireland as Catholic, French allies and together they could dominate the whole of Christendom. It was a grand scheme and, considering the great expense of his Italian adventure, a scheme was about all that King Henry II could afford.

One could occupy a great deal of time trying to imagine how different the course of history would have been if the intrigues of King Henry II of France had come to fruition. As we know, they did not. While at a joust celebrating the peace with Spain, as King Henry II loved jousting, the French monarch was struck in the head by the lance of a member of the King’s Scottish Guard. A splinter pierced his brain and King Henry II of France died the following month on July 30, 1559. He was succeeded by his ill young son, King Francis II, husband of Mary of Scots, but he was not destined to live long either. A still younger son, King Charles IX, would take the throne but Queen Catherine de’ Medici would be the one in charge and the Wars of Religion soon followed, a horrible period in French history. It was certainly not the future that King Henry II had envisioned for his country.

King Henri II
Most historical accounts look back on the reign of King Henry II as almost a disaster and the usual view of the monarch himself is an extremely negative one. He has often been accused of having all of the faults and none of the virtues of his famous father, King Francis I, save for being a personally brave man. He is disliked and accused of being cold, aloof, vindictive, reckless and bad tempered and so on and so forth. However, that seems rather overly harsh to me and I have always been rather fond of the man. He had audacity. That tends to win me over as few other traits ever could. He inherited a defeated country, surrounded by enemies and knew he would have to gamble in order to succeed and if he was going to gamble, he was going to go for a prize that would be worth the risk. I also do not think he was reckless or foolhardy, he had, if anything, too many plans for too many schemes all going at the same time. He was a man of great ambition and great aspirations which, sadly for him, did not come to pass. Such is life, you take a risk and you win or lose. King Henry II took his chance and lost, though had he lived longer, he may, perhaps, have seen his second succeed. It certainly would have made for quite a change if he had.


  1. Currently reviewing history to edit a play about "The Man of the Woods" (i.e.Petrus Gonzalvus brought into the French court), I needed to research the background of Henry II (his strengths and weaknesses)as well as of Catherine Medici (his child bride of a ill-fated, forced marriage arranged by the Medici family's relative Pope Clement VII). This onerous and ineffectual political union made her subject to the whims of family wealth, papal persuasion, and failed wars. These surely turned her youthful humility to mature anger along the way. I suspect that after her husband and their son Francis' death, she practiced her own brand of manipulation over the subsequent young king Charles, a type of twisted power and manipulation she had observed often used over her in childhood and in marriage. She saw the royal selling of rank or daughters not only matched, but likely exceeded the Church's sale of indulgences. After many generic articles on Henry II, I found this one by Mad Monarchist, quite balanced, eye-opening, and informative. Its analysis of the convoluted history of western Europe helped my understanding this difficult time period. Though still baffling, the ins-and-outs of religious conflicts that caused or affected western Europe's choices of leadership, juxtaposed to the odd alliances with presumed natural enemies like Turks or with Protestant vs. Catholic leaning monarchies/powers, now seem slightly clearer. Thank you for your scholarship and especially for your ending conclusion/commentary of personal reasoning. After all, we study to make decisions or else remain adrift in ambiguity.

  2. This was extremely informative and eye opening.


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